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Year of the Stage Manager

Stage managers typically operate in the shadows, committed first and foremost to what is happening onstage. An occupation people used to fall into, stage managers are now setting their sights on the field as early as grade school. For many of us, we cannot imagine doing anything else. The work is often thrilling. We are the first ones in and the last ones out. The personalities, the wants, the needs, the cues, the pressure, the conflict, the resolution, the spike tape, the half-hour call—if it was not worth it, we would not do it. But the truth is: we can hardly agree on what it is we actually all do.

Stage managers are incredibly adaptable creatures, a necessity informed by the ever-changing landscape of our duties from project to project. Across markets, and even just the largeness of the United States, individual stage managers are constantly redefining the profession. And while variety is the spice of a stage manager’s life, it makes it hard to advance our field forward if we cannot communicate and incorporate our different interpretations as a collective whole. Because we try to stay out of the light, our lack of visibility has undercut our advocacy and prevented many of our well-meaning colleagues from understanding what we need. Honestly, some collaborators know so little about our contributions they do not see them until something fails. It is not a lack of interest but rather a lack of time taken to share or understand what happens beyond our point of collaboration.

But now, in this Year of the Stage Manager, we seem to have all the time in the world.

a large group posing for a photo

Over one hundred stage managers in Times Square, celebrating the year 2020 as one hundred years since the Actors' Equity Association first explicitly recognized stage managers. Photo by Jason Dow.

Year of the Stage Manager Beginnings

In the summer of 2019, I started to imagine what kind of movement would shift how the performing arts community thinks and talks about stage management. I wanted to find a gesture to make stage managers more visible, with a lasting radiant effect. Sound designer Lindsay Jones—who fought to have sound artists re-recognized by the Tony Awards—took notice of my constant yearning for people to become actively curious about stage managers and my desire for cohesive advocacy amongst my colleagues. Lindsay saw an affinity between the sound and stage management communities, two respected groups surrounded by a general lack of education about the finer details of our experiences. He wondered what would happen if an entire year was dedicated to celebrating stage managers. I wondered too: Could we educate the masses in a campaign driven by the community? Could we make the stage management cohort stronger just by taking a moment in the limelight? Would our colleagues be interested? Would stage managers?

By simply deciding to amplify the stage management experience for a finite amount of time, the Year of the Stage Manager 2020 was born. A moment, a movement, a grassroots endeavor meant to make visible those who continually operate in the background, who make the show happen. Aside from the longstanding Stage Managers’ Association, we have rarely found opportunities to communicate with one another at large, to share our experiences, to find strength in each other. Even in the jargon of our own labor unions, we are often referred to as “Actors” to streamline contract language—in fact, if you work in theatre, your labor union excludes you in its name. We are seldom credited in press releases. We are rarely recognized publicly, at events like awards shows. Yet it is universally understood that without us, if we failed to do what we do, shows would be left in the dark.

With a simple mission statement—to celebrate stage managers and educate people about what we do—2020 was off to a promising start. We chose bright orange as a signature color, the perfect antithesis to the head-to-toe dark clothing we wear backstage. We had a logo. We had T-shirts. We had little resistance, although some: a few stage managers angrily thought we were asking for a Tony, others thought we had no use for visibility as it was our job to be unseen. A couple people needed to believe a preexisting entity created the campaign, an untruth I made little effort to correct, preferring their support regardless of the misinformation that brought them to the movement. As we were gaining speed and participants, the campaign was recognized in articles and by employers. We were finally having conversations about the minutiae of the job that textbooks and training programs often cannot cover and were creating a space for thousands of us to ruminate over everything from resume format to retirement, at no cost.

Because we try to stay out of the light, our lack of visibility has undercut our advocacy and prevented many of our well-meaning colleagues from understanding what we need.

The Impact of COVID-19

As with all best-laid plans, 2020 clearly came with its own challenges. COVID-19 struck, leaving thousands of stage managers out of work and fearful for their health and well-being. Comments were quickly made about how the Year of the Stage Manager should have expected no less, there being no population better equipped to handle such unprecedented circumstances. We wondered: Will we survive this thing? Could we still find a livelihood? Would the performing arts and events recover? Would we be rendered obsolete in the virtual world? We were thankful to have gathered together before the pandemic took over, making it easy to hold onto one another in the fog, and it seemed the pause provided us the perfect audience in our collaborators; we were given an unusual opportunity to shed light on stage managers.

I was encouraged by the common enemy that is COVID-19—it felt like the asteroid we all needed in order to find greater unity. With a Facebook group of over seven thousand participants, the Year of the Stage Manager has been able to connect people around the world to share methodology, experience, and comradery. Riddled with growing worries about the unknown, the community became a comforting touchstone for many and a place to navigate the pivoting of our skill set to other possibilities. While we do not always agree, there is no denying the endeavor has made us stronger across generations, time zones, and unique arenas. Free webinars, interviews with professionals, self-marketing advice, access to jobs, podcasts, instructional videos, and professional and personal relationships all sprang from the collective—the intention always being that, as the commitment to the campaign grew, so too would the opportunities for participants to share their own journeys and gain know-how in return. There is even a Year of the Stage Manager 2020 Instagram, allowing individuals to share a slice of their lives with day-long takeovers. Working groups have been formed and the Year of the Stage Manager has been extended to eighteen months, through June 2021, to let the campaign reach its full potential.

We decided that while the campaign would retain its mission statement, to celebrate and educate, it could not continue without centering who and what had for too long gone unrecognized by the majority of our field.

A Community of Accountability

With the murder of George Floyd and the current social uprising, it became clear that many white stage managers, including myself, have actually always been “the asteroid”—unconscious, unyielding, and unchecked when it came to the experience of our Black, Indigenous, colleagues of color. Much like the performing arts in the United States, the roots of stage management are tangled around white supremacy culture, further perpetuated by the fact that a majority of working stage managers are white. We white stage managers have always had the power to step out of our own experience, to see what was happening beyond our own journey, but seldom did in an effective way. It was, sadly, not until 2020 that many of us saw the truth, one that has been present for hundreds of years in the United States. With Year of the Stage Manager, we decided that while the campaign would retain its mission statement, to celebrate and educate, it could not continue without centering who and what had for too long gone unrecognized by the majority of our field.

The Year of the Stage Manager quickly became an accountability community. We are now coming together to make action by asking questions of ourselves and our working culture, such as: What is the stage manager’s role in addressing racism in the rehearsal studio? What can stage managers do to ensure there is greater representation of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) in our business? Through our Questions, Answers, Action program, we are learning about white supremacy culture together and are committed to anti-racism in ourselves, our work, and in the institutions in which we take part. We are meeting on a regular basis to absorb the demands of “We See You White American Theater” and making them part of our practice. We are exploring texts and media together to let education fuel our action. We are partnering with the Stage Managers’ Association to create a production guide of resources for all stage managers to reference when making their work inclusive. We are educating ourselves and institutions about what it means to engage in gap training in our field. In the spirit of all that the campaign stands for, we are making sure people have free access to software and community-based training to aid in the professional pivot into the virtual realm, as we are committed to preventing another inequitable chasm growing between artists and their livelihood.

We are aware we might need each other more than ever in the election aftermath and that it will be easier to activate a group of several thousand people if we remain alert and connected.

Looking Ahead

As the “year” for stage managers continues, we are creating town halls in which we connect with people outside of our field to advocate for what we need and find synchronicity in our expectations of the performing arts of tomorrow. We are learning from each other how our skill set translates to other industries. We are orchestrating letter-writing campaigns, asking institutions to change how they hire stage managers, and demanding producers credit us along with our collaborators. We are ensuring our community is safe from inappropriate pandemic-related responsibilities as we slowly, but most certainly, return to rehearsal studios and theatres. We are dedicated to protecting new stage managers from the abuse of unpaid gigs and misleading internships. We are committed to making five-day rehearsal weeks possible and learning how to tech without ten-out-of-twelves. We are trying to listen to each other for understanding and in turn be more inclusive of all experiences in our community. For some participants, we simply remain a dependable institution—a beacon of hope at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel and a partner in the dark as we find our way through. And, hopefully, the education we are affording one another will get us closer to defining our work.

It is not lost on the Year of the Stage Manager community that the upcoming elections in the United States have everything to do with our industry’s recovery and our commitment to social justice. Many stage managers are working on political campaigns across the country. Some are organizing, hosting Zoom events, and managing phone banking. Some are even running for office, while others are volunteering their time to get people registered and writing postcards to combat voter suppression. As a group, Year of the Stage Manager is getting people connected with programs and efforts so they can get involved, stay active, and remain diligent. We are holding events to call people in who have time to give but are overwhelmed by the possibilities. We are aware we might need each other more than even in the election aftermath and that it will be easier to activate a group of several thousand people if we remain alert and connected.

a person standing backstage

Amanda Spooner backstage during a rehearsal. Photo by Molly Shea.

My goal was to grow Year of the Stage Manager to a point at which it was not synonymous with me, so imagine the accomplishment I felt when someone recently asked if I had ever heard of it. What started as an effort to turn the lights up bright on a group of people, to educate colleagues (and ourselves) about what we do, and to celebrate our field has matured into so much more. And we are only halfway there. Although the campaign is the satisfying intersection of my two favorite things—stage managers and community—I want people to one day wonder why it was ever necessary. I hope so much change for stage managers comes from this time that we cannot trace the growth to the catalyst. I want the education and recognition to seep so deeply into the collective consciousness that the need for a visibility campaign is hard to imagine.

As designed, the campaign will eventually come to a close and we will go about our business—yet not business as usual. Nobody can go back to what we knew. And while the Year of the Stage Manager might be complete, we will still have our growth and the fellowship we have found in each other. We will still be there, as constant as the dim radiance of our flashlights, our presence made stronger even though we will have returned to the wings.

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