Like many people, theater artist Jason Clusman lost his job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, his new gig might help him get the old one back.
A stage manager whose shows at the Guthrie Theater include multiple stagings of "A Christmas Carol," Clusman, 40, was laid off along with about 200 others last spring. By June, he had shifted the organizational skills that made him one of the top theatrical stage managers in town to helping "stage manage" the response to the pandemic.
For months, he helped run testing sites. In January, he transitioned to the "Star Wars"-like title of "Incident Commander" of vaccination sites, on the Iron Range and now in the old Bloomingdale's at the Mall of America. On a vaccination site or on "Cabaret," the canceled show he was supposed to do last summer, the basics are the same: knowing the goal and helping all the collaborators reach it together. (A couple of well-known stage managers in pop culture include the main character in the play "Our Town" and beleaguered Ann Harada on TV's "Smash.")
"Theater artists are so used to, 'Oh, my gosh, this costume ripped. What do I have around me to fix it and get this person back on stage quick?' It's the same mentality that we need to manage these thousand people coming in right now: 'What are my resources and how do I make sure they have a good experience?' It's communicating and being collaborative with the nurses and pharmacy staff and volunteers," said Clusman, whose adjustments included having to quickly get rid of a lifetime fear of needles.
Seeing more than 2,000 of them jabbed into arms each day — more than 50,000 at the MOA site since Feb. 26 — took care of that. Clusman's adaptability also helps explain how he pivoted nimbly when he was laid off, reaching out to North Star Events, which produces and manages major events and was hired by the state to help with testing.
"At the testing sites, it very much was a team of people. There was a lead medical professional and a logistics lead [Clusman was one of nine at one point] who would train volunteers, do site setup, look at traffic flow, make sure the registrations and systems were working. The medical lead took care of the medical staff but I picked up a ton of knowledge," said Clusman. "When we moved to vaccination sites, I had a bunch of those protocols in my playbook."
From opening night to reopening
Even before that, of course, he had skills honed by years of being a stage manager: running a show after the director departs, staying on top of scheduling and coordinating the work of various crews. Those organizational skills also are reflected at his home, where he has 2,500 Lego sets and at least 100,000 Lego pieces, sorted by color and function. Some of those sets are Lego dioramas of Guthrie shows but Clusman has been too busy to make one of the vaccination site.
A few of the job requirements lack theatrical — or Lego — equivalents. This includes calling superintendents to tell them to reschedule a basketball game because the school gym was going to be a vaccination site.
"We were showing up with short notice and the Mountain Iron site, for instance, was a school, so the first day on that site, I had to call and say we needed students to be on distance learning that day," Clusman said.
The flip side of that? In nearly a year of this kind of work, Clusman hasn't met any resistance. In fact, it has been quite the opposite and particularly now that vaccines are helping people take a step toward normalcy.
"It's so rewarding. People are coming in, so happy to have gotten that appointment. The energy is just electric and the nurses are so happy to be helping people out," Clusman said. "It's just a huge community effort. To welcome thousands of people a day to get shots and be thanked and people are sometimes in tears — it's very gratifying."
That big benefit helps offset the 60- to 70-hour workweek, most of it on his feet, moving around the large facility to make sure everyone has what they need. (This week, Clusman has been helping establish a State Fairgrounds site.)
Back in theaters
One connection between his current job and his former one is not lost on the stage manager: The sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner they'll be able to gather in places like the Guthrie. Clusman said many colleagues — some of whom have also worked at vaccination sites — say they're done with making theater but he isn't. Although the Guthrie has not reached out so far, he hopes to return to calling "Places" and taking notes on blocking.
He may have other options, too.
"I've been doing theater for several decades now and at the Guthrie for 14 years and I love that but I'm now working with people who run political campaigns and are high up in various state offices, and it's a world I was never exposed to," said Clusman.
The theater artist is grateful to have made those connections and found steady work in the pandemic.
"I kind of look at it as my part to get all my colleagues back to work again. There are so many of us who had this industry completely disappear overnight and whatever I can do to help get people back to some sense of normalcy and creating again is great," Clusman said.
He's not sure what his new normal will look like, and he's OK with that for now.
"This whole shift into the vaccination world has opened up so many different ideas in my head," he said. "I want to go back to theater for sure but there's a whole other world of possibility out there."