Stage Managing in a Pandemic
Like the headline? I do. I’ve had a lot of time. A lot of time to reflect. I keep going back to the question I ask my students on a too frequent basis. What is a crisis? In my world, there are only ever two answers: Fire and Copious amounts of blood.
Lately, all I hear is “crisis, crisis, crisis” and I want to just scream at my TV…. “Stop. You’re lying, this is not a crisis.” But now, I keep thinking, should we add this to the list? I wouldn’t allow Anthrax to be added to the list a few years ago, so should we even consider changing it to Fire, Copious amounts of blood, and Pandemics? I’d sure hate to change it now after such a track record of convincing people that things are not that bad.
March feels like it never happened. At the same time, it feels like 20 years ago. But in the past 20 or so days, and with all of this time, I finally feel it is time to reflect outwardly a bit. What did it feel like managing during these times? How have we adapted in recent days as stage managers? How are we all really coping? What from a management point of view should we do next time? What happens when we can go back to our theatres? I, like so many others, have these questions running through my head constantly. So I’m going to try to answer them in my own opinion, to hope others feel like they can start to discuss these things more freely.
1. What did it feel like managing during these times?
Well, for me, when this all happened, I was my normal self. I had taken on too much work, as usual, and I was starting to feel the burn out. Not totally, but I like to live on the cusp of almost there. I was trying to come up with solutions on how to get our spring opera loaded in with no TD, was swinging in for Noises Off at KC Rep, in pre-production for a playwright showcase, gearing up to tackle spring dance and our devised piece. On top of this, my opera company was about to start rehearsals for our final show of the season. Spring break was within an arms length, and we were all pretty tired! When the news hit that they were potentially going to shut everything down, I mostly thought it wouldn’t, because…. how? Then bam, out of nowhere I went from having to do all of these things, to cancelling all of these things.
As someone who is in constant plan for the next thing mode, I needed someone to tell me how this was all going to happen so I could pull every trigger and check every box. Unfortunately, many people above me in this educational setting didn’t seem ready to make moves, so I just started to make them. Sometimes when you work in this business, no one is ever going to tell you to take the initiative, so you just have to take the initiative. So I did. I started going through all the possible plans in my head. What if we just cancel the rest of this run? What if we cancel all of our shows? What if this, what if that. What was great about pre-planning for the what if’s, was that as soon as someone made a decision, I was ready to go. I feel like this provided my team with as much security as I could give them during a time where they were all scared.
That brings me to my next point. Fear. I think that everyone was scared. My students were scared and my friends were scared. How was this going to affect their grades? What if they didn’t get to see me anymore? What if we put all of this hard work in, but no one sees it? I think that was my hardest day. It wasn’t the day that I had to close up my office, aka the Rat Hole. It was the day one of my students looked at me and said “But I’m going to miss you.”
It really sunk in to me at that point, OK we aren’t going to see each other for a while, but how do I make them not feel the weight of that hurt. As a stage manager, we have this unique artistic side of our personalities where we can sometimes erase everyone’s fears and bring a sense of calm. I feel like I was, no joke, Pablo Picasso. Or, insert the name of any other expert artist you want. But what else are we supposed to do. The show has to go on, even when it cannot go on. Did I really make anyone feel better though? This is all really new!
2. How have we adapted in recent days as stage managers?
I haven’t had 20 days in a row where I have stayed home since I had mono in high school. This is not the life for me. However, we have adapted. As a professor, it was easy to move my classes to an online atmosphere. As a stage manager, I think what I have seen out of my students and colleagues is resilience, and a deep knowledge that when it is time to start our shows again, we will never take the “Friends, welcome to rehearsal!”, phrase for granted for a really long time.
There has been a lightbulb that has gone off for so many people. Some who this break in days has taught them how to reconnect with their hobbies and passions. Most of them, we as stage managers have put on the back burner because we are notorious for having a poor work/life balance. For some people, I think the lack of structure and lack of a routine has made them start to do what I call “stage manage their life” better.
3. How are we all really coping?
Exercise! Plant a garden! Make Sand Art! Make crafts! Do this! Do that! I’m on do-things-during-a-pandemic overload.
Everyone is different. For me, there have been days where I have been certain that I am going to get the virus and my whole family is going to die. I have accepted that OK that might be the case and I won’t be able to do anything about it. Because you don’t get to choose what happens in life. I have also had days of pure happiness just working in my yard in spring time, having a fire, and cooking things I never had time to cook. Some days I’ve just done absolutely nothing and that’s been fine too. But while I’m doing them, I’m overall just more focused because my mind isn’t being split into a million directions and my life is being controlled by me, rather than controlled by feeling like I need to be at work every waking moment. Is this what a normal person’s day feels like, because everyone is in the same boat right now and it is kind of great!
The hardest thing I have been struggling with as a stage manager is just guilt. I have a teaching job at a university. There are tons of my friends who are now out of work. Why do I still get to have this job, and others, who are far better stage managers than I, have to be laid off right now? These are the what if’s and questions I try to avoid. But to cope, we can’t avoid asking ourselves questions like this, otherwise, we aren’t coping! Talk about your feelings people, do it!
4. What from a stage management point of view should we do next time?
Stay the hell home and wash your hands!
But besides that, I think we just need to make choices faster, make choices together, communicate more frequently and get the info out more broadly. If the cast is worried about why they’re still coming to rehearsals, be vocal about it. If you don’t think being onstage for one more day matters, be vocal about it.
Care about people’s fears. When tons of people are telling you they aren’t going to come in to the office, making sure you’re empathetic to them not coming in. There could be 1,000 reasons why. Immune system worries, elderly family, etc. Be understanding when people ask you 10,000 times about their paychecks and when they will receive them. You might be doing your best to make sure your staff gets paid on time, but they don’t know that, and if they are living off of a paycheck you’re giving them, work hard to find out answers and be understanding they might be testy!
Be kind to each other. Listen. Communicate. Check in with people and often. Don’t be bound by the 900,000 things social media has asked you to do to keep busy. Or do. Make a crummy essay on LinkedIn because it was on your list of goals for the year and it took a pandemic for you to write one.
5. What happens when we can go back to our theatres?
I don’t think any of us know the answer to this question. I know my stages have sets that almost made it to opening, but not quite that will be torn down or are just waiting for things to start back up. My assumption is that some people won’t have a theatre to return to because of financial decisions. But I am very confident that everyone will find ways to make a comeback. Everyone will be there for each other.
Sometimes I think of the theatre as my best friends from high school. Some of our parents can’t believe that when we get back together, my girlfriends and I still laugh and carry on like we didn’t graduate ___ years ago, but we do. And really, we do it because we are practically family and we have incredible love for each other. You pick up where you leave off with the people that you love because you shared with them pieces of yourself and had experiences with them that not everyone was able to experience.
This is what happens when you work in theatre and create a family within the theatre. You pick up right where you left off. You just worked on a project where you confided in people, showed people a beautiful part of your brain, fell in love with the same lines of the play together, laughed with them at the funny jokes, cried because the work was hard, and leaned on each other when you needed help or thought you would fail. That is love and family and friendship. That is theatre. And that is what will happen when we can all come back home.
Guest Contributor: Sadie DeSantis
Head of Stage Management & Director of Production at UMKC // Co-Founder, Opera180