We’ve been making lists the wrong way.
You may think I’m crazy. After all, what’s the big deal? You think of things, you put them on a list, you do the things. The problem lies in the reason we make them to begin with.
Picture a chef, getting ready for dinner service. Before a rush of diners crowd into the restaurant, he or she carefully plans the menu for the night. Even if it is a menu that's been served a thousand times. Check inventory, prioritize food preparation, instruct the team on the particulars of service, and so on. The work is a vital component to executing a successful evening. This is a chef's pre-production. Can you imagine what might happen if even the most basic of these steps were not taken?
Stage management and event production are no different. How can you expect to start a show with no plans, no research, and no road map? It doesn't matter whether pre-production is part of your contract or you simply need to find holes in your own schedule to do a little prep work. What you do before Rehearsal #1 will have a profound impact on your work efficiency down the road. Pre-production needs to be treated as part of the show. Period. Not something that may or may not happen. It must be a full part of your creative process. Though you may find your own rituals over time, here are some best practices of great stage managers.
Explaining what I do is always a strange experience. Especially to those who aren’t in the industry. Stage Managers are in charge of so much and coordinate so many aspects of a production. It can be difficult to explain the full spectrum of responsibilities and jobs that they do. I found Broadway stage manager Michael J Passaro’s description best:
“The role [of as stage manager] is really a hybrid of a chief executive officer and chief operating officer in our version of a Fortune 500 company. With those two role models in mind, we’re in charge of setting the tone, atmosphere, and culture for the rehearsal space. There’s also the day-to-day logistics of delivering that show to an audience eight times a week.”
Sound exciting? See yourself making a career in stage management? Wonder what a day in the life looks like (and how much coffee is consumed)? Read on.
We're pleased to introduce a new contributor to our blog, Kirk Laing. Kirk is a current graduate student, pursuing a Master's in Stage Management at Columbia University in New York City. For his first article, he shares his thoughts on the pros and cons of the technical theatre graduate school experience.
Choosing to pursue a master’s program is never easy. It is a significant time commitment and the expectations only increase from what you experience in undergrad. But for me, as I approach the end of my own grad school journey, I can honestly say it has been the most valuable experience I’ve ever had. It has helped me develop the key skills I need to be a better collaborator, artist, and leader. Skills that can allow others to more readily trust in me to take on new challenges.
But nothing is perfect, right? And you’ve got to make your own decision. So here’s my unfiltered take on the good, the bad, and the miscellaneous takeaways that come with choosing to get your master's in stage management.
A lot of articles you read these days about how to become a stage manager focus on how hard the work is, how difficult it is to find jobs, how little money you’re going to make, or even how all the good positions are taken.
There are so many amazing ways to create a successful career. The trick is to change your perspective. Take some time to expand upon the definitions that have been presented to you up to this point and suddenly, the pool of jobs for stage managers you could be hired for expands significantly.
Last week, I had the privilege to attend two amazing educational events. The first was the inaugural Broadway Stage Management Symposium, a packed weekend of discussions, networking, and panels with some of Broadway’s most seasoned professionals. The second was Tinc Productions’ Management Intensive, a weeklong, hands on program designed to provide a glimpse into the world of producing and managing live events. I’ve come away with a few practical tips for stage managers and other aspiring event professionals that have already started to make an impact on my daily work.
It has been a whirlwind 10 months since Propared first embarked on this amazing journey to transform the processes by which we all manage live events. This week we proudly launched Propared in full Beta testing, inviting the first users into the system that can actually supplant the "old way" of live event management. We'll be hearing from CEO Ryan Kirk in the coming days about what this time has been like. But today, we want to spend a bit of time talking about the massive shifts in our industry over the past 5-10 years and how we see Propared stepping up to support it moving forward.
We came across an amazing article written by Rebecca Novick, founder of San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theatre Company. In it, she makes a bold case for putting artists and the work at the center of a company's financial/business decision making. In other words, a theatre or artistic collective is only as good as the art it produces and the quality of the art relies solely on the procurement and retention of the highest quality of artists. So if an institution has, over time, engaged seriously talented individuals and that institution has benefited from the work, great, right? That institution is now worthy of our patronage and financial support forever. Hang on, Ms. Novick writes. Past success alone should not be a reason for continued support of that institution. It is the artists - new, seasoned, and master - that we should invest in and it is the institution's responsibility to nurture that talent. Ultimately, she writes, what does it matter how this art is produced and in what house? Administration and support should grow up around the art out of necessity. Art should not be procured in an attempt to "pay for" that system.
Some very big ideas - granted, her piece was written in 2011. But looking at the events of the past few years, clearly, something needs to change. Let's start with some big news over the past two months. We were saddened to hear of the continued struggles of the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC), as it fights to regain solvency and retain its powerful voice in the development of thoughtful, provoking new American theatrical work. There is still a distinct possible the company will find angels in the community to financially support it for its 40th season and beyond.
(Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)
However, there was no 11th hour reprieve for San Jose Repertory, which was forced to shutter its doors under increasingly heavy financial obligations and decreasing sales (side note: erstwhile SJ Rep artistic director, Rick Lombardo is currently helming The Snow Queen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, having first premiered it in San Jose in 2013). Carousel Dinner Theatre in Ohio, Intiman in Seattle, Theatre of the Stars in Atlanta, NYC Opera...the list of reorganized, gutted, or outright shuttered companies over the past 5 years, many of them venerable old standards is alarming.
While there is no smoking gun that points to the crux of the problem, one thing is certain. This damaging cycle hurts individual artists, managers, and stage crew the most. When a company goes under, not only does an artist lose an outlet for work, the very freedom and creativity that ultimately drives them to take on so many different projects becomes stifled in a search for "safe" and "secure" employment. It is completely understandable. How long can a person be expected to take risks without the promise of stability? Doubtless this applies to producers and managers as well. Bills need to be paid - it must be incredibly difficult to make the decision to pass on a new, challenging piece of art because it won't meet debt obligations the way a 40th revival production of an older, tested work will.
As freelancers ourselves, we understand this stress. And we also know that we can't change the decisions that companies make - how to staff, create, market, and innovate within their frameworks (for-profit or non). What we can do is try to offer as much power and efficiency as we can to the individuals. This is one of the principal tenets behind the development of Propared - to give the power back to the artist. And when we say artist, we truly believe that everyone who works on a show or a live event production is an artist in his or her own right. When we lay a foundation of sound business practices, it can create a greater sense of freedom, encourage more risk taking, and hopefully increase the engagement of our audiences. We would see longer careers, increased diversity and variety of work, and stability where there is currently little to none.
Of course, Propared is just a program, right? Or is it part of the new way artists create and manage live events in years to come?
We at Propared are always seeking out new and inventive ideas that push the arts forward. So you can imagine how excited we were to come across an amazing new application from the creative minds at 2wice. The artistic nonprofit based in New York City lives at the intersection of art and technology – generating work that educates and inspires through alternative mediums. Its most recent app, entitled Passe-Partout is no exception and it gets a lovely walkthrough this week, courtesy of the New York Times.
This got us thinking about our role in education. What is our responsibility to not just build a product that aids our colleagues today, but assists in developing the stage and production managers of tomorrow? Passe-Partout is providing new insight into what it means to choreograph. This has serious implications not just for fans of the art form but for aspiring choreographers seeking creative spark from novel sources.
So how does Propared get involved in education? And what exactly does it mean to “educate” someone?
Many of our colleagues came through traditional institutions of higher learning – they studied and honed their craft. Many of them would also tell you that the real learning didn’t happen until they booked their first jobs. With complete respect to teachers everywhere, this is completely understandable and natural. There is only so much a person can absorb by watching. Eventually, we must get out and DO. We must be thrust into a real environment with real problems, real stress and learn on the fly. Yes, make mistakes but also learn. Allow our supervisors and managers to educate us in the methods they have developed over years of trial and error. Some companies out in the corporate world believe so strongly in this principle, they create their own universities!
This has its flaws, too. We think back on our own processes and marvel at the length of the learning curve. How long it took us to get to the point where we were actually managing. Which seems crazy, in retrospect – the word manager is right in the job title!
So we come back around to Passe and Propared’s educational duty. We want to give the next generation of industry professionals a stronger, sharper, more powerful set of tools. We want to deepen our collective learning and accelerate growth potential. We want to reclaim our job titles! And most importantly, we want push our industry forward through the harnessed power of creative innovation.
Some big, hairy, awesome goals to wake us up on a Thursday, no?