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The Art of Stage Management (Yep, I said it)

In the stage management community there are repeated cycles of discussion around the same topic: We are managers in the arts. But are we also artists?

In the past, I have heard arguments in favor of stage management artistry mostly focused on the “how does s/he do it” element of our jobs. The way stage managers coordinate schedules, direct conversations with directors and designers, facilitate productive rehearsals, balance many types of personalities, negotiate union and contractual obligations, and on top of all that, perform the technical elements of the job (taking blocking notes, intention notes, tracking props, tracking deck moves, delegating to crew, and ultimately calling or running the show backstage) – to many, this immense level of organization and foresight is true artistry. Yet to me, that has always seemed like terminology that is more appreciative rather than actually descriptive of our jobs. Other stage managers may consider such work to be art, but at the end of the day, most would instead come to the determination that we are more like highly talented task masters.

Design and Production students at Boston University now go through a year of core D&P training – in design, drawing and painting, drafting, and a few elective areas of study – before they are allowed to officially declare their technical theatre major at the end of freshman year. This “D&P Freshman Core” had its inaugural year with my class. We rotated through shops to have a quarter in Stage Management, Lighting, Costumes, and Scenic Build/Paints. Through our classes, particularly one central class, Intro to Design, where we created designs each week and analyzed them as a group in class, we developed a common vocabulary and participated in the creation of art. Whether we intended to prepare for a career in Scenic, Sound, or Costume Design, Stage Management, Electrics, or Technical Production (or a combination of those fields), every week we created similar works of art and analyzed them in terms of effectiveness of design.

At the end of my freshman year, I declared officially as a stage management major. I had enjoyed making art and working in community with my class, but was happy to finally be able to focus on training for the field I was most passionate about. (And to get a little more sleep!) I thought I would be transitioning into a world of spreadsheets and clocks, spike tape and calendars, that would never again really necessitate the vocabulary I had developed through Intro to Design.

I was wrong!

As I began working on my own stage management assignments at BU, I began to notice the develop of my artistry through stage management in different ways. Stage managers are responsible for communicating the notes the director gives in the rehearsal process through a rehearsal report. These often include the director’s vision for design. In writing a report from an early rehearsal of the opera Owen Wingrave last spring, I wanted to convey the actual content that Jim Petosa (director) was describing, but more importantly, focus on the reason and intention behind those choices so the designers could make their own informed decisions.

Here is an example of a rehearsal note from Owen:

4. At 33/1/1, we would like the projections to suggest a horse guard. There should be a great deal of pageantry; they should be highly decorated, and perhaps in ordered lines to romanticize the “easy” conformity of being part of an army’s ranks.

As another example, this fall as Production Stage Manager of the Fringe opera Dark SistersI had my first real opportunity to work closely with a lighting designer in the placing of cues in the score and calling of cues through tech. As I paper-teched with our LD, Nick Cyr, I found that we were very much on the same page about where cues naturally fell in the score. I was sometimes able to anticipate where a cue would be even before we placed it in my calling book. Additionally, since I had had the privilege of having seen the show many times in rehearsal, I needed to describe the blocking and intention of the singers to Nick in a way that made sense from a lighting standpoint. Strong psychological motivations behind a movement were just as important as what part of the stage the move to, because such motivations affect the atmosphere of a scene that will be reflected in the lighting. The few times when we weren’t able to specifically nail down where a cue should be placed in paper-tech, I was able to suggest places for it based on how a specific moment “felt” to me. This did not feel calculated or methodical. It felt like artistry. I was in the opera, and could sense its movement and intention from all directions. I understood how the director felt about each moment, as well as the way the singers interpreted that direction in their own performances. All of this is crucial to collaboration with a designer. You must be a receptive, feeling, creatively intelligent being – not a robot who spits cues or calculates time-clocks.

After the tech process, once a show is open and the designers have moved on, there are times when I as the Production Stage Manager will be required to make artistic decisions informed by what I believe would best serve the designer and directors’ visions of the show. If the timing of a moment of blocking or intention changes in a scene, a cue that is normally called on a specific movement of a singer may need to be slightly adjusted. It is my job to adjust the calling of the cue to still serve the same purpose, creating the same feeling or effect as it was originally intended.

I also may make creative decisions on where a cue is placed based on where the LD says s/he wants a cue to complete. If the LD says the cue should happen “when the Prophet is standing on the platform,” it is up to me in my first go at calling the cue to decide where exactly the lights change will begin. I chose to call the G-O when his foot comes down on the penultimate step up to the platform, so that the lights evolved on his face as he reached the top of the platform. These are not specific directions given to me by the LD (though sometimes the direction can be that precise), but rather my own creative and artistic intuition.

In practice, I have come to discover that effective stage management involves nearly all elements of the training that I accrued in my design classes. It takes a creative sensibility and an understanding of the workings of designers’ minds to be a truly effective stage manager. We are in the unique position of performing our own artistry through the cultivation, translation, and communication of the artistry of others.

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