Broadway Stage Manager Pivots to Earn DU Degree During Pandemic
Karyn Meek was in South Bend, Indiana, last March, working as the production stage manager for Disney’s “The Lion King” when everything abruptly shut down due to the coronavirus. With no return date in sight, she went home to her New York City apartment and started thinking about Disney’s Aspire program, through Guild Education, which enables employees to pursue degrees at schools across the country.
“When we shut down, I was like, ‘This is the prime opportunity to expand my skill set,’” Meek remembers. “So I looked at different programs, but it felt to me that DU had the best fit for what my career goals are and will continue to be.”
In no time, Meek started online work on her second master’s degree — this one from the University of Denver’s University College in organizational leadership with a concentration in project management. She came to the program determined to expand her knowledge of project management and to become a better leader. “The classes have been so dynamic, and I’ve had some really, really interesting ones,” she says.
For Meek, this degree builds on nearly 20 years of working on various shows as a stage manager. Her Broadway debut came in 2003 with “Fiddler on the Roof,” but her love of the arts started at a young age.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t have school on Wednesdays, and we did internships in the community,” Meek says. “I went to work for a costume designer because I loved theater and I loved clothes.”
After working for the costume designer for three years, Meek attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where she discovered her skill set matched perfectly with the responsibilities of a stage manager.
“It’s a jack-of-all-trades kind of job — or should I say a Jane-of-all-trades [job] — but it really is,” Meek says. “It’s one of those jobs that evolved over time and has become increasingly technical as the years have gone by as much of Broadway has become more technical.”
Her role varies depending on the show, but at Disney’s “The Lion King,” Meek and her team are in charge of calling all the cues for the show. They connect with the electrician who makes the lights move, the team that makes the scenery move, and anyone else responsible for the kinetic magic of a Disney show. “We are sort of the backstage person to go to if something goes wrong, but also just making sure that safety is a priority as it is on all our shows,” she says.
Disney’s “The Lion King” just announced it’s heading back to Broadway on Sept. 14. That’s good timing, coming roughly a month after Meek claims her newly minted master’s degree.
“It’s terrifying to know that your entire industry can be shut down at a moment’s notice,” she says. After a year of trauma from the coronavirus pandemic and the difficult conversations in the wake of the George Floyd killing, Meek says she and her team will keep one thing in mind when they return to the set: “We have all been so changed by this time that the status quo is not going to fly. Because none of us know the trauma the others have experienced over the past year and a half as we’ve been away from each other. I think the biggest thing is that we need to provide grace.”
Meek hopes to retain that grace and deploy her new leadership skills as the traveling production hits the road again this fall. The production is set to visit Denver this December, when Meek looks forward to exploring DU’s campus for the first time.