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?


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.


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.


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.


Why Stage Managers should eat more

Recently I came across an article written by Peter Crawley from the Irish Times, Calling the shots: A life in the day of a stage manager who had followed a Stage Manager for a day to find out what Stage Management entails.
As the day progressed, the journalist honed in on the fact that the Stage Manager he was following hardly ate anything. She was busy during lunchtime, grabbed a quick (unhealthy) snack and worked long hours. Towards the end of the article he stated,

‘Stage managers do not eat.’

Most of us in the theatre world know that Stage Managers work long hours and often work during breaks (rehearsal breaks are a valuable time to talk to other departments, catch up on missed phone calls and emails and paperwork). And I too have been guilty of working long days eating very little.

About four years ago, I decided to change that. I made a conscious decision to sit down to eat my lunch, and try to have a healthy snack at every break.

For the first while it was difficult. I was worried I would have to stay later to catch up on all the things I used to do during breaks, or I would miss or forget something important. I also had a feeling of guilt for sitting down when actually I was very busy and didn’t feel like I had the time for such luxury.

In fact, the opposite was true. The production didn’t come to a grinding halt because I sat down to eat my lunch. In fact, I was calmer and clearer after taking the break that my whole outlook was better.

Here’s what I have found after taking breaks and nourishing myself for four years, and why I believe Stage Managers should eat more:

  • I am healthier. Well this is a bit of a no-brainer. Running on no food is like trying to run a car with no fuel. I do have to be a bit more organised to bring lunch and snacks with me. That way I can sit down and eat for half an hour (rather than going out to find food), and then go and catch up on work for the other half an hour while the actors are still on break. Win/win!
  • My rapport with the company was better. Having time to actually sit down and chat while eating is a lovely way to get to know everyone better, especially during the rehearsal period. Although your company become your family quite quickly in theatre, I found relationships were better from an early stage because I actually had the time to really get to know people from the start. This paid off in spades further down the track.
  • My mind is fresher. After eating, if I go and do some paperwork, I am more efficient, as I am full of fuel. I can often get the same amount done as I would have otherwise.
  • I prioritise better. Because I have less time in the break, I have to focus on the important issues first. I don’t get caught up in the things that might end up solving themselves.

Some tricks and tips for making time for breaks and eating more:

  • Bring fruit. Something like an apple is easy to eat on a tea break while walking to costume to catch up about a fitting. This way you are refuelling while still getting a lot done.
  • Bring a healthy lunch. There are many ways to do this, and it seems easier than it is, especially during production week. Sometimes I prepare something big for the week on a Sunday, sometimes I bring some ingredients and some wraps and make lunch at work each day, or sometimes I pack it in the morning. It depends on the week, and where we are at.
  • During weeks where I’m working three-call days (like in Production Week), I make a giant salad on Sunday that is one for each day, then I might go and buy something different for the other meal so I’m getting outside for at least a bit of the day, and have some variety in what I’m eating.
  • Organise a shared lunch day. This is something that State Theatre SA do as a whole company and staff and I think it’s a great idea. Everyone brings something to share (usually there’s a theme), and it is a fantastic way to bring everyone together for a meal. Sometimes the best creative ideas come out of getting everyone together talking!
  • Bring some healthy snacks for the production desks. The lollies on a production desk are a real problem for me (see this post). If I eat them, I end up having a massive sugar low about an hour after and then get really tired, the best way to keep my energy up is to have some trail mix at the production desk.

The big thing to remember is that you don’t want to be a martyr (which I’ve seen a lot of Stage Managers do). Not eating because you are busy is not a badge of honour. It is the fastest way to burning out, running out energy and being less productive.

A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette

On a big show, there’s nothing worse for operators and Stage Managers when someone on cans isn’t adhering to standard etiquette. Not only does it hamper everyone’s ability to do their job properly, but it makes for a cranky Stage Manager (SM). And a cranky SM is akin to the Fun Police. At a basic level, most people in theatre are here because it’s fun. But if the Fun Police are out in force, it becomes just another job. And it should (always) be more than that.

For the uninitiated amongst you, ‘cans’ is a common name for communication devices used backstage in theatre, which consist of a pack (sometimes radio and sometimes wired) and a headset. If you are calling, it may consist of a headset and a panel in your SMD. The term ‘cans’ comes from the old system of two cans on a piece of string.


Cans are also sometimes referred to as ‘comms’ or ‘headsets’.

In Australia, it’s usually the sound department’s responsibility to maintain the cans system, and they should be your first port of call if your cans are not working properly.

So, how to use your cans without bringing the cranky fun police knocking on your door?

What you need to say

When putting your headset on: (your name) on cans. 
It’s important to know at all times who is on cans with you.

When taking your headset off: (your name) off cans
Again something I insist on, as the SM needs to know if one of their operators or crew isn’t contactable for a time.

When an SM says “Standing by LXQ8”: Standing by or LX
For all cues, this should be your response. The general rule of thumb is that if the SM is only standing one operator by, you can say ‘Standing By’. If the SM is calling multiple operators, you should respond with what you are operating. For example, the dialogue should run like this:
SM: Standby LXQ21, SDQ35, Door to open and FLY Q3.
LX operator: LX
Sound operator: Sound
Mechanist: Door
Flys: Flys
This enables the SM to know exactly who is standing by. It’s tricky for an SM to know who is standing by if a couple of people say ‘standing by’. I always smile when people respond in the same order as the call (because it satisfies my obsessive compulsive personality), but it’s probably too much to expect that it should always happen.

Can I Talk?
This is a great question. If you need to say anything that isn’t urgent (even if it’s show related), it’s great to check with the SM if it is a good time to talk. You will notice that this is a question used a lot by people who are used to working on big shows, or have been around a while. Take note, they have learnt over the years the value of this question. Learn from their wisdom.

What you shouldn’t say


No-one should say GO except the Stage Manager. Try to avoid saying it in conversation, or when describing something that happened. Good operators have excellent reflexes when they hear the word Go and it can end in a mis-timed cue. Yes, it happens.

Anything other than your response between the ‘standby’ and the ‘go’.
I have seen this cause so many problems on shows where someone has tried to crack a joke between the standby and the go, and one of the operators has pressed ‘go’ in response to something in the joke. Just don’t talk while everyone is on standby. It’s a simple rule that gets broken all the time. It’s not okay (unless in an emergency).

Any type of gossip.
You never know in a venue where people can hear you. In a lot of the major theatre centres, you can turn on the cans feed from various theatres in the management offices. Other offices have _squawk boxes_ that play the cans feed through a speaker so anyone popping into the office can hear it, or sometimes even walking by. It’s equally important not to talk about actors or performers on stage. On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed the crew talking about how awful an actor is while the actor was sitting in the lighting office and they heard everything.

Anything when the SM says ‘Quiet Please’
Calling is hard sometimes. It involves a lot of listening. If the SM needs some quiet to hear the dialogue, or just to concentrate for a moment, they will say ‘Quiet Please’ and this is everyone’s cue to shut up immediately. If you need to say something, go back to the ‘Can I talk?’ question.

When to be on cans:

The SM will often do a cans check before the show to make sure everyone is at their post. If you are an operator, you should be on cans from the five minute call for each act. If you are an ASM, you should be on cans before the house is open.

Other things to know:

  • When talking to someone who isn’t on cans, don’t take your headset off. I’ve been known to say someone’s name repeatedly to get their attention, to find out that they are chatting to someone else and have taken their cans off to hear better. This is also not okay. If you’re on a quiet show, ask the sound department for single ear headsets. This way you can turn your free ear to the person talking and you don’t have to take off your headset ever.
  • Technical rehearsals are very busy for everyone involved, best to not chat at all during these times.
  • SMs have different preferences. I quite like a bit of cans chat when the time is appropriate. It can keep a tired crew engaged when they are starting to flag. Other SMs prefer silence. Respect the wishes of the SM. They are responsible for keeping the whole show together, so if they ask for silence, give them silence.
  • Warn people before unplugging your cans. It can make a deafening pop.
  • Some venues run a few loops. On big shows, the SM will not listen to some loops. Be aware of who you are trying to talk to and which loop they are listening to.
  • Turn off your mic if you need to cough or yell. It is also deafening.
  • Don’t leave your mic open if you are not saying anything. People don’t like to hear you heavy breathing or rustling around backstage. I’ve also experienced the full soundscape of someone using the toilet. It isn’t nice.

Do you use any other cans etiquette on your shows? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.

The Ultimate Stage Management Kit

Being prepared is one of the best characteristics of a Stage Manager. When an actor runs offstage with a costume malfunction (ahem!), having a safety pin at the ready can be the difference between a quick re-entrance or a show stop.

One simple way to be prepared is to have a kit with all the things you often find yourself needing. With a set of standard items, you too can be as resourceful as MacGyver.

It’s a balance between having enough items to be able to cover most situations, but not so many that it becomes unwieldy and difficult to rummage through. When I’m calling, I keep it under the prompt desk and often end up with actors poking through it under my feet to find some much needed item.

I’ve just been tidying out my kit (a good job to do at the end of a year) and here’s my list for the Ultimate Stage Management Kit. I keep it in a toolbox, but have also used plastic tubs or roadcases. This one is my old trusty favourite. I’ve had it since my first ASM gig many moons ago. I always make sure I have my little guy (who doesn’t have a name – see if you can spot him) given to me by a friend when I got my first professional job.

The Ultimate Stage Management Kit:

You don’t need a large quantity of any of these things, mostly a couple of each will do. They are only there to grab in hurry, you can re-stock at a time when you aren’t so pushed.


  • Scissors
  • Post-it notes
  • Document flags
  • Blu-tak
  • Permanent markers
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Safety pins
  • Erasers
  • Rubber bands
  • Paper clips
  • USB drive
  • Stapler
  • Staples
  • Hole punch
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Spare leads for mechanical pencils
  • Erasers
  • Highlighters (note: blue is not good backstage under blue light.)
  • White out tape
  • Batteries (I usually have AA and AAA)
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Pegs (surprisingly handy for a lot of problems)
  • Scale ruler
  • Ruler
  • Velcro dots
  • Headphones

Personal Items:

  • Tampons
  • Business cards
  • Coins – for pay phones, parking, drink machines (trust me, I’ve needed this more than you’d expect, especially on tour.)
  • Toothpicks

First aid:

  • Band aids
  • Conforming bandage
  • Hypo-allergenic medical tape (especially on shows with radio mics)
  • Sunscreen
  • Throat lozenges
  • Paracetamol (This is controversial in Australia. But I keep some anyway.)
  • Lip balm
  • Blister pads

(always keep a fully stocked first aid kit nearby, these items are just things that get used very regularly)

Theatre gear:

  • Torch
  • Chalk
  • Prop keys (small and easy props to lose, useful to have some spares.)
  • Prop money (as above)
  • Multi-tool (or screwdrivers and a knife) – this qualifies you as a true MacGyver.
  • Tape measure (at least 8m.)
  • Cable ties


  • Bobby pins
  • Hair ties
  • Needle & thread (I usually have black and white as they can be used in most situations.)
  • Noticeboard pins
  • Glue
  • Spare buttons
  • Cloth tape measure
  • Shoe laces (these can be used for more than just shoes)
  • Clear nail polish (Good for a quick fix of ladders in stockings)

Happiness items (or morale boosters):

  • Birthday candles
  • Spoon
  • Knife
  • Fork
  • Ball (Tennis ball or hacky sack – more about this in a future post.)
  • Bottle opener
  • Phone chargers


  • Glow tape
  • Mark up tape (If you can only fit one colour, choose white.)
  • Double sided tape
  • Electrical tape
  • Gaff (of course!)



If you’re on a tight budget, you can find some good tips to stocking it cheaply here.

I’d love to hear what you have in your SM kit, especially if it isn’t on this list. Please comment with your items below.