stage manager interview
In the spring of 2009 I was interviewed by a stage management student from SUNY Albany. My answers are below (with some editing).
So what made you decide to become a stage manager?
When I was very young I thought I wanted to work in film or TV. I was exposed to Broadway shows every couple years, and eventually by the time I was 12 I figured out that I liked theatre better. I mostly wanted to direct, but stage management also appealed to me because you actually get to make the show happen in front of the audience, which to me is kind of the point of doing live theatre. The director can tell everybody what to do, but then just sits around (or not) while other people actually put on the show. I pursued directing as a career but along the way had a lot of opportunity to stage manage (cause nobody lets you direct when you're 12), and when I decided the directing thing wasn't going to work out to the extent I wanted it to (which was about 2 and a half years through college), I was quite thrilled to get to pursue a stage management career.
What college/university did you attend? And why?
New York University, (Tisch School of the Arts, Playwrights Horizons studio). I chose NYU because at that time the Playwrights Horizons studio offered the only 4-year undergrad directing program. I also really wanted to stay in New York because I wanted to continue to be involved in Broadway theatre and make and maintain New York connections. While I was in school I decided to switch my career from directing to stage management, but I didn't transfer to the stage management program. So I studied directing, and aside from a one-semester stage management class that was a requirement of the directing program, I don't actually have any formal education in theatre management.
What was your first show as a stage manager?
When I was in high school I did some small one-act plays that our repertory company did in between our mainstage shows, starting in my sophomore year. I did the mainstage shows from the 2nd half of my junior year until I graduated.
My first professional stage management credit was a small Off-Off-Broadway show that one of my classmates was directing over the summer after my 2nd year of college. My first "real" professional credit, that I didn't get while working with friends, was a show at the Women of Color Festival in New York, called Every Time I Look Up. I got the job through a fellow stage manager who was a little older and more experienced than me. The job was small and he had better work at that point, but for me it was what I needed, so when he turned it down he recommended me. I interviewed with the producer, and got the job.
It was years before I worked as an ASM, all my early jobs were as PSM of small shows, including my first Equity show. It was in some ways great to start out that way because it's made me very confident as a PSM, but it also means you have to learn by making mistakes yourself instead of just watching somebody else do it. People ask me which way is better, but I don't really have an opinion. I think it's probably better for your own sanity to start out as an ASM, but that's no reason to shy away from a PSM job if the opportunity arises. If you're underqualified and they're willing to hire you anyway, then they're desperate and probably not paying much, so you shouldn't feel bad about not being perfect!
Best show to stage manage? Why?
My personal favorite is The Phantom of the Opera. I think it's the most rewarding show to stage manage because so much of the story is told through the technical elements. I enjoy the opportunity to be such an integral part of what makes the show work. My philosophy on the show is that because so many of the decisions that characters make are influenced by the Phantom's "magic," there is a precision that is required above and beyond just calling something "right." My idea of a good performance is one where the cues execute so perfectly that it's easier for the audience to believe it's magic than that they're watching a play and there's a crew running around backstage making all that stuff happen. By setting the bar that high for myself, I never get bored calling the show because there's always that pressure to maintain the illusion through the whole show. And it's also brilliantly designed and directed, which always makes shows more fun to call.
Worst show to stage manage? Why?
I enjoy the collaborative process, especially in tech where I feel like I finally become more than an administrator. The worst experience is when I can't get clear direction from the director and/or designers as to what they want cues to do. Even if I don't like the cues or agree with their ideas, my job is to bring their concept to an audience every night. If I'm given the cues with some kind of artistic background, I feel comfortable making adjustments if necessary to maintain the original intent. When they don't know or can't communicate what they want I feel like I'm just turning lights on and off with no artistic relation to what's happening onstage, and that's immensely frustrating.
How do you deal with any conflicts that emerge?
I try to always present myself as available to talk. If I have a flaw, it might be that I'm a little soft on discipline, but I am always careful not to ever make anyone afraid to come to me with a problem, and I think that trust is more useful in the long term than making someone feel like crap for being 5 minutes late. When there is a problem I try to get the parties together to talk about it. I don't have a grand plan usually, I just feel out what needs to be said to let everybody feel like they've had their say and have at least resolved it enough that we can move forward.
That of course is for dealing with conflicts with actors. For dealing with conflicts between creative staff, I think the most useful skill is to be a good communicator and be tactful. Usually the reason you need to mediate is because the people involved are neither of those things and can't just sit down and talk to each other and work something out. I have had pretty good success in my career in settling heated disagreements between collaborators, and I find that listening to both sides privately and distilling out the legitimate points that each side has and presenting that in a rational manner to the other party will generally get someone to agree to something. It also helps if the two people involved trust you because even if they are mad at the other person or think they're an idiot, if they hear the idea being supported by a stage manager they trust, they will be more receptive to it. I always feel very much caught in the middle when two people are fighting over something that's not my decision and expect me to solve it, but I will also put a little bit of my own personal opinion on one side or the other if I feel that one idea is truly better for the good of the production. Generally at least one party will ask me what I think is best, since that is after all what they pay me for.
When deadlines approach, how do you deal with them?
I like to do things right away. Stage management is all about juggling many balls. I like to get the ball out of my hands as quickly as possible so it's over and done and I can move on to others without losing track of anything. A lot of things can't be solved right away -- they may require meetings, talking to multiple people, waiting to rehearse a scene to find out how it works -- for looming questions and tasks, I keep a lot of lists. I keep lists on my phone for things I need to be able to reference anywhere -- shopping lists, things to do when I get home or when I get to the theatre. I keep "stickies" on my computer desktop for things I will need to be sitting at my computer to handle. For instance right at this moment I have a note to call the staff director tomorrow and finalize what time he wants to rehearse when we get to Santa Fe later this week. Only after that's done can I cross off the task of making sure the cast is given appropriate notice of the rehearsal. For production meetings or other long lists of questions that will all be resolved at once at a meeting, or during a phone call, I generally type it up as a word processing document and then take notes of the answers as I get them. This also makes it easy to clean these notes up later to send out to the production team.
When you have assistants, how do you manage them?
In a perfect world, I like to have someone with a decent amount of PSM experience as my assistant. I have been on both sides of that relationship, and I think when two experienced PSMs work together well, it makes the job easier for both. I don't want my assistant to be someone who just waits for instructions and does them. I would prefer to have them be sort of a second brain for me -- someone who can work independently and make proactive decisions, and take on sole responsibility for specific aspects of the production (such as props, maintaining the contact sheet, opening the house, however we decide to divide the labor). The most valuable part of having someone so experienced is that they can also be looking out for what the PSM needs to do, and are a second set of eyes to catch mistakes before they get made. This allows the PSM not to have to carry the weight for the entire success of the production solely on their shoulders, and I also see that as the biggest asset I bring to a production while working as an ASM.
What is it like to be a traveling stage manager?
I think the main difference between touring and sit-down productions is that when you are touring it's even more important to keep an open mind and be ready to deal with change. Being flexible and able to solve problems quickly and with limited disruption is the key. You also have to keep an eye on the big picture and prioritize what's really important for the production. There may be times when there isn't time to get everything done, or something about the venue prevents you from doing part of the show the way it's been staged. The touring crew can advise you on what can be done, but ultimately if you are the PSM you will have to quickly make the call on what will serve the show best.
It's also fun to travel, but depending on the tour you may not get a lot of free time to enjoy the sights. You will never have as much time as the cast has, so you have to accept that right away. But getting to see other parts of the country or world, and working with new people and a variety of venues will always be a good way to expand your career experience.
Having done musicals, would you say it is harder to stage manage them?
Yes, definitely. I strongly prefer musicals over plays, but they have a number of things that make them inherently harder.
- Larger casts. There are of course exceptions, but most of the time musical casts are measured in the dozens, and play casts are usually in the single digits. More people, more phone calls, more emails, more schedules to coordinate, longer contact sheets, more chairs to set up in the rehearsal room, more costume fittings, etc. Everything you do multiplies.
- Simultaneous rehearsals. Plays sometimes do this -- my current show had simultaneous voice and dialect rehearsals overlapping with staging -- but these are much simpler to manage than figuring out how to have staging, music and dance rehearsals going simultaneously every day, all day long, and how to share actors between the needs of the director, choreographer, and musical director.
- More cues. In general, you're going to have a lot more cues, scene changes, etc. with a musical. I see this as a good thing, but it does make the job harder.
We all know the prompt book is the bible, so how do you organize your bible?
My organizational style is almost completely paperless, so my books really aren't that fancy. Generally the only thing in the blocking book is the blocking (on the right-hand side, with the script pages reverse-hole-punched on the left), and a rough indication in the right margin of the script pages for anything "technical" that will be needed in the rehearsal room, like calling "lights" or "doorbell" or getting up and dragging a chair to the other side of the stage. I don't insert extra blank pages for blocking unless we go back and change something, at which point I scotch tape them over the old page so it's still one page to flip. It's a little less flexible that way, but I find that for most shows it works fine. Shows with both a lot of blocking and the potential for massive rewrites are different. I also generally will use a blank page for taking notes on long dance sequences in shows. I don't take as much detail as a dance captain would, just enough to base cues on. Usually this page will migrate directly to the calling script.
For my calling script, I give myself between 3 and 4 inches on the right margin, and write all the cues in pencil with a box around the cue number. I don't use different shapes or colors or anything for lights, sound, deck, etc. I have in the past used Post-it arrow flags, which were cool, but get very expensive when you have 500 cues, and half of them are lights, and you only get 30 yellow flags in each pack.
Right now on the road I'm touring two shows in rep. I have a binder for each show, and when we get to a venue I go into my road box and pull out the script of the show we're doing in that city (or both if necessary). I have the calling script in front and the blocking script in the back, just in case I need to reference it for some reason.
How do you approach a script when reading it for the first time?
As a PSM, I tend to grab a pencil or a highlighter and as I read the show, circle or highlight anything that indicates something that's my job -- references to props, set moves, light shifts, sound cues, etc. I like to just read the show straight through the first time, and these markings allow me to go back later and quickly skim to find the things I need to start building prop lists and the like. As an ASM, I generally am focused on props, so I will draw up a prop list on my computer before I start reading and fill it out as I go.
Is it hard not to change the director's vision of the piece, when you think it should it should go elsewhere?
This was my biggest fear when I gave up my goal of being a director -- I thought I'd be forever frustrated by thinking I had a better way to direct the show. I have thankfully found this rarely to be true, partially because I try not to let myself think about what I would do, and partially because I've had the good fortune to work with some great directors. When I do feel more conflicted is when it comes to calling the show. Especially if I trust the director's ideas, I want first to give them whatever they want. It pains me if I really disagree with the choice, but if they have a clear vision I will follow it. When they are more vague, that's when I make my own decisions about the details of cues. Often the director or designer will flat-out tell me to use my good judgment when there's a choice between several options. I think that is the ideal situation, when the creative team trusts me as a collaborator, to tell me what they want the cue to do (if it's not self-explanatory) and leave it to me to figure out how to achieve it, and then of course to change it if they don't like it.
How do you approach conference scheduling?
I usually pick a few potential dates and approximate times based on when the decisions involved need to be made. Then I send out an email to all the parties asking for their availability. Sometimes I'll say up front what my first choice for date and time would be, and I'll get lucky and everyone can make it on the first try. Usually it requires a little bit of negotiating, or convincing people to give up their conflict if it's not something urgent, so that we can find a time when everyone can make it. Taking a few minutes at the end of a meeting to pick a tentative time for the next one can be very helpful, too. Even if you're not sure when/if you need another one, just having everyone in the room to agree to pencil it in their calendars is helpful.
When making your call board, what do you think is important to include that no one thinks of?
The callboard is actually something I don't get too excited about. Mine is usually pretty ordinary as far as content. I'm a big fan of having some sort of special signage that reflects the show in some way -- having the headings reference a song title or line from the show when possible, or some sort of funny and appropriate graphic on signs posted. I also enjoy using some kind of special push-pins. That's mostly cosmetic, but on the road where we sometimes use the venue's pre-existing bulletin boards, it also makes it easy to know which push-pins belong to us (invariably there are never enough supplied).Here's a picture of a recent callboard for my show, featuring my extra-fat-topped push pins.
It's really simple: sign in sheet (for this show I do one for each day, with morning and evening columns), pencil on a string of spike tape, weekly schedule, city sheet with useful info on wherever we are (that's generated by the company manager), and the packet of the stuff Equity requires to be posted on callboards. If anything exciting was happening, like the show was being filmed or photographed, or there's an opening night party, that would be posted as well. Of course because we're traveling and doing a lot of one-nighters, it's not as fancy as a more permanent installation would be.
Are there any little things that you can think of that would help a budding stage manager succeed?
I think showing that you're hard-working is the most important thing in making a good first impression. Especially when first starting out, some of the things you will be asked to do just plain suck, aren't worth it for what you're being paid, and really aren't the stage manager's job in the "real world." It's natural to feel like you don't want to spend the time to do stuff right, or to get lazy and put things off. But I discovered that sucking it up and doing an excellent job at everything you're asked to do really does come back to you in the impression that makes on the people who hire you and those you work with, and that will help to get you into jobs where the conditions are better.
Do you have any little quirks that you think help you be a stage manager?
I like to organize. I think that's pretty much a prerequisite. If you hate being organized, it's probably not a good career choice! That doesn't have to apply to every aspect of your life, though. My apartment usually looks like it's just been ransacked by burglars. I know a lot of stage managers who say that their personal life is a mess. So that shouldn't be a warning sign. But at least when it comes to work, you should enjoy the act of making things run as efficiently as possible.
I have a great love of computers, and it's interesting to challenge myself to see how much more organized or automated my job can be with a new spreadsheet or database or something. I usually have or can access anything that anyone needs from my phone (or in the past, PDA). That helps me to save time, as well as saving other people's time because I'm very rarely in a position where I can't be reached 24 hours a day and have the information someone is asking for right there with me. It also saves me from having to go look things up or carry lots of papers around with me.
Even though it is exhausting, knowing what you know now would you still be a stage manager?
Yes. I can think of a lot of things that would be easier, but nothing that I would enjoy doing as much. There are so many different tasks that fall under the stage manager's responsibility, I'd be surprised if there's any SM who truly enjoys doing every one of them. At the end of the day I really like knowing that I had a hand in bringing a (hopefully good!) show to an audience, and while there are other ways to do that, I know that my job is a very important one that not many people want to do or can do well, and the satisfaction of doing it well makes it worthwhile for me.
Do you have any advice you would like to give someone thinking about stage management as a career?
It's a huge job, incredible responsibility, and especially early in your career you usually get stuck with that responsibility alone. There are parts that are lots of fun, but there also will probably be parts you don't like, so you have to be sure that the parts you like will make you happy more than the parts you don't like will make you miserable. I meet a lot of people who say, "I tried being a stage manager." A lot of people try it and decide it's more work than they want, and then find another job in the industry that is better for them.
It usually takes up a lot of time from your daily life. Even after a full day of rehearsal there are lots of other hours that are not part of the official work day -- setting up early, cleaning up late, doing paperwork at home, answering emails, phone calls from the director at midnight. It's definitely not a job where you walk into a place and then you work and go home and it's over. Being an ASM is a little closer to that kind of existence, which is why some people are happy with never being a PSM.
There's no fame and fortune, although it pays better than a lot of jobs on a show. It's a lot of work for little recognition, but I find that most people who have been around the business even a little bit appreciate a good stage manager, so I don't think it's as thankless as a lot of people say. I have a whole folder stuffed with thank you notes and opening night cards from actors, directors, and other folks expressing their appreciation for my work. I don't save birthday cards or anything else, but those notes are all very special to me.
I think to summarize, it's a job that a lot of people wouldn't do, but if you do it and continue to like doing it, and think you are good at it, then you should probably pursue it.