I was 14 when I was introduced to professional theater. I was cast in the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino's production of Paul Dumol's “Fancisco Maniago.” As a neophyte, I was in awe of everything happening around me then – the way the actors conducted themselves during rehearsals, the Zen-like calm that enveloped our director, Nonon Padilla, the professionalism of the proceedings (I was coming from a few years of working with my mother's ragtag theater group, Workshop for Creative Survival). But one particular group in the production intrigued me the most: they were the ones who dressed in the most interesting way, acted the busiest and who seem to be the ones responsible for almost everything and anything the rehearsals needed – from copies of the script to props to coffee. I knew then that in my next production, I wouldn't be onstage but backstage with the coolest people in theater: the stage managers.
It never fails to shock me to learn that there are certain production groups that continue to regard stage managers as nothing more than gofers who make coffee for everyone in the production. Different theater companies, different directors may have different ideas of what a stage manager really is and does, but there are certain standards that define the fundamental responsibilities. Once, I was called to help out with the technical concerns of a major musical produced in Baguio and I couldn't believe that the production didn't have a stage manager! Why was that shocking? Well, let me give you an idea about what a stage manager essentially is and does:
Imagine a large office with many different departments each having its own telephone. If anybody wants to know what's going on in a production, he would first need to know which department to call and who exactly to look for. Or he can easily call that office's trunk line – one number manned by an operator who can connect him to whichever department he wishes to contact. The trunk line is what stage management is essentially about, and that operator is the stage manager – he acts as the liaison between the director and the rest of the members of a production.
Just like a large office, a theater production involves a number of people belonging to different departments – you have the artistic staff that includes the director and the designers; the production staff headed by the production manager; the technical staff headed by the technical director; the front-of-house management staff that includes the ushers; the marketing staff that includes the marketing manager, ticket office manager, etc. While the stage manager works directly with the director, he or she must know everything that's going on in a production. Basically, if anybody wants to know anything about a production, you ask the stage manager, the person responsible for the smooth running of the production process – from pre-production to post-production:
PRE-PRODUCTION - The director works with a number of different artists in a production – cast, designers, technicians – quite a headache if he would have to directly communicate with all of these people when he needs to. His alter-ego, the stage manager, takes care of that. From the time a play was chosen to be staged and a director was hired for the production, the stage manager must already be there, and together with the production manager, coordinate that nest to play production: the first production meeting between the director and the designers.
When casting, the stage manager prepares the venue and coordinates the audition process.
PRODUCTION PROPER - The stage manager ensures that the rehearsals run smoothly – making sure that the venue is prepared for it, all actors have their scripts, the rehearsal schedule is followed, all temporary props are ready. He will do everything to make it easy for everyone in the production to their job – and would not hesitate to walk the extra mile to do so (and that's probably why they're often seen making coffee for the director or the cast for he or she does whatever it takes to make a production a success). He puts together the bible of a production: the prompt or stage manager's script which contains all the information needed to run the show – from blocking to cuing.
He makes sure that the different departments are in sync with the rehearsal process – the actual props must be ready by the time the director has finished blocking the play and is beginning to conduct run-throughs; that the costumes are being made not only according to the actors size but also to the way the actor will be moving onstage; that the sets will be ready by the time they move in to the actual performance venue; the lighting and sound designers are prepared in time for the technical rehearsal, etc.
He takes note of everything the director says – from blocking to acting directions, to lighting and sound cues. He needs all these for he will be the one to run the show once it opens.
OPENING NIGHT AND BEYOND - Once I was asked to describe what a stage manager is, and I said that he or she is a negative thinker in a positive way. And that's because a good stage manager anticipates anything that can go wrong in a production, and already have a solution for it – no matter how seemingly ridiculous that problem is. He or she must know exactly what to do if a lead actor with no understudy is absent during a rehearsal (or worse, a performance); or if the power goes out during a show; an impossibly rowdy audience high school students; an earthquake; a fire; a terrorist attack! He is the one person everybody will turn to when something goes wrong. He must have an answer.
Once the dress and technical rehearsals are done, when the play opens, the job of the director is over and it becomes the stage manager's show. All cues come from him or her, from the go-signal to open the house to cuing the fading of the house lights down to half for the National Anthem to all the light and sound, entrance and exit cues during the show. If he did his or her job well during the rehearsals - taking notes properly, the job of running the show will be easier. He or she will also rely on those notes to make sure that every performance goes according to the director's vision. I always say that the Number 1 rule in stage management is: WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.
POST-PRODUCTION - And since the stage manager is the one person who knew everything that went on in a production, he is the one tasked to compile the production book which chronicles what went on in a production from day one to the last performance (even the cast party, if you will). This will make it easier for the company to re-stage any particular production in the future.
I mentioned earlier that I was intrigued by the way CCP's stage managers dressed. You would know if a stage manager is making his or her way down one of the corridors of the Cultural Center of the Philippines without looking just by listening to the jingling and jangling sounds he or she makes. The stage manager is usually dressed in the most comfortable attire possible – comfortable enough to do all the things that the actors do during rehearsals and rugged enough to be able to get down on his or her knees to hammer a nail here or there yet presentable enough to command the respect of everyone in a production. The accessories would usually include a role of masking tape on one arm and duct tape on the other. A stopwatch would hang from his neck. His belt bag is a Pandora's box that contains any imaginable thing that might be needed – Swiss knife, pain relievers, pens and pencils, markers, highlighters, cutters, scissors, etc. What cannot fit in that belt bag will be contained in his ridiculously huge bag. It took me months and months from the time I was given the chance to be a stage hand to the time I stage managed my first production to complete what is called the Stage Manager's kit, and even then I always thought that there's always one or two items missing in my kit.
In her handbook for stage managers called, “Stage Managers Do Make Coffee” (http://www.mts.net/~skirzyk/SMscoffee.htm), Carissa Dollars lists down her “10 Golden Rules of Stage Management” as follows:
1. Learn From Mistakes. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes as we practice our crafts. The best thing anyone can do is to analyze these situations and learn how to avoid making the same mistake again.
2. Don't Panic! Always remain calm, cool and collected. Never, Never yell. All Stage Managers should know the difference between raising their voices to be heard and yelling. If the Stage Manager loses it, everyone will panic.
3. Safety First! The cast shouldn't set foot on the stage unless you would walk on it barefoot. Inspect the set daily for potential problems. Are all stairs and platforms secure? Are all escapes adequately lit and glow taped? Do you know where the first aid kits and fire extinguishers are located? Who is certified in CPR and First Aid? The SM should be!
4. Plan & Think Ahead. What can be done to avoid problems? How can the Stage Managers make life easier for everyone?
5. There Are No Dumb Questions. It is better to ask and fell silly for a few seconds than to cause a disaster later.
6. Prioritize Tasks & Delegate Authority. One person can't do everything. Why do we have assistants if we don't use them?!
7. Early Is On Time. The SM should always be the first person in and the last person out of the theatre for a meeting or rehearsal. I always try to show up about 15 minutes before I really think I need to be there, just in case traffic is bad or any problems or delays occur.
8. Put Everything In Writing. In other words, be a communicator! Dated daily rehearsal notes aid in communication and help to avoid conflicts over when requests or changes were made. (Voice mail and email are also great forms of communication! Get a pager or cell phone so you are easy to reach at all times!)
9. Please & Thank You. Use these word everyday, especially when you are working with volunteers.
10. Stage Managers DO Make Coffee. They also do a million other menial tasks that are meant to make people happy and boost morale. Buy donuts, bake brownies, make sure birthdays are recognized, and hole-punch all paperwork. These little things are really appreciated by everyone.
Not too many people realize it, but the success of a production relies heavily on the efficiency of its stage manager. I was even told once that in Broadway, there are instances when a play is patronized specifically because of its stage manager. As my stage management guru, Lambert de Jesus of Tanghalang Pilipino, used to always stress to us newbies then: Just like Directing or Acting, Stage Management is a craft! And not everybody can be one! And I agree with him 100%. I have worked with countless stage managers in my career, but I can only count with one hand the stage managers whom I believe knew what they were doing and did it well.
As a stage manager, remember that it is never about you, the production always comes first. Your director will bow on opening night, you won’t. Your cast will be written about in the papers, you won’t be. Audiences will ask for everyone’s autographs, except yours. But you would know, deep in your heart, if you did what’s expected of you and what you’re really supposed to do - make it easier for everyone else to do their job - that the production would not have been a success without you.
And that feeling is priceless.