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Backstage: Why stage managers need to draw the line

Is the dedicated sound operator being phased out? Photo: Richmond Sound Design Ltd Is the dedicated sound operator being phased out? Photo: Richmond Sound Design Ltd
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When did you last see a sound technician operating sound-effects cues on a show?

This question, posed by Stage Management Association executive director Andy Rowley, is provoked by a perceived increase in the range of jobs expected of backstage staff. As funding cuts bite, low budgets are forced to reduce further, and skills previously the preserve of experts fall to the nearest safe pair of hands – often the stage manager.

For this reason, the SMA has worked with Equity to create guidelines for producers to encourage good and appropriate employment practices for all backstage workers.

“Looking at crew lists on many small and medium-scale shows and tours today, we could be forgiven for wondering where the technical and wardrobe staff have gone,” says Rowley.

“Good operators they may be, but we believe stage management should always leave the design, rigging and maintenance of the equipment to specialist technicians, who need to be on hand in case of equipment failure or emergencies and to keep the technical kit in good order.”

It is not just a question of finance. Technical advances, not least the emergence of QLab driver software, have also played their part in the transfer of sound and technical cues from specialist technicians to the prompt desk.

Luke Freeborough, Barbican Centre technical manager, is uneasy about this development. “It is technically possible to have stage managers operate most technical facets of shows,” he says. “This is done already across the industry. However, just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be.

“Sound technicians look after comms, cue lights and other important equipment, and in larger houses we will always make sure the correct level of technical support is available. But on smaller shows and tours it can be quite difficult to access this backup from suppliers or the show’s designer whenever and wherever it is needed. Stage managers need to be free from technical concerns to focus on running the show safely.”

Birmingham Rep’s wardrobe. Costumes require skilled treatment to survive a run in good condition. Photo: Andrew Whiteoak
Birmingham Rep’s wardrobe. Costumes require skilled treatment to survive a run in good condition. Photo: Andrew Whiteoak

SMA chair Michael Budmani confirms that stage managers often operates cues, particularly on smaller, less complex shows.

“This makes sense when they can just as easily press a button on QLab as call a cue,” he says. “However, our members are too often put in the position of having these jobs added to their job descriptions. They already have very full workloads coordinating and running shows safely, especially when teams are getting smaller and these jobs are added into contracts with no additional pay or time allowed to do them.”

In particular, the SMA supports its colleagues in wardrobe maintenance, who are often among the first to be dispensed with for show-running on small-scale productions. “Producers don’t ask carpenters to do lighting, so why assume that stage management (which also already works some of the longest hours on many productions) will clean, fix, de-stain and even adjust costumes on top of their many well-established tasks on a show?” asks Budmani.

“Wardrobe maintenance and cleaning is a skilled job in its own right, and professional casts should expect to have specialists doing this work. Costumes require skilled treatment if they are to survive a run in good condition. The move to bundle this work into stage management contracts is short-sighted and generally not in anyone’s interests.

“We have seen an unfortunate reduction in funding for some sectors of production, along with an increase in new and inexperienced producers, which has increased the number of home-made contracts and inappropriate offers.”

This chimes with Rowley’s view of the trend towards mixed roles, which he thinks cause confusion and lead to increased tensions backstage. “Some producers point to recent changes to tax and national insurance rules that allow the cast and freelance stage managers (but not technicians) to work without deductions from pay at source. This has created a financial incentive to give technical roles to freelance stage managers and has led to an increase in multi-skilled technical stage managers,” he says. “Although we are keen to commend the vast majority of excellent and experienced producers with whom our members work very successfully, we aim to bring the few unenlightened employers up to the standard of the majority.”

Adam Burns, a stage manager and Equity councillor, is surprised so many producers do not understand that ‘catch all’ contracts undervalue the stage manager and the show. “Good stage managers bring real value to any production,” he says. “We create a positive, organised environment that allows for the best possible performance to happen safely and efficiently. Equity’s partnership with the SMA and the introduction of these new guidelines will continue to improve our working lives and ensure that stage management is valued by all producers and actors as a vital cog in the production machine.”

The SMA/Equity guidelines, How to Employ a Stage Manager, have been developed (with Skillscene) to help producers to understand how best to employ stage management and other specialists

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