The Overlooked Characteristics Of Great Stage Managers
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 great stage managers I have encountered have all of these. They are ‘soft skills’ – difficult to learn at university but can be fostered within oneself.
The stage manager I looked up to the most when I was younger was the most generous person I knew. She was generous with her time, generous with her laugh, generous with her patience.
As I found my way further into the field of stage managing, I practised generosity as a way to emulate her. After a while, I found my own groove and stopped needing to emulate others. Generosity is something that comes naturally to some, but for me, it is something I need to foster.
Being generous with my time as a stage manager was easier when my life was all about my 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.”
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.
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.
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.
I know a Director (you may know who you are!) who is the most persistent person I have ever met. If he has an idea, he will ask his team to try everything (even the ridiculous) to get it to work. Everyone either laughs or gets frustrated as his perpetual persistence seems endless. But finally, when it works beautifully, everyone shares an incredible sense of achievement. His shows are always so inventive and creative and it is partly due to his persistence that his work is so unique.
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.
As stage manager Will Lewis mentioned in his profile for Prompt-Side.com , 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.
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
The stage manager I mentioned at the start, the one who was, for me, the best stage manager I ever worked with, was not only generous but always caring. The two characteristics definitely go hand in hand but her care was split equally between her care for others, and 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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