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In Defense of Stage Managers

June 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Anne Nicholson Weber, in the podcast interview I posted a few weeks ago, asked the question: “What exactly does a stage manager do?” Josh, Ray and I kind of looked at each other in that moment, thinking: “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”

At the non-equity Jeffs last night (yeah, Jared), I got to thinking (again) about something I think is missing these theatrical award ceremonies – Jeff, Tony, the whole lot of ’em.

How in the WORLD can we structure an award for best stage management?

Because when they do their job right, they are the the glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context. With patrons, house emergencies, prop emergencies, scenic emergiencies, costume emergencies, skipped pages…

Sure, it’s a tricky award to evaluate – there are enough pitfalls in evaluating design (which still can be flashy, brash and loud enough to draw attention to itself), let alone a role that is quieter if not more central to the functioning of theatrical performance. The very definition of good stage management is when it just works, seamlessly, brilliantly, and without leaving any trace of emotional, procedural or intellectual tint on the designs, direction or performances. That is a no-mistake tough job.

You *can* tell when there’s a ninja SM calling a show back there in the booth – usually when a mind-bendingly complex sequence of events is timed so perfectly either very early (first time!) or very late in the run (ready for closing!) that it still leaves you breathless.
I’m talking about you, Ellen, Amanda, Joe, Tim, Kim, Jaime, Alden and so many, many more.

If awarding committees can see beyond the footlights enough to give awards to directors, musical directors, lighting designers, or musical sound designers (the mad science/art of seamless vocal amplification that again, ideally doesn’t draw attention to itself – a fact that led to it not being included in the Tony Awards until last year, 30 years after the beginnings of theatrical sound design), certainly there is some way to evaluate and recognize these foundational artists who through their creative management support the entire team.

So here’s the question: If you had to write the rules, how would you choose to evaluate a stage manager’s performance?

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18 Comments to “In Defense of Stage Managers”

  1. I’ll need to think about how one would evaluate a stage managers role…mostly due to all the pre-work? You could have a crap show, with crap actors and a kick-ass stage manager, who ran great auditions, rehearsals, tech week and called a flawless show. Hmmm…. need to let this idea marinate a bit.

    However, as a Stage Manager who has never recieved ANY awards, I want to hug this post like crazy. And when I see you, Mr. Keenan, I am hugging you as well. Thanks for thinking of us, me and my tribe.

  2. Nick – I’m with Dianna – both you and this post deserve hugs like crazy.

    The only sort of awards I’ve ever heard of being given out for stage management are of the type where a company puts forward a nomination with supporting letters. While I think that sort of approach to things can work, it is based on the company recognizing the work of the individual and putting in the effort to see them nominated. If the company is lazy, the SM is SOL. It also makes it hard to jury that, since jury members would only be going on letters about how wonderful that particular SM is.

    To have an award based on seeing a show Stage Managed by an individual seems problematic in its own right. As Dianna has pointed out, the performances themselves are only a very small piece of of what a stage manager does (as evidenced by my recent blog post on the subject:

    More thought required, but thank you for opening up the conversation.

  3. I instituted a motto for every production my company does a while back:

    “The Stage Manager never pays for a drink.”

  4. While the entire theater awards process can be seen as fraught when it becomes a promotional tool (*cough*), I definitely can see how the company nomination approach to an SM award would be problematic. When I think about the SMs in my life who I’d like to reward (and I try to through job referrals, which is almost like a small cash prize – with more work attached) – some of them primarily work with one company, and some of them work with every company. Rewarding the second group would be best served by a nomination process that involves peer collaborators rather than companies, not unlike how the Merritt Awards picks their annual design award recipients.

    This doesn’t work for the other group of folks – the lifer production stage managers who make places like the Goodman tick (and would likely be nominated by their companies), though I suspect they tend to not actually need that kind of validation or attention for either career or personal reasons.

    Maybe this is another example of how differently but symbiotically independent and regional/commercial theater operates. The need is really to recognize SMs who are emerging in their careers and trying to get enough work to develop their craft into full-time work, which is really what I see these awards as being all about anyway. Historically, SMs have gotten that development by being dependable and necessary, but that can also lead to situations where they are exploited by a pool of clients that is too small (or clients that use them as production managers).

    My feeling is that public recognition by the community enables a talented SM to be exposed to larger theaters so that they can do their work and get compensated appropriately for it. Without that recognition, the SM is the most likely position to achieve burn out – other than the House Manager. I just see the retention of that kind of talent and leadership as a win-win for SMs and companies they work with.

  5. Thank you Nick. It means a TON to read this and know that what we do is noticed. Many, many hugs to you and this post, Mr. Keenan.

  6. Great posts. Thank you.

    Personally, I don’t need an award. I just want to be thanked by the designers, directors & actors I work with. If I’m publicly recognized, all the better. But not necessary.

    However, if an SM award were to exist…I think all the shows that are nominated for best musical and play should automatically have their stage manager nominated. We work in such a collaborative environment and the stage manager has a hand in managing every aspect of a show. It should make sense that if a show is worthy enough to receive a nomination of that calliber, then it probably has an amazing stage management team.

    Then, the stage managers could be monitored and reviewed by 1-3 committee members who would then determine the winners in those 2 catagories.

  7. Wow, great post, Nick.

    >> “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”>>>

    I had that same reaction when listening to the podcast. When I’m on a show, the SM is my best ally or my worst nightmare, and a good SM is worth his/her weight in gold. As for the not-so-good ones–it’s really awful to sit and see/hear your design executed badly (or not at all) every night. Thankfully, that rarely happens. God bless the great ones.

    I agree with Dianna (one of the really excellent ones)–how to come up with criteria for an award is a tough one, and we’ve got some thinking to do.

    Meantime, I need to come up with something nice for my current SM.

  8. ::kicks carpet::
    awww, shucks Joe….quit it….

  9. The first production rule of Cambiare Productions is: We don’t do a show without a stage manager. We’re having trouble coming up with a second rule.

  10. Stage Managers really do need an award…I see the problems of figuring out how to make that happen, but they certainly deserve the recognition in whatever form. Their job is the glue that holds a show together without a doubt, and very rarely do they get any of the glory. I always make sure to thank my SMs (especially since they generally hold my life together during a show and that is not always an easy task)…

    I recently agreed to stage manage a show. And I have no idea what I’m doing for the most part. Which usually doesn’t intimidate me. But I have such respect for stage managers that I’d really like to not screw this up 😉

  11. I’ve tried to do shows without stage managers. It has never been less than nightmarish.

  12. Stephanie says:

    The NY Innovative Theatre Awards is trying just that.

    I am sure a few of us on the committee will be blogging about it, so please keep looking for more information on this process and this exciting movement to recognizing Stage Managers.

  13. Just saw that tweeted from Morgan Tachco – fantastic news!

  14. Anne Nicholson Weber says:

    To pay my debt of ignorance, I recently interviewed three stage managers (David Castellanos, Patia Bartlett and Erica Foster) on the TheatreinChicago podcast. Here’s the link, for those who might be interested.

  15. Nicole M Smith says:

    As as Stage Manager myself I came into the work knowing that I would be one of the hardest workers with the smallest amount of praise. I do my job because I love it and when you love what you do and work your ass off people recognize and thats how we get our praise.

    I think in order to fully determine if a SM is worthy of an award they should be nominated and then a committee should shadow the SM through out one of their shows. From beginning to end, visit a few times. See how they hold the show together, maybe catch a glimpse at how they problem solve. Otherwise you are nominating and giving an award on sole opinion since there is little documentation of our work.

  16. I think it’s great that you’re acknowledging the stage managers for their work. It’s like the proud home owner thanking the electrician for making sure everything lights up when and where its supposed to.

  17. I had my first experience at stage managing in college this semester, and heard more than enough times, “Wait, so what exactly do you do?” Most of the time I just brushed it off laughing, but I had spent more than enough hours helping put our production together, and it kind of bothered me that I wouldn’t get any recognition for it other than having my name printed in the program. Even though this isn’t what I do for a living, so I have no idea how it feels in a real theater, I am so happy that all of those people who do are getting more and more chances to be acknowledged… Although I honestly have no answer to the question presented, because they play a part in every role in the theater. 

  18. Al Franklin says:

    I’d suggest that you not give a stage manager award to say that there’s been a winner, rather that you give an award to a stage manager (or two) as a recognition of their work in the field. There’s a lot of catching up to do.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New York Innovative Theatre Awards Creates…An Innovative Award « Clyde Fitch Report 15 06 09
  2. Stage Management Awards Update: We have Green-light. | Theater For The Future 16 06 09
  3. LoisBackstage » Awards for Stage Managing 27 07 09
  4. The Jessie Awards Recognize Outstanding Stage Management @ Lois Backstage 09 06 10

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