I’ve been a stage manager for nearly 25 years, I’ve been teaching stage management for 7 years and producing the Broadway Stage Management Symposium for 4 years. There are some common themes I’ve seen about how our profession is viewed (both inside and outside of the biz). Below are the four most common and biggest misconceptions about the profession of stage management that I’ve seen.
#1 - STAGE MANAGEMENT IS ABOUT POWER AND CONTROL...
I’ve heard many young stage managers, say, “I love stage management because I’m in control.” Or a version of that theme. Certainly, it’s satisfying to call a cue and it happens, you say “go,” and it goes! It’s feels good to make a schedule and see people show up when you tell them. These, however, do not demonstrate control or power. We are “servant leaders” and our job as stage managers is to facilitate what other people want to accomplish. We are the caretakers, not the deciders. A great stage manager and friend once said, “stage management is about being responsible for everything, but having control over nothing.” There is a lot of truth in that. We find creative solutions to problems, we don’t impose our desires. We help to craft a show and are intimately involved in the creation process. However, we don’t decide what the set looks like, what the actors wear or what the lights look like, rather we assist in implementing all of these decisions. By communicating notes, orchestrating set changes, scheduling fittings and calling cues, we synthesize everyone needs and keep the show running. Our companies can’t be controlled, but they can be lead. True leadership isn’t about being powerful or controlling, but bringing out the best in people, keeping morale high and maintaining company focus. There is great joy and satisfaction to finding just the right way to seamlessly and smoothly make it all happen. As stage managers / leaders, we don’t exert our power to control the process, but we can lead a team to make best show possible onstage every night.
#2 - PAPERWORK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF MY JOB & SHOWS WHAT I CAN DO.
It’s very satisfying to hold up a great looking document and say, “look what I made!” I’ve seen many stage manager portfolios with great looking paperwork, but this doesn’t tell me much about how you stage manage. So much of what we do as stage managers is ephemeral, you can’t touch it. Most of our work is done in human interactions and happens in the space between people, in the moment, in how we act and the decisions we make. It’s impossible to hold up a decision or an action and say, “look what I did and how it helped the show!” Therefore, paperwork becomes the one concrete thing we can hold and show our colleagues, friends and family to demonstrate our contribution to the show. We don’t have renderings, drafting, photos of our work, reviews or awards. Paperwork is an important tool for us to communicate information, but it is just that, a tool: ike a lighting instrument or a paint elevation or a costume sketch. The tool helps us create, but is not the creation. No amount of beautiful paperwork can compensate for the important skills of diplomacy, empathy, organization, compassion, approachability, trust, emotional intelligence, etc….
#3 - NETWORKING IS BROWN NOSING, SUCKING UP & ISN’T IMPORTANT.
Networking is a word that can have a negative connotation: it’s all about brown nosing and sucking up. Networking can be perceived as being fake and making people like you. However, networking simply means “to connect or link,” the goal isn’t to use people to advance or get ahead. It’s about building relationships with other people. We are a social species and want to make connections. Networking is just another name for what we as kids called, “making friends.” Since we are not in school together, we have to find other ways to meet and connect and this is called “networking.” Just be yourself and get to know somebody. As stage mangers we want to work with people we know and like. And when they aren’t available, we hire the people they recommend to us because we trust them. Trust doesn’t come from using each other, but from a connection, from someone we consider a “friend.” Stage management is a sensitive position. We are part of a tight knit team that needs to trust and support each other through good times and bad. That is why so many stage managers work with the same teams over and over again. This is also why many jobs aren’t posted anywhere. The jobs are being filled though personal connections and recommendations. You know someone, who knows someone and they need a SM or ASM, so BOOM! You’re hired! This makes getting your foot in the door challenging and frustrating.
If you are at a social occasion: party, a drink night, bowling, softball, etc.. strike up a conversation, you are networking. You’re making friends and connections by being yourself. It’s clear if someone is brown nosing you or sucking up, that’s how networking got a bad name in the first place. Just be yourself, listen to others, ask them questions, find common ground, enjoy a conversation together. You never know who knows someone and when that will lead to a job.
#4 - A DEGREE IN THEATRE WILL LIMIT MY OPTIONS FOR SUCCESS.
This misconception is usually held by your parents or other adults who love you, care about you and want you to be happy. If you are getting grief for wanting to major in the theatre and/or pursue a career in the arts, take a breath and know it’s because that person cares about you. They don’t want you to be a “starving artist.” The truth, however, is that a theatre degree teaches you many useful skills in many arenas, that combine for a receipe for success. Below are a few articles that discuss this in depth. The first from our friend & fellow stage manager @brokegirlrich
And as a stage manager, our skills are even more welcome across many industries and are transferable to a wide variety of non-theatre jobs. You will have MANY opportunities to work both in and outside of the theatre as a stage manager! There are event managers, party planners, office managers, project managers, and many more. I know many great stage managers who have gone on to successful careers outside of the theatare in event production, feature animation, directing, building their own small business, and as managers of various types in government, theme parks, cruise ships, etc…
Every business needs an organized person, who has good people skills and can manage schedules, people, supplies, balance time and resources all while maintaining a positive attitude and keeping morale high. Your theatre degree may not get you an interview as an investment banker or doctor and you may have to revamp your resume a bit, but your skills as a stage manager will lead to success in any industry you chose to pursue.