On stage management - Part 1: Getting there

I was talking to some friends on Twitter the other day about what I do for a living and realized that it might be interesting for those not in "the business" to hear about what I do in a longer format than 140 characters. My job has a lot of different facets, so I've decided to break up the explanation into a few different posts. This first post is about how I got into stage management, training and getting the job. Part 2 will be about rehearsals and production and Part 3 will be about running the show. I might throw in a Part 4 about touring/unusual venues (like outdoor theater).

Obviously, these are just my words, my descriptions, my opinions and perceptions of the job and the field, gathered through my experiences over the past fifteen years. Other stage managers or theater professionals may see things differently - this is just how I see it.

MY PATH:

So - how did I become a stage manager? I've always loved theater, from a very young age. Loved being a part of school concerts, loved going to see plays, loved being a part of the community. I did musical theater in high school (doesn't everyone?) - mostly at the community theater near my house. I have wonderful memories from afternoons and evenings spent there and made some lifelong friends. Along with being in the chorus in a number of shows during that time, I also did some work on the crew. I ran props for "West Side Story" and "Working" and I did lighting for a couple of plays at my high school.

Working at Mandeville.

When I got to college (at UC San Diego) I started out as a Communications major, with a Theater minor. I was thinking I would go into film or TV in some kind of behind-the-scenes capacity, although I wasn't quite sure what. During my junior year at UCSD I applied for, and got, a job as a stagehand at Mandeville Auditorium - a theater venue on campus that touring dance companies and orchestras came through. There was also a smaller studio theater which the music department used for recitals that we supported with lights and sound and whatever else was needed for their performances.

I learned a ton about technical theater, and primarily lighting, during my time at Mandeville. I had the opportunity to be on the crew for performances by many internationally renowned companies such as Alvin Ailey, Kronos Quartet and National Theater for the Deaf. I decided at that time, during my third year of college, to turn my Theater minor into a double major. Why not? Ha :)

The summer between junior and senior years, I stayed in San Diego and did an internship at La Jolla Playhouse, a professional regional theater on campus at UCSD (the university theater department shares facilities with the Playhouse) in their P.R. department. I thought that might be a good blend of both my interest in Communications and Theater. It was a wonderful summer, and while I did not fall in love with the P.R. aspect of the theater, I did get to sit in on a number of rehearsals and for the first time really saw what a stage manager does. I immediately thought "that's what I want to do." It combined my love of technical theater with the artistic side of being part of the creative process.

During my last year at UCSD I took one stage management class (there was no "emphasis in Stage Management" then for a Theater major at UCSD, so my emphasis was in Design) and I stage managed three shows.  After graduation, I moved up to San Francisco and did a year-long internship at the American Conservatory Theater, a major regional theater whose company performs at the beautiful 1000-seat landmark Geary Theater. That internship I think of as my "grad school". I learned so much. The stage management interns there (there were two of us) were considered part of the stage management teams. We were treated as assistant stage managers and given all the same responsibilities. We worked with a full union crew on four productions each that year. The experience was absolutely invaluable.

Working at ACT.

After my internship ended, ACT hired me back as a production assistant on the pre-Broadway tryout of the musical "High Society". After that, I started working as a non-union assistant stage manager at some of the smaller regional theaters in the area (San Jose Rep, Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes) and eventually was offered a union contract at ACT as an assistant stage manager.

The union that stage managers belong to is the same one that theater actors belong to -  Actors' Equity Association. This is both helpful and problematic. It is helpful in that whole checks-and-balances kind of way. Because we are in the same union and the same work rules apply to us, a stage manager is obviously going to make for damn sure those rules are followed and upheld by upper management/producers. On the other hand, a lot of work situations that only apply to stage managers and should get language in our rulebook, tend to get overlooked come contract re-negotiation time as the union body is mostly made up of performers. It can be frustrating at times.

For a stage manager, choosing when to join the union is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Once you join the union, you can no longer take non-union stage management work. In regional theater (most major cities around the country have a not-for-profit regional theater - examples include the Goodman in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in LA, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Seattle Rep, Hartford Stage, the Huntington in Boston), most Production Stage Managers ("PSM" or head stage manager) are on union contracts, but often the assistants are non-union. There are exceptions to this -  the top tier of regional theaters - "LORT A" theaters, those who have the most seats, and who make the most money (like ACT in San Francisco, Lincoln Center in NYC, the Mark Taper, etc)  also employ union assistant stage managers. If you don't really have the experience to be consistently hired as a PSM, which are where most of the union contracts are, it is smarter to wait and continue to work as a non-union assistant stage manager ("ASM") until you have gained the necessary experience to ensure work as a union stage manager. A union card will do you no good if you can't get hired for a job because of lack of experience .

I joined Actors' Equity in 1999. I was the ASM on "A Christmas Carol" at ACT. It was the perfect time to join, and I continued to get hired for a lot of work throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, both as a PSM and ASM over the next couple of years.

Throughout my time in San Francisco, I knew ultimately I wanted to move to New York. As a stage manager, working on musical theater was what I loved to do. It was more of a challenge with bigger casts, more technically complex sets and lighting. More going on. There were only so many four person, one-set dramas I could take....sitting backstage reading a magazine for 2 1/2 hours - no thanks. Unfortunately there is no "musical theater company" in the Bay Area. All of the regional theaters occasionally do musicals, but they are so expensive to produce, that they don't come along very often. I knew in order to consistently work on big musicals I would have to move to New York.  So shortly after 9-11 kicked me in the pants and told me to freakin' Carpe Diem already, I hopped on the Amtrak with my best friend Michele and moved to New York City. That was April 2002.

Backstage at New York Theater Workshop, 2003.

I was extremely fortunate in New York, and started working right away, largely thanks to contacts I had made during my time in San Francisco. My first job was as a "sub" (substitute) stage manager on the Broadway show "The Full Monty". I worked mostly off-Broadway those first years in NYC - quite a few shows at the Public Theater (including Shakespeare in Central Park), and a few shows at other downtown companies. Around 2004-5, I did a couple of commercial off-Broadway shows ("Bare" and "The Great American Trailer Park Musical"), and worked a bit on Broadway, too, as a sub at "Wicked" and also as the ASM on the play "Shining City", which was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award in 2006.

In December 2006 I went out on the first national tour of Monty Python's "Spamalot". I absolutely loved the challenges of touring (and the perk of all the travel), and I stayed with the tour for three years. When we closed, I went back to New York for a year and did a short-lived show with Dame Edna called "All About Me" which closed in two weeks (my first Broadway flop!) and worked for a little while on another Broadway show called "Everyday Rapture". In September 2010 I left town again with the first national tour of "Rock of Ages". That tour closed in July 2011 - I moved back to NYC, began subbing at "Rock of Ages" on Broadway, and just a couple of weeks ago was offered a full time position there.

It has been an incredible ride, and I am so grateful.

SO HOW DO YOU BECOME A STAGE MANAGER? WHAT TRAINING DO YOU NEED?

What route do I recommend aspiring stage managers take to become professionals? Well, that all depends on where you ultimately want to end up. In retrospect, I probably should have moved to New York sooner, since that is where I really wanted to be. When I first moved here, I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself. I still feel like I'm trying to prove myself sometimes. At the beginning, you hear a lot "you don't have enough New York experience". What does that mean? Why does it matter WHERE I stage managed as long as I stage managed? I've come to learn, though, that in pretty much all areas of the theater, you have to do some proving-of-yourself when you move to New York. For a stage manager that means working for very little money on off-Broadway shows, or working for very little money as a non-union production assistant on rehearsal processes of Broadway shows - which is basically being a runner - i.e. getting coffee for people. It sucks, but it is kind of a necessary evil because it allows you to meet the right people. Of course there are some who luck out and get breaks right away, but most of us have to work really hard to move up the ranks. The key to working in New York City, and specifically doing commercial theater, is networking. Every job I've gotten since moving here, with exception of one, was because I had some kind of connection with someone on the production, or a reference from someone with a connection. If you want to stage manage in New York, I would say just go there directly from college and start trying to get work as a production assistant. If you are good and are liked, things will go from there. Go and observe the stage managers at other shows. Get to know people.

That being said, I am very thankful for my regional theater background. In regional theater, you work on a new show every two months. You are in tech (technical rehearsals) A LOT. Having been through the production process so many times in regional theater gave me such a strong foundation to bring with me to New York. My paperwork is (so I've been told) pretty darn good, and I attribute that to all the paperwork I had to do in regional theater. Tech is not stressful for me - in fact I kind of love it - and that's because of regional theater. It was an amazing training ground. If working in a regional theater is what you ultimately want to do, I would encourage doing a professional internship like I did at one of the major LORT ("League of Resident Theaters") theaters. In the Bay Area, where I did my internship, the theater community was very tight-knit. Once I proved that I was a good stage manager at one theater, word got around and I was able to get work at the other local theaters, too. From what I've heard of other cities with thriving theatrical communities - like Chicago, etc., the networking is much the same.

Broadway, off-Broadway, touring, and regional theater are where my experiences lie, but there are other places where you can successfully have a career as a stage manager as well - Las Vegas, the circus, cruise ships, etc. If anyone reading this is interested in any of these fields, let me know and I can put you in touch with someone who can answer any questions you might have.

As for school, I'm not a huge proponent for getting a graduate degree in stage management unless you want to teach. In undergrad, learn as much as you can in all the different theatrical disciplines - acting, directing, design, technical theater - they will all help you as a stage manager. I feel mainly though, that being a successful stage manager cannot be learned in a classroom. You have to apprentice, learn on the job, and have great mentors.

SO HOW DOES ONE GET HIRED AS A STAGE MANAGER?

Specifically the way you get hired as a stage manager is this: the head stage manager (PSM) is hired by the general manager (or often production manager in regional theater) after meeting with and being approved by the director. So as a PSM, it is important to foster good relationships with general managers and directors. The assistant stage managers (ASM) are hired by the PSM, so as an ASM it is important to build relationships with PSMs. If you look on the internet Broadway database, for instance, at credits for shows, you'll often see the same PSM working with a specific director again and again, or the same ASMs working with a particular PSM on multiple shows. You want to work with people you like, and with people you work well with.

I found it much less stressful to get work when I was working in regional theater. There you build a relationship with the theater company, and are hired on a seasonal basis for a number of shows each season. It was much easier to plan my life that way, because at least I knew what I was doing for the next year. In commercial theater, a show exists on its own. Your job only lasts as long as the show does, and then you have to look for something else. There is no such thing as job security. It can be much more stressful.

If I am unemployed for a period of time, I might send out resumes to general management offices or to existing Broadway shows to try and get sub work, but I've never had much luck with blindly sending out resumes. It really is all about who you know - so make friends and don't burn any bridges!

FINAL THOUGHTS

To wrap it up, becoming a stage manager is often a long road. I spent a year paying my rent on my credit card, I was so broke. I spent another year working every morning from 6am-11am in a law office to help supplement my income, with the rest of the day (until 1am) spent at the theater. Some people are lucky enough to get breaks, but most of us pay our dues, and work our asses off to get where we are. We work long hours, often away from our families, and often for not much pay. We get coffee for people, and do many other tasks that are seemingly far beneath our college degrees, experience and training. But there are also great rewards that come with being a stage manager. I have had some amazing experiences, traveled to many places I would otherwise not have, worked with some wonderful people, have had much, much fun,  and have been a part of making some incredible theater.

If you want to be a stage manager, do it. Believe in yourself, persist, and do it. Don't look back.

NEXT POST: So what does a stage manager do anyway? (Rehearsals/Production)