10 Things To Know Before Starting A Stage Management Career
Recently I had the pleasure at speaking at the Broadway Stage Management Symposium on the financial panel. There, I was speaking to stage managers of all ages and from all walks of life. In my preparation for the event, I thought a little bit about 21 year old Mel and all the things I wish I had known about this ridiculous, amazing, stressful, 100% love/hate relationship stage management career I’ve had for the last 14 years.
Here are 10 things I wish I could’ve warned myself about when I was just starting out:
1. You Will Fail
You will fail. A lot. Learn how to do it gracefully.
You’ll fail in very functional things like leaving important things off a daily schedule to tiny misprints like putting AM instead of PM and an actor will point out that their being late is actually your fault because the schedule said 4 AM instead of 4 PM and that’s on you, not them.
You’ll fail in light gray areas when you try to mediate something and it totally doesn’t work out. When a clever designer talks you in circles and you have no idea which way is up for a moment. When someone is so blatantly rude you actually do lose your chill for a second.
You’ll fail in darker gray areas when you pick the wrong hills to die on against upper management.
You’ll fail a lot in the beginning and less as time goes on. You’ll still keep failing sometimes though.
But how to fail gracefully? Own your mistakes. Yes, you might get fired if it was a big enough mistake. Most of the time though, you won’t.
It shows integrity to admit you messed up – you’re as human as every other person working on that production, despite the nonsense memes about superhuman stage managers everywhere.
And then pick yourself back up and learn from it. Try your very best to not make the same mistake twice. And move on.
2. Success Won’t Be a Straight Line
Lots of friends going into non-arts careers will start at the bottom and work their way up. Let go of the idea of this applying to you, it probably won’t.
You might go work for a bigger theater and spend your whole career there, but most of us have the career of a pong ball, careening from paddle to paddle. Sometimes the paddle is a good paying job with health insurance, stock options, retirement benefits, etc. Sometimes you work for $200 a week in a crazy expensive city while hustling your behind off in your free time to make rent.
And often, you’ll go from a higher paying job, to a lower paying job, to a middle paying job, to a lower paying job, to a ridiculously low paying job, to your highest ever paying job, to a middle paying job – over and over and over again. And that’s not even addressing the quality and quantity of work behind those paychecks.
Rethink what you consider success.
For me, it was always – did I pay all my bills this month? If that was a yes, it was a success. If I could save for emergencies and retirement, it was a double success.
3. Don’t Miss All the Family Stuff
It seems like there’s just so much time when you’re right out of college, but actually, time is pretty finite and there’s no guarantees everyone you love will still be around once you’re more settled in your career and have more time.
There are honestly lots of jobs and it’s worth trying to make concessions that let you make it to the big family party, to the friend’s wedding, to the annual vacation, etc. It’s worth asking if you can have a weekend off when you book that tour if your BFF is getting married.
Yes, you do have to compromise and still miss a lot on this career path, but you should put in the effort to make sure you don’t miss everything.
4. Read More Management/Psychology Books
There are a lot of tangible things in stage management like formatting reports, building prompt books and learning CPR. I found those skills way easier from the get go than some of the softer skills, which I feel I’m still working on.
One of the best things I did early on was read a few books on personality like The Art of Speed Reading People and Please Understand Me II. I wish I’d read every personality book I could get my hands on.
It took me a few years longer to realize that reading management books would be incredibly helpful too. I wish I’d started reading them almost immediately as well. Any books you can pick up on leadership, team building, etc. can really help you define what kind of stage manager you want to be. It’s not a coincidence manager is in the title. I struggled so hard with delegation at first and it was actually a traditional management book called The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey that helped fixed my terrible habits on that front.
5. Go Drink the Beer
I recently read Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and two of the points that really stood out to me were “sitting out the social network game” and “working without a break.” I really struggle with the idea behind both of those points, which is that socializing is really important.
I’ve talked about my total fear of networking before, but it matters a lot.
Even if your schedule or day was kind of nuts, if the gang is going out for a beer, go out for a beer.
If you have to play mind games with yourself to go, you can tell yourself it can be as important as some of the paperwork you still need to do (sometimes).
When I worked on ships, there was a bar for the officers, and I often had a drink with my techs and would try to regularly buy a round (this is particularly easy on a ship where beer costs 90 cents a bottle). The goodwill from those beers went miles.
A side note here, I do not recommend you go get wasted with the folks you work with – that’s generally not the best idea (though if you work on cruise ships, I know your life and I’m not judging).
And the beer might not be a beer, it might be the show bowling league or dinner across the street from rehearsal. Whatever the social event everyone is involved in, you should try to be involved too.
6. Learn How to Draft
Sweet mother of pearl, do you know how much money is in drafting? Tons. Because almost no one knows how to do it. Not only is it useful for you as a stage manager, it’s a gangbuster side hustle.
I say this as someone who still does not know how to draft and watches with envy as friends pick up side work after side work drafting for companies that don’t have anyone who can draft for them.
7. Money Matters a Lot
It’s really lucky to be able to work in a job you love, but don’t let people use that against you!
Experience doesn’t pay the bills. “Be a part of an exciting new project (very low budget)” doesn’t pay the bills.
There is nothing wrong at all with pursuing a different career path and keeping theater as a hobby and only doing passion projects.
You can be one badass community theater stage manager. I recently met a college student who is the school’s best stage manager and when we were talking about her future, one of the first things she said was that she didn’t think she wanted to make a career out of stage management because she didn’t want to wind up hating it.
Accurate. I mean, it’s a perpetual love/hate thing, but if it’s your career, you can’t forget that.
You need to know how much you need to make to stay afloat and try to stick with gigs that meet that minimum or surpass it. Surpassing it is, of course, much better, because you can balance a little more then.
Are you going to do the children’s one-nighter tour for 6 months that pays $800/week or are you going to work on the cool showcase that’ll pay you a $200 stipend for the month?
I love weird little experimental theater. It rarely pays the bills.
8. Money Doesn’t Always Matter
I love weird little experimental theater. It often feeds the soul.
MOST of the time, money matters. The more you can make money matter and pull off landing gigs that pay you enough with a little wiggle room, the more you can make money not always matter.
For example, if you do that $800/week children’s theater tour and your monthly expenses come out to around $1400, you can still bank around $1000 a month. If you do this for most of the months you are out on tour, you can do a showcase or a passion project or two while you’re home, without having to pick up a ton of side work, and still pay your bills.
At my most burnt out moments, some of the things that didn’t pay very well renewed my interest in theater and made me remember why we put up with a lot of the nonsense we put up with.
Additionally, some of the best learning experiences further into my career have come from these little projects – like working with a Metropolitan Opera Maestro on his passion project in his hometown in Virginia or meeting one of my favorite go-to ASMs when she was at senior college when I did a fairly miserable 6 week gig at a high school conservatory program or getting to operate a puppet or designing and building a totally ridiculous wearable train costume for another show.
9. Don’t Tie Your Entire Identity to Stage Managing
A few months ago, I had a really bad day at work. When I got home, I couldn’t shake it. I actually couldn’t shake that bad day for days.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that pretty much my whole identity had become “stage manager,” so if I failed at work, I must be a failure.
I didn’t always think this.
The more I turned that idea over and over in my head, I realized that the tiniest slivers of me were still daughter, sister, and best friend, but other than that, there was just nothing to me but stage manager.
At healthier times in my life, I was some combination of daughter, sister, best friend, church goer, trumpet player, girlfriend, swimmer, traveler, and stage manager. Stage manager was a reasonable slice of the pie chart that made up who I saw myself as. If I had a bad day at work, I could just leave it in the work slice and shake it off.
When it became pretty much everything I was, I couldn’t shake off little things anymore. Which is a big problem for a stage manager.
To make this even more frustrating, once I realized the problem, it wasn’t a magic overnight fix. As a matter of fact, I’m still working on the fix, and I wish I’d caught it sooner and never let it happen.
Make sure your entire life doesn’t become stage managing. Not worth it. Prioritize family and friends sometimes (which is a point higher on the list all by itself). Commit to a hobby.
Just make sure there’s always a decent slice of your personal pie chart that isn’t stage manager.
I’m pretty sure it will help make you a better stage manager in the long run.
10. Be Kind to Everyone
Should go without saying, right? And it should actually be an easy one for a lot of folks.
It’s OK to be strict and have high expectations, and it’s OK to be very focused but you don’t need to “rule” with fear or harshness. You don’t have to be super cold. It only makes things more difficult.
Quiet sarcasm can really do more harm than good sometimes. It’s rarely kind.
There are times you have to lay down the law, but there is always a way to incorporate kindness into everything. Sometimes kindness is even just removing the anger (you likely so rightfully feel) from the situation when addressing it. It’s calmly not letting something escalate.
If there is a mantra I could’ve engraved in my brain early on, it would be “work on and with kindness always.”
Published in Collaboration with brokeGIRLrich