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The Privilege of Silence

I was having a conversation with a friend recently who was telling me that she’d heard that a theatre of renown in New York was specifically seeking black stage managers. At first I was a bit thrown off by this idea. “It sounds like casting,” I thought aloud. As backstage theatre-makers, we  are generally not used to our image or appearance being a primary factor in our being hired; lucky for us, that’s usually something mainly actors have to worry about. My friend replied that if you’re doing a show like A Raisin in the Sun and have a choice between two equally competent stage managers, one black and one white, you’re going to go with the black stage manager. This made sense to me. After all, a necessary part of stage management is helping to curate a safe space in which the issues of the work can be thoroughly explored. If part of the work is unpacking feelings of racial oppression, it could help to have fewer people in the room who can represent that oppression. (Some might argue against that idea, but personally, it doesn’t offend me at all.)

This got me thinking.

Stage managers are generally not asked for their opinions about the play, or its issues. We do not typically take direct part in table work. If a question is posed that specifically includes the SM, s/he will certainly answer, but otherwise it is understood to be a time for the actors to learn about the piece and ask the questions that they have.

I wonder about if the dynamic changes for a black stage manager working on a racially focused play – like Raisin in the Sun, or Rachel, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…, The Death of the Last Black Man…, etc. Even if you say nothing, there is an underlying assumption there. That you might have had experiences that relate to what is being discussed in the play, or by the actors. Whether or not you have, people may begin to form ideas about you just by your presence at the table, given your color or other physical appearance. Even if you choose not to participate, to some degree those things may inadvertently speak for you.

I, on the other hand, have the privilege of choosing to what issues I speak, and what I allow others to know about myself. I may be a stage manager of Next to Normal and have deep personal experience with suicide, but no one would ever guess or assume that of me. I may have lost a loved one to cancer and be stage managing Wit, but no one would know unless I volunteered that information. The ability to choose to be silent – and not having my refusal to speak, or just my physical presence in the room, speak for me – is a luxury that I have never before considered. The option to keep the personal personal, and without any larger assumptions made about myself.

I am aware that I write against assumptions while making several myself. I speak in the hypothetical sense, because I wish to interrogate my position of privilege – as a “neutral” stage manager, relatively speaking. Much more often I think about gender issues in theatre – the question of if being female makes me more or less likely to be hired (or perhaps neither?). And one day, maybe I’ll be sitting in rehearsal for The Vagina Monologues and someone will wonder why I’m not jumping in on the discussion (which I would do gladly, because I’ll talk sex and gender politics with anyone cynical enough to listen for hours, that’s just the kind of person I am).

But largely, this discussion makes me wonder about what a stage manager brings into the room with them, and what the expectations are (if any) that come with that.

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