Training: How to forge a career in stage management
The stage management team plays a vital role in the rehearsal and run of a production, but when those working backstage do their job well, their work is often invisible, and can easily be overlooked even by fellow company members.
Perhaps it is not surprising that while a school’s careers department might be able to provide basic information on the training of actors, directors, designers and writers, stage management roles can be misunderstood. They often get lumped together as general backstage or technical roles combined with other jobs.
Stuart French, director of technical arts at the Brit School in south London, agrees: “Too few young people are aware of the career prospects in the production arts and only begin to look at backstage careers when they are about 16.”
He tells me that at the Brit they are looking for candidates with an interest in the subject, and people who have really engaged with the course content. Previous experience is not necessary, he says: “After all, they come to us to develop into those roles.”
The Brit School is a full-time school specialising in performance. It offers a technical theatre arts course for BTec level three students (over 16 years old).
French explains: “Initially when students come to Brit they have to do lighting, sound, set design, costume and stage management. It is important that they see how the other disciplines work and develop an understanding of those roles. After that, they get to specialise more.”
For teenagers interested in learning more about stage management, Brit is not the only option. There are courses offering these roles across the UK – the National Youth Theatre has taught stage management and technical theatre for decades and has an intake of more than 74% from outside London. No matter where you are in the country, NYT should be able to offer you something.
“NYT stage managers are everywhere,” Kay Hudson, assistant producer at NYT, tells me. “It’s a testament to the course that whenever you are in a theatre, there always seems to be someone who’s come through an NYT technical course. Some members aren’t aspiring to careers in stage management in the long term, but spend some brilliant summers with the company and then use all the transferable skills in other walks of life. One example is Purni Morrell, who is now the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre.”
Hudson started out on an NYT course before initially working as a stage manager.
“The course and ethos is rooted in the industry and learning on the job, so you pick up all sorts of invaluable tips and tricks as you go,” she says. “Many of the industry professionals I worked with as a member of NYT were the people who gave me my first jobs.”
NYT and Brit offer great foundations in stage management. At the Brit School about 60% of technical arts students go on to higher education in a variety of specialist areas and more than 30% go into the industry in one form or another, whether via an apprenticeship or directly into work.
For those who want to train in a higher education setting, drama schools offer a range of technical theatre degrees that offer a career path to stage management. Head of production at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Ros Maddison explains what they look for in potential students: “Self-motivation, a passion for live performance and evidence of ability and experience in supporting live performance in a production-related capacity.”
Careers in stage management
Drama UK – site lists stage management courses, both those it accredits and non-accredited courses
Daz James, senior lecturer in stagecraft and production at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama tells me they look for “people with a passion for working in theatre who have the right attitude, can apply themselves to any task and can communicate well”.
Most stage management courses teach a range of skills in the first year, before students specialise. “What makes our graduates so successful,” explains James, “is their knowledge of the work of others around them. It makes them appreciate the time and pressures of the work of those in higher and lower roles and therefore they are more patient and understanding when the job gets tough.”
In a world where student debt is becoming an increasing concern – and for a job in which it is still possible to forge a career without formal qualifications – what’s the advantage of studying for three years?
“The main thing you get from a formal training route is the opportunity to try things out and learn without fear of failure,” Maddison says.
James believes that “employers are now more inclined to take someone with formal training than someone who has worked up through the ranks”.
‘We look for people with a passion for theatre who can apply themselves to any task’ – Daz James, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Starting out in stage management often leads to other roles within a theatre, but it can also be the foundation for careers outside the industry. At Royal Welsh, the MA course offers training in events management as well as stage management.
“Through our experience we have found that training in theatrical stage management is transferable across all styles of industry management,” explains James. “Theatre, of any scale, be it in a venue or site-specific events of any type: corporate, festivals, sporting, film and television. It even crosses over into arts administration and education.”
Back at the NYT, Hudson recalls some of her favourite experiences: “Working in the Olympic Stadium during London 2012, three joyous pantomimes at Hackney Empire and a tour with Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre all stand out as particular highlights.”
A career in stage management can open doors, enabling you to see the world, work on large-scale events and collaborate with others in the rehearsal room. To be successful in the job, you need to be a problem solver and have a great work ethic. Finding information about routes into a career in stage management can be difficult – the industry needs to get better at communicating to students what working as a stage manager means.
How we started out
Three stage managers explain how they began their careers in the industry
I didn’t train formally but I worked on drama productions at Aberystwyth University.
In my day you were caught in the Equity card trap: you couldn’t get work without an Equity card, but to get one, you needed to have professional experience. So I crewed pantomimes at Chichester for the 1984 and 1985 seasons. I toured with The Scarlet Pimpernel, then on to the West End. Chris Bush Bailey sorted me an Equity card contract on the panto the following year. I learnt on the job and after numerous tours worked my way up to stage manager.
I’ve now been a stage manager at the National Theatre for 26 years. It’s one of the best in the world, so you can stay here and the best actors and directors come to you.
As well as travelling with shows nationally, I have toured the world three times and company stage-managed West End runs of major hits. The money is good. You have to be at the top of your game and enjoy the pleasure and pain of remaining there.
To be a good stage manager you need to be proactive not reactive – and you have to look good in black.
Orange Tree Theatre and English National Ballet
I was a dancer for many years and had a lot of involvement with backstage crew so I took a BTec in production arts during sixth form to see the non-performing side of theatre. I experienced many different roles in a production team for a number of school shows but felt most confident in the role of a stage manager.
After school, I studied stage management at the Central School of Speech and Drama. One advantage of training is definitely networking. A lot of people I trained with have put me forward for work since I graduated – I’ve often worked with Central alumni in the past few years. It’s almost like a very big extended family.
I’m currently assistant stage manager for English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty and also stage manager of the Orange Tree’s revival of French Without Tears. I will company stage-manage English Touring Theatre’s autumn tour of that show later this year.
Adaptability is the most important skill for a stage manager. Directors and designers sometimes have a certain way of working and I think it’s important for stage managers to work alongside them as they feel comfortable. I’ve met some stage managers who are adamant that things be done “their way” and it often causes friction for what needs to be a very trusting relationship. You also have to be intuitive and approachable with good communication skills because ultimately communication is the biggest part of an SM’s job.
Rise, Old Vic New Voices
I studied film production at Bournemouth Arts Institute, training as a producer.
After graduating, I worked on television and film sets for a year but hadn’t felt any kind of creative buzz. I had no experience of working in theatre other than volunteering to deputy stage-manage the musical Nine that students on the acting course were working on. I told one of the acting course tutors that I was interested in theatre and what I’d trained in. He said stage management might interest me. Then he gave me a pencil, a rubber and a script and showed me how to make blocking notes. I was hooked. The skills I learnt training as a producer were totally transferable, but the live aspect of theatre thrilled me, and still does.
I worked for nothing – and for very low fees – for a year. I was lucky to be living at home with my parents at the time. If I had been renting a property I’d have had to give up. I met brilliant producers, directors and designers along the way who recommended me for better-paid work as they progressed in their careers.
My favourite gig was Fleabag by new writing theatre company DryWrite, The process was so challenging, but the final result was the ultimate reward. We had made changes right up to the moment we opened the doors. I hadn’t been able to check through the cues. But then it started, and everyone laughed and it was a great success. Now it’s being made into a series for the BBC. The best moments in stage-managing are when you are surprised by audience responses.