The Art of Stage Management

When asked what makes a good Stage Manager, many people would first say organised, calm, confident. Very few would say ‘creative’. But despite what people may believe,  creativity is one of the key characteristics of a good Stage Manager.

Before I started Stage Managing, I didn’t consider myself creative, but I loved being surrounded by creativity, which is why the theatre was a perfect fit for me. However, the more shows I worked on, the more I called shows, the more I ran a team backstage, the more I realised that Stage Management is a creative art form in itself.

In a 2007 article by Gail Pallin and Pauline Miller Judd (see full article here), the authors explore the role of creativity in Stage Management and how to incorporate it into training courses. They write:

Traditionally, the stage management roles in theatre have been viewed as supportive, without the opportunity to make an obvious creative contribution to the output. This contribution was inherent, but not necessarily recognised or encouraged…a stage manager is constantly engaged in problem solving and seeking new ways to achieve the goals of the production team.

In my experience, creativity is certainly inherent in Stage Management, although I disagree that there is a need for recognition or encouragement. Stage Managers don’t become Stage Managers for recognition. If they do, they do not last long, as it is not a job where recognition is in ample supply (nor do I believe it should be, but I’ll save that for another discussion).

I do, however believe it is vital for Stage Managers themselves to recognise that they are creative and have creative input into the show. And in my experience, good directors, designers and particularly lighting designers understand this and take full advantage.

So how does this creativity affect the show, and how is it manifest?


Calling

Anyone who has seen a badly called show will tell you that timing is everything. In some circumstances consistency is key, whereas in others you need to ‘feel the moment’ to call a cue just at the right point.

At the end of a production of Hedda Gabler by State Theatre Company SA I needed to call a blackout that was after an uncomfortably long silence where the stunned characters were held on stage each reacting to what had happened (I’m not going to spoil it for those of you that don’t know the play). There was little movement on stage, and the director gave me a rough point at which to call it based on a movement of an actor. Some nights the audience would sit so silently still that we could hold it a bit longer than other nights, the idea was to hold it until the point the audience was really uncomfortable.

By understanding the creative vision, feeling the audience and being in-tune with the cast on stage, this moment was different every night. The cast and I would often discuss it after a performance, and by the end of the season, we were all working as one, and we were absolutely nailing the moment. At times like these creativity really comes into play and it only worked because we were all feeling the moment, not by counting beats, or giving secret signals.

Achieving something like this takes a lot of courage from the director. Having a good relationship with the director, where the know they can trust you to make those calls, is key.

Problem Solving

Stage Managers solve problems, sometimes within a matter of seconds.

For example, a piece of scenery is stuck in the middle of an opera. Stage Management need to quickly assess the situation. Is everyone safe? Do we need to stop the show? What is it going to affect? Who is available to assist? All those questions and more need to be answered without delay. Yes, sometimes the show has to stop, but often, you can work around it. At this point you need to know what purpose that piece of scenery serves the show creatively (another time when understanding the director’s vision is vital). You might be able to do without it, you might have to stop other pieces of scenery coming on, you might be able to get it on another way. Everything depends on the circumstances, but I bet you that the option you choose is a creative one. A solution that has required some quick out-of-the-box thinking.

Props

The best people at sourcing and making props in my experience have been those who really understand the intent of the director and designers and run with it in their own creative way.

In a 1950s house-drama, a creative person will come back from a charity shop with the items on the props list, but maybe also a 1950s yellow glass ashtray for set dressing, or a crocheted throw for the couch. Researching and understanding the setting can allow the person sourcing props some freedom in choosing items that the designer may not have thought of yet, and sometimes this creative input can make or break the authenticity of a production.

Maintenance

Long after opening night when the cast are getting bored and start mucking up, changing things or playing cheeky games during the show, the Stage Manager is responsible for maintaining the creative integrity of the show. The Stage Manager needs to be creative enough to keep the show within the parameters of the Director’s vision, but not so creative that they start putting their own touches on it. This is by far the most difficult of all the creative pursuits of a Stage Manager. Inexperienced actors often hate getting notes from a Stage Manager, as do those with giant egos. The remaining majority are appreciative and grateful for any notes they may get to keep them on track. But those ten per cent that don’t like getting notes make it very difficult.

I’ve always found understanding how the director approaches notes during rehearsals helpful. After four to six rehearsal weeks of observing how notes are given, which ones are taken on board, what angle is best for each note, and what notes the director prioritises, a Stage Manager can get a good handle on how to do it best. But I am always prepared for backlash or arguments when giving notes to some people. It’s just how it is.


It is evident that Stage Managers are indeed practicing creativity on a daily basis, but I know that many Stage Managers don’t believe themselves to be creative. So how do we cultivate creativity in ourselves?

According to an article by Linda Naiman (see full article here), creativity can be learned through practice over time. She writes:

You can learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination and synthesising information. Learning to be creative is akin to learning a new sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles, and a supportive environment in which to flourish.

In my mind, creativity in Stage Management can be fostered by practicing the following:

  • Observing others. Ask someone if you can watch them call a show, or shadow them doing their daily activities. This is the best way to learn how other people handle situations that require creativity. If you are an ASM, this is the best opportunity to watch the other people in your Stage Management team. What do they do? How do they get in tune with the show.? What research do they do?
  • Breathe. In my experience you can only be creative when you are thinking calmly. Panic and anger are unhelpful in any situation, but especially when trying to be creative. Adrenaline, on the other hand, can be useful. Some of the most creative problem solving I have done was when I was feeling the full force of an adrenaline rush, but at least I was breathing and calm enough to be rational.
  • Explore options and their consequences. What would happen if we do this? What would happen if we did the opposite? What would happen if we didn’t do anything at all? How would this affect all the other elements?
  • Listen. To everything you can. By listening to everything said by the director, actors, designers and the crew, you can really understand the show to a point that it is in your bones, and then you can find your creativity within it.
  • Do something unusual. Often. A 1968 study by George Land (see his TED talk here) found that generally speaking, creativity (or innovation and imagination) diminishes by age. He concluded that ‘non-creative behaviour is learned’, and suggests ‘turning on your 5 year old self’. So doing what you always do, or what everyone has always done stifles creativity. The more often you do something unusual the easier this becomes. It is a way to unleash creativity. I highly recommend it.

So, next time someone asks you what makes a good Stage Manager, you can include ‘creative’ in your list of attributes. Because we are creative, and we need to remember that.

I’d love to hear of how you see creativity in Stage Management. Please leave a comment below.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Stage Management

  1. Very Wise Words oh great Pineapple. A good creative Stage Manager has a much better idea of where the lighting Cue should go as they have sat through all of rehearsals, so have a deep understanding of the shows rhythms, and can vary the cue to suit the ever changing conditions of a show. As you know a cue at the start of the season might be in one place and as the show tightens up it may need to move, often a few times. Creative Stage Managers make me look good!

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