By Matthew Aaron Stern | The world has changed. A global pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter and social justice movements, and the intensifying climate crisis have altered how we live and work, including those of us in the theatrical industry. All of these changes have been happening while live theatre has been shuttered. That has provided an opportunity for us to reflect and look critically at our own industry. As live performance returns, it is crucial that theatre makers address how these issues affect our process of theatre making. We are reopening in a new era. It’s not the world of 2019 – this is 2021.
As a stage manager, I’m intensely interested in the role of the stage manager and how a new era of stage management can address the huge changes in health and safety, social justice, and sustainability. As the stewards of theatrical productions, stage managers have always been a significant part of creating and maintaining a safe and comfortable working environment, facilitating communication between numerous collaborators, and seamlessly running and maintaining the show. Stage managers are in a unique position to have an impact on a new production process and incorporate social justice, inclusivity, health, safety, wellness and sustainability into the theatre industry.
Lawrence Stern wrote in the book Stage Management, “The person who has responsibility for making the entire production run smoothly, on stage and backstage … is the stage manager.” Tony honoree Peter Lawrence describes the job this way in Production Stage Management for Broadway: “The complete welfare of the backstage [company] and daily interaction with all the elements of a production are the jobs of the American stage manager.” Together, these definitions demonstrate the great responsibilities stage managers have to both the production and the people involved in making it.
As we return to rehearsals and performances, stage managers will again lead companies of actors and stagehands. The production process needs to be equitable, respectful, safe and sustainable – reflective of all we’ve been through and learned in 2020. What should stage managers expect to be tasked with? What should we expect of ourselves? What do we expect of our employers? These are questions that the stage management community has been grappling with to prepare properly for our return.
We can look at this new era of stage management by addressing the role of the stage manager in three arenas: Health and Safety, Race and Equity, and Sustainability.
HEALTH and SAFETY
In this new era, we have to address both personal and company health and safety in more creative and compassionate ways, rethinking the old process and bringing in new people to help.
Stage managers (SMs) take care of many of the daily bumps, bruises, aches and pains company members experience, including ensuring basic first aid is on hand. COVID has shone a harsh spotlight on health and safety, and it would seem natural that the stage manager would be the person to turn to for COVID-related issues. However, COVID management requires much more than basic first aid knowledge. Instead of taking on many new COVID specific duties, stage managers overwhelmingly support the creation of a specialized COVID Safety Supervisor.
Dedicated COVID safety manager
In an informal poll on the Year of the Stage Manager (YSM) Facebook page (with 8,000+ members), 79% felt it was “an unreasonable addition to my job as a stage manager…” or that the responsibility was “better suited for a compliance officer.” Stage managers often take on additional duties, but the additional duties around COVID (testing, PPE, social distancing) should be the duties of a dedicated and separate person outside of stage management.
Stage manager Amy Witherby noted: “I got my COVID Compliance Officer (CCO) training, and one of the things stressed is that the CCO should ONLY be doing their COVID-related work – it should not be combined with another position. There is PLENTY for the CCO to be doing and they need to focus on that. And vice versa for the SM.”
Unions that represent stage managers agree. As Leslie Sears wrote on the YSM thread, “both AEA and AGMA have said SMs are not to be responsible for COVID health and safety checks.”
The stagehands union, IATSE, does not represent stage managers, but also sees the necessity for a distinct position, separate from the stage manager, as noted in a July 2020 story on Playbill.com: “The newly released 27-page [IATSE safety measures] document reviewed by medical experts calls for … the establishment of an autonomous COVID-19 Compliance Officer.”
This position (sometimes called COVID Safety Supervisor or COVID Health and Safety Supervisor or Coordinator) requires many of the same wonderful qualities that stage managers possess: organized, efficient, empathetic, diplomatic and calm. It’s no wonder that veteran Broadway stage managers and early career stage managers alike have taken courses, received certificates, and been hired to work as COVID Safety Supervisors. However, there is too much for a COVID Safety Supervisor and a stage manager to do in their own roles. Combining them will only compromise both positions. Our process is served best when stage managers can be stage managers, working with a COVID Safety Supervisor to ensure company safety. This allows stage managers to focus on their duties to manage the production process.
As we return, it is imperative that employers hire a separate COVID Health and Safety Supervisor and for stage managers – union and non-union alike – to support this need. Stage managers will always keep a lookout for health and safety. But in this new era, stage managers need to be clear and confident that they collaborate with a COVID specialist, so they can stage manage effectively. As USITT states in its reopening guidelines: “The Health and Safety Coordinator (HSC) will work with stage management and producers to adhere, implement and oversee the production’s overall health and safety plans. The HSC is not a stage manager and does not perform any stage management tasks.”
If stage managers are tasked with COVID health and safety duties, it puts them in a very difficult position with the creative team they are supporting. The separation of duties provides the best adherence to safety protocols and allows each person to do their best job managing the process and keeping the company safe.
10 out of 12s and 6-day work weeks
COVID isn’t the only health concern that stage managers will be addressing in the new era. Awareness and understanding of mental health issues have been moving toward center stage as well. The challenges of the pandemic and shutdown have highlighted the need for our industry to address mental health. There are two specific practices that have received a lot of focus for their effect on the mental health of theatre workers: 10 out of 12 rehearsal days and the 6-day work week.
We’ve seen a rise in the movement to end the practice of 10 out of 12s (10 hours of rehearsal in a 12-hour span), which are incredibly draining on a company, both mentally and physically. The website nomore10outof12s.com describes them this way: “A 10 out of 12 day is not just a 12-hour day for most theatre workers. For designers, technicians, stage managers and other theatre workers, it can easily be a 16-hour day or longer.”
Chaira Klien, artistic producing director of Baltimore Center Stage, is one of those who has advocated for a change to this industry standard. “When we release ourselves from the 10/12-the-show-must-go-on mentality, we gain the opportunity to build new people-centered processes and a more equitable future,” she said on nomore10outof12s.com.
In addition, a growing chorus is advocating to move toward a 5-day work week, instead of the typical 6-day theatre work week, to alleviate mental health, safety and quality-of-life issues. Shea King, a faculty member at Columbia Basin College, noted on nomore10outof12s.com that the college moved away from 10 out of 12s and 6-day work weeks several seasons ago. “I can say with confidence that it has reinvigorated my spirit,” King said. “The tech process is just as energetic and enjoyable as the 5-day rehearsal weeks due to the healthy conditions and efforts to respect everyone’s time.”
As makers and managers of the schedule, stage managers are in a position to propose changes from the old ways of scheduling and toward better practices. Options like those mentioned above support mental health, safety and focus. It’s not about the number of hours rehearsed, but the quality of the time spent in rehearsals. By demonstrating to directors and producers the value to both the production and the people, stage managers can advocate for these positive changes.
Company and personal mental health
Another aspect of company mental health that involves stage managers is the use of sick days. Sick days have typically been used for physical ailments only, so how a stage manager responds if someone calls out, citing the need for a “mental health day” instead of a typical “sick day,” can greatly affect a company. A compassionate response will go a long way to maintain the positive and safe work environment we value.
The next challenge may be the most difficult for stage managers – caring for our own mental health. Maintaining work/life balance is something many stage managers struggle with, often giving our time and energy to others at the expense of our own. In May 2020, the Broadway Stage Management Symposium featured a panel of stage managers and social workers focused on the mental health of stage managers, and our self-care was an important aspect discussed. In August 2020, USITT featured a panel with the organization Behind the Scenes highlighting the mental health resources it has available. In introducing the panel, USITT noted: “Even without the uncertainties of life in a pandemic, the unique environment and stresses of working in the entertainment industry are extremely challenging. It’s critical to make sure you, and those you care about, stay healthy – mentally and emotionally as well as physically.”
The challenges over the last year have highlighted the mental health issues our industry has been struggling with. It is such an important topic, a senior stage management student at University of Arizona is doing her thesis on the subject.
In this new era, we have to address both personal and company health and safety in more creative and compassionate ways, rethinking the old process and bringing in new people to help.
RACE & EQUITY
To be effective leaders in rehearsal and performance, stage managers must add new learnings and understandings to their skillset.
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, we experienced a new social awakening. We See You White American Theatre published a powerful, critical, insightful and thought-provoking treatise enumerating the many ways systemic racism has infected the theatre and detailing how our industry needs to change.
To be effective leaders in rehearsal and performance, stage managers must add new learnings and understandings to their skillset. Only with new tools can we combat the systemic racism that is embedded in our culture. During the shutdown, many members of the stage management community have taken on the responsibility of educating themselves.
YSM: A forum for learning
The Year of the Stage Manager (YSM) Facebook group became a meeting place for stage managers to lean into these conversations, learn in public and rebuild our process in order to do better. YSM founder Amanda Spooner discussed in September 2020 American Theatre article, “Managing the Stage, and Managing Expectations,” what needs to happen.
“I think what stage managers should be doing right now, as much as they can, is learning exactly how white supremacy culture functions in the performing arts …,” Spooner said. “What am I doing to dismantle white supremacy culture? You can’t dismantle it unless you know it, unless you see it. When stage managers go back, and their role is as a middle manager, you can pretend that because you’re not legally a supervisor, you can wash your hands of it. But you’re lying to yourself, because you’re clearly an authority in the room. You’re clearly functioning as someone who is guiding a project and guiding priorities and keeping clear goals.”
One way this process of learning was begun was through reading and joining discussion groups for the books White Fragility by Robin DeAngelo and How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. These discussions led to smaller informal chats where stage managers could share their understanding of cultural differences, the impact of micro-aggressions, their own privilege, and how white supremacy has been built into many of the systems we have accepted.
Equity vice president and Broadway stage manager Ira Mont noted in the same September 2020 American Theatre article that stage management is “fundamentally … taking care of the human beings working on a show.” So, we need to develop a much better understanding of how what we say and what we do affect BIPOC company members and perpetuate a culture of white supremacy. Readings and discussions and self-education are a necessary step for stage managers to realign our actions with the values of equity, equality, diversity and inclusion.
Strategies to address systemic racism
Some stage managers have written about the systemic issues in our industry. The insightful article “Hold, Please,” written by six BIPOC stage managers and published on HowlRound in October 2020, states the vital importance for stage managers to critically access their process: “For stage managers in particular … we must be mindful of the ways we facilitate our rehearsal and performance processes. Choosing not to practice continual self-reflection and adjustment perpetuates harm to ourselves, everyone around us, and particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” The article gives specific examples of how concepts like urgency, perfectionism, objectivity, power hoarding, and more contribute to white supremacy culture.
Leading stage management educators Narda E. Alcorn of Yale and Lisa Porter of UC San Diego collaborated on a July 2020 article on HowlRound to help stage managers “emerge from this lengthy COVID-19 pause prepared to navigate a new production landscape.” Some of their detailed strategies for stage managers include:
- “Intentionally incorporating anti-racist language can prioritize the deconstruction of systems of oppression.”
- “Establish boundaries when racist language is part of the content of a play, clearly stating how that language will be used by different members of the company. This strategy is especially important for stage managers who will prompt or stand-in for a particular character.”
- “Speak up as an ally and stage manager, taking on the responsibility of disrupting and interrupting racist aggression towards non-white colleagues who have been harmed.”
- “Recommend that the director and creative team open conversations about race … For example, opening conversations about costumes, hair and makeup are especially important since, even within a multiracial cast, the default might be to white skin color and hair texture.”
- “Question microaggressions that are typically normalized in the production process, like a white colleague commenting that a Black actor speaks Shakespeare well…”
By critically looking at our practice, the authors write, we discover “there are so many places we, as stage managers, can be culpable in perpetuating white supremacy… ”
The 2021 Broadway Stage Management Symposium brought together some of these authors and other stage managers to discuss anti-racist stage management, the work they are engaged in, and the importance of reflecting and evaluating our own processes. Stage managers will be on the front lines when issues arise and need to take personal responsibility to learn to see and discuss race issues, foresee and address concerns. This is critical to creating the safe and equitable spaces we want our theatres to be.
The Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) released a statement in June 2020 that states: “We at the Stage Managers’ Association stand with those who are committed to fighting oppression, racism and hate. We can do better. We must do better. We call upon all stage managers to pledge to respect everyone in the room and everyone at the table. To read, to listen and to learn so that we can understand individually how to help make the rehearsal room and the performance stage a place for joyful creation, with mutual respect and collaboration for all people working together in the artistic process.”
Working for more diversity among stage managers
Access and diversity in stage management are also part of the new era of stage management. Stage managers are actively creating avenues to bring more stage managers of color into the tight-knit networks that have a huge impact on a stage manager’s career.
Broadway & Beyond: Access for Stage Managers of Color has created networking events and an online database of stage managers of color. Cody Renard Richard and Broadway Advocacy Coalition created a scholarship program for BIPOC theatre makers. The SMA put their support behind a social media program to highlight 101 Black Stage Managers that comes with free membership in the professional association. The Broadway Stage Management Symposium (with the support of BIPOC stage managers) created scholarships for stage managers of color to attend the professional development and networking conference for free.
Stage managers are preparing to emerge from the shutdown with tools to be better leaders, allies and advocates for this new age.
Providing leadership on gender identity
Gender identity is another area where the leadership of the stage manager is important. Incorporating respectful use of pronouns allows a stage manager to set a tone of inclusion. A colleague once told me about the book A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns and how they would keep the book on their stage management table. Company members would be curious and ask about it. This educates company members and sets an important example. Leadership helps bring a better understanding of diversity, in all its manifestations, to our industry. The theatre should be a welcome and safe place for all, and stage managers set this tone with their actions.
In the new era of stage management, stage managers can become important allies and advocates by engaging in self-education, welcoming challenging discussions, listening, learning and creating an equitable and safe space for the creation of theatre.
Stage managers are embracing sustainable practices and demonstrating to producers and employers that green practices can be economical as well as environmental.
Even before the pandemic and shutdown, the climate crisis was an important issue. The introduction in Congress of the Green New Deal spotlighted the great challenges and opportunities our country has. In the theatre, we’ve been moving slowly toward greener practices. However, the intensity to implement new, sustainable ways to work has been invigorated during the shutdown and the time we’ve had to reflect and envision our post-pandemic return to work.
Green Reopening Toolkit
The Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) has been around for decades and has made many strides to help our industry work in a more sustainable way. During the shutdown, BGA director Molly Braverman and many other theatre makers created a new program for theatre artists and stage managers: Green Re-Opening Toolkit.
“As we consider how to reopen our theatres and return to work, we have the opportunity to further integrate sustainable solutions into our protocols,” the toolkit states. “Prioritizing health and safety does not need to come at the expense of the environment. In fact, the COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the inextricable link between the health and safety of our people and our planet.”
Webinars and other technologies
During the shutdown, BGA produced a webinar, “It’s Possible: Sustainable Stage Management,” that featured stage managers discussing greener practices that can make a significant impact in our world and our lives. For example, stage managers traditionally use a lot of paper: in/out sheets, daily and weekly printed schedules, monthly calendars, daily report, etc. All this paper could be eliminated with programs like Virtual Callboard, Propared, ShowBuilder, Cue to Cue, Stage Doc, Theatron, and more. Technology can help stage managers and production managers be more efficient and greener at the same time.
The Broadway Stage Management Symposium has featured these companies and more in the webinar series SM Tech Friday to help use our down time to learn new technologies. Green practices also took centerstage in three sessions at USITT this year: The Sustainable Production Toolkit, Climate Crisis and Theatre, and Sustainable Solutions for Reopening Theatre. The BGA was also featured with a panel at the 2021 Broadway Stage Management Symposium.
Stage managers are embracing sustainable practices and demonstrating to producers and employers that green practices can be economical as well as environmental. You can learn more about the Green Re-Opening Toolkit here and join the growing movement to bring greener practices into the new era of stage management.
The role of the stage manager includes tracking and noting the many changes that occur throughout the production process. During our industry’s shutdown, stage managers have still been managing change, but of another type. The world is different than when we went into the shutdown in March of 2020. This new world requires new tools – and stage managers can lead the way.
The new era involves stage managers addressing COVID health and safety, systemic racism, and the climate crisis in our industry. Stage managers can advocate for COVID Safety Supervisors and a fresh look at our schedules, as well as better understanding of company, and our own, mental health. Stage managers can reevaluate their practices, remove racist language and harmful practices from use, educate ourselves on how white supremacy culture is embedded in our practices, listen and lean into difficult conversations, and incorporate more stage managers of color into their networks. Stage managers can also incorporate greener practices and use more efficient technologies to reduce carbon footprints, waste and harm on the environment.
In The Art of Leadership, author Donald Walters says on the first page, “Genuine leadership is of only one type: supportive. It leads people: It doesn’t drive them. It involves them: It doesn’t coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings: namely, that people are more important than things.”
Stage managers know this well, and the new era of stage management is based on this universal theme. Stage managers will continue to care for people, but now with eyes and ears more open, with more knowledge, and with better tools to address the challenges the pandemic has revealed.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: SOURCES CITED
Lawrence Stern, Stage Management (Allyn and Bacon, 2002), pg. 4
Peter Lawrence, Production Stage Management for Broadway (Quite Specific Media Ltd.), pg xi
J. Donald Walters, The Art of Leadership, (MJF Books), 1987, pg. 11