Keep Your Cool Backstage as a Stage Manager: 12 Insights
By Liam Klenk
When I first entered the world of live entertainment, I wasn’t inexperienced as an employee. Quite the contrary, I already had twenty years of diverse international work experience under my belt at that point.
After many short-term jobs in the first few years of finding my feet in the work-world, I managed a team in a multiplex movie theater for five years. I worked for the corporate giant McKinsey & Company for another five years. After that, I worked on a small Maldivian island as a SCUBA diving instructor and hyperbaric chamber operator for yet another five years.
In short, I was used to dealing with a vast variety of different nationalities, mentalities, ideals, problems, and rules. I prided myself in being adaptable and flexible.
Then, I landed my dream job and got hired by Dragone Entertainment. As a performer trainer, underwater stagehand and stage manager, for their show ‘The House of Dancing Water’ in Macau.
“No problem,” I thought, “Here comes tough, flexible, internationally versatile me. And I get to work in a creative environment. Something that fits me better than all the jobs I’ve done so far.” I was, finally, where I had always wanted to be.
I went into the entire experience with rose-tinted glasses and not much of a clue as to what was going on behind the scenes of a giant circus show.
At the time, I didn’t understand that these amazing stage productions can only be as brilliant and magical as they are, can only be as safe as they are, and as sustainable in the long-term as they are, due to a strict hierarchy and discipline in all departments backstage.
I had never before consciously thought of creativity and strict discipline going hand in hand like that. Like many who have only seen a big show from the auditorium, I held romantic notions. Of everyone backstage floating on a cloud, reciting verses to themselves, generally being their creative, messy selves and then… the magic onstage just… happens.
It doesn’t. People are their creative, messy selves, yes. Their unique characters and skill-sets definitely play a huge part for the success of the show. But everyone within the cast and crew also collaborates and agrees on a common goal.
Passion and dedication are needed. So are complete focus, hard work, timeliness, teamwork, discipline, being able to listen and follow orders, being able to follow the same cues to the letter again and again, and being able to not take things personal.
As a stage manager, your main job is to achieve the impossible.
You are the glue between departments and people, you protect the director’s artistic vision, you ensure all SOPs are being followed, you take care of the performers’ needs. It is you who makes sure the performers are on time and follow the rules. During the show, you coordinate to make sure everyone and everything is in the right place at the right time at any given moment. You listen to safety concerns of cast and crew… and adjust accordingly… whilst also doing your utmost best to avoid show stops and show cancellations. All this and more are your responsibilities. At the same time, you make sure company and venue management are happy, too.
Achieving and retaining balance and calmness in the face of all of this is an art in itself and a never-ending challenge. Which is probably why I love it so much.
Here are some simple insights I’ve found useful over the years when you feel torn in all directions at the same time:
- Show up and do your job to the best of your abilities at all times, no matter what. Focus on your responsibilities and on the show.
- Don’t take things personally
- Let me say this again for emphasis: don’t take things personally!
- Ignore gossip and do not take sides.
- You rarely (if ever) have all the facts. Don’t check your brain at the door and follow all orders blindly. By all means think. But also, don’t assume bad intentions and conspiracies where there are none. Everyone has a boss and there might be rules and wider considerations at play that you know nothing about.
- Accept people as who they are. Especially in the entertainment industry, you’re bound to work with a whole cluster of quirky people with vastly different, often flamboyant, personalities. All of whom are trying to be as creative as possible. All of whom are trying to make a mark, whilst at the same time doing their individual best to be collaborative. Some of them are going to drive you up the wall. Take it with a grain of salt. Take a deep breath, and continue with your daily responsibilities.
- A sense of humor! We can’t have enough of that.
- Kindness! Don’t forget to be kind and see things from the other’s perspective. We’re all doing the best we can under often volatile, difficult circumstances.
- Don’t assume anything. If possible, ask questions and try to understand what is happening. If the situation or time-constraints prevent you from asking questions, go with the flow. As my grandma once said: the stew is never eaten as hot as it is cooked.
- Be aware of constant change. Embrace it. Many ideas and processes will be changed and rejected throughout your work for a show. It is a natural, and predictable part of the creative process and of our daily work backstage. In many ways, this is what live entertainment is all about.
- Remember at all times what a potpourri the group of people you work with is. You’ll most likely have people from dozens of different countries, backgrounds, mentalities, and languages. In many cases, you will all work together, live together, and hang out together. Misunderstandings are bound to happen. Tempers are bound to flare. Breathe. Stay calm. Don’t blame. Don’t assume. Rather approach people with openness and understanding.
- Last but not least: think of the rule of 5’s: if it won’t matter in 5 years, don’t think about it for longer than 5 minutes.
In Swiss German, we say “es menschelt“, which means “it humans.”
Whenever a group of people work together and a myriad of interests need to be considered, it “humans” a lot. It’s unavoidable and, at the end of the day, it’s part of what makes working in a team so incredibly fulfilling.
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