What’s a Stage Manager?*
Before I did my theatre degree I had no clue what a stage manager was either; but now I sort of am one and have been convinced of their value in life. Stage managers are the unsung heroes of theatre. They are Superman in sexy specs; they are Wolverine — but capable of handshakes without injury; they are Incredible Hulks lugging scenery around theatres, but with none of the anger problems of the big green fella. You get the idea.
Sometimes, stage managers even get paid. I am by no means an expert Stage Manager — I can count the shows I’ve done on one hand and still have a finger left to show to any Jokers. However, I was paid twice for stage managing so thus far it’s been my only proper profit yielding profession. If I get any more work I’ll have to actually start paying tax. (Nothing to see here, Revenue)
The work itself seems quite straightforward. I think the reason nobody outside of theatre people themselves knows what a stage manager does is because we are just the afterthought — stuck in the liaising position in between the director and their cast and the techies. Think of it in terms of a building site; the director is like the architect in charge of the overall project, and it is their job to ensure the show/house is designed and received appropriately. The actors, then, are the builders — they get their hands dirty, but they are also the face of the project. They get applause/sandwiches depending on how you look at it. Us stage managers are the quantity surveyors; we come in during the building stages of the project, when it is messiest and when everybody is focused on their own individual jobs, and we help bring everything together in a sensible — and often calculated way. We are less invested then the director and we act as a buffer between the actors and the director. If tensions are high during rehearsals because peoples’ artistic visions are clashing, you can always rely on the stage manager to butt in with a boring, neutralising question about that prop that appears once at the end of a scene. You could trust us with children or politicians.
Speaking of children, the first job I had was with a cast of twenty-odd kids and teenagers. Don’t work with children or animals the saying goes; well, I can’t say anything for animals, but children are great to work with. I recommend every stage manager to work with the yoof at least once. If nothing else, they teach you to be patient! And they’re a lot of fun. The only drawback is you can’t really have a post-show or post-rehearsal drink with thirteen year olds, and, after a long day’s stage work sometimes a glass — no, a bottle, of wine is yer only man. But who needs wine when you can have pizza parties?!
There’s a stereotype that theatre people are mad boozers. I don’t see any problem with that to be honest; we are a gregarious tribe, and we think nothing of popping to the pub of an evening after rehearsal for a cheeky seven or having a massive post show blowout. What else is there to do when you think about it? Some crazy people avoid the pub and go to the gym instead, and I’m beginning to think I will have to follow them. You’d think it would only be physical actors, choreographers and dancers representing theatre at the gym but stage managers need to keep up their fitness levels also. I have discovered I am too weak to do a lot of the lifting I should be doing and that’s not good. As a stage manager I’m responsible for settin up the stage before and after the show, and often during. I have to be strong, and I’m far from that at the moment. My legs may be hollow, but muscular they ain’t.
It is not just brawn a Stage Manager must have but brains too. I’m not talking solely about book-learning brains, but street smart brains and a good instinct when it comes to working with people. You have to be very diplomatic to be a stage manager. (I’m sure that our friend the quantity surveyor from several paragraphs ago would be nodding in agreement here.) Everyone wants a piece of you. Actors, directors, techies, costumers, set designers, front of house people — they all have umpteen questions for you and a million small things for you to do. Sometimes I feel like what I do is a bit insignificant and I find it a bit strange when these people say “well done!” to me after a show. But I didn’t do anything I feel like saying. Really I know that’s not strictly true. I do lots and lots of small, seemingly insignificant things with good grace and a smile and that is what makes a good stage manager. I’m not just doing the bare minimum of sending the director the rehearsal notes aka “keeping the book” and finding a few props, I am right with everyone every step of the way. Five minutes before the show when I give the actors their final call and go to sit in the tech box or the green room, we are all like soldiers going to war. Everyone wants the show to succeed and everyone is at that final stage satisfied that they have done their best and all that is left to do is to go to our various stations and give it socks; hopefully breaking a couple of legs in the process.
*I wrote this on condition I never ever have to explain to anyone in the pub what I do ever again. If you ask me, folks, I will spitefully spike your drink… That there was a theatre joke.