What makes a great Stage Manager?

This is an abridged version of the full article which originally appeared on TheatreArtLife.


When someone asks what makes a good Stage Manager, our answers are usually along the lines of: organised, hard working, good humoured, tough, good with people.

There are a few skills, though, that are less discussed – generosity, passion, persistence, consistency and care. All the best Stage Managers I have encountered have all of these. They are ‘soft skills’ – difficult to learn at university but can be fostered within oneself.


Generosity

 

Being generous with my time as a Stage Manager was easier when my life was all about  work. After becoming a mother to my two children, priorities shifted and I found it more difficult to be as generous at work. Now, I foster generosity by concentrating on each moment – listening well, being present (as corny as that sounds) and caring for others in each interaction. As Tom Stoppard said,

Obviously, you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbour, your village and beyond.

-Tom Stoppard

There is a shadow side to generosity though, as for some it can mean putting everyone else before yourself – always. That can lead to burn out which doesn’t help anyone. Maybe the hardest thing is to remember to be generous to yourself.

Passion

Being in love with what we do is one of the benefits of working in the live performance industry. Passion comes with the territory. What happens though, when the passion isn’t there? What happens when you work on a show that you hate (yes it happens!)?

Some of the best Stage Managers I have known are still passionate about their work even when the passion for the show isn’t there. They care about Stage Management as an art – their passion lies in being excellent at their craft. That way they can bring enthusiasm, care and love for the job to every show, even if everything else around them is not going so well. They can elevate others with that passion and that is beneficial to all.

Persistence

When something doesn’t work, what do great people do? Try something else. It can be a minor variation or a big one, but the best Stage Managers keep trying everything until they find something that works. They are not the ones who give up, or get cross when something doesn’t go as planned. They work out what is the next logical step is and try that.

Some people are so attached to their ideas of how something will happen, or whether or not it will work, that they become upset when their expectations are not met. We can combat this by being ready to try something new whenever something doesn’t happen as expected, and remaining persistent until it works.

Consistency

As Will Lewis said in his interview with Prompt-Side, consistency is key when calling, but it also translates into anything we do in the live performance world. Sometimes a small deviation from the norm can snowball into something much bigger. And sometimes when one thing goes wrong, being surrounded by consistency can minimise the impact.

Consistency also maintains clear expectations. When everyone knows what to expect of you, they are put at ease. Of course, you can always go above and beyond, but maintaining a level at which everyone can rely on is what makes everyone around you relax. And a relaxed team is always a better team.

Integrity

For me, having integrity is two-fold. It is doing what you believe to be right, and doing what you say you are going to do. It is perhaps the most important characteristic that I demand of people in my life, so it makes sense that I value it in good Stage Managers.

The best Stage Managers always do what they say they will do. It might not be when you expected (they are busy people) but they get to it eventually. Even if it is difficult for them or takes up a lot of their time. For me, forgetting that I said I would do it is what gets in my way, so the best way to practice integrity is to keep a note of it in my notebook. If it is there, I’ll do it. (And then I get the satisfaction of ticking it off my list when I’ve done it).

And as for doing what you believe to be right. Well, if it doesn’t feel like it is the right thing to do, speak up, make your case. And if it still doesn’t feel right, walk away.

Care and Respect

These two characteristics definitely go hand in hand but care can be split equally between care for others and care for the craft of Stage Management.

Care, respect, generosity and passion are all closely linked, but they can be distinct too. Care can take many forms and can be shown in the simplest things. It can be doing someone else’s dishes (or even your own dishes). It can be putting your phone away when someone is talking to you. It can be tidying your desk at the end of the day. It can be sweeping the rehearsal room floor. It is a way of showing respect to all people and all things.

I like to think of it like the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony is a mediation of care and respect. As you drink the tea, you hold the cup in two hands, showing care and respect to the cup, the tea, the people involved in making it. Sometimes you need to hold your work in two hands, sometimes you need to hold your show in two hands, sometimes you need to hold someone’s emotions in two hands. Showing care and respect to our work and the people we work with is a great way to make our day (and everyone else’s) better.


As I look up at what I’ve written above, I realise that these skills can apply to anyone in any field. But for Stage Managers, when the going gets tough, those who have fostered generosity, passion, persistence, consistency and care in themselves will thrive. These are some of the skills that turn good Stage Managers into great ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Freelancing fear

One of the biggest concerns I see Stage Managers grapple with is the uncertainty of freelancing. The worry and stress affects everyone, whether you have been freelancing for 13 years, or you have only just begun in the industry.

After graduating from university, I worked for 13 years as a freelancing Stage Manager. When offered a full-time gig with a theatre company, the security and the steady pay cheque (not to mention the annual leave – woohoo!) was something I had never even dreamt could be in my future.

Four years of full-time stage management nearly burned me out and my family was suffering from the continually disruptive hours. I decided it was time to prioritise my family and kids again, so after a sabbatical, I’m now heading back into the freelance labyrinth. And all of those fears and worries about freelancing are coming back. The very day I made the decision that the sabbatical was over, I started having those anxiety dreams where your teeth all fall out, or you try and make a phone call and the buttons on the phone fall off.

So what is it that I fear? For me it is basics. Can I earn enough to feed my family? Will anyone employ me? What if there’s not enough gigs around? Will I ever be able to take a holiday again?

After being a successful freelancer for years, these questions haunt me as much as they did when I first started out, even though I know there’s a shortage of experienced SMs in Australia. I’ve experienced the quiet times and I know how to stretch my money through the busy times so I have money in the breaks between gigs. Rationally I know the way to get by as a freelancer, but the fear doesn’t seem to disappear. I now realise I have to accept the fear as part of the deal, but continually remind myself that I know what to do, it will all be okay. Here are some things I have learned along the way, that won’t necessarily take away the fear, but reduce the hardships.

Tools and tips for Freelancing Stage Managers

Stay positive.

Something will happen. No-one wants to employ a grumpy stage manager who always complains about not getting enough work. Staying positive will not only help you get gigs, will improve your outlook and will make it easier to be good at your gig when you get it.

You are only as good as your last gig.

Yes, this is a phrase that we all hear and use way too often, but it is true. You need to do the best at your job all the time. No excuses. People will offer you work if they see how great you are.

Budgeting.

When the money is coming in, don’t spend all of it. In subsidised and non-commercial theatre our salaries are terrible, so work out the minimum you need to live on and live on that. Then put the rest into an account that isn’t linked to your ATM card. If it is difficult to spend, you won’t spend it. Having those savings to live off when there’s not work is the lifesaver. The bonus for Stage Managers is that when you are working you’ll be so busy that there’s no time to spend money.

Don’t take non-stage management gigs.

Okay, I’m saying this as a hirer, not as a freelancer, but if you take a regular casual gig in retail or the likes, you won’t be available to say ‘yes’ when the work comes up. If you can find an employer flexible enough to deal with you coming and going, well good on you. You need to be ready to ditch that casual job (and the income) as soon as the gig comes up. I’ve seen people make it work, but I’ve also seen people get stuck in retail, bar work or whatever and they are so attached to the regular pay that they turn down SM gigs. Don’t take your eye off the big picture here!

Block out holidays.

This seems a little crazy when there seems like there is no work on the horizon, but one job often leads to another. Then you find yourself without a break for a year or more and you are on your way to burning out. It’s not good for your physical or mental health. Try to block out some holiday time and stick to it. It will make you better at your next job (see point above about only being as good as your last gig).

Look after your friends.

Non-industry friends don’t get it. And that’s okay. They won’t understand when you disappear during tech weeks. Just be clear with them. Warn them when you will be busy and not contactable, then when you are available again, make sure you give them a call and organise a chance to catch up. Don’t leave it up to them, they don’t need to memorise your crazy calendar. Then you can use the breaks between work to hang out and enjoy them again. Friendships are invaluable and they will get you through the tough times, so look after them.

Negotiate.

Something arts workers are notoriously bad at is negotiating good contracts. I’ve definitely become better at it over time. Don’t settle for the first thing the hirer offers. Ask for what you’re worth. You can always negotiate back down again if you think you are in danger of losing the gig, but it is always worth asking. An important note – don’t forget to check the overtime clauses. A few times I’ve signed away my overtime and realised that my hourly rate then becomes less than the minimum wage.

Say yes to everything. Then say no.

Take all the gigs – the more gigs you do, the more you will get. You’ll be busy. It will be wonderful. Then you need to start to say no. Realise that overlapping productions may not be the best idea, even though it’s exciting to be in demand. One of the reasons I’m returning to freelancing is to have better control over when I am working and when I’m not.

Stay true to your word.

If you say you are going to do a gig, do it. But what if a better offer comes up? Too bad, let someone else have it. I’ve only dropped out of one gig in my 17 years of stage managing and that was to take the full-time job I mentioned earlier. If you are not sure if you are going to be able to do the gig, don’t say yes, be honest, and explain your reasons. Companies are more flexible with dates than you may think – especially if they really want you. Years ago I had an ASM pull out of a gig one week before rehearsals started because they were offered a contract that was a few weeks longer. In my books that’s not okay and tarnishes your reputation. Stick to your word. Integrity is a quality that is scarce but valuable.

Maintain your qualifications & certificates.

Keep your first aid up to date and any other licences or qualifications you might have. They help your employability, and give you something to occupy yourself when there’s no work.

Connect with people.

Yes the old ‘networking’ thing. Sounds boring. It is. So don’t do it that way. Make yourself available by telling everyone you are looking for work. Get together for a drink with someone in the industry. Go and see some shows (if you can afford it – or make use of the cheap days or matinees). Just keeping your face around is enough sometimes to remind people that you’re available and interested.

There’s nothing wrong with a co-op or profit-share.

This is for those who are just starting out. If you have a gap in your schedule, or nothing on the horizon, get in touch with some performers that are making new and exciting work and offer your services for a cut of the profits. You can practice your craft and build contacts and friendships that last a lifetime. Some of my first paid gigs came from people I had worked with in co-ops. It’s as good as a secondment (or work placement), but you get more responsibility.


Freelancing isn’t easy, it takes work and effort. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I’ve seen the fear of freelancing overtake people to the point they drop-out of the industry altogether. Maybe that is good for them, maybe it’s a lifestyle that doesn’t suit them. But if stage managing is something you were born to do, then freelancing doesn’t have to be the trial that the fear makes us believe.

 

A seven year old’s perspective

My son asked me this morning, ‘what does your tongue do?’

I described how it helps you form the rights sounds at the right time so you can speak, it helps you chew your food and when it’s the right time, it helps you swallow.

He face was astonished, ‘Wow! The tongue is the Stage Manager of your mouth!’

#MeToo

In addition to personal experience, I have witnessed sexual harassment happen at work, in the streets, on public transport and many more places. I’ve seen it happen to straight women and people from the LGBTQI community. I’ve also seen people’s careers decided on their willingness to go along with it.

Until now I have never felt brave enough to speak up, especially about what I’ve witnessed in the theatre industry, because I know that it can have dire consequences for people’s lives and careers. These are difficult conversations to have, but we’ll have to have them if anything is going to change.

Many young ASMs (myself included) have experienced actors who have joked to them something along the lines of, ‘I’d be able to prepare for my scene better if you took all your clothes off’. Even with the joking tone, it is too much.

I’ve once had an internationally famous singer tell me that all the women on side of stage needed to come onstage and dance naked in the rain. I’ve been told by my superior that my career could be boosted by going on a date with him. I’ve seen highly unqualified people given highly qualified technical work because of their not-so-secret relationship with the person hiring them. All of these scenarios are not okay. We joke and gossip about it, but what can we really do to stop it?

Many times I have felt too uncomfortable to come forward as the person at fault has more power than me. In an industry that relies on reputation as a way of getting the next gig, how can you tarnish your reputation by being a whistleblower? Every time I chose silence as a method of career self-preservation. I wasn’t willing to risk my livelihood over it. And, in a way, to risk my career over it felt like giving in to it.

The power in these relationships is the main element that is difficult to extract. If someone has your career in your hand, speaking up is near-impossible, as you have no power and they have it all.

In the past I’ve always dealt with these situations by laughing it off, making a joke, or standing up for myself and walking away. But maybe that isn’t enough.

How can we support people to speak out when they are so vulnerable? Or even better, how can we prevent it from happening to them in the first place?

Stage Management Resources

There are a lot of Stage Management books out there to teach us about our craft, but sometimes it is hard to find the best ones. I haven’t read every one of them (obviously), but of those I have read, I have some favourites.

Here is my list of top 5 Theatre and Stage Management books:

This book has been essential throughout my career. I was introduced to it by a teacher and her copy was so worn, I could tell I needed to get a copy; I am forever grateful for being introduced to it. It is full of diagrams and technical names for everything we use in the theatre from stage layouts to fixings, lashing flats to types of drapes. Nothing is really left out.

(Note: UK terminology is used, which doesn’t apply everywhere. Keep your eye out for some ‘dad-jokes’ in there too.)

An oldie but a goodie. This is a very good entry level book for Stage Management. If you have some experience in Stage Management, this will be too basic for you but if you are someone who is just starting out it gives a very accessible introduction into how to do general stage management tasks. Excellent for high-school drama departments to keep on the shelf.

This book is full of very useful information for anyone practicing stage management, either professional, student or amateur. Again very UK oriented, but can apply anywhere. It has a lot of practical information too as it includes useful templates and checklists.

From a US perspective this book has more modern references than the others. There is sometimes a resistance amongst some people to move with the times, but times change and I believe that Stage Management should evolve too. It is used as a text book in some training organisations and is evident that it is written from people with a lot of experience.

This one is a bit of an odd inclusion, but Stage Managers often feel like they are managing chaos. If you want to get an insight into what Stage Managers sometimes have to deal with, this is the book for you. I’ve had to deal with a number of similar occurrences, but never all on the one production! It’s a fun look at what wrangling creativity can look like.

 

I’d love to hear of some of your favourite Stage Management books. Leave a comment below with any reading suggestions.