We have been in dialogue about race, equity, and the stage manager’s unique role within the production process since we met as graduate students at Yale School of Drama in 1992, but anti-racism was not part of our practice. The events of the spring of 2020 have compelled us to focus on the imperative work of anti-racism and share those practices with our students.
When writing our recently published book, Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice: Cultivating a Creative Approach, we compared notes about how our careers have unfolded over the past twenty-five years. Narda’s career as a Black stage manager has been shaped by situations including becoming the diversity expert by default, enduring racist aggression, and being either invisible or tokenized throughout a production process. Lisa, in comparison, as a White stage manager—with the accompanying and implicit privilege—lacks equivalent encounters.
Characteristics like binary thinking, a sense of urgency, and individualism are identified as white supremacist traits and are often embedded in a stage manager’s work.
Scholars and activists Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, in their seminal work Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, define white supremacy culture as “the ideology that the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color.” Our self-reflection has revealed how we’ve unconsciously and complicity upheld white supremacy culture within the production process. Characteristics like binary thinking, a sense of urgency, and individualism are identified as white supremacist traits and are often embedded in a stage manager’s work. Responsibilities that include tracking time, enforcing rules and policies, and recording and reporting information make the stage manager especially susceptible to upholding systems of oppression.
The tools and practices offered below provide the beginning of a curriculum for anti-racist stage managers.
Tool: Dismantling Perfectionism
Perfectionism manifests from white supremacy culture and asserts that the singular right way to work has been imposed by the White leaders who dominate a field.
- Stop holding up perfectionism as an essential stage management attribute. Mistakes are part of the process for all collaborators, and stage managers can model apologizing and repairing harm.
- Recognize and redirect working exclusively to attain the approval of systems and people. Aspiring to be likeable can interfere with anti-racist action.
- Understand achievement stereotypes based on race. In particular, consider the myth of Black exceptionalism—that Black people who are educated, smart, well spoken, and put together are the exceptions and atypical from the general Black population.
Tool: Research and Self-Education
The stage manager’s level of self-education combined with their formal authority has the capacity to influence anti-racist practices in others.
- Engage in an independent anti-racist curriculum by reading books and taking on the burden of responsibility to be well educated about anti-racist theory and practice.
- Seek out information from sources that have an identity different from your own.
- Educate yourself about diverse perspectives, refraining from relying on the person whose experience you need to understand. When the play has charged racial content or involves multi-racial perspectives, your research and self-education can inform your choices.
Recognize and redirect working exclusively to attain the approval of systems and people. Aspiring to be likeable can interfere with anti-racist action.
Tool: Awareness of Language
The stage manager is the person frequently establishing tone, standards for civility, and reading the room. Intentionally incorporating anti-racist language can prioritize the deconstruction of systems of oppression.
- Assess the common phrases you use and diagnose whether they carry any racist meaning. Here is a list of some examples.
- Ask yourself about any oppressed identities that you could be excluding or unintentionally harming. Remove this language from your vocabulary and speak up as an ally when you hear racist language.
- Establish boundaries when racist language is part of the content of a play, clearly stating how that language will be used by different members of the company. This strategy is especially important for stage managers who will prompt or stand-in for a particular character.
- Rehearse saying specific racial identifiers aloud as part of anti-racist practice. Fear or discomfort can surface when naming collaborators as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian.
Tool: Active Allyship
The stage manager can employ allyship practices that demand courageous risk and specific daily action.
- Speak up as an ally and stage manager, taking on the responsibility of disrupting and interrupting racist aggression towards non-White colleagues who have been harmed.
- Question microaggressions that are typically normalized in the production process, like a White colleague commenting that a Black actor speaks Shakespeare well, a White director asking a Black performer to “fix” their natural hair, or comments that a Black artist only got the position due to their race. Other allies in the room share the responsibility of informing collaborators of discriminatory behavior.
- Recognize that everyone is impacted when one person is oppressed. White stage managers who are allies might be afraid of other people assuming they are speaking for, or silencing, a marginalized person. However, it is powerful for a White ally to speak for themselves and quickly and loudly name when racist behavior is present.
Tool: Opening Conversations by Acknowledging and Naming
The stage manager is uniquely positioned to lead by example and directly address unspoken racial dynamics that influence the production process.
- Acknowledge the racial composition of the room and explicitly state the racial dynamics in response to the work being produced. For example, stating to the company that you are part of an all-White stage management team managing an entirely Black cast. Or, naming that you are the only non-White member of a creative team. This practice fosters transparency by accepting that our individual racial identities have an impact on the process.
- Manage casual comments rooted in racism and unintentional microaggressions by identifying stereotypes within the work, such as Black bodies seen as property or criminal, “the magical Negro,” or “the Latin lover.”
- Recommend that the director and creative team open conversations about race, racial identities, code-switching, and racial stereotypes during the early days of the process. For example, opening conversations about costumes, hair, and makeup are especially important since, even within a multiracial cast, the default might be to white skin color and hair texture.
Rehearse saying specific racial identifiers aloud as part of anti-racist practice. Fear or discomfort can surface when naming collaborators as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian.
Tool: Compassion, Transparency, and Holding Space
The stage manager can manage the daily process with compassion and can engage in transparent communication in service of removing perceptions of policing and overseeing, and to debunk notions of stage managers as officers. These anti-racist practices are especially important when the stage manager’s racial identity has historically oppressed the cast member’s racial identity.
- Listen, hold space, and advocate for non-White company members who share with you that they are experiencing racial aggression from another collaborator.
- Inform the company transparently that rehearsal and performance reports are for the creative and production teams to share information, not documents used to implicate performers.
- Reveal why your stage management track necessitates following a particular cast member or checking-in on certain performers at specific times. Typically, the reasoning has to do with safety and other circumstances. Sharing this information can alleviate feelings of being surveilled or not trusted.
- Apply a compassionate tone and demeanor when responding to lateness, prioritizing the person over the task.
- Allow the consequences embedded in a policy or guideline to be the penalty instead of punishing a performer with your words or behavior when a rule has been broken.
The tools and practices outlined above are the foundational beginning of our anti-racist stage management curriculum. Our work has been informed by many, including Jones and Okun, Ibram X. Kendi, Nicole Brewer, and the Diversity & Inclusion Department at Actors’ Equity Association. Our commitment to anti-racist stage management is imperative in this moment of awareness and vitally important in the creation of a truly just and equitable American theatre.