The Green Room: Is there enough careers advice about backstage jobs?
Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…
Susie Bussell is in her 50s. She started as a performer before becoming an acting assistant stage manager. She is now a company manager
Luke Francis is 22 and has just finished his first job as an assistant stage manager on a touring open-air Shakespeare season
Lisa Jackson is in her 40s. She has worked in stage management for more than 20 years
Jane Keeling, 52, trained as a stage manager and has been an assistant stage manager, deputy stage manager and company stage manager
Maya Murray is 40 and trained as a stage manager. After 16 years working in stage management, she has moved into the world of producing
Lucy Walker is 23 and trained in stage management and costume at drama school. Since graduating, she has worked on opera and musicals
Susie Not when I was young. But that was a while ago. I have no idea what it is like now. Better, probably.
Jane I found the same when I was younger, but it certainly seems to have got better.
Susie I have to confess, I never intended to work in stage management. I started as a performer.
Jane I trained as a stage manager at a drama school. I can’t remember how I heard about my course – this was before Google.
Susie When I started, I got my Equity card by being an acting assistant stage manager – thankfully a job that you don’t see around that much anymore.
Thomas Out of interest, why ‘thankfully’?
Susie It sounds hypocritical because that’s how I started, but, on the whole, an acting ASM is either not going to be a great stage manager, or not going to be a great actor. It is hard to find people who are enthusiastic about both, and one area suffers. It was just a cost-cutting measure by producers.
Thomas Am I right in thinking an acting ASM would cover a role as an understudy or maybe go on for a very small part, but their main duties were as the assistant stage manager?
Susie That’s right. I’m not even sure what the rules are now on using them. It’s been so long since it’s come up as a proposition from producers. I certainly haven’t had to use one in years. Maybe others have.
Thomas How did you make the transition to full-time (well-respected) stage management?
Susie I got more work as a stage manager, found I was useful as a deputy stage manager and made the decision to move over permanently. I wouldn’t recommend my route in to anyone else – it’s just what happened to me.
Jane I loved training. Looking back, it allowed me to make mistakes, which you don’t want to do professionally.
Maya Yes. It’s a very pressurised job and you want to be on top of it.
Jane But, also, I learnt as much when I got out into the real world and worked on professional productions. Just like actors’ training – stage management courses give you the foundations and you then learn just as much when you leave.
Maya You never stop learning. Every job is a new challenge.
Luke I have found that, in lots of schools and youth theatres, backstage roles are not really explored so much, so you end up thinking only about acting. You know there are other jobs, but you don’t know how to access them, or what they are or anything about them, really.
Lucy For me, I learnt about most of this from the National Youth Theatre. It was there that I got a sense of what opportunities were out there, and it also gave me the experience and confidence to apply to drama schools.
Lisa I think it’s great when stage management/technical theatre courses teach an overview of the jobs available, before allowing people to specialise. If you haven’t experienced the different roles, then you don’t know which is right for you. You may think you want to be a stage manager, and then realise you are much more suited to a technical theatre role, or props making or something like that. Lots of young people don’t know the difference.
Luke I didn’t know the difference. I thought everyone backstage just did everything – I didn’t know there was a difference between a stage manager and the person who rigs the lighting. I do now, of course.
Susie I do worry about some courses.
Thomas What do you worry about?
Susie Some graduates of stage management courses I have worked with don’t seem very prepared. You feel like they aren’t ready for the industry as a whole. Some are, and there are some great courses, but not all courses seem to be teaching to the same quality.
Luke It does feel like some schools consider that stage management and technical theatre students are there to help the acting students. Unpaid labour.
Maya A good stage management course should be teaching you everything from keeping the prompt copy to learning technical theatre skills. It should be as rigorous as the actors’ training and shouldn’t separate you out, as you will work with actors on shows and in the real world.
Thomas I remember a session we had at my drama school (on a non-acting course) on ‘working with actors’. I found it so offensive, as it was treating actors like they were another species – as opposed to human beings with a job to do.
Lisa There is information out there – the Stage Management Association is great. Look at its website and you’ll see everything from course finders to career guides. But I think you need to know what you are looking for in order to find the information. If you don’t know a job like stage management exists, you won’t know to find the information. When you know, then it’s all out there for the taking.