So, What Does A Stage Manager Actually Do?

Every live theater production is made up of many moving parts to ensure that things run smoothly. You have your performers, of course, and a director who brings their vision to life by making decisions, such as where performers should stand and how they should move, as well as helping them to think critically about the script and make carefully considered acting choices. Then, you have designers who create concepts for the set, costumes, lights and sound in order to build a new world onstage and enhance what the director wants to show to the audience by putting on the production. All of these technical components are carried out in real time by crew members who operate light and sound equipment, move set pieces, organize props and help performers change from one costume to another. All of these important pieces come together and are united under one very important figure: the stage manager. 

As a stage manager, many of my friends who don’t do theater have asked me what my job entails, and, I can’t lie, it is sometimes hard to describe. I wear many hats when working on a show, from safety manager to notetaker to motivational speaker. Stage management allows for one person to be an intermediary between the artistic, the technical and the logistical. 

The stage management process often begins with auditions. Stage managers make audition forms, assist the director in organizing materials and keep the process running smoothly and on time. They also work on logistics such as drafting emails to auditionees, coordinating scheduling and ensuring that the cast chosen will be able to attend rehearsals. 

During the rehearsal process, there are a few key components of the stage manager’s day-to-day responsibilities. The number one priority is to ensure that the people involved in the production are always safe, both physically and emotionally. That means always sweeping the rehearsal space to make sure there are no screws and nails on the floor, educating everyone about potential safety hazards in the space and making yourself available and approachable so that people feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you. In particular, when working on my most recent production, “Hurricane Diane,” it was important to create space for time to discuss consent and boundaries due to the physical intimacy component of the production. I also helped coordinate meetings with SPARQ peer tutors to discuss the themes of queerness embedded in the show.

It’s also very important to take notes during rehearsal. Stage managers are responsible for sending a rehearsal report to the production team (i.e., designers, the technical director, and other important people involved in behind-the-scenes work) each day, highlighting what was worked on in rehearsal as well as any needs that might have been discussed (like a new prop or costume piece that might be needed). That way, when production team meetings occur, the designers can be aware of potential needs or changes and be prepared to resolve them or discuss them with the director. 

The stage manager steps into their biggest leadership role during tech. Tech rehearsals are for designers to finalize the cues for lights, sound, set changes and so on. The stage manager leads everyone through this process by calling performers to stand onstage while the designers adjust lights and sound to ensure that they are seen and heard. The stage manager also helps facilitate conversations between the director and the designers to ensure that things look and sound how the director envisioned them. In addition, the stage manager must make sure that everyone is focused and on task, as tech can be a very tedious process and sometimes side conversations amongst performers and crew can be very distracting. During “Hurricane Diane” tech, one of our performers who was new to the process of tech told me that my role as stage manager was “like being the President, but so much more helpful.”

The stage manager’s most important, and perhaps most artistic, role comes in when it’s time for the show to be performed. The stage manager must “call the show,” which means directing the equipment operators when to change elements such as lighting, sound, projections and more. Calling cues is an art and contributes heavily to the flow of the show, particularly in transition moments. Ensuring that the lights, sound and visual elements turn on and off together allows for transitions to feel seamless and smooth. Calling the show is all about timing: sometimes, there are light or sound changes that need to happen on a particular word, or perhaps on a particular beat if you are doing a musical. To me, finding those moments and calling cues successfully under those circumstances is one of the most exciting things about stage management. 

At its core, stage management is about ensuring that everything runs smoothly from audition day to closing night. Whether it’s about making schedules, managing interpersonal relationships and building community, or making sure the lights change at just the right moment, every stage manager gets the pleasure of watching all the elements of their show intertwine and come to life. Sometimes stressful, often exciting and always rewarding, theater productions simply could not successfully happen without the stage manager.