It is very common in community theatre for the title of “Stage Manager” to be mis-applied. The reality is that for a lot of groups, NOBODY is actually doing the work that a stage manager is supposed to be doing, so the title defaults to the person who tells the actors how much time before the show starts, and manages the set crew backstage. A real Stage Manager, or “SM” is so much more than that. In fact, real SMs have assistants to do those things.
Let me put it this way: how often after a production closes, do you think, “we could never have done that without our Stage Manager”? And I don’t mean in the sense of, “the SM had their job while we had ours, so someone would have had to cover for them if they’d become sick (but the show probably would have been fine)”. No, no, no. If that’s what you felt, then you didn’t have a real SM. When the thought in your head is, “oh my goodness, if the Stage Manager had gotten sick, we would have been in BIG trouble; would the show have even gone on?”, THEN you had a proper SM, because the job and the responsibilities are THAT big (that said, a real SM would have a killer prompt book, and trained up a good Assistant Stage Manager, who would have known to exude confidence and calm to keep everyone else going, while quietly panicking inside as they stepped into the monster-sized shoes for the night).
There is a reason that stage managers for Broadway musicals pull down six-figure salaries. As a good friend of mine (and long-time professional theatre techie) recently posted online:
“The best way to remind yourself that there’s nothing like a professional stage manager, is to do a three and a half hour show with nothing like a professional stage manager.”
A lot of what community-theatre Directors do, especially during rehearsals, is properly the job of the SM. And once production week starts, all the way through until the show closes, the STAGE MANAGER should actually be the person in charge.
Don’t get me wrong–I am not blaming the people who volunteer to be stage managers when they don’t know the job. No one has taught them, and nobody around them is used to what the job should really entail. The real problem in community theatre is that being a good SM requires training. I’m not talking about classroom training, though some of that can be helpful, but doing hands-on training, working under, and watching, an SM that knows what they are doing. The lack of proper Stage Managers in a community that’s never had them, is not really anybody’s fault. If the current SMs didn’t have proper tutelage, they can’t be blamed for not knowing the job, and they also can’t be blamed for failing to teach the future SMs properly.
So, what makes for a good Stage Manager?
I’m glad you asked. An SM is a combination of an office manager, human resources rep, executive assistant, dictator, strategic planner, walking database, medic, and more.
There are a LOT of skills required of a Stage Manager, but probably the number one thing is to be organized. The SM has to be the grounded, down-to-earth, note-taker for all the flighty artistic types (Directors, Choreographers, Designers, etc), keeping everyone else on track, and making sure they are all communicating with each other. SMs don’t actually have to have any artistic sense (though they almost always do), but they do have to know exactly what the artistic decisions are, and be able to reproduce them, night after night. The SM is the person with the Production Book–a complete binder of rehearsal schedules and conflicts, production meeting notes, phone numbers and home addresses, costume measurements, medical and allergy information, blah, blah, blah…in other words, EVERYTHING about the show and everyone involved, that isn’t actually the script itself. They will also have the Prompt Book–a complete script in a binder, with every light and sound cue, every scene change, every piece of actor blocking, blah, blah, blah…EVERYTHING about the show that the audience sees. If the theatre catches on fire, the Prompt Book should be the first thing everyone tries to save.
Stage Managers have to have good people skills. Period. In so many ways, for so many reasons. For example, because the SM is often the one carrying artistic notes back and forth between Directors and Designers, they often have to deal with artistic temperaments. The SM also usually has to be the “bad guy” with performers who show up late, or mishandle props, or whatever. SMs have to find that fine line between being “in charge”, without being a jerk; and being “the person who has all the answers to any question”, without being a know-it-all.
Stage Managers, ideally, should know their tech. They should at least know the basics of running a light or sound board, how to operate a fly rail, how to set up a smoke machine, etc, etc, etc. The best stage managers earn their way up to the position after many productions doing all the technical jobs.
What does a real Stage Manager do?
Good question. This is NOT a complete list (which would be impossible), but it should give a good idea.
The stage manager should be one of the first people picked for a show, WAY before it is time to audition. They will need to clear their calendar for the entire rehearsal process, among other things. They can start building their Production Book right away, as the Design and artistic staff is selected, and the early design choices are made.
The SM needs to be included in any artistic design discussions for the show. Whether the director and designers are meeting in person, or chatting over email, the SM needs to be included. He or she isn’t actually MAKING any of those decisions, but they need to understand the thought processes behind all of the design choices. There will come a time during the run of the performances when a set piece gets broken, or a costume gets ripped, or a lighting fixture stops working, when a very quick decision needs to be made, and the SM has to be able to make it. They can only make that snap decision, if they understand what each item actually does for the show. Plus, by being “in the loop” on all the design plans, the SM can help make sure that everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing. It may not be the SM’s job to fix/make/design/do something, but they DO need to know that it has to happen, and who is taking care of it.
Stage Managers are critical for a smooth-running audition process. SMs are responsible for making sure the lighting is correct, that the director’s table has chairs and pencils, that the audition forms are available and collected, and that the “sides” are neatly organized and ready. SMs also make sure that the audition forms are legible and complete.
If this is a musical, with singing, dancing, and acting portions to the audition, a good SM can tactfully suggest efficient ways to cycle through everything with a minimum of sitting around. The Directors and Choreographer have their heads crammed to exploding, watching all the audition pieces, and trying to cast the show, so it’s up to the SM to watch the clock, and keep things organized and moving.
SMs are not part of the actual casting decision process, though they should be present. Like the design meetings in the early planning stages, it helps if the stage manager is around when any decisions are made. Once the show is cast, it’s the SM that compiles the contact roster for the show, and also creates the master conflict calendar so that the Director can start planning a rehearsal schedule.
The SM takes care of the business/admin side of things–on site first to unlock and turn on the lights and such, and the last one out the door, making sure that everything is cleaned up and put away. If an actor is supposed to be there, and isn’t, it’s the SM who calls to track them down. In effect, the Director is “just” another artist at the rehearsal. It’s the SM who will know when the rehearsal should/can start, and will let the Director know. The SM keeps an eye on the clock, and suggests breaks. The Director should be able to focus entirely on crafting his or her artistic masterpiece, without worrying about details of who is in the bathroom or when someone has to leave early.
The SM takes care of “quality of life” issues, like ensuring the first-aid kit is stocked and within reach, making sure the actors are eating properly and getting their breaks, and keeping antacids and aspirin on-hand for the rough rehearsals.
The SM takes notes about every comment the Director makes on things like, “we need to make sure that prop has a big enough handle for two people to grab it”, or “we need to make sure her costume will let her do the splits”, or whatever. It’s the SM’s job to pass those notes along to the right people.
Sure, the SM prompts actors who forget lines, but that’s because the Director is watching the actors, while the SM is busy staring at their script. But the SM is not just reading along, they are building their Prompt Book–working hard. They are busy writing down all the blocking. In pencil. It will change, so be prepared to erase, but people WILL forget, and SOMEONE has to know. Additionally, knowing where everyone is supposed to be at any given moment will become important when coordinating with the Techies. Someone has to be able to give the Lighting Designer an idea of which parts of the stage need to be lit up when. Or during the Dry Tech, be able to tell a member of the stage crew what to watch for before an important scene change. Since spotlight operators usually can’t have a list of cues in front of them (can’t use a flashlight where they are perched), the SM will likely have to remind them for each cue where onstage the actor will be that they will need to hit with the spot. Whatever. There are myriad reasons for the SM to keep a written log of all the blocking.
This is when the Stage Manager begins to really take over. You can read my article on Tech Week to get an idea of what’s involved, but the SM is in charge of keeping those rehearsals moving, and actually RUNNING them. The Directors are still there, taking notes, and making some artistic tweaks, but these are truly the SM’s rehearsals to run. They have been there are every rehearsal, and every production and design meeting–no one knows better than the SM what needs to happen to put everything together.
Bottom line, once opening night arrives, the Directors and Design Staff are done. They can sit in the audience and enjoy the show. There are two people in that building who call all the shots–the Stage Manager (responsible for everything involving the show itself), and the House Manager (responsible for everything involving the audience).
Commonly in community theatre, the “stage manager” is backstage, helping move scenery pieces around. That is actually the “deck chief”, usually performed by the assistant stage manager. When done right, the Stage Manager doesn’t actually DO anything during a performance, other than tell everyone else “go”.
The SM should sit in the light booth where they can see the whole stage, wearing a headset, with their Prompt Book in front of them, watching the show, and giving ALL the tech cues. Sound cues go when the SM says; light cues go when the SM says; flies move when the SM says; scenery changes…you get the idea. Any mis-timed technical cues SHOULD be entirely the fault of the stage manager, because everyone else should be just acting when they are given the order. Unfortunately, community theatres tend to let all the crew members have their own prompt books, and execute cues on their own timing. It is impossible to have a show as tight as it can be, if everyone is executing when it feels right for them.
Being a Stage Manager, and doing it right, is a HUGE responsibility, and it is most definitely not for everyone. It requires someone who is wise and experienced in the ways of theatre, with good people skills, and insane organizational abilities, but a good SM can make a tremendous difference in the quality of a show. Nobody in theatre works harder than good Stage Managers.
Is it impossible for community theatres to have REAL Stage Managers? Absolutely not. It just requires the community, or a theatre group, to make a conscious decision to develop those skills in the right people, and then treasure them.
Not my image, but a good one.
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