As Seattle Opera’s Production Supervisor, Paula Podemski deals with all the minuscule details that make the rehearsal and production process run smoothly. One of her main tasks is coordinating the non-singing talent—the supernumeraries, actors, and dancers that fill out a crowd scene onstage. Amidst the craziness of Amelia tech week, she shared with me a bit about her history with hunky body-builders, her guilty-pleasure TV shows, and the “soul-feeding” part of her job.
How do you cast the supernumeraries and actors?
After I learn what the director wants in terms of people, I have a database of 735 adults and children that I go to first. In general, the ideal “supers” (supernumeraries) are individuals of average size, who can comport themselves well onstage, will be engaged in the scene, and take stage direction well.
What was your most challenging experience?
For Tristan und Isolde in 1998, the stage director and costume designer wanted to find 20 really buff guys to appear as the engine crew, and that’s beyond the pale of my normal supernumerary pool. So I spent a good four months prior to the first day of rehearsal going to local gyms and bodybuilding competitions, and walking up to these guys and saying, “Hey, would you like to be in an opera?” But the rehearsal schedule demands a big commitment of time, and every rehearsal or every performance two to five of them were missing. I would come to work every day quite exasperated from the night before, but of course I got no sympathy from my colleagues because their perception was that I was around these gorgeous, hunky guys all night long, and what was I complaining about?
And after days like that, how do you unwind?
I love to eat at good restaurants, I go to the theater, I work out, I spend time with friends. And I like to relax at the end of the day with stupid TV: All the Law and Orders, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife... and then there’s my—gulp—daytime television addiction: Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Oprah. [laughs] I’m not much of a book-reader.
What’s your theater background?
I did theater in high school, but was always petrified of auditions. At the time I didn’t realize there were other theater careers outside of acting. But I always had theater in the back of my mind and finally, after college, started volunteering at local community theaters. I met a lot of people and learned by doing. I did internships, and then volunteered at Civic Light Opera (which is now Seattle Musical Theatre). Through those connections, I met someone who worked in the Production Department at Seattle Opera, and that’s how I got this job.
How involved are you at Seattle Musical Theatre these days?
I’ve been on the board for the past seven years and am the immediatepast-president.
What advice would you give to students who are considering theater careers?
I recently spoke at a local high school’s career day about what I do and how I got here. I wanted to clue them in to the many careers there are in theater that don’t require acting, like finance, marketing, building sets, sewing costumes. I wanted them to know they can be right next to the art and supporting the art without having to worry about being a 5’9” tap dancer who can hit a high E.
You’ve been at Seattle Opera for 17 years, what keeps you here?
I love the art form— it’s theater on a grand scale. Plus, knowing that what I do really helps people create their art is just fantastic. And I love the “supers.” They’re enthusiastic, they take their commitments seriously, and they’re thrilled to be here. Working with them is definitely the soul-feeding part of my job.
Photo by Alan Alabastro
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s Summer Magazine, 2010.