What stage managers do
As a stage manager you’ll be the link between all the different teams and people who work in a theatre. You’ll be involved in every stage of a theatre performance, from rehearsals through to the final show, and will work with everyone from the director, actors, technicians, prop designers, costume fitters and front of house staff. Essentially, you’ll be the person who knows what’s happening everywhere, with everything, all of the time.
Coordinating the technical and artistic teams during rehearsals will be a huge part of your role as a stage manager. And once the show opens, you’ll be behind the scenes at every performance to prevent anything from going wrong.
Your main responsibilities would include:
- organising crew and staff members
- organising rehearsals, including set-up
- planning costume fittings, set design sound, lighting, props and set dressing
- overseeing prompt copy and scene changes, including when sets and equipment are put up and taken down
- running the backstage and onstage areas during performances
- health and safety procedures
- in smaller companies, responsibility for design and prop budgets.
Working hours and conditions
As a stage manager you will regularly work long and anti-social hours, including evenings and weekends, depending on performance schedules. You’ll also often be the last person to leave when the show’s over. The work can sometimes be physically demanding. For example, you may need to help with lifting heavy furniture or props during scene changes and deliveries.
Day to day you’ll be based at a theatre or similar arts venue, where your working conditions will vary hugely depending on the age and size of the building.
An open air theatre would be very different from a traditional Victorian theatre house, for example. If your theatre company is on tour, you would travel between different venues and might spend long periods away from home.
Stage managers have plenty of opportunities for freelance work and self-employment. And many experienced stage professionals choose freelance work to gain varied experience and higher pay.
Stage management salaries
Starting salaries for stage managers and assistant stage managers can vary depending on the type of theatre you work in and your level of experience. Salary will also depend on your employment contract; for example freelance stage managers can earn significantly more than permanent staff. This is particularly true in West End theatres in London, where stage managers are paid per performance.
Typical salaries for stage managers in the UK are:
- Starting salary: £18,000 to £22,000
- Experienced: £25,000 to £35,000
- Highly-experienced: £45,000 or more for senior roles
In addition to your basic salary, it’s sometimes possible to gain additional compensation such as touring allowances. You could potentially also claim accommodation and travel costs.
Freelance and minimum rates
, the UK trade union for performance professionals and creative practitioners, negotiates minimum rates with theatres.
From April 3, 2017 until April 1, 2018 minimum rates for UK stage managers are:
Minimum 8 performances
Category A (1,100 + seats) - £799.38
Category B (800 - 1099 seats) - £738.00
Category C (up to 799 seats) - £676.09
Minimum 12 performances
Category A (1,100 + seats) - £915.44
Category B (800 - 1099 seats) - £843.12
Category C (up to 799 seats) - £770.82
The Independent Theatre Council
will negotiate a minimum weekly salary of £458 for UK stage managers in 2017/18. You need to be a member for them to negotiate your rate.
Qualifications and training
You will normally need a degree or diploma to become a stage manager. A degree can be in any subject but one of the following may increase your chances:
- drama/theatre studies
- performing arts
- stage management
- theatre production/professional practice.
HNC qualifications are also a popular way into the profession. This would usually be a Level 4 HNC diploma in performing arts (production).
You can become a stage manager without a degree or HND qualification but this will mean starting at a junior level, such as a stage crew member, and working your way up. This can be a difficult route to take as you will face tough competition from graduates.
Postgraduate courses in stage management are not essential but can be helpful if your first degree is an unrelated subject.
Joining an association or union for theatre or stage management professionals can be a great way to advance your career. Professional associations can provide training courses, networking opportunities and practical guidance on your employment rights.
The main UK membership organisations for theatre professionals and stage managers are:
- UK Theatre
- The Stage Management Association
- The Independent Theatre Council
- Society for London Theatre Professionals
As a theatre stage manager you’ll work with all kinds of different people, from actors and directors to costume fitters and lighting technicians. This means you’ll need good communication and diplomacy skills.
Stage managers need to be great organisers and planners. An ability to multi-task and keep your cool in a crisis will get you a long way.
Other important skills you’ll need are:
- an eye for detail
- people skills: persuasiveness, patience and diplomacy
- IT skills and an understanding of relevant technology
- an ability to work under pressure, especially in the run-up to a performance
- problem-solving skills and the ability to think on your feet
- confidence, an ability to make decisions and negotiate
- stamina - to cope with long hours during technical and dress rehearsals, and for touring
- sometimes, a UK driving license
- financial and budget planning skills – particularly in smaller theatres
Stage managers work closely with the artistic teams in a theatre, so a knowledge of period costumes and costume repairs can also be very helpful. If you’re a stage manager for an opera, ballet or musical theatre then you’ll need to know how to read music.
Similarly, in very small theatres stage managers will have technical experience with managing sound and lighting.
You’ll often need backstage experience to be accepted for a course in stage management. Amateur, community or student theatre companies can be a good way to gain this. You could also work as a casual or temporary stage hand or runner in your local theatre.
Many aspiring stage managers will gain work experience while studying for a foundation or bachelor’s degree. Student theatre can be a good place to learn the ropes and meet fellow theatre professionals. Student courses will also offer opportunities for work placements or theatre internships.
The more practical experience you can gain the better, particularly technical experience with lighting and prop management. Try to make your work experience as varied as possible, working on different types of sets and with different companies. This will give you more to talk about at interviews and also open up more networking opportunities down the line.
When starting out in stage management most of your training is likely to be on the job, since few companies can afford formal continued professional development. This is particularly important when it comes to learning technical skills, which is why gaining work experience early on will stand you in good stead. It may also be possible to enter the profession after working as an actor if you can show a good knowledge of theatre production.
Employers for stage managers
Stage management jobs can be found in most parts of the UK. Your employer could be a commercial West End theatre company or a small, regional arts venue. As a freelancer or touring stage manager you would work across different venues, which could be spread out across the country. There are also opportunities to work outside of traditional theatre: for example at live music venues, opera houses and even theme parks.
The main places to find work are:
- fringe theatres
- regional theatres
- alternative, community, prison and children's theatres
- commercial theatres, such as in London’s West End
- theatre-in-education companies
- touring theatres
- musical theatres or opera houses
National theatre, opera, and dance companies include:
- English National Opera (ENO)
- National Theatre
- Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
- Scottish Opera
- The Royal Ballet
- Welsh National Opera
Competition for jobs can be fierce, even as an experienced stage manager. The summer months are often quiet for theatre companies and you may face periods of unemployment.
Networking is crucial for aspiring stage managers and most jobs are secured through contacts. Approaching your local stage manager for advice is a great place to start. Once in a job, it’s a good idea to establish good working relationships and to remember the people you meet, so you can stay in contact in between jobs. You never know when you might need them.
If you decide to go freelance, it’s worth getting some tips on the realities of working as a freelancer, such as advice on your tax returns. Take a look at the Equity website
for information on your rights as freelance or touring stage manager.
Theatre stage management is a flexible and fun career for many but opportunities for progression can be limited.
Typically you would start as an assistant stage manager, and work your way up to deputy stage manager level. Without formal qualifications, you could also start at as a more junior member of the production team, such as a stagehand.
In a larger theatre, you could then move from deputy stage manager to stage manager. And with significant experience, progress to company stage manager level. Some ambitious stage managers may even go onto become theatre directors.
In reality, many people will stay at assistant or deputy level throughout their careers, since competition for jobs can be so tough. It is also common to move between companies in similar roles, doing contract or freelance work. Being flexible about where you live can really help your career progression.
Alternate theatre career progression
As an aspiring stage manager you may go onto specialise in a particular area of theatre by improving your technical skills. For example, you could become a theatre lighting director, sound or wardrobe manager. You could also move out of theatre and into related areas such as TV production or in the music industry. But then again, why would you want to leave?