The Misconceptions & Myths Of Stage Management
I’ve been stage managing professionally for nearly 25 years, teaching stage management for 7 years and producing the Broadway Stage Management Symposium for 4 years. There are some common themes I’ve seen about how our profession is viewed (both inside and outside the industry). Below are the four most common and biggest misconceptions about the profession of stage management that I’ve seen.
#1 – STAGE MANAGEMENT IS ABOUT POWER AND CONTROL
I’ve heard many young stage managers say, “I love stage management because it gives me power and I’m in control,” or a version of that theme. Certainly, it’s satisfying to call a cue and it happens. You say “go,” and it goes! And it feels good to make a schedule and see people show up when you tell them. These, however, do not demonstrate control or power. We are “servant leaders” and our job as stage managers is to facilitate what other people want to accomplish. We are the caretakers, not the deciders. A great stage manager and friend once said, “stage management is about being responsible for everything, but having control over nothing.”
There is a lot of truth in that. We find creative solutions to problems, but we don’t impose our desires. We help to craft a show and are intimately involved in the creation process. However, we don’t decide what the set looks like, what the actors wear or what the lights look like. We are in the unique position of assisting in implementing all of these decisions. By communicating notes, orchestrating set changes, scheduling fittings, and calling cues, we synthesize everyone’s needs and keep the show running smoothly. We are the caretakers of the company and the show.
True leadership isn’t about power or control. Our companies can’t be controlled, but they can be led. We can bring out the best in people, keep morale high and maintain the company focus. That is what great leaders do.
There is joy and satisfaction to finding just the right way to seamlessly and smoothly make it all happen. This is part of the art and craft of stage management and leadership. We don’t exert power to control the process, instead we lead a team to make the best show possible onstage every night.
#2 – PAPERWORK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF MY JOB & SHOWS WHAT I CAN DO
It’s very satisfying to show people your work. As stage managers, we create lots of paperwork and it feels great to look at a beautiful looking document and say, “look what I made!” I’ve seen many stage manager portfolios with great looking paperwork, however, this does not tell me much about how you actually stage manage.
So much of what we do as stage managers is ephemeral, you can’t touch it. Most of our work is done in human interactions and happens in the space between people. Being in the moment, our actions and decisions demonstrate our skills and acumen. It’s impossible to hold up these decisions or actions and say, “look what I did and how it helped the show!” Therefore, paperwork becomes the one concrete thing we can share with our colleagues, friends and family to demonstrate our contribution and hard work. We don’t have renderings, drafting, photos, reviews or awards. Paperwork is an important tool for us to communicate information, but it is just that, a tool: like a lighting instrument or paint or a fabric. The tool helps, but it is not proof of great stage management. No amount of beautiful paperwork can compensate for the important skills of diplomacy, empathy, organization, compassion, approachability, trust, emotional intelligence, and the many others skills that are of upmost importance to stage management.
#3 – NETWORKING IS BROWN NOSING, SUCKING UP & ISN’T IMPORTANT
Networking is a word that tends to have a negative connotation. Some see it as brown nosing and sucking up. For example, networking can be perceived as being fake and making people like you. However, the definition of networking simply means “to connect or link.” The goal isn’t to use people to advance or get ahead. It’s to build relationships with other people. We are a social species and want to make connections.
Networking is just another name for what, as kids, we called, “making friends.” Since we are not in school together, we have to find other ways to meet and connect and that is “networking.” The best way to do that is to just be yourself and get to know somebody. Building relationships and trust doesn’t come from using each other, but from a connection, from a friendship.
Stage management is a sensitive position. We are part of a tight knit team that needs to trust and support each other through many challenges. We want to work with people we know and like. That is why so many stage managers work with the same teams over and over again. And when the people you know aren’t available, we hire the people they recommend to us. This is also why many jobs aren’t posted anywhere. Jobs are filled though personal connections and recommendations. You know someone, who knows someone and they need a SM or ASM, then BOOM! You’re hired!
If you are at any social occasion (party, drink night, bowling, softball, etc), and you strike up a conversation, you are networking. You’re making friends and connections by being yourself. It’s always clear if someone is brown nosing you or sucking up, that’s how networking got a bad name in the first place, so don’t be that person.
Just be yourself, listen to others, ask them questions, find common ground, and enjoy a conversation together. You never know who knows someone and when that will lead to work, but this is a by-product, not the intention.
#4 – A DEGREE IN THEATRE WILL LIMIT MY OPTIONS FOR SUCCESS
This misconception is usually held by your parents or other adults who love you, care about you and want you to be happy. If you are getting grief for wanting to major in theatre and/or pursue a career in the arts, take a breath and know it’s because that person cares about you. They don’t want you to be a “starving artist.”
The truth, however, is that a theatre degree teaches you many useful and essential skills that will help you be successful in any profession. Joseph Pistrui, a Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid wrote in the Harvard Business Review an article titled The Future of Human Work is Imagination, Creativity and Strategy He outlines that many industries will eventually be transformed by robotics and automated processes that no longer need human involvement to execute. He quotes a recent report by McKinsey & Company “The hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people or that apply expertise to decision making, planning or creative work.” They may as well be writing the job description of a stage manager, right? If that doesn’t sway people, here are a few other articles supporting this point.
As a stage manager, our skills are welcome across many industries and are transferable to a wide variety of non-theatre jobs. As a good stage manager, you will have MANY opportunities to work both in and outside of the theatre. There are event managers, party planners, office managers, project managers, and many other options. I know many great stage managers who have gone on to successful careers outside of the theatre in event production, feature animation, directing, building their own small business, and as managers of various types in government, theme parks, cruise ships, etc…
Every business needs an organized person, who has good people skills and can manage schedules, people, supplies, balance time and resources, all while maintaining a positive attitude and keeping morale high. Your theatre degree may not get you a job as an investment banker, lawyer or doctor and you may have to revamp your resume a bit, but your skills as a stage manager will lead to success in nearly any industry in which you choose to pursue work.
Published in cooperation with the Broadway Stage Management Symposium
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