“Come in,” said Roger McIntosh, opening a door from the lobby into the main theater at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s as if McIntosh, the center’s production manager, is opening the door to his office — and in many ways, that’s what he is doing.
More than anyone else at the center, McIntosh is responsible for all of the details of what happens in the theater space itself — the lighting, the sound, the details of setting the stage, even the accommodations for traveling performers. It’s a job he’s been doing since August 1985, just before the center opened.
“When I started, we didn’t have any carpet in here,” he said. “The chairs weren’t in. We were scrambling to get things up and running before we had our opener.”
My interview with McIntosh happened on the stage itself, set up with a couple of chairs next to tall stools holding bottles of water. The lighting was neither too dim nor too bright.
It was a small-scale demonstration of McIntosh’s job, which is as much to make people comfortable as to make things work.
It’s fitting, then, that it was a relationship that led him to the job at the center.
After graduating from The Evergreen State College with a degree in technical theater, McIntosh worked in photography, marketing and lighting design for bands in both Seattle and his hometown, Walla Walla.
He visited Olympia to do lighting design and stage management for a play a friend was directing at Evergreen. “I met a girl, the lead in the play, and stuck around for a couple of months,” he said.
While he was visiting, McIntosh met with Robert Lion Stewart, the center’s first director. “He said, ‘How would you like to work here?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to.’ ”
The girl, Michelle Jordan, became his wife. “We were together for quite a few years,” he said. After their divorce, they remained close friends until Jordan’s death in 2011.
“Without her input, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing today,” he said.
“In relationships, you build confidence in one another. Sometimes you do things you wouldn’t normally do because other people believe in you more than you believe in yourself.”
McIntosh never expected to spend three decades working in theater, let alone working at the same theater. He was interested in multimedia, not traditional stage shows.
“I was thinking, ‘How long do I want to commit to this type of environment?’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be here for five years.’
“But year after year, it became evident that the challenges I had taken on had increased incrementally each year. Being behind something of this nature meant more to me than I’d thought it would.
“It was the right decision to be here,” he added. “I hope I can continue to contribute in a way that it makes a difference.”
After all these years, McIntosh’s contribution to the center isn’t just to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes. As the only remaining employee from the days before the center opened, he’s become something of a historian.
“He provides valuable insight on everything from technical expenses for a potential production to potential community response to a show based on prior experience with something similar,” said Jill Barnes, the center’s executive director.
She, too, notes his gift for connecting with people. “He has friends and close colleagues throughout our region that help us to accomplish our mission,” she said.
McIntosh relishes the many relationships he’s developed over the years — with his crew and other center staff, with the local performing groups that put on shows at the center year after year, with local businesspeople who provide everything from extra stage equipment to hotel rooms for performers, and with the performers themselves.
“People ask me, ‘What’s your favorite show?’ ” he said. “It’s really hard for me to answer that. It’s more like the moments between the shows where you are creating those relationships.”
Gary Witley has been artistic director of Masterworks Choral Ensemble since 1981, and has worked with McIntosh since the center opened.
“I’ve learned a lot from Roger over the years, and I really enjoy working with him,” Witley said. “He’s trying to help everybody put on the best show.
“Roger is the glue that holds it all together.”
McIntosh does his best to get to know something about everyone who performs at the center.
“We have a limo service that does our transportation, but on occasion, I’ll jet over to the hotel and pick up the artists and have a few moments to spend with them before they start preparing for their show,” he said. “I always try to ask at least one question and get to the heart of what the person’s about.”
He was particularly impressed with Ben Vereen, who performed at the center’s premiere. “I watched as he tore up the stage with a brilliant performance,” McIntosh said.
Vereen returned for the 25th anniversary. “He was still that guy with the great talent and command of the stage, though I could tell he had changed,” McIntosh said. “What took me by surprise was that he was no longer wanting to be the center of attention.
“He is still a great performer and has become even more valued as a humanitarian.”
As much as working on shows has given him the opportunity to create a vast network of friends and colleagues, McIntosh has found it a challenge to his personal life.
“I was talking to a woman the other night after a show, and I was saying that I wouldn’t recommend this profession to anybody,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of commitment. It takes a lot away from the rest of your life outside.”
If a would-be production manager couldn’t be talked out of the job, he said, that’s how he’d know the person was persistent and driven enough to make the lifestyle work.
“I am grateful that I have taken the path that I’m on,” he said.