July 19, 2012

I Love the Smell of Office Supplies in the Morning:
A Brief Introduction to Stage Management

Alandra Hileman
Stage Manager


Whenever I first tell people I’m in theater, the conversation generally starts off like this:

Random Person: “How cool!  Are you an actor?”

Me: “Not anymore.  I mostly stage manage now.”

Random Person: “Oh. Okay. What’s that?”

Stage management is definitely one of the least glamorous jobs in theater and, if you’re doing it right, also one of the least visible. There is no Tony Award for Stage Management, and even if there was there would be no one to accept it; all the nominees would be off running shows.  So, I’m going to do my best to shed a little light on the mysterious and shadowy world of life behind the stage.

A Brief (and Possibly Fictional)
History of Stage Management

In the history of theater, stage management is still relatively new. Since the SMs are usually too busy writing rehearsal reports and filling out building acquisition requests to contribute memoirs to the annals of time, we don’t have an exact date for the beginnings of the position. The concept of a stage manager seems to date back to Shakespeare (hey!) and Molière, although there is no record of what they actually did. (Some suggest their first job may have been as bouncers who kept non-company members from sneaking backstage.) Finally, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, everyone figured out that letting actors and playwrights manage everything as well as write and act was somewhat overcomplicated (especially with the advances in stagecraft and technology that were occurring), and so two distinct positions eventually evolved: the director, in charge of the creative elements of the play, and the stage manager, in charge of logistics, scheduling, and coordinating all the other personnel involved in the production.

Okay, But What Does a Stage Manager Do?

The inevitable conclusion of every stage management team meeting.

Short answer: everything.

Well… not really, but some days it feels like it. The stage manager’s job usually starts months before the rehearsal process, attending meetings with the director and designers to take notes and build the schedules that will carry the production through to completion.  Although rehearsals for Hamlet and Merry Wives didn’t begin until June, I began attending production meetings and assisting at auditions in January. Because LSF works in repertory, we have the advantage of having two stage managers (yay!); however we also have the added challenge of having to schedule simultaneous rehearsals in two cities needing the same actors (resulting in many late-night phone calls and early-morning coffee-shop invasions as the SMs played what we started calling “scheduling Tetris”). Throughout rehearsals, the stage manager keeps the room running on schedule, keeps communications open between the director and designers, and of course, keeps notes on the staging, props used, costume changes, and all the other paperwork that will eventually become the master book during the run of the show. (The stage manager also functions as a psychiatrist, pharmacist, shuttle driver, and general handyperson during rehearsals. Unsurprisingly, many of us are also licensed bartenders.) Once performances roll around, the stage manager’s job is still a lot of paperwork – checklists before and after each show, reports on running times, and lists of cues. Traditionally, the stage manager “calls” the show, telling separate light and sound operators when to take cues. However, given the outdoor venue used by LSF, traditional calling is very difficult; the SMs are running their own light boards for these shows, and we’re lucky enough to have fantastic musicians who handle all the sound themselves!

Stage Manager Alandra Hileman in the light booth behind the audience.

But Where’s the Fun in Paperwork?

Maybe I’m the exception, not the rule, but for me the fun of stage management is the organization. By taking on the mundane (and yes, occasionally boring) lists and schedules, the stage managers free the directors, actors, and designers to focus much more of their time and energy on letting their creative juices flow. Plus, I get the fun of being the problem solver.  Every night of Hamlet, I sit behind the audience and talk to my fantastic ASM on the radio so we can figure where the letter went (inside the actor’s pants pocket, as we suspected), what to do if one of the fencing gloves ever actually goes missing (conveniently, we have one right-handed actor and one left-handed, so they can share a pair), and of course, how to strike broken, misplaced, or windblown props and set pieces in the middle of a show (very, very carefully). We have a rigged costume, several quick changes, a sword fight (well, two…sort of), live music, a nontraditional playing space, and a half-ton Pageant Wagon that has to get moved just about every other show night.

If we’re doing our jobs right as stage managers, the audience never sees or thinks about any of those things. They’re too busy being transported with the actors to the Forest of Windsor or the Castle of Elsinore, and we’re there to make sure nothing brings any of them back until the last bow has been taken. So please, pay no attention to the lady or gent behind the roadcase, and enjoy the show.

Next week, Keena Batti, a newcomer to Livermore Shakespeare Festival, will share her impressions as an audience member and volunteer with the company.