A few weeks ago, I was helping my father clean out a closet when I stumbled across some relics of my local theatre days. My father, right now, is in that stage of wanting to get rid of lots of things, winnowing his life down to bits and pieces; a stage that seems to strike a lot of people after major medical events. Since most of the crap in that closet was mine anyway, it seemed reasonable that I should help him go through it.
I was nonetheless startled when I came across these artifacts of a time over 10 years ago; I started working on local theatre productions at age 11, when I played a bit role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and worked on various productions through high school.
My last major stage management job was right before I left for college, on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and while I meant to work on college theatre productions, I never did. It was like I needed to leave that part of myself behind.
But I haven’t, really, because I took life lessons from it, and I was reminded of that the other day when an old friend from the theatre scene asked me if I’d be willing to stage manage a show she’s producing this winter. A few months ago, I would have given her a flat “no,” and instead, I said “Let me think about it.”
I could walk into rehearsals tomorrow and pick up right where I left off, but meanwhile, I’m applying the things I learned doing local theatre to the rest of my life.
1. Assemble a good crew.
The crew are your eyes, ears, and arms. You’re also going to be spending a lot of time with them; your light and sound operator will be up in the booth with you for a six week run, which means you hope they bathe regularly. The assistant stage manager (ASM) is going to be a murmured voice in a headset, and you’re counting on her to be on the ground for you, ready for anything that might come.
Select your crew with care, because they will save your bacon at the same time they look up to you and rely on you to be their champion. Look for people with experience, or young folks who are willing to learn, and take note of how they behave during interviews. Fundamentally, these people are going to be your friends, but you’re also going to be their boss. Can you see hanging out at a cast party with them and then going into work the next day and resuming your regular roles?
Your crew has your back, but just as importantly, you have theirs.
2. Always know where your big book is/no one touches the big book.
Your master book is the most important thing in your world. It’s your bible. It’s not just the play, with every single stage direction, prop, light cue, sound cue, entrance, exit, and other detail written in. It’s all the schematics for the sets including any set changes, it’s the costumes, it’s the lighting map, it’s everything to you.
Everyone’s schedule is in there, along with supporting notes. Copies of the memos send around, your notes from rehearsal, the director’s notes after rehearsals, and more. Every single thing pertaining to the play is in there, including, possibly, some things you don’t need the rest of the world reading about.
Keep your big book close to hand because it’s your guide to everything, and make sure that everyone knows it’s not to be touched. It’s not just your centralized database of everything: it’s your life.
Given the ubiquity of electronic devices these days, your phone is probably your big book. Never forget that it's an extension of your brain.
3. Prepare to rule with an iron fist, but cloak it in velvet.
If someone were to come up with an idea for putting on a theatre production without actors, there would probably be some rejoicing. The poor dears can be very good at what they do, but they’re also very delicate flowers, and they can be unendingly frustrating to work with. It’s your job to keep them in hand, without such as harsh grip that they start rebelling against you.
This can be especially challenging when you’re young; say, a teenage girl overseeing a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where everyone is much, much older than you. You need to carry yourself like the person in charge because you are the person in charge, but you need to remember that power shouldn’t make you cruel or inflexible.
Don’t be afraid to be firm, get good at reading situations quickly, but remember not to crush the flowers.
4. Take care of the people around you.
The stage manager is often cast in the role of production parent, although sometimes an actor will informally take this role on. It’s up to you to make sure people get breaks, that they’re eating, and that their other needs are being met. Sometimes it sucks to be looking after everyone else when no one thinks about you, but them’s the breaks.
Maybe one of your Equity actors from the City is having trouble with his housing; help him find new housing or negotiate the situation to resolve it. Maybe your ASM is looking suspiciously haggard: you need to sit down with her, find out what’s going on, and help fix the problem. Your lighting technician obviously hasn’t eaten in three days: get her a sandwich. Or two.
It’s not just about keeping the coffee flowing and scavenging cookies from the concessions stand. Make sure people get good, wholesome food and enough water. Actual breaks from the action, even during Tech Week (aka Hell Week), even if just for a minute; tell your sound tech to take a nap in the green room while you figure out a problem with the set, or encourage your ASM to step out for some fresh air for a second.
It's up to you to see when situations are escalating, when people need a kind word, and when it's time to take a break. And sometimes, the person who needs these things? Is you.
5. Select a good ASM.
The ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) is such an important member of the crew that she gets her own entry, because she’s your wingperson, right hand woman, and more. Which means you need to choose her with particular care. You will have a strange, intertwined relationship, one with a mentoring aspect (she wants to be a stage manager herself someday) and a boss aspect, but also a friendly aspect.
Because you are going to be together throughout the production. The director? She’ll be gone once the show opens. A lot of the tech crew? Don’t come on until the show starts to go into tech. The ASM? With you from day one at the first rehearsal, and there until the bitter end when you break down the set. Which means you may be spending three months together or more, and you may be forming a relationship that will last for a long time; I worked as ASM to the same stage manager for two years, for example, on numerous productions.
Your ASM needs to be smart as a whip and attentive and fun and generally good to be around. And if a candidate doesn’t meet those criteria, you need to look further afield. Your ASM is the one who drives around town for half a day tracking down a weird prop, and the one who slumps on the stage with you at the end of the day when everyone has gone home and you’ve just worked 13 hours.
You’re in each others’ pockets, and that’s a big responsibility. Your ASM is your best friend, and if she's not up to the task, you need to move on.
At the end of the day, my experience in local theatre was tremendously instructive when it came to interacting with people, building relationships, and behaving professionally.
I wouldn't trade it for the world -- and I still keep my ASM close.