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Lessons In Stage Management

stage management
By Justin Mabardi

When studying theater, one repeatedly hears the same cautionary tale… “If you can see yourself doing anything else for a career, you should do that instead.”

It’s said to dissuade students from spending four or eight years earning (and paying for) degrees in a field that might not be useful to those who don’t find success. After twenty years as a working stage manager, I can tell you for a fact that they were not only right, but they were going easy on us.

I’d like to suggest a few more suitable warnings, like:

“Stage managers just do not take breaks. Ever. There is no spare time. Oh, you have a minute to yourself, do you? That’s because you missed something important and now the show is closed. Nice work.”

And…

“After graduation, it is ok to take a couple of low paid jobs for the experience, but then you deserve to make real money and you should learn to negotiate for yourself.

Money is inevitably an awkward thing to talk about, and it will be awkward whether or not you make a high amount or low amount, so you might as well learn to walk away from the awkward negotiation with a higher rate for yourself. You deserve every penny.”

Or…

“Stage managers translate between everyone and everything: tech and creative, cast and director, designers and technicians. The more you can fill in the gap and speak in shorthand with people, the better you’ll be at solving issues and the more value you bring to a show.”

If you’re a student or a young stage manager reading this, I think it’s important to know that you’re entering a crazy world. Did you hear that? I’ll say it again: it is cray-cray out there.

That said, it’s a field in which you will have the opportunity to build an arsenal of resource and skill. The more you can do to learn from those you work by learning their creative or technical shorthand, the more you will grow as a stage manager, and increase your odds of being hired on unique productions around the world.

There are countless stage management styles, some are better than others.

I have always been fascinated by the stories of how people come into their own — or even what got them into the field, to begin with. For me, it was May of ‘97 and I was eighteen years old, standing in my mother’s kitchen, opening a large envelope from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I was a California kid, we wore flip flops year round, we ate healthy things like molasses treats and brewers yeast, I thought theater kids were weird and was planning to study business, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the letter, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to UCSB as a student in the Department of Dramatic Arts!

Dramatic Arts? I had no interest in theater, I had not applied as a theater major and I was destined to be a business major and have a very serious career. Despite this, I accepted the spot in the theater department and planned to change majors the moment I arrived at school.

In September, I walked up to the welcome desk and was greeted by a professor. I explained that I was a business student and didn’t have time for any of their childish, theatrical classes.

He was the light design professor and with a simple phrase that day he changed my life by reminding me that I was only a freshman and that I should keep my interests varied. So, in addition to my economics courses, he convinced me to enroll in some design classes. Over the course of my freshman year, I learned two very valuable lessons. First, I was incredibly bad at statistics, and second, I was very good at design.

Over the four years, I discovered what stage management was and realized that it was very much the business of creating shows, so armed with my design background, I also pursued stage management and dropped my business courses.

I was fortunate to have a job right out of school working at Disneyland and worked on several large shows, but shortly after 9/11 I decided to move to New York City (don’t ask) and then quickly started to pick up jobs — which were anywhere but in NYC.

I moved to Moscow to manage 42nd Street, then was hired to PSM the world tour the world for FOSSE, which I’ll tell you about in another article. I got my Equity card in Atlantic City and then was hired to move to Vegas as the Sr. Stage Manager on Le Rêve at age 25.

I was NAILING IT you guys, I was working hard, getting a ton of experience, but also feeling appreciated.

After Las Vegas, I took a quick job at the La Jolla Playhouse, and then was planning to move to Belgium and then onto Macau to continue my work with Franco Dragone.

Stage management is just as much about ability as it is about visibility, and I learned this lesson very clearly one morning on the coast of La Jolla where I was the first assistant on a musical at a regional theater, for someone whom I respect greatly.

The rehearsal process was nothing short of exhausting. That morning, as our production assistants were hurrying around and setting up the rehearsal room, I broke my stride and decided that since they were on track to get the room ready — I could sit down, gently sip on my coffee, nibble on a muffin — and may have even cracked open the NY Times. That was my fatal error.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the production stage manager marching towards me and I could see she was not happy.

She pulled me outside and said something I have never forgotten: “Stage managers set the tone, Justin. You set the tone.”

Of course, what she meant was, get back to work, you idiot — but the phrase she used had woke me up.

Setting the tone is, in fact, one of the most important things you can do as a leader in any field, but in theater the stage manager must exemplify that rule. You must also build a team that reflects your values as a manager and also hold your team accountable by ensuring that they maintain a consistent work ethic and communicate efficiently, even when things get crazy.

You must exude confidence to the entire company, be a balance of authority and compassion to the cast, diligently serve the director and designers, communicate clearly to the crew, then push the company to the brink of the schedule and mind the union rules.

It is a very delicate balance to strike and learning to set a tone that is clear, firm and friendly, but not too friendly, will serve you well.

Most stage managers would agree with me that when they sit down to dinner, with friends who don’t work in show-business, they can explain even the most mundane day of their work life and people’s jaws drop. Being able to regale your guests of your time casting an Indian circus in Mumbai and relocating the cast to Frankfurt, rehearsing them in a warehouse where one room would have a man regurgitating milk in different colors and in another room a drag queen would be spinning in a dress all day surrounded by fire — these are just the no-drama basics.

At the beginning of my career, it was almost a great pleasure to be able to tell these stories, but with time, I started to see that the craziness was taking a serious toll on me. I was excited to be in demand and delivering these shows around the world because it was so new to me and I was good at it, but recovering from those experiences can be rough.

The thing that scared me was that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else anymore, I didn’t think there was any career movement for me, but I was wrong.

One thing I did not grasp as a young stage manager is how many other roles you are well prepared for by studying stage management.

It is uniquely a management role with large creative mandates and in the US, for example, the stage manager’s role on a theatrical show is most often the one responsible for maintaining the show’s creative on a daily basis. You must run rehearsals, put new cast members into the show and follow-up on general creative needs or changes.

Some shows will hire an artistic director to maintain the show, but that is a luxury on well-performing shows, so most shows rely on stage management. This set of talents can open the door to many other opportunities.

For me, it allowed me to segue into producing television and though there was a great amount of mystery surrounding television production for me, Why are there so many producers? What is an Executive Producer? Do they have all the money?

I learned quickly that organization and communication are paramount, and having a designer’s eye with an understanding of the creative process was critical to my success — all skills I had acquired as a theatrical stage manager.

I started producing the creative elements for the live shows on America’s Got Talent in 2011, where I was responsible for delivering about 140 performances over ten weeks in coordination with a group of creative directors and designers. To be clear, it takes hundreds of people working together to achieve something like this and the live show weeks are high-stress, which increased when we moved the show into Radio City Music Hall.

On a show like America’s Got Talent, in a venue like Radio City Music Hall, you can imagine the budget is big, which means that the cost of overtime is VERY high. When the schedule goes over by one minute on stage, you have to make peace with the fact that the person responsible for the labor budget will be sprinting toward you with a bulging vein ready to demand that you stop and you will very calmly have to turn to them and say something asinine like, “I’m sorry, but we have to spend [insert some obscene amount of money] because the dog act isn’t ready to go on yet!”

I learned to push hard for the creative ideas on behalf of my team but could sense when I was being perceived as unreasonable and learned to walk the line as best as I could.

Another field that is relevant to some stage managers is multi-camera directing.

This is a job where you must lead dozens of people through camera blocking in rehearsals, and ultimately camera direct a live show, calling out for hundreds of camera shots, following musical timing and making [very] stressful decisions during a live show, particularly when things go wrong.

Sound confusing? It is. The first time I saw someone do this, I could not even understand what they were doing, but with time I began to see the similarities between calling a massive show like Le Rêve and calling out camera shots in TV, so I started to train with our director on America’s Got Talent, who very kindly let me sit with him for days on end over a couple of years and answer my questions.

Multi-camera directing is part-technical, part-creative, but 100% about communicating efficiently and building a team of people around you whom you can rely on in stressful circumstances.

Additionally, you have to learn how to tell a story using camera angles and follow the action simultaneously, which is a hard concept to grasp until the first time you direct and then, like anything, see how you can make decisions to do a better job the next time. In any case, it is very har but comes naturally to some.

Stage management itself, of course, is a role you can have a long career in, so when you hear people tell you, “If you can see yourself doing anything but this, you should do that instead.” Just remember, maybe they’re right — but maybe they’re wrong — in any case, you definitely have a skill set that opens you up to a lot of other opportunities. I can only advise you to say yes to every single one of them, learn to set the tone and surround yourself with people who support you and whom you can support.

Also for Stage Managers:

I Am “They”: Hallway Talk From Performers

The Misconceptions And Myths Of Stage Management

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