27 April 2010

Community Theatre is Not for the Weak

And Stage Management is only for those with tough hides and ice water for nerves.

But more about that later.

Actually, no theater is for the weak. Even the "easiest" roles--what I like to refer to as breathing scenery, roles such as Third Lord from the Left, Interested Onlooker #5--require that you put yourself in the public eye for apprisal and judgement. And don't get me started on supporting actors. Bless them. Bless them a million times. The leads carry the main story line, but the supporters are burdened with making the whole damn thing work.

It's an adrenaline pumping, heart wrenching, nerve wracking experience.

Working tech, on the other hand, isn't even that relaxing.

At best, no one knows you're there. At worst, boy howdy do they ever notice you. They notice that you have completely and totally screwed up your job. And the conductor of this elephant tightrope act is the Stage Manager. Soothing the actors' egos back to the point of being able to find that motivation and/or sweet spot. Being able to account for the actors' whereabouts to the director. Giving the stage crew direction. Pointing the inconvenient shadows out to the lighting designer. Patiently explaining to that one actor in every group why leaving their costume on the floor is not acceptable. And moving to not so patient when they still haven't listened by the third run of the show. Holding your breath. The character of Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love really had it right. It truly is a business, the natural condition of which is, "one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster." Waiting for the manifiestation of the mystery in which it all turns out all right.

Far too many community theatres, high school productions, and even college drama departments hand out Stage Management positions as the booby prize. Ye gods, we can't cast her, but she's the only one we couldn't find a part for. Make her the stage manager. Some day, if you manage to get me very, very drunk, I may someday tell you about Ariel, The Worst Stage Manager in the History of the World. Even thinking about him makes me yearn for a shot.

Seriously, if your goal is for everyone to feel included, split a Second Lord. Add another Townsperson. Stick another tree in the forest, but for the love of Thisbe, don't make him the Stage Manager.

I was once introduced to a cast as their Den Mother. It's not far off. You patch scrapes. You wipe tears. You arrange logistics. You delegate. Aside from keeping an eye on the technical details and timing, you are the UberYenta. You are the person everyone looks to in a crisis.

Which is why you can't lose it. At least not in public. The cast and crew depend on you. The Stage Manager's purpose is to be depended upon. If the cast is afraid they'll hurt your feelings, how can they depend on you? How can they lean on someone who has shown themselves to be fragile? Please note that loud and belligerant is not the same as strong. Nasty is not the same as competent. And while crying isn't necessarily a sign of weakness per se, it does take people's minds off of what they need to do. It distracts. It takes the focus off of the show and puts it firmly on you. Which, if you are the Stage Manager, is the last place it belongs.

Please don't mistake me. I'm not saying that the people thrust into these situations aren't nice. I'm sure they're lovely people and in no way deficient as human beings. But if you're not someone who can maintain at least the illusion of strength in a crisis, then Stage Management is not for you. If you're not good with numbers, should you be an accountant? No. However, as Peter Hall, founder of the modern organization of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said, "Perhaps, therefore, ideal stage managers not only need to be calm and meticulous professionals who know their craft, but masochists who feel pride in rising above impossible odds."


  1. So very much YES.

    I have to say, every time I work at a new college or group as a designer that does not instill professional management skills in the SM, and then have to try to communicate through them, I thank GOD for my college. That, you know, made you work for it.

    Very, very good description.

    (whisper) Although, as a costumer, I do NOT agree with the first part of:

    "Seriously, if your goal is for everyone to feel included, split a Second Lord. Add another Townsperson. Stick another tree in the forest. But for the love of Thisbe, don't make him the Stage Manager."

    That's how we end up spending more than half a show's budget on a 15-person "Flora" chorus seen in two ensemble numbers of "Into the Woods" ;)

  2. We had one person at our wedding who did not appreciate Mike, our stage manager for the wedding, but I think he did a wonderful (if thankless) job: he kept everyone where they needed to be, called out our times and kept everyone running smoothly. I do not envy anyone the role of stage manager--it's a lot of hard work.