I know this blog is dedicated to writing and inspiration for writing, but the place I find the most inspiration for my creative pursuits is through my “day job” as a stage manager. Stage managing is a delicate and tricky business, yet many people have no clue what a stage manager actually does. From family to close friends to people I’ve just met, I most commonly get introduced or asked about my life as a “stage director” - a very different thing. To clarify, I usually describe the job as the person who wears the headset backstage and makes all the sound and lights go – a gross oversimplification of the job, but at least it puts me in the correct context of the production.
Recently, I came across a letter written by Al Franklin, the Production Manager for Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The letter was entitled In Defense of Stage Managers and went on to explain why stage managers are essential collaborators and artists in the theatrical process. For those who are only learning what a stage manager is now, at times you come across a person who holds the perception that a stage manager is little more than the secretary of a production and has nothing to contribute creatively to the process. This post is not about saying why that is a misconception, but how my life as a stage manager feeds and fosters me creatively. It is something I’ve been intending on writing for a while and this happens to be my catalyst. Franklin’s letter eloquently describes many of my own feelings toward the art of stage managing.
The letter can be viewed on the “Stage Managers Say Go” blog listed here:
WHERE I FIND THE ARTISTRY:
One of the essential things that a stage manager does is “call the show”. This means that when they say the word “go”, things happen on stage. For years I have compared the art of calling a show to a conductor conducting an orchestra (a sentiment that is echoed in the article by Franklin – in fact, I let out a loud cheer of “YES!” when I read it the first time). One of my favourite quotes about stage management is “The sign of a good stage manager is that you never know they are there.” Unfortunately, I have lost the source of this quote and can’t tell you who said it. (If you know, please leave it in comments! I would love to properly attribute it.) This is especially true when calling a show. There is a very specific art to it. If done badly, it becomes very obvious – ever see a show where the phone keeps ringing after the actor picked it up? Bad calling. On the flip side, have you ever been watching a show and everything is happening just right, there is a big musical number, the cast finishes and EXACTLY on the last beat of the song, the lights go out and the audience jump to their feet and applaud – yeah, that’s the moment that makes me do what I do. It feels so good to be riding the energy of the show and get those cues bang on. You never think of the person who made that happen unless it doesn’t happen right – but that’s how it should be. The whole purpose of a show is to take the audience away to the world of the play, so they shouldn’t be thinking about who is making it all happen, just as they should be watching the characters on stage, not wondering if that’s the guy from the show on TV. The job of the theatre is to transform the stage and transport the audience to a new world.
When I was an actor, I used to stand backstage waiting for the show to start. I was never as nervous as I am before starting a show that I am stage managing. As an actor, once the lights went down and I got my cue, there was no turning back, the show was moving forward whether I walked on stage or not. It was my job to go with it. As a stage manager, nothing moves ahead until I say “go”. Everyone is standing in anticipation of those two small letters (really, more the “g” than the “o”). They wait and wait, until finally, I am ready to begin (which 99% of the time is at the scheduled curtain – otherwise, I will have to explain why we didn’t start on time in the show report), but it is all up to me. The thought almost always comes to mind, “if I don’t call this first cue, we don’t have a show.” Now, the truth of that thought may be somewhat off; I’m sure that someone would begin the show at some point and I would surely lose my job, but it would definitely take some extra time before things got underway. It’s quite thrilling. You often see the images of maestros walking to their platform, picking up their baton, clearing their throat, taking a pause, then raising their arms in the air in one fluid motion… a pause… then the flick of the wrist that makes the orchestra spring to life with an explosion of sound – it is magical. That’s the same way I feel when I sit down in front of my book, put on my headset, wait for the house, and say those magic two letters that swing everything into motion as I go through the opening sequence of cues.
But calling a show isn’t the only thing that makes a stage manager an artist. Only one member of the stage management team can call a show at a time. Wouldn’t that be a world of confusion having 2 or 3 people trying to say “go” at once?! The art of the stage manager is often a subtle one. It has much more to do with people management than anything else. There are reasons why certain people get hired repeatedly or called first. As Franklin states “A stage manager starts out setting the tone in the rehearsal room.” This begins with first contact with the actors, director, and designers during their prep week. Creating a play is a very tricky process. You have a lot of big personalities in a room together delving into the depths of the human condition and often dealing with very tricky subject matter; creating a space where the artists feel safe and comfortable is essential.
Usually, a production will have a stage management team, depending on the scale of the show. The Assistant Stage Manager (ASM - or Deck Stage Manager, which is the more apt description of the position) also has a huge job that requires the same people management skills as the stage manager but their focus is on the micro aspects of the production instead of the macro. They are required to ensure everything on the ground is exactly where it needs to be. When working with new ASMs, I discuss the importance of the minute detail. The job of the actor is to go out onstage and bring to life a character in this artificial world we have created; the job of the ASM is to make sure everything in that world is the same for each show. If the actor is onstage worrying about a prop or if something has been set correctly, then they are not thinking about what they are saying or engaging with the other actors. It is the job of the stage management team, particularly the assistant stage manager, to do their job well enough that these worries are allayed in the actors’ minds. The ASM must instill a level of confidence within the cast, so they can walk onstage trusting that everything will be where they need it to be. Actors are already required to go in front of a large group of people and be vulnerable and exposed as their character – a good stage management team will do everything they can to eliminate the amount that the actor, as themself, is exposed.
You can compare the stage manager to a parental figure in the room. They have to be someone that the artists feel comfortable discussing their issues with (at least the ones regarding the show), which can sometimes be extremely personal, but still respect their authority. You need to foster an open and creative space while still attempting to keep order and adhere to the, more than not, tight timelines to mount the show (every artist in the theatre knows the full depth and sometimes abject terror of the phrase: “the show must go on”). They must possess a keen social awareness. They are the problem solver; the person who has a bandage, cough drop, schedule, line or anything else that a person working on the show may need. Frequently, I feel like Macgyver; you have a toothpick, an elastic band and a paperclip – fix the fastener on the dress in, oh, 3 seconds, okay go (and you do it)! In fact, the stage manager is often anything that someone requires them to be.
On top of being all things to everyone, a stage manager also needs to be a firm leader. Putting a group of artists in a room and then telling them to get to work is much like herding cats. There is a definite art to managing a rehearsal room. You have to have keen judgement on what is benefiting the process and when to get the train back on its tracks. Is this conversation going to come round on its own? Is it helping the development process of the artist/production? Do they just need to get it out and then we can move on? Have we just completely derailed and do they need a push to get back? Are everyone’s brains fried and should we just take a break? All questions that run through the head of a stage manager (or at least this one). And no production is ever the same, so the first few days of the process is feeling out the room and the personalities, so that the answers to these questions become second nature. You can feel when a break would benefit the process more than pushing forward, when you need to steer the conversation back on track or when the director just needs a little reminder about how much time is left in the day to get things going again. Finding the delicate balance between assertive and relaxed is essential.
Stage managers also keep the records of the ENTIRE show. So what, there is not much to keep track of, right?! Wrong! Every article of clothing, every set piece, prop, movement, video/light/sound cue, quick change, scene time, spike mark, line change, schedule, note, etc. - all these things are tracked by the stage management team.
Now, stage managers don’t exist everywhere in the world. Recently, I was working in Greece and our sound designer (who was Greek) was amazed when he saw my book (aka “the Bible”) with all the show information. He said that usually the duties completed by the stage manager are performed by the Assistant Director, but never to such a detailed extent as I was showing him. He said only the largest of the theatre companies could afford to have someone in such a specialized position. It was a really cool experience. He just couldn’t get over how amazing it was that it was standard practice in Canada (and many other places) to have someone doing this, which, for me, really validated the expertise that is required from my position. It struck me as particularly interesting that in an area that did not have stage managers (or knowledge of their existence) the role was filled by the Assistant Director. As Franklin states in his letter, “Once the show opens, the stage manager runs the show as the director’s representative.” Sometimes people forget about that key aspect of the position. Stage managers do need to have a creative eye as much as a director does. During a long run of a production, it is essential that the person in charge has the vocabulary to speak with the actors to keep the show on course. As well, they need to have a good sense about what is part of the natural growth of the show (new moments begin to develop as the actors become more comfortable with the rhythms of the piece) and what is veering away from the director’s vision. In no way am I saying that a stage manager should be compared to an assistant director, but this example highlights the artistic ability needed to perform the job well.
Above all, a stage manager is a keen observer and caretaker. Caring is really at the heart of a stage manager. You have to, otherwise you would never do this job (or at least not happily). You have to care about the quality and integrity of the show. You have to care about the artists involved in the production. You have to care about your crew that makes the show happen and can do all those things that you have no idea about – “hey, the black thingy is sticking out of the big tower thing, can you make it not do that?” (a quote similar to those uttered to many crew members who usually answer ‘Yes’ with a little laugh or smile, and sometimes light-hearted mocking). But isn’t caring and passion at the heart of every artist?
WHY I DO IT:
Now the big question – why do I do it? For me, stage managing is a masterclass in live performance and I am a scholar. I love learning and have yet to find another job in theatre (which includes dance, music and opera) that can provide such an education. The amazing thing about being a stage manager is that you are the only person on the production that takes the show from meetings prior to the first day of rehearsal to the last day of performance. You get to sit in rehearsal every day and watch the entire process unfold before your eyes. You attend the production meetings and see all the behind-the-scenes talk that goes into building the technical elements of the show and you are the keeper of all the records – “The Bible”. You collect it all. As well, the job stays relatively the same through all the live performance mediums. I have done dance, opera, music, plays, and musicals – very few positions in this industry allow for an artist to move so fluidly among the art forms. But therein lies the magic for me. I can do it all and learn from the masters of all these forms. I just need to be a master of my own (which I’m working on…)
As an actress, I would never have had the opportunities to work with some of the incredible artists I’ve had the privilege to work with (well, maybe, but highly unlikely and not as quickly or intimately as I have as a stage manager). To study with them privately would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, I am literally paid to sit, watch and observe these artists work. It is amazing!!! I used to do it for free and now someone is actually paying me to do it!!! (Shh! Don’t tell my bosses!) This feeling of sheer wonder has not worn off over the years. The original reason I started stage managing was to watch rehearsal for a show the older students in my acting program were putting up in the drama festival. I wasn’t a particularly great actor at the time and thought the best way to improve was to spend time watching those who were better than me. I could observe their process and hopefully find little gems that would help me develop my own. Well, it so happened that stage managing came rather naturally to me and I continued to work non-professionally as a stage manager before making it my full-time vocation. I often call it a disease rather than a job. It takes a very specific type of person to excel at the job and actually enjoy doing it. I have always been a super keener and thrive on making people happy (also, I get really excited by paperwork and Post-It notes). As a kid, sometimes I wanted to be a secretary because I loved forms, stationary and organizing so much. I also loved the arts and theatre, but thought acting was the only way I could get involved (I have never had any ambition to be a director). I seem to have found the perfect combination of the two passions.
Studying theatre through stage management also helps me become a better writer. Not only do I often get to work with writers on their new plays, but I constantly get to watch artists analyze and interpret text, which allows me to better understand what is needed from a playwright to effectively convey their message to the artist. As well, it constantly generates new ideas. Austin Kleon (yes, it always comes back to him) in Steal Like An Artist talks about writing fan-fiction as a kid. He used to create new stories involving the characters of movies he liked. This happens in theatre too. I often want to take a character and tell a new story with them or find that they would fit nicely into a story I’m already telling – maybe they don’t actually appear as that character, but their traits and personalities sure do. Other times, I see a story or an adaptation and I start thinking about the way I would do it differently, then I go home and write that story.
Really, at the heart of it all, each day I get up and have the opportunity to go into work and create something. I get to share something that I’m passionate about with other people. For this, I am very lucky. And the glorious thing about being an artist is that there are no limits to where your creativity can take you. Almost all the artists I meet are multi-disciplinary; actors who direct, directors who write, designers who sing, etc. I am a stage manager who writes. It is truly an amazing profession. I am so thankful that I continue to be able to practice this incredible art. To this day, I still find myself standing on a stage, completely in awe that someone is actually giving me money to do this. It is such a privilege.