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!’

Profile of a Stage Manager: Will Lewis

This will be the first in a series of Stage Manager Profiles. Please follow Prompt-Side for future profiles of excellent stage managers around the world.


Will Lewis is an Australian Stage Manager who has been touring the world with circus, musicals and theatre. His professional productions include Amaluna and Dralion for Cirque du Soleil, and major musicals include Wicked, Cats, Dusty, Hair, The Producers and many more. He is currently following the yellow brick road with The Wizard of Oz in Australia. In between performances of the Brisbane season, Will took some time to answer some questions about all things Stage Management.


How do you describe what a Stage Manager does?

Stage Management is a lot of different jobs all rolled into one. The best way to describe it is that the Stage Manager is the central point of communication for the show, as well as the person that, along with the Technical Director and Resident Director/Creative team, maintains the artistic and technical integrity set by the Director.

Kind of like air traffic control.

What was it about Stage Management that attracted you initially?

Well, initially I wanted to be a lighting designer. I loved bringing the stage to life with light. But, when I was at NIDA, I discovered Stage Management. It was more up my alley, but the organisation and calling aspect attracted me. Again, it fell in line with bringing the director’s vision to life, and assisting that process in such detail.

In your opinion, what characteristics do great Stage Managers have?

A lot of patience. Terrific organisational skills. Patience. Smiles. Be like a duck and let the water roll off your back.

What is it about Stage Management that you currently enjoy the most?

Calling!

amaluna bows

Will calling the Amaluna bows. Photo courtesy of Will Lewis © Cirque du Soleil

What are the greatest challenges that Stage Managers have to deal with?

The myriad different personalities that come together to do a show, and dealing with different levels of experience in both cast and crew.

What challenges are there in running the crew and managing the cast?

Again, I would say the differing personalities. Getting the crew on your side will be the best thing that you can do, and do it early on in the process. Be nice, be human, don’t be domineering. The worst thing you can do for yourself as a Stage Manager is getting your crew offside.

As with the crew, lots of cast members come from different walks of life, and performing experiences. You have to be patient, and sometimes come back to square one and teach the processes as you go.

I know that no day is the same as any other as a Stage Manager, but do you have any particular routines or ways to stay organised while working on a show?

Consistency. I write myself a little weekly list of tasks that I must achieve.

Be neat and tidy with your desk and prompt corner.

Be proud of your paperwork.

Demonstrate to the company your work ethic and demonstrate via example, and people will see this and follow. Go in with a positive attitude. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Trust me, this takes practise. Enjoy it – we’re not saving the world here!

You’ve worked for Cirque Du Soleil, what is different about stage managing these types of shows?

Wow. This is a big question.

Cirque du Soleil works very differently to theatre, and musical theatre.

The way the shows are constructed from creation to performance is completely different.

The day-to-day management of a show is again a massively different beast. Cirque has a policy of continued evolution, which is why the shows last and stay fresh. This means you need to be super organised and be on top of everything. One good example, is that at one point on Amaluna, I had 134 different show versions we could perform at any one time. That’s a lot of information to track, and manage. Let alone keeping your calling script functional!

Essentially you have to take your bag of tricks that you have, and adapt to what Cirque requires. It involves being very open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Cirque won’t bend to your will, but will adopt new ideas and ways. Flexibility and adaptability is the key here.

amaluna RAH

Amaluna at the Royal Albert Hall.Photo courtesy of Will Lewis. © Cirque du Soleil

You’re currently working on Wizard of Oz, are there any particular challenges, or intricacies in this production?

We are flying people, which comes with its own challenges. Having said this, absolute consistency is required when it comes to calling the show. As with every show, the best way to think of calling is that every cue you call has the potential to hurt someone. So don’t be flippant, follow what has been set by the director, don’t change things because you think you can. You can not.

IMG_0255

From the production desk of Wizard of Oz. Photo courtesy of Will Lewis

How do you cope with the demands of touring, do you have any specific practices to make it easier?

Have a hobby outside of theatre. This is a big one. For most of us, theatre is our hobby turned into our job. Find another outlet. I do a few things – I go to the gym a lot (it’s also a great stress relief), I run, I have a couple of other creative outlets too. It’s really important to find that balance. When I tour in Australia, I usually drive to the destination, so i can still have freedom when I’m there.

I also take my favourite kitchen items (oils, pans, knives, coffee grinder and plunger). You just never know when you get to company accommodation what’s there. It’s the small things from home that make a great difference!

Stay in touch with your friends and family. Gone, is certainly not forgotten.

How do you balance your personal life with the hours worked as a Stage Manager?

You have to find a way. I don’t have a massive personal life, but I think it’s important to keep the balance. I recently took a couple of months’ break. It was completely refreshing to go and do something new and recalibrate myself. Again, find an outlet outside of work, otherwise you burn out and won’t be able do the job for the long haul.

I know that keeping fit is a priority for you, how is staying healthy important for your work?

It helps me keep my stress levels in check, and is just something I do for me, and no one else. Eating properly also ties directly into being fit. Always make time to cook your food; good, healthy food and food preparation (particularly in tech week). That way you can be the best you can be and fire on all cylinders when you are at work. It keeps you balanced, and along with regular sleeping patterns, you will feel more human!

Do you have any tips for staying healthy within the demands of the job?

Eat well, keep the drinking to a minimum. Choose good foods that will sustain you.

One of the best things I have discovered is 24 hour gyms. Sign up! You  will be amazed what a workout after work, late at night, can do for you!

Find whatever works for you. Whether it is half an hour a day to go for a walk, run, workout, Pilates – whatever it is – make time to do it. Get up early, enjoy the day! Don’t turn your workday into sleep late, get up, go straight to work, drink, repeat.

What are some common errors you see young Stage Managers or Assistant Stage Managers (ASMs) making?

Rising through the ranks too fast and not taking the time to learn on their way up.

For ASMs, you should only be asked once to do something. Not two, not three, not five times. A great ASM will anticipate, and get stuff done before it’s even requested.

Be efficient. Don’t be lazy. This is a big one.  Get tasks done when asked, not when it suits you. There is always a bigger picture at play. Don’t be lazy or complacent. One of the best phrases that was taught to me was “You’re only as good as your last job”. Keep this in mind as you go through and you will have a lasting career.

If you could teach all young Stage Managers one thing, what would it be?

Enjoy the journey. Don’t rise up the ranks too fast. Learn from everyone. Ask questions.

If you could say one thing to yourself before you finished studying to be a Stage Manager, what would it be?

Don’t stress – you will be hired. You will get the jobs you want.

What do you look for in a great ASM?

A great fit for the team. Eager to learn. Not cocky, or know-it-all. Someone with growth potential. Someone that gets on and does the job; a self-starter, self motivator.

What are your most used SM apps?

I don’t really have one at the moment. One that I do love is Callboard.co

Do you read music or do you count beats?

I can read music to play, but I have to step away from reading a score that closely. Knowing how to read music does help if you get lost in the score. However, all you need to identify are time signatures, what a bar (measure) is and repeats. Also, how to read your conductor.

What tool or item in your kit is the most important to you?

My Mac and my Dropbox account. Also my favourite pencil and ruler.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Have fun! Enjoy. It’s hard work, but the payoffs are wonderful.


Here’s a clip of Will at the SMD from Wicked in 2009


If you are interested in positions with Cirque du Soleil, they regularly advertise for a number of technical positions here.

Wizard of Oz is produced in Australia by the Gordon Frost Organisation.

Glossary 

A glossary of theatre terms used in articles on Prompt-side. All definitions are commonly used in Australia except where otherwise indicated. This list will be added to regularly. Please comment below if you want to add something.

Apron (n) – The area downstage of the proscenium arch.

Auditorium (n) – Where the audience sits. Also referred to as ‘the house’.

Bar (n)– A long piece of steel (preferably cylindrical – but sometimes not!) to hang things on.

Boom (n)– An upright, or vertical, bar usually for lighting but sometimes to support scenery.

Borders (n)  – Rectangular pieces of black cloth (usually velvet or wool) that create a ‘border’ across the top of the stage picture. They are there to mask the other items in the grid.

Braille (v) – To tie a bar to another bar or to the fly floor to get it in exactly the right position.

Bump in (n) – The period of time when everything moves into the theatre.

Bump in (v) – To move everything into the theatre.

Centre stage (n) – The middle of the stage when looking from the auditorium.

Cradle (n) – Holds the weights for the flying system

Cyclorama (or cyc) (n) – a large screen (usually white) that is used to put coloured lights on to change its colour. Sometimes this is built-in, sometimes it is curved and sometimes it is hanging on a fly line. Most theatres will ‘grid the cyc’ so that it stays hanging and doesn’t get creases or dirty while not used on a show.

Deads (n) – The point at which the fly line has to stop to be at a certain point. Often marked with coloured tape on a hemp system.

Downstage (n) – The area closest to the auditorium. This term comes from when stages were usually raked. To go ‘down the rake’ was to go towards the audience.

Downstage (v) – To go towards the auditorium.

Drift (adj) – The distance between the bar at its highest point and its lowest point.

Fly floor (n) – The place where the fly lines are operated, usually higher than stage level. It can either be on prompt-side or opposite-prompt.

Fly (v) – To move a line in or out.

Fly line (n) – The line of a bar that can fly in and out.

Front of House (n) – The area that the public sees. This includes the foyer, toilets, bar and auditorium.

Grid (n)  – A steel ‘grid’ or series of channels that can be used to rig onto. They vary depending on whether you are in a proscenium arch theatre, or in a studio type setting.

Grid (v) – To fly something out so high that it can’t be seen by the audience.

In (adj)– Towards the ground, or down.

Legs (n) – Long black cloths (usually velvet or wool) that hang down the sides of stage. They are there to mask the wings.

Mask (v) – To hide something.

Masking (n) – Cloths used to hide something.

On (adj) – Towards centre stage.

Out (adj) – Away from the ground, or up.

Prompt side (n)  – Also known as ‘stage left’. The left hand side of the stage when standing on the stage facing the auditorium. This is usually where the calling Stage Manager is located. When the Stage Manager needs to be located on the other side(or stage right) because of tight wing space or the set, that side becomes ‘Bastard Prompt’. 

Rake (n) – A sloped stage or auditorium.

Raked (a)  – To be sloped.

Vomitory (n) – An entrance through the auditorium, usually under the seating. Also shortened to the ‘vom’.

Wings (n) – The area hidden from the audience on each side of stage.