Penn State graduate Maggie Swahl tours with 'Rent' as assistant company manager

By Jessica Sensenig
October 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Maggie Swahl, a 2014 Penn State graduate, grew up with a passion for the stage, but it took time to discover her dream job in the theater world.

In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, Swahl explained how she participated in onstage and offstage roles in community theater and worked alongside technical directors in high school. Nothing, however, seemed to stick. The perfect role did not surface until a Penn State classmate posted information about a company management internship.

A woman shown from the shoulders up in a portrait photo smiles for the camera.

Penn State 2014 graduate Maggie Swahl said in an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts that she loves her job as assistant company manager for the nationally touring production of “Rent.” “The job duties vary from production to production, but overall the emphasis is the same — support the company. There is nothing I love more than taking care of people that are creating art,” she said.

IMAGE: Photo provided

“I initially took the internship to understand what the business side entailed for my own knowledge as an actor, but quickly realized that I loved company management,” Swahl said. “The job duties vary from production to production, but overall the emphasis is the same — support the company. There is nothing I love more than taking care of people that are creating art.”

Swahl, the assistant company manager for the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent,” is thrilled to be working with a supportive, hardworking team on such an important musical.

“I’m doing my dream job on a show that changes people’s lives,” she said. “How many people can say they share a message of love and acceptance every night? In this political climate, I think we sorely need this show. It’s my honor to be a small part of that.”

In anticipation of the show’s return to Eisenhower Auditorium on Nov. 19, Swahl reflects on her time at Penn State, provides insight into the business side of theater and shares her thoughts about why “Rent” continues to resonate with today’s audiences.

Q: How did your time at Penn State prepare you for your career? What was your biggest takeaway from your time studying at Penn State?

Swahl: One of the biggest reasons I chose Penn State was that I wanted a well-rounded education. Though I wanted to focus on acting, I wanted to know everything I could about the profession I was chasing after. … The theater department connected me to professors that wouldn’t allow me to skate by on mediocrity. They pushed me to give my full self, whether it be in acting class or for our final paper of the semester. It taught me not to allow mediocrity from myself.

Professor Susan Russell changed my life with her class, History of Musical Theatre. She taught me to live true to me, not tailor myself to how other people want me to be.

It’s not something you can learn overnight, but she said to our class:“Your culture wants you to be smaller than you are. And you cannot let yourself be small to keep them comfortable. You must be loud. You must be energetic. You can’t let them tell you who you are. Because big is scary. And big is challenging. And big is sometimes freaking hard to see. Go out there and stare at the biggest freaking elm tree. Go out there and stare at the tallest building. That is you. If someone says you are ‘just,’ stay calm and look at a tree because that is you.”

That speech never left me. My biggest takeaway from Penn State is the importance of persistence, grace and being true to myself. Allowing myself to live as a big freaking elm tree enabled me to take on the toughest challenges in my life head on. I learned not to apologize for who I am. Instead, I look at my growth. Every elm tree starts as a little sapling. I grew exponentially at Penn State and am still growing every day.

Q: Can you share some of your previous work experiences and how they helped you to land your current role?

Swahl: I graduated from Penn State in December 2014 and immediately moved to New York City. It was freezing cold, I was broke and I had trouble finding a job in theater. I worked as a host for a restaurant until I was offered a job in an Off-Broadway box office. I ushered, worked as a door guard for a Broadway theater and helped their company manager occasionally. For the next four years, I kept finding myself in box offices. It was something I was incredibly good at, and there seemed to be a need for box office staff that knew how to talk to both customers and theater staff. I became a self-proclaimed ticketing-system geek.

One of my managers, Karron, knew I wanted to be a company manager. As she trained me in another system, she started to teach me how it would apply to company management. She became my mentor in a lot of ways, encouraging me to apply for jobs for which I never thought I was qualified. Karron was my best reference, cheerleader and teacher. When I received the call offering the assistant company manager for “Rent,” she was the first person to congratulate me. … Everything I had learned since I started theater had led me right to the moment where I was ready to take on anything that being a company manager threw my way.

Q: What are your main responsibilities as assistant company manager?

Swahl: My focus is mainly on ticketing and company information. I work weeks/months in advance with box offices to make sure that we have all of our house seat information before we get to the venue. In addition, I assist the company manager in a lot of his duties, including payroll, expense tracking and housing. Basically, we are a “catch-all” of all the necessary tasks that need to happen offstage.

A cool part of my job is that I’m also contracted as the second assistant stage manager. This means that I occasionally run the backstage of the show during a performance so that the production stage manager can watch the show and take notes for the actors. It has given me a huge appreciation for the work that our stage management team does. They make a difficult job seem effortless. I’m thankful that they’re incredible teachers that have made learning this job rewarding and fun. Our whole management staff is made of professionals that are at the top of their game, and I’m lucky to be on the same team.

Q: Despite being set in the 1990s during the AIDS epidemic, “Rent” continues to resonate with audiences today. How do you explain the musical’s success?

Swahl: One of the things I learned at Penn State is that the more specific a story is, the more universal the message becomes. We may not be in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, but we can see its impact and can apply it to our current cultural landscape. “Rent” had the impact during its Broadway run that we see right now with “Hamilton.” It gave a voice to people that rarely saw themselves reflected in pop culture. The characters are struggling with issues such as facing your own mortality, navigating difficult relationship problems and appreciating the life that you’re given. It’s a compass for our own lives and the comfort of knowing you aren’t the only one struggling. That’s why, 24 years later, it is still relevant.

Q: What do you enjoy most about touring with “Rent”?

Swahl: There is a kinship with a touring company that is hard to find. When we started our tour, my company manager and I realized how lucky we are to get along as well as we do. Friends become your chosen family very quickly. The road can get lonely; we’re all very busy all the time. But when I am going through a tough time, my friends on tour know exactly what I’m going through and are able to support me through it. We’re bonded through shared experiences that not many people can understand.

Q: What advice do you have for this year’s graduating School of Theatre students?

Swahl: Find your people. You will know them because their successes will feel like your successes. When you feel ready to give up, they will be the ones picking you up and pushing you forward. They will celebrate every victory, no matter how small. Everyone comes into your life for a season, a reason or a lifetime. I know it’s overplayed, but “Seasons of Love” [one of the production’s musical numbers] has become a reminder for me. I’m learning to measure my life in the amount of love I have to give and that I am able to receive. Allowing that to be my unit of measurement, as opposed to “success,” has changed everything for me. Allow yourself to measure your life in whichever way you want.

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Last Updated October 17, 2019