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Make Yourself Replaceable

We all want to believe that we are the only ones capable of doing our jobs.

We all want to believe that we, as individuals, are the ultimate resource.

We all want to believe that we add something so intangibly special to a production that without us, it would never be the same.

But in reality, none of that is true.

(Or at least, we should hope it isn’t.)

In the short preview process of the show I have just finished working on, I have witnessed three different understudies substitute in for three different individuals crucial to the production. These understudies had no idea they would be going on until just before that performance’s curtain time. The most warning one received was an hour, the least, ten minutes. (We held the house that night.)

In each of these cases, an unforeseen emergency circumstance arose that caused a last minute outage. There was nothing our  team could do but to act immediately to find an alternative. Moments after the realization that a performer would not be able to go on, we were already in the process of implementing an plan for substitution. Our amazing team coordinated at lightning speed to make it happen, and the show did go on.

Every performer, especially in the exceptionally talented cast of this particular show, has unique talents that make them shine onstage. Certainly, a show with a substitution is not the same show as a show without. Yet while watching the show, I was delighted to observe the understudy adding his or her own individual talents to the work, contributing a fresh energy that made the performance feel alive and new again. Though there may have been some bumps along the way, it was inspiring to see the way the cover interpreted a familiar role.

In the end, though it was unfortunate that the members of the company were unable to do the respective shows, the overall goal was achieved: the show happened nonetheless, went well, represented the intentions of the director and designers, and the audience went home happy.

There is a mentality that I have recognized among some of my fellow theatremakers–particularly in the college setting, as we are still unsure about ourselves and the kind of theatre artists we would like to be–that you must cling tightly to your position, and be deeply offended if others infringe on any responsibilities of that job. I have noticed the desire to feel special, and to feel like you’ve earned a position that only you were qualified for. I have also noticed a clear delegation of duties, and a poignant lack of crossover or collaboration in such– you do your job, and I’ll do mine.

But we all know that life is not predictable, and does not respond to our delegations and titles. It may so happen one day that an emergency arises and I am unable to call the show I am stage managing. If that were to happen (God forbid), the last thing I would ever want is to be irreplaceable. When Real Life comes knocking, it’s not like I can call “Hold, please.” At that moment I want to be assured that someone is there who is equipped to step up and has all the resources they need to do my job just as I would have done it. They should be able to call the same show I would have (if not better!), while another steps up to fill that person’s vacated place, and so on. An integrated system of substitutions such as this can keep the show happening even in extreme circumstances, which not only keeps the audience and producers happy, but also the many, many other collaborators who are working extremely hard every day to give their all to each performance. By enabling the show to continue, we would be supporting our stage management team as well as the production team on the whole by enabling everyone to share their gifts with the audience that night.

And it is not just in emergency circumstances that someone may have to pick up the torch and take your place in a particular position. A show may be transferred to another theatre or revisited in a later season with a new stage management team, so it is the current stage manager’s job to make the necessary preparations to facilitate the next team’s work on the show. The team should be able to understand through your paperwork, prompt book, and other documents how to run the show. If you, the original stage manager, are the only true resource for the successful run of the show, then you’re in trouble. You may get a paycheck out of advising the team, but if you are working on another project and are unable to take the time, the show in its new hands will struggle to get off the ground and will suffer.

It is in the production’s best interest, and your best interest as someone loyal to the work and the work of your fellow colleagues, to make yourself replaceable. It may sound bleak at first, but know that if you do need to walk away from a production, you will be able to do so with pride and knowledge that you did your best and left the work in good hands. This sentiment is similarly expressed by Bree Windham in her post (Re)Search: Dramaturgical Catharsis on HowlRound. Speaking of the complicated process of moving on from the research of a production, she asks,

But what is the best way to feel proud and let it go? This is something that happened by accident for me one night while I was waiting for a friend after a show. I stood outside in the lobby at the end of the performance and listened to the audience as they talked about what they had just experienced. I listened as a cast member explained the play and its importance to a family member. You helped create that informed moment. That is your catharsis.
Though speaking from a dramaturg’s perspective, Bree’s depiction of catharsis would ring true for any team member who needed to walk away from a show and leave it in another’s hands. Feel proud, and let it go – by knowing that you contributed your talents to the formation of an excellent work and have, in doing so, empowered others to do even more excellent work. This allows the art to continue, with or without you. Embrace the catharsis, and press on.

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