Effective Stage Management

Stage Management. It’s key to the theatre and without it very little would get done. From the outside looking in, a good stage manager can look like a deity made flesh or a fantasy gleeman – juggling so many balls and spinning so many plates that it seems improbable that they can be kept in the air or in the hand without tumbling to the ground. Shows can live or die on the quality of their stage management. Bad stage managers are ten a penny, and they can be disastrous to a show and to any theatre group too. Here, then, are some tips for being a good stage manager, rather than a bad one.

First off, though, I ought to say that this is based off my experience with Leicester University Theatre, which is only a small society. This means that the Stage Manager is responsible for all the usual stage managery things, such as rehearsal notes, blocking notes, communication with all other departments etc. etc., but is also responsible for set design, set construction, the furniture half of properties, running the backstage, running the house on show nights, and health and safety. I’ve tried to keep my tips versatile enough to work for any stage management gig, but some may not quite fit the way stage management is approached at your particular theatre group. Caveats added, let’s get on with it.

1. A Good Stage Manager Plans

Planning is the key to success. A good stage manager knows this. It is very easy to tell a bad stage manager, because they will turn up the week before the show, without a clue who is in the production, what set is required, where any of their team is or what they’re supposed to be doing. Good stage managers are slightly harder to spot, mostly because there are fewer of them out there, but also because they do their job so effortlessly that people don’t notice them until they go to do something that’s already been done.

Planning is not merely a convenience if you have the time. Planning is crucial. What kind of furniture do you need? How many crew members will be required for scene changes? How can you get a lifelike porpoise to fly down from the balcony? All these are serious considerations and they have to be planned before they can become real or get done. The buck stops with the stage manager and if they haven’t adequately planned then the whole thing falls apart. I’ve seen many shows where the set has looked awful because it hadn’t been planned in advance, because on turning up to the tech day unprepared the stage manager had just made a token effort to appease the director, but no more than that.

Planning is essential. Write that down. Tattoo it to your soul. If you want to be an effective stage manager you need to plan. You need to think about everything in advance because you need to give people time to do their jobs to the fullest. Stage management is not something where you can just stroll in and make it up as you go along – not if you want to be taken seriously. More than that, if you have planned for everything that you can, things don’t fall by the way side if the director throws you a curve ball close to curtains up. Safe in the knowledge that everything else is planned and underway, you can say yes to this new request.

2. A Good Stage Manager Says Yes

Saying yes is important. I’ve worked with and under a few stage managers in my time and the best ones have always said yes. It is important for any stage manager to remember that whilst they have a lot of power in any given production, they are there to serve the production. On handing on the stage manager’s keys to the person who followed me as LUTheatre Stage Manager, I told him that I considered them the sceptre of office. Holding those keys, I said, indicates that you have the power to tell folks what to do and reasonably expect them to do it. But, I said, they are also a sceptre in the sense that they are heavy and cumbersome and pull down your trousers when you hang them from a belt hook. They weigh you down because they represent that you are in service to everyone else. It is your job to make sure things get done and to do what you are asked to do, to the best of your ability.

It’s sentimental advice, but it’s true. Being in charge means that you have to serve others, especially in a role like stage manager. People will look to you for things and you have to provide. Directors are notorious for having sweeping visions far beyond the capabilities of mortals to provide. A stage manager must provide them, as far as reality will allow. The stage manager says “yes, of course you can have a flying pig that lights up and sings I’m a little teapot for this production of King Lear” and then promptly gets to work on planning how to make that idea a reality. Always say yes, except when you say no.

3. A Good Stage Manager Knows When To Say No & Why

There are times as a stage manager when saying no is appropriate. They are not as often or as numerous as most stage managers would have you believe. One of the things that stage managers have the most difficulty with, in my opinion, is why they are saying no. I’ve done it myself once or twice – things are hectic on a tech day and a curve ball is thrown your way by the director, like they want to adjust the flats you’ve spent three hours getting in the right place so that they can be turned and fiddled with in the show exactly as the specification says. Could they be more to the right? No. You want to say no. But to do so in that case would be wrong. Yes, it’s a pain in the hole to have to move them again, but you have no legitimate reason to say no. To say no to any request you must have a very good reason not to. In the flats example, maybe moving them will affect the sight lines. That’s a good reason. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to accommodate the move though.

On the whole a no should also be followed by a but. As in “No, we can’t have that flat there because there’s a fire door, but I can put one here which will give the same effect.” A no should be an opportunity to find a compromise.

Whilst we’re on the subject of saying no, I’d also warn people off using the stage management power of veto to stop people doing something because you don’t like it. Everyone has their pet peeves and that’s all well and good. That’s not the province of the stage manager to govern unless it actually affects the show or the job in hand. People singing musical songs whilst the lampies are trying to focus? The SM should politely intervene and ask people to take their singing elsewhere as they’re affecting the work. People singing musical songs and you hate musical songs? By all means ask them to stop as yourself, but the SM has no authority there. Just because it pisses you off is not enough of a reason to use the power you’ve been given to tell people off. Besides, if you do, people will not only not like you and find ways of pissing you off more to spite you, they’ll also respect you less and so not do as their told when it actually matters. It’s all about leadership and management.

4. A Good Stage Manager is a Leader and a Manager

There’s a difference between the two. A leader is an inspirational figure, someone who inspires people to do their best and gives them goals that need achieving. A manager works out how those goals can be achieved and makes sure that people get their work done to achieve it. A stage manager needs to be both. There’s a lot of admin, that’s what I’m saying. But there’s also needing to be seen to be a leader, to be respected by your crew, by the directors, by the actors, by the technical crew, by everyone. You are beholden to the entire company. If they don’t respect you, then nothing gets done and you might as well go home.

First off, people who respect you will do more for you. They will listen to what you say and they will abide by it, even if they don’t agree. More than that, they’ll come to you when things go wrong, rather than you hearing of it third hand from someone else or not hearing of it at all. This means you always know what’s going wrong and what’s going well and you can react to both with your plans. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen SMs make is that they joke about the actors. Now, there is a long tradition of crew and cast having a bit of friendly banter here and there, and to a point that’s find. We’re different creative types all working to the same end. Lampies crack jokes about the noise boys, for example, but they all rub along together quite well, bound as they are by the embrace of both being technical roles. So, I’m not saying that there should be no banter between actors and crew; that’s a sign that the company are getting on well. But, in my experience, what actually happens is the crew bitch about the actors and tell jokes and the actors aren’t telling jokes back. That’s no banter. It’s bullying. A good stage manager doesn’t condone bullying, and as the go-between of all departments, the SM should never be partisan to one side. Yes, the SM is closely related to the crew, but that’s not an excuse to belittle others. The SM is a leader to all the company and needs everyone’s respect to do the job well. That means not taking sides, not being partisan, and not standing for bullying.

5. A Good Stage Manager Cares

Ultimately, it’s because a Stage Manager cares that they can be thought of as good. This is something missing with a lot of SMs. I sympathise. When you’re running three shows a term, all within a three week block, it’s hard not to give a shit about some of them as your energy slowly becomes drained. If you’ve planned effectively, losing the will might not matter all that much, but it’s caring about whether the show goes well that should never fall by the wayside.

Again, the SM is there to serve. Everyone there should want to do their job to the best of their ability, or what’s the point in doing it? The SM doubly so. It is part of their job to care. From day one of production to final night, the SM should care about the show and want to provide that show and the company involved with everything they’ve got. SMs that don’t care don’t put effort in and the result is that everything looks shoddy. Audiences can tell these things.

The hardest part is the caring. Especially in a small closed company. You may be the SM for shows directed by people you don’t like or don’t get on with. The lead actor might have broken your heart or your nose or something. Doesn’t matter. The SM is a persona that has no feelings one way or the other. In the theatre game you’re going to work with people you don’t like. The same in “the real world”. You have to leave your personal disputes and feelings at home and do your job as well as you would do it for someone you like. You have to care, no matter what the reasons are why you think you shouldn’t. That won’t be easy, but who said being an SM was easy?

When it comes to it though, if the SM doesn’t care, why the hell should anyone else? Remember that part about being a leader? Yeah, well, negative feelings spread faster than positive ones. If you don’t care, there’s not a chance in hell that your crew will or the tech team or anyone else below you. You know who does care? The audience. The people paying for their tickets and wanting to be rewarded for paying their dues. Also, the director who has put effort in and the actors who have learned their lines and their marks, and whoever’s idea the whole project was. They also care. And if you don’t, you might as well have started the production by taking a dump on their script and pissing in their teapot, because the end result will be the same.
So there we go, a few tips that might help you to be a better stage manager or affirm you as the good stage manager you are. At times of doubt, I find it helps to think about the message of Song of the Stage Hands by Sir Alan Herbert. Crew may not get all the plaudits and applause. SMs may not be remembered for their planning or their patience. But you’ll have done the job and you’ll have made things happen and you can rightly be proud. Be proud, work hard, stay happy.
Song of the Stage Hands
by Sir Alan Herbert

We work in the wings at various things
That nobody sees from the stalls:
You don’t think of us unless there’s a fuss
And bits of the scenery falls.
But what would be seen of the old Fairy Queen
If the Palace came down on her head?
The actors may bark: but if they’re in the dark
It don’t matter what Shakespeare said.

It’s the same thing wherever you go:
The bloke in the front gets the show.
But where would he be if it wasn’t for we –
Working away in the wings?

It looks all serene: you see a new scene –
From the bed-chamber, say to the yacht.
But you’d change your mind
If you came round behind
And saw what a job we have got.
We lower the mast but the damn thing sticks fast:
The rigging is foul of the punt.
We push houses round, but we mayn’t make a sound,
For the hero’s proposing in front
And then, when we change to the wood
With the moon coming up as it should,
Well, give us a hand, the invisible band
Working away in the wings.

But still we’re all proud we’re one of the crowd
That’s pulling the jolly old strings:
For, bless you, we know we’re as much in the show
As the fellow who dances or sings.
We’ve got no bouquets, and they don’t wait for days
To see us come out of the door.
We can’t write a play, but if we go away
There won’t be no plays any more.
But there – though we bark we don’t bite:
It’ll be right on the night.
Enjoy yourselves, do: for we’ll see you through
Working away in the wings.

January 28th 1948

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