Written by: Marc J. Franklin
Cody Renard Richard claims there is no such thing as a superstar stage manager. It’s a nice notion, but it doesn’t exist. It’s antithetical to the function of the role, he insists. But it is a humble little lie, one that is easily disproved by his presence on location in Harlem for a feature photo shoot on an unusually warm day for the middle of December. Dressed impeccably in a sleek black jumpsuit, cornrows, and shimmering silver shoes that could have just walked directly from an Instagram ad and onto his feet, he looks like a CW show’s interpretation of a theatre technician, which is to say: cool to the point of unfair.
He appears poised and collected but the truth is this is all new to him—the photo shoots, the television appearances, the coverage in outlets like Variety, Vulture, and Out Magazine’s Out100 List. Known for his work as on Hamilton, Kinky Boots, and more, Richard has been making waves on Broadway for nearly a decade but 2020 saw Richard’s profile skyrocket, a feat given the COVID-19 theatre shutdown. But much of the newfound national attention was spurred by a viral twitter post on the heels of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, a post in which Richard detailed his own experiences facing racism on Broadway. He was one of the first to speak out, a trailblazer that helped to ignite a reckoning in the theatre that was long overdue and surface unrest that was simmering below the surface.
“Community is a word to suggest unity. A word to suggest inclusion,” he writes before listing some of the egregious but common microaggressions he has endured while at work . “I’ve been very fortunate to live in this NYC bubble for the last 10 years and to be a part of this ‘community,’ but racism is everywhere.”
Following his post, life became a whirlwind. Not only was there a flurry of press coverage, internally, much of Broadway was relying on Richard for its own self-examination. Some colleagues were looking to Richard for support, some looking for resources, some even looking for answers about their own past behavior. “People were asking me judgment questions like what they could have done differently or if they ever offended me or do I think that they offended someone else? It became overwhelming. I figured out how to navigate it and how to only take on what I was able to take on. But seeing [my Black colleagues] speak out and handle things in their own way was kind of beautiful. It was beautiful that people were able to unload things that they might have been carrying for a while.”
The entertainment industry has not always been accepting of those who speak out, though. Whether in theatre or film or music, the entertainment industry is riddled with tales of people whose trajectories were sidelined because they were deemed “difficult,” too challenging to work with, or detrimental to mass appeal because of thoughts shared in a public forum. Speaking out had potential ramifications on the career Richard worked his entire life to build, but to him, it didn’t matter.
“I decided to speak out because it was bigger than me. Yes, [the tweets] were about me and my interactions and my experiences. But it is also about all of us, about the community. There’s a direct correlation in systemic racism: all the microaggressions lead to the macro aggressions which lead to the killings and the shootings. If I could make people understand that the small shit that happens every day affects how we as Black people have to maneuver our world, then maybe they would have a change of perspective and a change of heart.”
It was a necessary act but still, it is a paradox to get attention for speaking out about injustice. The things Richard described—racist jokes, intentional misidentification, systemic devaluing in the workplace—were not designed by him nor do they define him. Black experience is more than Black pain. Tales of injustice aren’t the story of a life, it’s nuances or contours, successes or defeats. And while the cascade of recognition that has descended on Richard for fighting back is deserved, he is just trying to stay true to himself through it all.
Raised in Waller, Texas, a small town outside of Houston with a population of approximately 3,000, theatre changed Richard’s life. A self-described troublemaker, he spent much of his childhood working on his family’s ranch, taking care of animals, and participating in the rodeo before finding theatre in middle school. “I was pushed into the theatre. The theatre was not something that I chose. It literally chose me. I had a lot of energy growing up. I was a class clown. I would talk back to teachers. I would do anything to make people laugh. So I was always in detention. I was always at in-school suspension and the principals became my best friends. I was always in their office, and they essentially made me take up drama.”
But just because the art chose Richard didn’t mean his theatre program did as well. Word of Richard’s antics reached his high school, and when it was time for Richard to attend, he had to prove himself. His theatre teacher, Carrie Woods, laughs recalling their first meeting. “I had a really good relationship with our junior high director, and she had talked about all the great new kids she had that year. But one of them was not going to be able to make it to auditions because he had been sent to in-school suspension. So he came on his own time after school one day and pleaded his case. I thought, ‘Oh, boy, what am I getting into here?’ But he promised he would never get in trouble if I would just give him one chance to audition. And the rest is history.”
Woods would become more than a teacher for Richard. She became a mentor and a parent figure who would shape Richard onstage and off. She was the person who initially introduced Richard to stage management. “His sophomore year, he came in as our assistant stage manager for that show because he couldn’t sing. But he was hooked after that. He was clearly such a natural leader, so well organized, so good at maneuvering company politics and making people love him. As a stage manager, you want somebody that you love, and that’s why you work hard for them. So we funneled him into that. He either stage managed or was in every single show that I directed for his four years of high school.”
Richard looks back on that time fondly. “It made me feel important… I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud, but it really did. I was a kid who was good at a lot of things, but I wasn’t great at anything. With [Woods] making me her stage manager, her go-to person that she couldn’t do a show without, I felt important.
There is a big difference between doing theatre as a hobby and theatre as a career though, a distinction that Woods doesn’t take lightly. As an educator, Woods is passionate about the transformative nature of the art but cautious about pushing her students into a career that is often unstable. But with Richard, she knew it was the path for him. “He had a commitment to theatre in a different way than other theatre kids did,” Woods explains. “A lot of theatre kids love to be in plays—they loved the stage and they love the audience, but they don’t really love theatre in the same way that Cody did. With him, it didn’t matter if he was in a show or not. He wanted to talk about theatre all the time. He wanted to talk about plays and all the experiences that he had in theatre just in that upper level way that not all theater kids do. It’s a big responsibility to say, ‘OK, I think you can do it. You’re going to make it.’ I don’t say it to every kid, but I knew Cody was going to end up in theatre.”
Richard channeled that energy into college, attended a stage management conservatory program at Webster University and soaked up all that he could before arriving in New York, shortly after graduation. Suddenly, his desire to work on Broadway wasn’t a far-off goal. Richard had a few connections in the city but not many. And even with them, connections only go so far. He forged ahead with determination and ingenuity, notably creating his own first big break by reaching out to The Transport Group’s artistic director Jack Cummings III to ask about joining their production staff of Hello, Again in lieu of an available application.
“I got on Playbill, and I started looking for job postings and there were none for stage managers in New York. So I just started [browsing the rest of] the site, and I saw the press release for Hello, Again. I saw names like Nikka Graff Lanzarone and Max von Essen and Elizabeth Stanley and Alexandra Silber—all of these people who work on Broadway. I was like, ‘I got to get in that room.’ My mentality was: if I can get in the room and surround myself with people who have work on Broadway, by the law of attraction, I’ll find my way into a Broadway show.”
Their stage management team had already been hired but Cummings III offered Richard an internship that paid a small stipend and monthly metrocard. It was insufficient to make a living, but it was enough to get him in the room. Following the run of that production, Richard was asked if he wanted to intern on the company’s upcoming show: a plucky musical adaptation of a Greek sex comedy called Lysistrata Jones, starring Patti Murin and Josh Segarra. More than a just a successful run, it was a crystallizing experience for the new New Yorker, and when rumors of its Broadway transfer reached the company, Richard wanted to move with it. But there was a snag: the producers wanted stage managers with Broadway experience, technicians who understood the union rules and requirements at the Walter Kerr Theatre. And so Richard did what he’d always done: he reached. He emailed the director, associate choreographer, and even sent Murin a facebook message, asking all of them for help getting an interview to join the Broadway run.
“I had made it to this place [in my dream]. And I thought, “This show is moving to this place that I want to work—I’m not going to not try to get on it. I’m not going to say no to myself because someone else already had. Just because the door has closed doesn’t mean it won’t reopen… or there’s not a window open somewhere!”
The maneuver worked and Richard joined the Broadway adaptation as a production assistant, a gig that typically ends when a production officially opens. But once he was there, he was determined to cement himself into the Broadway landscape, returning to the theatre every night even though he didn’t need to be. Describing it, he laughs, noting that he was, in fact, welcomed. “Looking back, I was like, ‘oh, yeah, you were that person.’ But I really liked the show. Literally, I just wanted to be around the people, around the space.”
Lysistrata Jones led to production assisting for Ghost the Musical, and then finally, in 2013, Richard was asked to join the original stage management team of Broadway’s Motown the Musical. A long term gig on Broadway. Suddenly, after hustling to make it, Richard had the opportunity to look back on how far he’d come. “I was walking out of the stage door one night. I hadn’t really accepted that it was happening for me. But that night, I thought, wow, this is my life. [This career] was exactly what I thought it would be, if not more. It was just as fulfilling, if not more. And I walked through Times Square and I called my mom and I cried because I was doing this thing that I said I would do.”
More contracts would come, growing into an expansive career, moving from production to production, growing through assistant management contracts on shows like Kinky Boots and After Midnight, television stage management gigs like Hairspray: Live!, Jesus Christ Superstar, and more, even stage managing for the 2019 Tony Awards, all culminating in Richard’s ultimate goal: Production Stage Managing, an opportunity that would arrive with the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme
“I always wondered what it would be like the first time I got to PSM. This thing that I’ve been dreaming of for so long—how was I going to handle it? But stepping into Freestyle just felt right. And there were a lot of things that I got wrong, but there were also a lot of things that I got right. Luckily I was working with a lot of people who trusted me. So when there were things that I probably made a not so great judgment call on, they had my back. We learned from it and we moved on. And when there were things that I did very well, people noticed it and told me. I learned so much. That experience, I’ll never forget it.”
While growing his craft, Richard was also developing into a young leader in the Broadway community. Moving from project to project with a live-out-loud personality, not to mention an active social media presence, he has established himself as a millennial face of stage management, someone whose autograph is requested at the stage door.
“I am an extroverted person. I love doing all those extracurricular things. I love fashion moments. I love walking the red carpet. I’m not asking for applause. As stage managers, we don’t do it for applause. We do it to make sure that the show happens. But just as Billy Porter gets to express himself after he has finished a momentous moment in his life, I want to do the same. And I think that is what has transformed me as a stage manager.”
“I show up as me. I bring myself to my work, and I love collaborating with people. I try to adapt to whatever the room needs. I try to listen and act on whatever they need as opposed to infusing what I feel that they need to be doing. As stage managers, we service the production. We need to make sure that everyone has the tools that they need, whether it’s like practical tools or emotional tools. I hope that what people get from me. I hope that they get a sense of security and trust and empowerment.”
In a lot of ways though, Richard showing up as himself is a quiet revolution. There aren’t many people like him on Broadway—stage managers who are queer and Black. A career in the arts is not just a matter of talent, it is also a matter of access: Theatre has the perception of being for the privileged, racially and economically. Can you afford to go to a BFA? Can you afford that summer unpaid internship to help boost your resume? Emotionally, do you want to deal with the isolation of routinely being the exception? And Richard is determined to change that by sowing the seeds of the future, creating a new generation of BIPOC theatremakers positioned to lead.
What began as an idea to support one student at his alma mater grew into a scholarship program created in his name, made in partnership with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. “I had wanted to do a small scholarship at my own college,” he explains. “I was talking [about it] to my friend, and she was like, ‘why are you just stopping there? Dream bigger. You’ve never had a problem with dreaming big. I don’t know why you’re only trying to do this at Webster.” Challenge accepted, he reached out to BAC co-founder Britton Smith to get the support of a non-profit organization and to help shape the program.
For Smith, the partnership was a no brainer. He and Smith had known each other from working together on After Midnight and Off-Broadway’s of Fortress of Solitude as well as from the tight-knit social circle of Black Broadway. “It was really easy to know that this was a great idea led by a great man,” said Smith, “We know that we need more BIPOC leadership and there are a lot of organizations doing work to call that out. But this scholarship really allows us to be a part of the seed that brings BIPOC leadership in the industry. And the best person to lead an initiative is someone who was suffering from the lack of that initiative. Being a Black queer- identifying man in the industry, you’ve gone through schools and institutions that don’t have enough people who look like you.”
“I’m excited for this scholarship because Cody is making room for the people like him, for other people behind the scenes. Him being visible opens doors. It’s awareness. People will be able to say ‘Oh, I don’t want to be a Brian Stokes Mitchell. I want to be a Cody.’”
Through the program, cohorts of the newly announced inaugural class—15 students from across the United States—will each receive $4,000 in financial support as well as mentorship through online seminars focused on community building, leadership, and social justice.
“There are going to be people who learn from this. Yes, it’s going to be years and years and years of new cohorts. But honestly, the main excitement is putting to action a kernel of process and change,” Smith explains. “To me, the thing to celebrate is that something was built. Yes, it will have impact, but also, let’s just celebrate that we wanted to build something. And now, the house is built.”
Richard is not taking a victory lap just yet. He’s in the thick of it to make the program run, but from a top level view, the mission of shaping the next generation of BIPOC theatremakers is an intimidating task. “The responsibility is on me to provide as opposed to me having to be ‘perfect.’ I have to remember that the first year of this program may have hiccups. And that’s okay. It’s about giving these students what we can give them. We’re going to give them all that we can.”
Though he is quick to note that the scholarship is not about him, with it, Richard has found himself once again in the spotlight. But this time it is by his own design, made from his work and about his work. Whatever attention he is getting, he has not asked for. He has made himself impossible to miss.
With theatres shutdown and livelihoods on hold, Richard’s career sounds a fabled story of the reward that comes from hard work. But a lot of people work hard. The theatre industry is filled with people who are giving their all to get a fraction of the success. So the question is: How? How do you endure in the face of the tumultuous reality of a life in theatre? How do you continually push forward, equipped with what appears to be an endless reserve of self-motivation? How do you go from small town Texas to New York City with trust in your instincts as you navigate the unpredictable landscape of a career on Broadway?
To say that he manifested may seem reductive, but at the end of the day, it’s the truth. Broadway wasn’t merely a lofty fantasy for the rodeo kid from Waller, Texas. Instead, Richard dreamed a path so concrete that it was unmistakably real. Yes, it would have obstacles and setbacks but the road ahead was there by his own creation.
“I have a mantra originally by Gordana Biernat. She wrote this book called #Know the Truth, and she says “I expect joy and fun. I know that things always work out for me. I trust my flow.’ I try to lean into it as much as I can. Sometimes, it’s not that easy to think that way. Especially right now, it’s so hard to have hope or to think of possibility. But you have to remember that this is a part of our journey. All I have to do is show up, put in the work, and if this opportunity is supposed to happen for me, it’s going to happen.”
Thus far, his mantra of abundance has worked out. But Richard doesn’t take anything for granted. On Broadway, nothing is guaranteed, and in fact, he has had two separate projects either cancel or postpone in recent days. But yet again, he is also making his own opportunities, this time developing his own interview series for IGTV and YouTube. Just like he has always done, he is confidently marching forward on his own terms.
“My journey to where I’m at has been: ‘That’s amazing. Keep going.’ And I don’t know what keep going means. I don’t know what’s next. There are bumps. There are curve balls. But I think the constant thing has been to say ‘Yes, and.’ Take the opportunity, slay that shit, and move on.”
What is ahead may be unknown, but one thing is for sure: Cody Renard Richard is running the show.