STAGE MANAGERS AS ARTISTIC COLLABORATORS
In the world of theatre, there is professional and regional disagreement about the Stage Manager’s role as collaborator or facilitator. Should we be invited and able to collaborate artistically, or should the Stage Manager simply relay information and do only as we are told? While working toward my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage Management from DePaul University, I was taught the importance of Stage Managers as Artistic Collaborators.
Granted, many of the Stage Manager’s tasks are administrative or regulatory, but so much of what we do is incredibly artistic and creative in nature. Paperwork, for example, often seems rudimentary to the outside eye. But to make one piece of paperwork that is jam-packed with information, simple to understand, easy on the eyes, and useful? That is art. To create a piece of paperwork that is clear and functional can be more difficult than people expect. Every show has different needs and may require alterations to your “standard formats”. On a show I worked on back in 2018, our team’s standard run sheet format just wasn’t cutting it. It served its purpose as far as a runsheet goes, but it certainly wasn’t a one-stop-shop for all the information we needed to run the show. We would have still needed to make an additional “door plot” to track the scenic shifts that were rampant throughout the show. Of course, that gets into the messy territory of referencing two separate pieces of paper to guarantee a smooth performance. We needed to turn on our creative thinking to figure out how to merge all the information we needed into one document in a way that didn’t turn the whole thing into a complicated, hard-to-read mess. Ultimately, we created a clean running sheet with cast entrances, exits, SM cues, prop tracking, scenic shifts, and door tracking all in one. Cookie-cutter paperwork may not be what’s best for the show and the folks working on it. SMs need to dig into their creativity and not just go with something because it worked the last time around.
Cat during tech.
Cue calling may be the easiest argument for SMs as facilitators. Afterall, we’re generally told what the number is and where to call it, right? It seems straight forward enough, but I disagree. I think there is a lot of artistry that goes into cue calling, and many Stage Managers have a different way of performing their art. Yes, you are given cue points, but you’ll find more success in your calling if you understand what the cue does. The designers will not have seen the show as many times, and worked as closely on it, as you, the Stage Manager. You’re the link between the designers and everything that has been happening in the rehearsal room. Knowing all you know, working with the designers and director to foster their creative vision could, dare I say it, be considered collaboration! In my early days as an SM, I remember a tech experience where my lighting designer wanted me to call a cue on a particular word. I did it, and it looked…odd. The designer took some time to adjust timing and then we tried again. Same cue point, still odd. Readjust. Tried again. Odd. After what felt like forever adjusting the timing of this cue, I finally asked what the cue was supposed to do. They described what the goal was and the time of the fade. We tried it again, but I called the cue in a different place. Voilà! Perfect! All that back and forth could have been avoided if I had enquired earlier and if the designer had relied on me as a collaborator with extensive knowledge of the blocking. At the end of the day, we both have the same goal of making the show look fantastic and run safely.
Beyond all the typical duties of the Stage Manager, there is the wild card that makes live theatre so appealing to many folks in our industry: the chance of things going wrong. With the creative thinking that goes into speedy problem solving, I absolutely believe that what we do is an art. In live theatre, we all know unforeseen things can happen. The artistry comes in the ability of the Stage Management Team to handle unexpected mishaps in a way that is largely undetectable to the audience.
I have experienced live performances where scenery gets stuck and the SM team must frantically fix the problem in a way that still appears cool, calm, and collected. One of my favourite moments of problem solving was when I woke up to a text from a cast member of Peter Pan and Wendy conveying that they were unwell and likely contagious. In the interest of keeping the entire cast and crew from going down, I called the director and told him that we had a cast member out but that I’d figure out what to do. That morning, I sat at a coffee shop and worked out how to replace one of the twin lost boys. Who and how would we cover that one actor’s entire track, including the additional roles she played? How would we tackle the big fight between the pirates and the lost boys? All before the 8:30a cast call, I typed up a game plan, posted it to the callboard, and informed the cast as they arrived for call. Everyone was secure with the plan and the show went off without a hitch! Because I was able to have open conversations with my director about the work being done in rehearsal, a trust and common understanding was developed. My director had full faith in my ability to problem solve and was confident that I knew the show inside and out, well enough to be able to solve what felt like a huge issue. He gave me the licence to figure out what was best for the show and the artistic vision. In the end, the audience was none the wiser that we had one schizophrenic twin that day!
It has been my experience in Singapore that Stage Managers are not universally accepted as collaborators. I think we still have a ways to go from being seen as robotic, formulaic facilitators to being seen as valued, artistic collaborators. I hope that with education and confidence, Singapore’s Stage Managers, Directors, and Design Teams can come together to work in a more participatory, synergistic way. Stage Managers are the linchpin, the centre of communication, the conduit for art-making exchanges. We have access to endless information across every element of the production. It is in the best interest of the production to utilize SMs as a resource to enhance the process. We can add so much more value above just funnelling information from one side to the other. I think it’s time Singapore’s Stage Managers are included as valued collaborator from the get-go instead of the uphill climb of proving our worth and trying to claw our way in.
We need to remember and demonstrate that we are creative, imaginative, talented, and clever. Who knows. Maybe one day we’ll even be included on the billing page of a program booklet!
By: Cat Andrade
CAT ANDRADE was born in Chicago and raised in Singapore. She earned her BFA degree in Stage Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University, Chicago. Some of her professional credits include Pangdemonium’s Rent, Dragonflies (2017), Fun Home, The Father, Dragonflies (2018), Sparks the Musical, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Wild Rice’s Mama White Snake. Recently, she has been collaborating to develop a Stage Management Workshop in an effort to mentor young stage managers.