The room was dark, the audience eager for the first student preview of "A Christmas Carol," the Guthrie Theater's signature holiday ritual.

High above the floor, stage manager Michele "Coco" Hossle sat in her command center, ready to call the 600-plus cues that launch the world of magic and spectacle that will be seen by 56,000 people this season.

"Sound 5 … go; lights 93.5 … go; lights 94, go; lights 97, go," Hossle said into her headset. And behold, there was Tiny Tim, illuminated by a dim spotlight, his voice echoing through the room, "Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child."

"Standby lights 104-106, sound 20," Hossle said in a voice like a flight attendant easing you into your seat belt. "Lights 104, sound 20, go."

Light bathed the stage, and it filled with music and actors in Victorian costumes. Grand set pieces fell into place, and everyone joined in singing the old English carol.

Like a tech DJ Wizard of Oz, Hossle called out commands that light fires, shoot smoke, open doors, turn houses, spin clock dials and drop Christmas spirits from the rafters.

"Stand by for the Marley sequence," Hossle said, getting ready for the dramatic peak of the first act.

"Stand by lights 144 through 160.5. Sound 46 through 81.

"Brandon, please take sound 51 on your own with the safe close.

"Clock, cue 3, front door open, dial spin, paper burst, safe open and close.

"CO² jets on, CO² jets off.

"Elevator cues 3 and 4. Marley set. Please take the locks off the Marley elevator at this time."

Her recitation was flawless, an actor's tour de force, and in a trice, all hell broke loose on stage.

J.C. Cutler's Scrooge danced with fright as each plume of smoke jetted from the floor and each ethereal "Ebeneeeeezer" shook his bones. Like a musician who knows the conductor's downbeat, Cutler anticipated the stage manager's precision.

"I'm more connected to Coco than anyone else in this production," Cutler said. "Following what I am doing, her timing, her cuing, she calls a great show."

Hossle loves the sequence.

"I pretty much become J.C.'s scene partner," she said.

The unseen heroes

Hossle and assistant stage manager Jason Clusman are shepherding "A Christmas Carol" through its 44th year at the Guthrie. Cutler is the only Scrooge Hossle has worked with during her six years on the show. Clusman, in his 11th season, has seen four Ebenezers.

Stage managers are given prominent credit in the programs handed out to theatergoers, but the breadth of their duties isn't really appreciated.

"They have to cover everything," Cutler said. "All the information, the scripts, how to schedule people's time efficiently — they are the fulcrum of everything."

For one thing, the stage manager oversees actors' schedules during rehearsal, juggling time-off requests. There are 44 actors on stage for this show.

Hossle is the one to ask, "Do you have a Band-Aid?"

And she is the one to answer a child wondering, "What shoes do I wear tonight?"

The stage manager also runs the five-hour understudy rehearsal after the show opens and is responsible for keeping the production tuned. If an actor starts sliding — maybe milking time for laughs — Hossle has to deliver that message.

Clusman works backstage for this production. That means he checks every costume and set piece before it goes on stage. When the Spirit of the Future needs to rise from the basement, Clusman is there watching as actor Eric Sharp gets into stilts on both hands and legs, puts on his backup headdress and slides into position on the elevator platform.

"We really have good stage managers in this town," director Peter Rothstein said. "The best ones have an ear for the bigger picture. They get what you are trying to say, what you mean with a production."

Rehearsals begin

Hossle played the role of cat wrangler on the first day of rehearsal in October, getting people seated and registered, and setting the agenda with the show's director, Joe Chvala, and Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj.

"May I have your attention, please?" Hossle announced.

Haj then told the story of being a young Guthrie actor 26 years ago and being told that he was lucky he didn't have to endure the "Christmas Carol" grind one winter. He could work on something serious. Well, he caught the show during its run and found himself weeping before it was over.

"This is everything we talk about in theater," Haj said. "This is the reason 'Christmas Carol' is done. It draws us toward our best selves."

Three weeks into rehearsal, on a Tuesday night, Hossle looked a little like a one-man band during a run-through of the first act. She had to read the lines of an absent actor while calling the tech cues and running sound.

"Candle goes out, door slams, clock spins, door opens. The door closes, the safe opens by itself, Marley is on the elevator, Marley is coming up, Marley arrives."

Clusman was getting his aerobics in, crisscrossing the backstage, spiking spots with tape, setting props and pieces. At one point, he carried Marley's chains out of the room to dress actor Robert O. Berdahl.

This was the last run-through in the Guthrie's rehearsal hall — a poignant point in every production.

"We're all together in here," she said. "Now we'll split up. The actors go backstage in the dressing rooms. I'm up in the booth."

First voice heard

Neither Hossle nor Clusman claims a mentor. You learn from working with people, more often "learning what not to do," said Clusman, who studied theater management arts at the University of Minnesota.

"Some stage managers can really get off on the power they feel in the room," he said.

Cutler likes a no-nonsense, focused stage manager.

"They run the room and have to be a step ahead," he said. "They need to be friendly but not attending to everyone's needs. That's where you get into personalities. I like a strong focus because you can get a lot done."

Tech rehearsal is where relationships get tested. The stakes are high.

"Ladies and gentlemen, hold please, nice job," Hossle said politely as she ran the opening sequence in the first tech rehearsal. "Could I have the whole cast on stage, please?"

Chvala decided to do something different with the opening, something he thought he'd discard but wanted to have a look at. After a few minutes, they were ready to go.

"Start at the top," Hossle said. "We will be executing costume changes this time. Please check with your dressers."

A visitor asked if it was unusual for Chvala to tinker with an opening sequence.

Hossle smiled. "This is what stops us in our tracks."

Everything clicks

The first preview went smoothly. The Fezziwig warehouse wall flew in beautifully, transforming the locale and mood of the play.

"The next couple of costumes usually get a good reaction," Hossle said.

The Fezziwig daughters danced on stage, and sure enough, their garish gowns got a laugh.

The spirits came in well; the pace was brisk, and the first act came in at 54:20. There's never more than a 20-second variation, Hossle said.

Clusman counted heads backstage to make sure all actors were in their spots. He flipped the switch on the stage piano, watched ghosts rise and fall on the elevator and helped where needed — or stayed out of the way. There were a few minor things, easily solved.

"It's good to get it in front of an audience," he said.

A few days later, Hossle talked about how she got into the game. She grew up on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin and was recruited to play volleyball at Waldorf College in Iowa. After the season ended, she was looking for extracurricular activities.

"A friend knew I was organized, which is what you need to be in this business, so she took me backstage.

"I thought it was the coolest thing. This is where the show was, backstage, with all the lights and costumes and props. It just clicked for me."

Like a well-timed cue.

Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at