Stars Behind the Stars: Bonnie Panson
BY Robbie Armstrong, November 17, 2020
Stars Behind The Stars is a bi-weekly series featuring theatre makers behind the scenes.
This week, we sat down with Adjunct Associate Professor Bonnie Panson. Panson is a Scorpio whose recent work includes Six the Broadway musical. Panson has been working on Broadway since the early 1980’s on musicals, plays, and everything in between.
Tell me about your first time in Theatre.
Bonnie Panson: In 2nd grade my friend and I would put on musicals, rent out a small space, and charge admission to shows. We would then donate the nominal earnings to the facility that housed our rehearsals and shows. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I knew early on that performing did not make me comfortable. I was possessed with the idea of being in the theatre but not being on stage. The first time I took a subway was to see a Broadway show in Manhattan. The first Broadway show I saw was the musical Carnival. It’s an astounding piece and it’s where I fell in love with Jerry Orbach. When I saw Carnival, I said ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ After that I asked to be taken to shows all the time. I saw scores and scores of musicals from that era.
Later in higher, I was in a long standing New York City tradition called SING!. It was an intramural musical competition. My group would write new lyrics and scripts to existing Broadway music. Once we did a show about silent movies and then we did one on Mother Goose. The chorus would sit on stage the entire time with over 200 people singing, dancing, and performing in these shows.
My college drama teacher at Mount Holyoke believed that all the women in my program were going to run theatres. I never stage managed on Broadway but the skills I learned in college taught me how to be a stage manager.
How does being a Scorpio appear in your life?
BP: I believe I am truly a Scorpio. I work a lot with Michael Mayer who really believes in astrological signs. He believes that the horoscope combined with Chinese astrology is who you truly are. I am a strong believer in past lives, signs, and spirituality. The water sign is important to me because if I can swim, I am happy. I am looking at moving in the future for retirement but I must be near water.
Tell me about your early years as a Stage Manager.
BP: I was a Production Assistant at Roundabout when they were in their space on 23rd Street. It was John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, translated by their Associate Director. Roundabout went belly up bankrupt and so I had to be a part of the civil lawsuit in order to get paid for that show. I then moved into doing shows Off Off Broadway. I started working at Playwright’s Horizons but it was much more primitive back then. That’s where I developed the relationships with all the people who gave me work for years.
“There are two kinds of people on the theatre industry: those who stand in the light and look out in the dark and those standing in the dark and looking out into the light.”
Bonnie Panson, Adjunct Assistant Professor
I might be biased but I love everything that I see at Playwright’s Horizons.
BP: No, I think they’re getting better and better. Sometime around then I joined Tintypes, which was my first Broadway show. It started Off Broadway at Saint Peter’s Church. I was the Production Stage Manager Off Broadway but then was the Assistant Stage Manager on Broadway. I interviewed with Nelle Nugent for the Broadway production and she told me I had no idea about union rules and she threw a string of questions at me, which I didn’t know the answers to. I said to her “But I know this show” and she said I could be the Assistant Stage Manager. I will never forget that interview, she set me straight.
I later met your professor, Michael Passaro on Starlight Express. The stage managers and I kneeled on the deck and prayed the first time Michael called a Broadway show. He was so great but we were just hoping nobody would get hurt.
Another wonderful show I did in the early years was the female version of The Odd Couple. At that time it was not funny to people. We had to rewrite so much because what people found funny with men, was not seen as funny with women. A woman being a sports writer and a slob did not get laughs, especially at our out-of-town tryout in Dallas, Texas. I have pages of Neil Simon’s handwritten rewrites where he changed a lot of details after that.
I was just looking at your credits, and you must tell me more about Bring It On the musical.
BP: That show had three contingents: the standard Broadway people, the hip hop dancers, and the cheerleaders. There was Tayler Lauderman, Adrienne Warren, Ariana DeBose, and Ryanne Redmond. The cast was amazing. We had a cheer choreographer as well as Andy Blankenbueller choreographing the dance. I think I’m going to teach a Stage Management calling session using Bring It On because it was so complex.
After I saw the show Cheer, I realized that Bring It On had to be insane in the injury department.
BP: We were lucky to have swings who could cover many different elements. Before each show, we were required to do a cheer warm up where all the stunting was touched. We threw people into baskets and all the cheer pyramids were practiced. Most of the injuries happened when people weren’t prepared. Because of injuries, we had to come up with an entire Plan B show. On the road we came to a dark and stormy night, once again in Dallas, Texas where we didn’t have enough people who could stunt, so we came up with a Plan B for every stunt. The Plan B was still something that was on the beat and visually exciting. But that all happened on Starlight Express as well. We had so many injuries that we had to have a skate call every night before the show.
What’s your favorite play/musical?
BP: Because of the way it happened and because of the company, Anastasia will have a major place in my heart. It was a successful out-of-town tryout. The producers were amazing, the General Managers were amazing. I had a great team and design on stage that was very harmonious. It was one of those times a vision was fully realized. It’s about home, love, family, so it fills a great space in my heart. To me it was a beautifully complete project filled with lots of love.