Stage management means different things to different folk

David Evans
David Evans is head of production at National Theatre Wales and is the co-founder of production and consultancy company Theatrical Solutions
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We bandy the phrase ‘stage manager’ about, and assume a shared mindset, similar values, a common approach. Fair enough, but what is a stage manager? The tasks that fall to stage management are as varied as they are disconnected.

A stage manager could be a single person driving the van, rigging the LX, building the set and operating the sound during the show. Or they could be just one of a large team performing tasks on a long running show that have been done by half a dozen previous incumbents. Stage managers commonly take understudy rehearsals, source or make the props, provide tea and sympathy for discombobulated performers and arrange rehearsal calls, yet in another theatre or situation they are stamped on for presuming to take on any of these tasks.

There is fluidity to the roles undertaken or assumed by stage managers – the role expands to encompass all that is not covered by others. Hence in a small organisation you will find the stage manager is the one stop shop for all matters technical, whereas in larger organisations no incumbent of the stage management office will have ever attended a fit-up, let alone focused a light.

So why do we bracket this disparate group under the one heading? Perhaps it is this common approach, the common values, the passionate interest in stationery and lists, and the one specific task they all share – stage management run the show.

[pullquote]Stage management has evolved and grown to encompass a very wide range of skills, and the job descriptions have been developed to match. [/pullquote]

Stage management represent the formality that is intrinsic to the putting on of shows, you only have to glance at a deputy stage manager’s book to realise that there is a very well-defined structure underlying any performance and it is the task of stage management to preserve this. If the venue does not provide clearance when expected it is stage management who investigate, resolve the problem and get the show going, and their evening’s show report will have the delay duly noted.

Stage management has evolved and grown to encompass a very wide range of skills, and the job descriptions have been developed to match. Technical assistant stage managers and technical stage managers now operate revolves and lifts and take sole responsibility for Edward Scissorhands’ hands, for instance, while deputy stage managers can find themselves so removed from the stage that their only connection with it is through a bank of infrared, low light and colour monitors surmounting a pile of ClearComm master stations with radio interface and cuelight master stations so complex they would provoke a green tinge in the eyes of any self respecting front of house engineer.

Yet all this aside, when performers come off stage it is to a stage manager that they look if they need something. It is the knowledge that stage management are in place that gives them the confidence to do what they do, because if the stage managers are there, then they know that the structure is in place.

Interestingly, in the US they have production stage managers who do everything  –  they run the fit-ups, call the show, write the show reports and fulfil most of the jobs that we associate with a company manager. In addition, they are responsible for show maintenance  –  director’s intention, artistic look, and brush up rehearsals. US companies also have specfic props departments, something we rarely see in this country. But as any stage manager knows, just looking after props is not always enough to justify your existence so a US props department also sweeps the stage, cleans up show-specific mess (leaky smoke machines, fake snow), attend to general paint calls (painting the stage black) and, most importantly, makes the coffee and buy the doughnuts.