Stage managers: The theater's backbone


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In the theater world, they are the coaches, athletes, pilots, waitresses, interpreters, hall monitors, first-responders, drill sergeants, psychiatrists, scribes, architects, and masterminds.

And no, they are not the actors performing as various characters. They are the stage managers, behind-the-scenes players who embody each of these professions every time they take on a new production.

“It is a big job,” said Amber Lewandowski, a second-year M.F.A. candidate in stage management at the University of Iowa. “We are sometimes a counselor, a nurse, a timekeeper, a finder of lost things, a ringleader, and a janitor all at the same time.”

Stage managers in the UI Theater Department join the crew of a show in the early design phase before the actors are cast, and they stick with the production even longer than the director. In between, stage managers process the show with the scene, prop, and costume-design teams, hold cast and crew meetings, help actors learn lines and prompts, record blocking and other director notes, track attendance, write reports, choreograph technical rehearsals, train understudies, sweep the stage, set the props, facilitate communication, make sure the set is safe, and call all set changes and light, sound, and entrance cues.

“We watch the entire evolution of a show,” said UI theater lecturer Melissa Turner, a production stage manager for the Theater Department and Iowa Summer Rep and M.F.A. recipient from the Yale School of Drama. “Stage managers take the director’s vision, and we make the show actually happen each night, and we maintain it.”

For David McGraw, a lecturer in the Theater Department, this diverse responsibility means stage managers must wear the hat of both a business manager and a thespian.

“In some ways, a stage manager is the air-traffic controller for theater,” he said. “I think what sets us apart from other high-stress-management fields is we choose to work with artists. Art by its nature can be chaotic and requires a lot of emotion, so a stage manager needs a high emotional IQ and be able to support rather than suppress that creative chaos.”

This means dealing with light- and soundboard crashes, stage fright, set malfunctions, and any number of disasters that may ensue come opening night. But Lewandowski said she finds such challenges to be the thrill of the job.

“I like to say that being a good stage manager is 10 percent organization and 90 percent personality,” she said. “I think a good sense of humor and the ability to let things go is an important quality when you are dealing with stressful situations such as calling a show or working out a problem in rehearsal. I was always the responsible, active, outgoing kid in school, so stage management gave me a creative outlet to be exactly that person.”

McGraw said intuition is a virtue for stage managers.

“The hardest show for any stage manager is their second show,” he said. “In the first show, they’re just reacting to the environment, and the second show, they try to start planning — you need to be alert so you don’t fall into some routine. Much like learning a language, the more you learn, the more you find out you need to learn more.”

Despite the mental and physical stamina stage managers need, they rarely receive the level of public acknowledgement allotted to actors and directors come curtain call.

But for second-year M.F.A. student and former actor and dancer Leigh’Ann Andrews, this is just fine.

“If I still needed that recognition, I’d still be on the stage,” said Andrews, who aspires to manage Broadway musicals. “I think in the theater community, we receive a lot of recognition, just maybe not from the audience.”

Turner said such humility is an imperative for any stage manager.

“You can’t have a big ego, because a stage manager’s job can be anywhere from working with renowned actors to sweeping and mopping the stage,” she said. “You have to be a team player, [and] you have to really love what you’re doing, or you’ll be miserable.”

McGraw, who has made more than 400,000 calls in his career, said he has found his niche behind the curtain, maneuvering the chaos of theater to an audience of fellow performers.

“I cringe when actors gesture toward the stage manager during curtain call, which happens sometimes,” McGraw said. “I don’t want that kind of acknowledgement. The best acknowledgement a stage manager gets is when a new actor comes to your theater and says, ‘I heard you’re really good.’ That’s it; you don’t need any more. It’s that sort of recognition among your peers when [you know] you have really commanded respect.”

“But I still want my listing in the playbill,” he said and laughed. “I won’t give that up.”

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