By Matthew Aaron Stern | Over the last year, we have experienced historical challenges that cannot be understated. A global pandemic, intense political division, a rising social justice movement, and the closing of theatres across the country made 2020 the most taxing and difficult year I have ever known. As I look back over the grueling months of shutdown, this cock-eyed optimist sees some positive takeaways. So here are the top 10 lessons from 2020 about theatre and stage management.
1. Our Stage Management Community Is Special
Stage managers find creative solutions, are flexible, and don’t panic. From the early days of the shutdown, we’ve bonded together to find a way through the shutdown. We quickly turned to our online groups as communication centers, to share and connect. In those early days, there were many Zoom hangouts and workshops popping up. They kept us close.
Even though we had to be distant, we weren’t alone. Organizations like Year of the Stage Manager (YSM), the Stage Managers’ Association (SMA), Broadway Stage Management Symposium (BSMS), and Theatre Art Life (TAL) rolled out robust online programs to keep us engaged, learning, growing, and sharing. We were using our time, making friends, helping each other manage through this unprecedented experience.
There was so much happening online that YSM, SMA, BSMS and TAL had a planning meeting to schedule all the Zooms, webinars, and meetings. There was an online stage manager event almost every day of the week! We were basically stage managing ourselves, making schedules, spreadsheets, and managing production meetings. It was very exciting and comforting at the same time. We couldn’t practice our art and craft, but we were still connecting, learning, and supporting each other.
This community kept each other afloat, buoyed with regional SM GO events, YSM Slumber Parties, BSMS SM Tech Fridays, and more. It’s ironic that our community seemed to become tighter and smaller as the shutdown continued. I got to know stage managers from coast to coast and around the globe, as we’d meet online week after week. It was a communal experience that proved what I’ve always known, the stage management community is special.
2. Leadership Matters
During the early days of the pandemic, a leader emerged who told us the truth, spoke clearly to us, gave clear direction, understood the pain, and prepared us for what was to come… Governor Andrew Cuomo. When New York was struggling, he provided a daily source of information. It wasn’t always good news, but it was based on facts, filled with compassion, and instructive. Gov. Cuomo was even awarded a special Emmy Award for his daily briefings.
His leadership was a beacon that shined for us and showed a way forward. Meanwhile, others who were in charge gave us speculation and misleading information, denied science, and divided us. Instead of uniting us, they drove us apart, making things like mask wearing a contentious political issue. As a leader, what you say and what you do matters. Your actions and words have an impact on how others feel and what they do. Think back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Depression or even Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. Leaders inspire the best in us, show us what we can be. They say and do the hard things and that can be difficult, but that is what brings people together.
As a stage manager, I am a leader, so what I say and do matters, too. The stage manager sets the tone. We have the opportunity and privilege to unite our company in the pursuit of creating theatre. If we’re leading a theatrical company or leading a nation through a pandemic, the same qualities of leadership apply. We leaders can inspire, comfort, uplift, and support, or we can sow discontent, mistrust, panic, or anger.
Throughout the past nine months, I have heard the word leadership on the news more than ever. We have witnessed the benefits of positive leadership, as well as the failures of a lack of leadership. Stage managers may not have to lead a nation to battle against a devastating disease, but the lessons of leadership are important to learn as it is arguably the most important skill for any stage manager to cultivate.
3. Compassion and Empathy Are Superpowers
Along with leadership, stage managers usually have an abundance of compassion and empathy. By putting ourselves in another person’s shoes, we can understand their perspective. This helps us to better assist and support them. We can communicate more effectively, addressing important concerns and issues.
Using his powers of compassion and empathy helped Joe Biden win the presidency. Throughout the campaign, Biden was able to connect to people by understanding their pain and loss. His own experiences with loss, pain, and grief have given him the ability to understand those feelings in others. During a pandemic with so much death, it’s no wonder that the compassionate way he communicates led millions of voters to the polls to elect him. He won more votes than any other presidential candidate ever!
We stage managers can also enlist these superpowers in our work. When an actor or stagehand is being difficult, if you take the time to see their perspective, it brings a whole new understanding. With empathy and compassion, you see what the real concerns and difficulties are. Sometimes people just want to be understood, and that alone can provide comfort and healing. We work in an industry where emotions are close to the surface, so a deep well of compassion and empathy are important qualities for stage managers, even if we never run for office. 2020 showed us just how effective and powerful those qualities can be.
4. Stage Managers are Loved and Appreciated
Sometimes stage managing can feel like a thankless job, a combination of long days and little appreciation. However, the Year of the Stage Manager grassroots campaign has brought much-needed attention to the value of stage managers. Over 7,000 stage managers and those who love them have joined the YSM Facebook group to support and raise awareness of the great work of stage managers. Awareness and press about stage management were growing, and acknowledgments of stage managers in reviews and notices were coming more often. Then the shutdown hit.
Although the shutdown closed theatres, it didn’t close the YSM campaign or the stage managers behind it. YSM continued to raise the profile of stage managers throughout 2020. Through numerous activities, Zooms, emails, etc., YSM continues today to engage stage managers and our theatrical community in the value and importance of stage management. There have even been some discussions about changing the name of Actors’ Equity Association (the union of professional actors and stage managers) to something that includes Stage Managers!
At the Broadway Stage Management Symposium, many of our beloved theatre community contributed short videos sharing their love and appreciation of stage managers. The list includes Andre DeShields, Michael Greif, Natasha Katz, David Hasselhoff, Caissie Levy, Alex
Brightman, Sergio Truijo, Victoria Clark, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Daniels, and many more. As Robert Creighton of Frozen said, “Stage managers, I love ’em!”
You can check out these videos at: www.broadwaysymposium.com/sm-day
It’s ironic that Year of the Stage Manager (YSM)coincides with a complete shutdown of our business as, without stage managers, we couldn’t make theatre! Stage managers, being who we are, adjusted and extended the “Year” to the “Year and a Half of Stage Managers,” so it’s now, YSM 2020-21 because, “We deserve it!” Even though we are not in rehearsals or performances, there is a lot of love coming our way.
5. Technology Can Help Us Be Better
Did you know there are a myriad of programs and apps that can help stage managers do and be better? Adopting new technologies in stage management is challenging as the speed and efficiency we need to have makes it very difficult to incorporate new technologies and engage in a learning curve as well. 2020 provided a unique opportunity where stage managers were not in production, so we had time to ramp up and learn new tools.
Last April, BSMS embraced this idea and launched a free weekly webinar series to explore technology for stage managers called SM Tech Fridays. Since then, there have been 34 unique webinars! These include apps that help stage managers with schedules, reports, contacts, line notes, script changes, blocking, and much more.
It is, after all, the 21st century, and we don’t have to stage manage the same way we did in an analogue 20th century (or 19th century) world. And the shutdown has given us the time to dive in and learn all the ins and outs. The BSMS webinars, along with SMA and YSM webinars, have taught us a LOT about technology that can help us stage manage better. We could never take the time to learn these apps when in production. After all, who wants to be in tech and say that we’re holding for the stage manager! But the past year has been different.
We’ve been able to explore new workflows, learn new skills, and increase our effectiveness and efficiency. When we are more efficient, not only are we better at our job, but we have more time for ourselves and our families. This results in better work/life balance, which in turn, helps us return to work refreshed and at the top of our game. If you haven’t participated in the SM Tech Fridays, check out the replays available at: www.broadwaysymposium.com/sm-tech-fridays
6. Time Is Soooooo Valuable
Speaking of time… 2020 reminded us of the great value that time has. That may be the overall silver lining for our industry: Like it or not, we have been given (aka forced) to take a time-out. Not only do we stage managers have time to reflect, evaluate, discover, explore, and learn; but our whole industry is able to do the same.
It’s like when a child is given a time-out and told, “Think about what you did.” Or, it’s similar to when someone you’re dating wants to take a pause in your relationship. You get to look at it from new angles, analyze it, think about what works, what doesn’t, and how the relationship can change to be better.
This re-evaluation is not just for technology (see #5 above), but for everything. How do our organizations work, how do we make theatre, who makes decisions, how do we reach out to our audiences, what are the environmental consequences of our actions, what is the societal impact of our non-actions? All of these questions, from the biggest to the smallest, are there for us to address if we take the time. Time is the silver lining, a chance to really reinvent or rebuild.
It’s also a time to reconnect with our personal priorities. It’s challenging to achieve work/life balance in our industry and maybe even more so in our profession of stage management. How do you want to live, what kind of life do you want to have, what guardrails can you put in place, what sacrifices can you make, and which should you not? These are all important questions that we now have time to think about. Listen to What I Did for Love and its story of sacrifice. Maybe we don’t have to give up everything for a successful career in theatre and stage management. Time is the only thing in the world that you can’t make more of, so this time is, from that perspective, a gift.
7. Systemic Racism Is in Theatre, too
The arts have a reputation for being very accepting and loving. However, when you look hard at our industry and really examine it, there are structures in place that do not help us achieve the equity, equality, and inclusion that we value. We have, as an industry, and individually, fallen short. The tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, and others ignited a social justice movement that hasn’t been seen in a generation.
This movement challenges us to look hard, see our privilege, take action, and to actively be anti-racist. We need to do and be better. Theatre activists started organizations to raise awareness and demand change: Black Theatre United, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Black Theatre Caucus, Broadway & Beyond: Access for Stage Managers of Color. These are just a few leading the way (and many with stage managers of color at the forefront).
Important articles have been written and widely circulated describing systemic racism in our industry and what is needed to end it, I See You White American Theatre (ISYWAT) being the most prominent. Stage managers have contributed articles specific to their experience. Hold, Please, by Miguel Flores, R. Christopher Maxwell, John Meredith, Alex Murphy, Quinn O’Connor, Phyllis Smith, & Chris Waters, details how systemic racism has infected our practices. We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education, by Narda E. Alcorn & Lisa Porter, discusses how we can teach and learn better practices from the perspective of two prominent stage management educators. Cody Renard Richard used his social media platform to call out the racist practices he encountered and was featured on CNN to share his experience with the world!
The past year has revealed how far away we are from the ideals we value and aspire to. Stage managers of color have taken up the lead, and all of us have to step up and act, as individuals and as stage managers. The Symposium has launched new scholarships as one way to build more equity in our profession. More info at: www.broadwaysymposium.com/scholarships
8. Stage Managers Can Do Anything
I’ve often said, stage management is made of two words: stage – that is our product; and management – that is what we do. Therefore, a stage manager can succeed in any management role. For example: Event Management, Product Management, Retail Management, Project Management, etc. In 2020, the lack of theatrical work has forced many to pivot into other positions. Many stage managers have seen the incredible value of their management skills as they take on new jobs.
The role of Covid Compliance Officer (CCO) is a natural fit for stage managers. We are accustomed to look out for company safety, maintain organized records, and set a serious tone. All of these are key for Covid Compliance Officers. I know a few seasoned Broadway stage managers who are now working as CCOs, ensuring everyone follows protocols, has PPE, and stays safe. This new job utilizes key stage management skills and has been a relatively easy pivot for out-of-work stage managers to make income.
Other stage managers have moved into the political arena, working on campaigns, or with other political organizations. Broadway for Biden had Matt DiCarlo, Johnny Milani, and other great Broadway stage managers helping to organize and run their programming and events! Be An Arts Hero used the talents of artists and stage managers to advocate for important legislation. One stage manager I know even ran for office in Washington State! Again, the stage management skills, like multitasking, quick decision-making, thoughtfulness, approachability, optimism, empathy, and leadership, are key to working in politics and non-profits.
2020 showed more than any other year that stage managers are capable of doing wonderful work outside of the theatre, not just inside it.
9. Mental Health is a Priority
The pandemic has not just assaulted our physical health, but our mental health as well. Some in our community have been advocating for better mental health practices in the theatre for years. Covid and the shutdown have shone a spotlight on the need to raise awareness, remove the stigma, and provide better services for theatre workers’ mental health. Our industry has several practices in place that challenge our mental health. Leaders in our industry at the SMA, USITT, and others are exploring these practices, their unfortunate side effects, and other options.
One of these practices is the dreaded 10 out of 12 rehearsal day. This schedule means actors have a long and difficult day: 10 working hours out of a 12-hour period. It also usually means 14-16 hours of work for stage managers and even longer for stagehands! The practice of squeezing every possible hour out of available rehearsal time is being examined from the perspective of mental health. We’re acknowledging the diminished returns of those late-night hours, as well as safety concerns that come with a tired and weary company.
Another practice being explored is the five-day work week. Theatre usually rehearses and performs six days a week, which is challenging. A five-day work week would do wonders for families, as well as allow everyone a chance to recharge and revitalize. Imagine having a day to catch up on your laundry, bills, errands, AND a day for some R&R. That’s inconceivable! However, it is being discussed in theatre communities across the country and also across the pond!
Perhaps sick days could also be used for mental health days. Perhaps the entire stage management team doesn’t have to come in super-early and stay super-late. These and other ideas are on the table now. We’re also learning better ways to advocate for ourselves and to acknowledge what we need to maintain our mental health.
At the 2020 Broadway Stage Management Symposium, we had a panel on mental health for stage managers. It included therapists from The Actors Fund and Behind the Scenes, along with Broadway stage managers. It was an engaging and compelling discussion. I also recently participated in a panel on mental health for stage managers at the University of Arizona, alongside production managers, therapists, and other stage managers. Educators and professionals alike are taking on this issue. In 2020, our community is finally accepting the challenge and working on better practices to understand and support mental health for our company and ourselves.
10. The Theatre is Essential
We heard a lot about essential workers in 2020: doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and also our grocery store clerks, delivery people, postal workers, and others, people who are everyday heroes providing vital goods and services. At the same time, we’ve also seen economic support for businesses: restaurants, airlines, retail, etc. What we haven’t seen is much attention paid to the theatre, arts, and cultural institutions.
Theatres have closed coast to coast. Despite some being able to pivot and deliver online options, our industry as a whole is mostly closed. Our government has paid close attention to our economy and the stock market and has acknowledged the incredible work of essential and frontline workers. But those who nourish our culture and our soul have been mostly ignored – the first to close and probably the last to re-open.
When you look back at the important societies of history, their contribution to the arts is one of the milestones that defines them. Theatre reflects our society and values. It unites communities, brings joy as well as catharsis, encourages empathy, and more. It is also a huge economic engine. Theatres bring people out: to restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. A theatre is an economic anchor in a community. For example, destinations like Broadway are responsible for bringing billions of dollars of economic stimulus to New York City.
However, theatres were mostly ignored in stimulus talks. Thank goodness for Senator Schumer, Senator Klobachar, Be An Arts Hero, and others who raised their voices loudly and ensured that the Save Our Stages Act was included in the latest stimulus bill that was recently passed and signed.
As John F. Kennedy said, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.” As I look back over the last year, theatre artists have been finding ways to evolve and continue to make art, communicate with audiences, and deliver meaningful experiences. The value of these efforts cannot be underestimated, but they are not the traditional theatre we know.
As we go forward, I am thankful that there are discussions in the incoming administration of a Cabinet-level position to advocate for the arts and culture sector. 2020 has taught us that people want to be together, and theatre does that. It’s good for our souls and our economy – theatre is essential.
Happy New Year
As difficult and devastating as 2020 was, we will take what we have learned and bring it back to our work in the theatre with vigor and enthusiasm. Theatre is an essential part of our human experience, and stage managers are the engine that makes it happen. By looking back over the past year, we can learn, take advantage of the time, and find ways to grow from this experience, so we can become better for ourselves, our companies, the theatre industry that we love, and our society. Happy New Year!