Working as a stage manager is intense. Like studying for a final or bingeing the entirety of Grey’s Anatomy in a week, stage management is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. But that is what students working toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts in stage management at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance sign up for — or is it?
The eternal question lies in whether or not the training of the theatre industry’s future stage managers should be carried out traditionally or if it should constantly adapt to the current landscape of theatre. And in the middle of a pandemic, one has to wonder: Should students be the ones monitoring the COVID-19 safety of their faculty and peers? After interviewing Emily Hanlon and Harrison Hoffert, two juniors in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who also work with University Productions (UPROD), I got to know the “WWW” — not the worldwide web, but the “who, what and when” of accountability as a student stage manager.
Stage managers are traditionally known for being all about paperwork. From daily calls, cue sheets, production analysis and a multitude of other documents needed to run a production, stage managers are worth their weight in the number of trees consumed by printing. However, stage management can also be about relationship-building and communication, according to Hanlon.
“(Stage managing is) being a liaison between a multitude of departments. It is more about keeping an open line of communication between everybody involved than it is about the role itself,” Hanlon told The Daily in a virtual interview. “It is you working to serve all the other people in the production rather than running a department of your own.”
Although it involves working closely with the directors, designers and actors, stage managing is truly about “facilitating everyone’s ideas as they come together into one unified production,” Hoffert said.
However, COVID-19 has changed the nature of stage management drastically. Now, things look a little different for Hoffert: “Now that we are rehearsing over Zoom, communication over email, text or Zoom has become so much more important.”
It is also important to recognize that traditional stage management does not have the same efficiency when UPROD guidelines for rehearsal spacing are counterintuitive to the way traditional theater has been conducted in the past.
As Hanlon expressed, “I know that my management style goes beyond a stage manager; it is more about being a facilitator.” Facilitating with a proactive mindset allows stage managers to, as Hoffert said, “notice things before other people do,” which is useful in adapting to the perpetually changing virtual rehearsal process.
Working during the COVID-19 era, particularly in-person, has created a whole new set of struggles for stage managers to adapt to. In addition to their normal set of responsibilities, student stage managers now have to deal with maintaining safety in accordance with UPROD COVID-19 guidelines. Walking the line between these two distinct kinds of accountability is no easy task. “There is a high level of human error to COVID protocol,” Hanlon said. “If a director approaches an actor to give a note and isn’t mindful of the six-foot distance … it puts a stage manager, specifically a student stage manager, in a difficult position of (determining) what is COVID policing and what is stage managing.”
Added Hoffert: “It is very easy to step six feet near someone; it is very easy to take your mask off to take a sip of water, and stage managers are already in a unique role where they are already watching and staying one step ahead (of everyone else in the production).”
Both students agree that student stage managers should not be the ones to carry the entire weight of a production’s health and safety on their shoulders.
“I think there are improvements that can be made,” Hanlon said. “Always finding ways of taking the (COVID-19) responsibility off students is important.”
Steps have been taken to address this concern. “In the fall, it was shop heads (maintaining COVID-19 policies), and now there are house technicians who are responsible,” Hoffert assured. “The Health and Safety Coordinators are responsible for walking around and making sure we are following protocols.”
Added Hanlon: “The days I felt the safest and the COVID policies were most enforced were days when someone who was not involved in the project, who didn’t even know what we needed to accomplish for the day was there, because their only interest was maintaining COVID protocol. I think one of the difficulties of a student stage manager is setting boundaries.”
Conversations about theater accountability need to account for the fact that stage managers are already asked to invest 110% of their effort in order to “succeed” in normal circumstances. In the current theatrical climate, when theaters are reopening under the constraints of rigid COVID-19 regulations, stage managers have to find ways to make time for safety while already trying to juggle the rest of their responsibilities. Is asking this much of stage managers simply part of the job, or is it something that needs to change?
“I personally think UPROD asks … me to do the job of a professional filling the role, which is demanding, but that’s what I signed up for,” Hoffert said. “We came here to do the role, we came here to do the entire job and it is hard as a student and is a lot to do, but it gives us a great life experience we can take with us later.”
Added Hanlon: “I would say all stage managers are overworked, period. I hope to see the death of this ‘perfect stage manager’ ideology.”
To put it simply, I agree with Hanlon. As a costume designer, I have often seen stage managers be pushed to the side for the sake of getting the scene just right. It is not okay for stage managers to be the last defense for accountability in the theatre world. To ask stage managers — unpaid student stage managers at that — to be overworked for the sake of meeting the “industry standard” is a futile waste of the University’s vast resources and influence.
The path to allow stage managers to voice their concerns about COVID-19 safety is a difficult one, but it is one that the Department of Theatre & Drama signed up for when agreeing to the terms of the Department of Theatre & Drama strike this past fall. According to the demands of Theatre & Drama students for stage managers, and by agreeing to “prioritize wellness,” one might cynically suspect that the department would take the easy way out. (I’m looking at you and your two “wellness days,” University President Mark Schlissel).
On the contrary, the Department of Theatre & Drama, specifically the design and production faculty, have done a great job of hearing the concerns of their student stage managers. “I appreciate production manager Paul Hunter (and stage management faculty Nancy Uffner) because they hold those student demands very highly in the work they do,” Hanlon said.
Hoffert agreed. He added that it is important to have “grace for people and understanding that everyone’s going through different situations daily, and then having the grace to deal with those situations.”
With regard to the effect that COVID-19 will continue to have on theatre, Hanlon said, “Things are going to change, and as much as everybody wants things to go back to the way they were, I don’t think they ever will, so why cling to them when we can try new things, important things.”
There is still work to be done. Although both Hanlon and Hoffert believe that positive change has occurred, Hanlon remarked that “the seriousness that (Theatre & Drama strike) demands are taken is more from professor to professor, rather than the unity of a department.”
The question posed in the title is rhetorical, but it is one of the fundamental questions in stage management. Whose job is it?
Without defining the role of a stage manager, you are creating an unjust workplace. Without explicitly asking for feedback from a stage manager, you are creating inequity. Theater needs to start asking more questions, and not the softball kind, but the kind that will end this unattainable perfection that is asked of stage managers.
Daily Arts Contributor Matthew Eggers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.