Stage Manager 101: Who We Are & Why We're Important

Cristina D'Almeida

What does a Stage Manager do? It’s the hardest question I'm asked and one that people ask me almost every time I tell a person that I "SM" productions. I always struggle with where to start because there is literally so many aspects of the job. It is such a complex department of the theatre world and there is no single answer to the question. This is my approach and hopefully, I can offer some useful tips to all of you stage managers out there.

For me, I usually like to start with discussing the rehearsal period for a stage manager because it is the longest period and one where you really learn the show and the working elements it takes to make the production come to life.

One of the first jobs you have as a stage manager is putting together some simple paperwork that will help the rehearsal period stay organized. This paperwork includes sign-in sheets for the cast, a calendar of events, rehearsal report templates, daily schedule templates and contact sheets. This all sounds very basic, but you wouldn’t believe how easy it makes things if you’re looking for an email or phone number or can’t remember who was absent at the last rehearsal.

The stage manager is also the messenger between what happens during rehearsals and the members of the production team who are not normally at every rehearsal. An easy and efficient way to do this is to send out rehearsal reports. The reports allow the stage manager to record notes for the production team, explain what actually happened in rehearsal versus what was originally on the schedule, and even who was absent or late. As a stage manager, you have to know absolutely everything that goes on. A good stage manager sends these reports out after every rehearsal. Speaking for myself, I go crazy knowing I have yet to send out a report, so I don’t waste time waiting. It should never be procrastinated.  It’s very important and everyone should take them seriously.

Those are just the very beginnings of a stage manager’s job. As rehearsals start, a stage manager always has the director’s back. However, it’s important to know and understand the line that is between a stage manager and a director. A director makes the artistic decisions. They have the vision of how they see the production. They’re the inventive force to the show. A stage manager takes that vision and helps bring it to life in a technical sense. They add their technical point of view while keeping things organized. Something I always tell myself before I stage manage a production is to never, ever get involved in any artistic decisions and never state my opinion unless it is asked of me. That is a very important guideline to follow.

 Winnie Lok works  behind the scenes as a stage manager . (Photo/The Hinge Collective)

Winnie Lok works behind the scenes as a stage manager. (Photo/The Hinge Collective)

As rehearsals move forward, and as the director starts to block the show, it is the stage manager’s job to record that blocking in a neat way in their script. That way, if an actor has a blocking question, or forgets their blocking, not only does the director have it in their notes, but so does the stage manager. It is good to have information like that recorded in multiple places. How you record the blocking is an interesting concept and skill.

Because director’s often move quickly and may block a scene as the thoughts come to their mind, it’s always helpful for the stage manager to be skilled in a form of shorthand. There are many symbols and ways of doing this that you can find online. There is no single way of taking down blocking. It’s whatever makes it easier for you and whatever you’re able to read and understand later on if there is ever a question. My biggest tip is always to write in pencil. Essentially, as things move forward, you’ll have two scripts. One for blocking and one for calling cues. Your calling script isn’t created until tech week and the performances begin. I can’t emphasize enough how important a neat script is. These are the things employers look at when hiring a stage manager.

If you have an assistant stage manager, they usually will not take down any blocking. The role of an ASM (as many people call it), is to track props and set pieces throughout the show and of course be of any assistance for the stage manager. An ASM’s job always involves making a lot of backstage paperwork in order to keep things organized. I’ve been an ASM many times and I do have to say I enjoy it quite a bit. An ASM’s home is backstage while a stage manager’s home is in the booth. I like both settings for many reasons. Being in the booth offers me a quiet place to call the show and have time to just be with the script and concentrate on what is in front of me. I like the backstage life as well because it is just the opposite. Sometimes I need that excitement and I like seeing everything that is happening. I was always taught that the ASM is the second pair of eyes and ears for the stage manager and is the stage manager’s voice for the backstage life. There are many distinct differences, but they are always a team. For example, an ASM can be “on book” during rehearsals as they say it, while the actors are “off book” and while the stage manager is doing something else. An ASM gives the necessary assistance to a stage manager because they can’t possibly do it all.

When tech week hits, it is usually the ASM’s job to produce any backstage paperwork for prop and set piece presets. This paperwork is vital to the backstage life of a production. Not only is it good to have notes of where everything goes, but it’s also helpful if you have a new person who comes in during tech week and knows nothing about the show. You can hand them the paperwork and be able to tell them that everything is there for them. It’s essential.

The stage management team, in general, is responsible for setting up props and moving set pieces during rehearsals. Even though the stage manager isn’t backstage during performances, and won’t need to move the set, it’s extremely important they understand the scene changes that happen for the sake of later calling the show and the general understanding of what is happening on the stage. So even if it won’t be the job of the stage manager, it’s important to know and understand these things. Stage managers are always mentally present and are listening and watching everything that happens. I’ve personally beat myself up a lot when I know I wasn’t fully mentally present during a rehearsal. It definitely happens, but should never become a habit. I think if it becomes a habit, then maybe it’s important to take a deeper look into the reasons and if the stage management position is something you actually want to do. It should never be forced. You have to want to do it and without that want, what’s the point? You have to care about the show so much.

Now on to my favorite part of being a stage manager. The tech and performance period is the most satisfying yet stressful part of being a stage manager. However, this is where everyone’s work pays off. The tech period is usually the week before the show opens. It’s where the director, stage manager, set designer, lighting designer, sound designer and all of your running crew, board ops and actors come together to actually “tech” the show. This is where you add the set, sound and lights, the technical aspects, to the show. Everything comes together.  Everyone is present. In fact, often times, if you apply for a position or audition for a show and you can’t make the tech dates, they won’t hire or cast you. That’s how important and essential it is to be present.

This to me is a time of focus and professionalism. It’s where the director starts to hand the show off to the stage manager. In a sense, the stage manager is now in charge of producing and running the show and bringing out all of the artistic decisions and visions in a technical way by calling the lighting and sound cues from their script. This is where the “calling script” comes in. During the actual tech process, the lighting and sound designers hand off their cues for the stage manager to write into their script. They essentially tell the stage manager where they would like cues to be called. Again, this is where it is important for the stage manager to have a neat script. In fact, after a performance, the script always stays in the booth in case the stage manager is absent for the next show (this is rare, but does happen). That way, whoever is brought in to call the show as a replacement, has the script ready for them. In fact, the script should be written in a way that anyone can read and call it. You can find many videos on Youtube of people calling shows. I find them really helpful. Many people have certain styles, but as long as it is producing the same result, it's completely fine.

Finally, one of the last things I would like to touch on is the mindset of a stage manager versus the mindset of a director. The director is the artistic brain of the show that creates this whole other world through their own visions. The stage manager is the technical brain to the show and helps bring the creative decisions of the director to life, especially when calling the show. The stage manager pieces all elements together. Although these two distinctions and differences are true, I truly believe that when a stage manager calls a show, they have to have some of that artistic brain, but not to make artistic decisions, but rather to mirror the visions of the director. For example, if a director wants the lights to fade in at a certain point, the stage manager knows how to call that cue and calls it in a technical, assertive way, however, they need to understand how and where the director wants the lights to fade in. I always find myself thinking in a bit of an artistic way as well. So I always think stage managers need some of that creative ability or they at least need to understand it.

This is basically stage management in my own words and although I’ve written a lot, I probably would have more and more to add. I’m always learning new things about this area of theatre and I think I take something away from every production I do no matter if it’s stage management or not. It’s important to expose and adapt yourself to different styles and to challenge yourself to new productions.

Absorb and take in director’s different ways of working and respect their ways. This is how we grow and learn and expand our capabilities as a stage manager. One of the biggest things I can say is this, if the passion and want and drive to make the show a success is there, you’ll have no problem, but it has to be there. There is no way around that. That’s my biggest piece of advice as a stage manager.