How to choose the right stage management training for you

Students studying stage management at Rose Bruford College. Photo: Michael O’Reilly
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For those wishing to pursue a career as a stage manager, a wide range of courses is available, as well as occasional apprenticeships. Industry experts tell Susan Elkin the pros and cons of each route into the industry

In many ways, the stage manager is the backbone of a show. As Mark Simpson, programme director of the stage and events management BA at Rose Bruford College, says: “You have to be prepared to be the first one in and the last one out, because if you, as stage manager, are not there to drive the process, then, quite simply, nothing will happen.”

Andy Rowley, the Stage Management Association’s executive director, agrees: “It’s the word ‘management’ that is key,” he says, adding that career opportunities are good in stage management – statistically much better than for actors. “Most of our college technical course members report that almost all their graduates are in paid work within six months of completing the course,” he says.

Rowley and his colleagues attend trade fairs, visit schools of all sorts and talk to students and parents about careers in stage management. “We are working hard to make recruitment as inclusive and diverse as possible,” he says. “We want to get the message out about these jobs and to break down the perception that working in theatre or the wider entertainment industry is just for people from privileged backgrounds.”

Simpson says a good stage manager is “adaptable with a positive, can-do attitude”. So how do you develop those skills?

The SMA run courses on guns and weapons with RC-Annie

There are three broad options for initial training. You can take a BTec or other option at a further education college. A two or three-year full time, degree or foundation degree qualification in a conservatoire or university is the obvious route for many. Thirdly, some people find ways of training on the job, typically through an apprenticeship scheme, although there aren’t many of these for stage management. None of these routes is exclusive. Many people combine them over time and there are opportunities for part-time, top-up training such as the courses run by the SMA.

Stage management training: further education colleges

Various colleges across the country offer two-year BTec courses in technical theatre, which includes stage management. These are taken by 16 to 19-year-olds as an alternative to sixth form and A levels. Because these courses are part of mainstream education, they are fully funded and there are no fees to pay.

Examples include City of Liverpool College, which offers a course in production arts (theatre technology and events management). Students gain practical experience in theatres in the Liverpool area and in-house shows. Hull College runs a technical theatre course at the same level and there are plenty of others.

“Some young people coming through these courses build successful freelance careers in stage management on the strength of them, but most people need further training before they’re industry-ready. That usually means going on to drama school or university,” says Rowley, adding that most SMA members are operating at graduate level.

Stage management training: drama school or university

LAMDA technical students. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Many drama schools – Mountview, RADA, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to take just a handful – run degree or diploma level courses in stage management. So do a number of universities such as Bath Spa, Derby and Carmarthen.

“It’s a good, solid, vocational training and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a drama school such as Bristol Old Vic or LAMDA or a university such as Canterbury Christ Church or Cumbria, as long as all the practical work is in place and they’re operated as a ‘mini rep’ doing proper shows with proper audiences,” says Rowley. These are the courses that, on the whole, the industry knows and trusts. The people running them are experienced stage managers well-known to the people hiring staff for shows and venues. Graduates are usually able to enter the profession at assistant stage manager level.

“A three-year degree programme, such as ours at Rose Bruford, encourages students to become reflective practitioners,” says Simpson. “They have time to explore a wide range of skills including negotiation and business skills. And we introduce students to the broad base of industries in which they could build successful careers. It’s not just about theatre any more. Events, festivals, film, TV and the corporate world are just a few of the areas that offer opportunities to graduates.”

Stage management training: learning on the job

There are many apprenticeships available across the wider entertainment industry that include various aspects of technical theatre and venue management. Yet surprisingly few of them are in pure stage management.

“You need to apply the skills and learn on a specific show and that isn’t easy to structure. You can learn lighting or marketing more generically,” Rowley says.

Birmingham Rep, however, offers a stage management apprenticeship and runs the scheme very successfully.

At an earlier career stage, prospective stage managers can learn a huge amount on the job by volunteering and observing how everything works. “Many students show initiative by applying to professional theatres and asking to shadow the stage management team,” says Simpson. “It introduces them to the realities of our jobs and, in many cases, kick-starts their network of professional contacts.”

Stage management training: part-time courses

Some drama schools, such as Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Rose Bruford, run an annual summer school designed to introduce people to the world of working backstage whether they are just starting out, active in the amateur sector or simply keen to develop stage management skills.

There are also opportunities at the National Youth Theatre, which runs three-week, backstage courses each summer.

The SMA runs many courses that help those already working to enhance their skills. “We do a very practical, two-level course in cueing music, which people working in musical theatre need,” says Rowley.

As well as stage management, SMA offers courses in orchestral management, pyrotechnics, guns and blood and prop-making, as well as one on finance for freelances.