Transferable Skills

by Tina Shackleford
in Feature

The production team of Good Person of Setzuan at Carnegie Mellon. In foreground, stage manager Devorah Jaffe and director Peter Kleinert.Former stage managers share what the job taught them, and how it helps them in their new position

The art and craft of stage management involves a particular set of skills for success. Yet those qualities are not unique to theatre; in fact they are applicable to many careers beyond stage management. Although these abilities may seem second nature to good stage managers, it’s gratifying to find that they are valued in many other professions. Recently I talked with three former AEA stage managers—who have taken their expertise successfully into other areas—about the portability of stage management, connections and surprises, and how they’d do returning to the field.

Making the Move

Trevor LongTrevor Long, associate director of production at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, says the decision to leave stage management during a gig with a high-profile Cirque du Soleil show was simply a matter of “OK, I am done with this now.’ The makeup of the people, the makeup of the job, what I wanted out of it didn’t mesh in the same way.” Long started thinking about “going the complete opposite of where I was,” and ended up looking at production management jobs, where he would serve the production, but not be of it. Even so, he found his stage management skills coming into play. “One of the main reasons I was hired for this position was that they were looking for someone who could be very relational to everyone: the run crew, wardrobe, technicians, designers. Someone who was capable not only of listening but also responding, a facilitator and a mediator.”

Kristin ManningFor Kristen Manning, a former stage manager and now Senior Paralegal at Wolf Group Los Angeles, it wasn’t about being done with stage management as much as a life change. “I got married and the lifestyle and the crazy paycheck and the looking for jobs wasn’t fitting with my married life,” Manning says. “Ironically, the idea of law started with the business law class in my MFA program. I kind of grokked everything taught, so I was confident I could jump into the intellectual part of being in the legal world.” Her acceptance of long hours also meant she could jump right into the field of law. “My normal day is around 10 hours, no lunch break. Sometimes when getting ready to go to trial it’s like a week of 10/12s. However, the weekend of two days does always exist, even if you don’t always get to take it.”

And some people simply realize they want to do different things. Deborah Gilboa is now a Pittsburgh-based parenting expert, family physician, international speaker, author and media expert—but there was a time when she had a steady job stage managing for Second City. “There was no stage management gig better than the one I had,” Gilboa shares. “And I loved it. But I did not think I could do it for 30 years and still love it.” She had been volunteering as an EMT and thought about going to school to become a paramedic until a friend gave her some insight into herself. “He said, ‘That’s a terrible idea. You really like to be in charge of things and to change systems and to make things run more efficiently.’ And that’s definitely all of my stage management training. Then he said ‘You’d make a terrible paramedic; you should just go be a doctor.’” She listened to his advice and now has a thriving practice. 

You Can Take the SM Out of the Theatre… 

No matter what they’re doing now, all three of our former stage managers still relied on skills they honed SM’ing. For Long, time management is still a crucial skill. “That’s the cliché answer, but it’s true,” Long says. “Managing the clock as much as managing the people. Because the different groups are going to look at the calendar and the clock very differently. Trying to insure that they’re all talking about it in the same fashion is often more difficult than it sounds.” 

Deborah GilboaOrganizational skills are at the top of Gilboa’s list. “The ability to keep 27 peoples’ schedules, personalities, needs and fervent desires in order and prioritize them is very much like triage,” she says. “The ability to figure out what is a true emergency and what someone just perceives as a true emergency is also crucial. A lot of lessons that stage managers know are really germane to medical training and medical practice.” 

She also credits her theatre work ethic for making her a better doctor. “Drama training teaches you really two things. One is if you can’t find a solution, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it just means that you’re not looking at it from the right angle. There’s no such thing as can’t, it might be more expensive than you think; it might be more time-consuming; you might need more resources or different people or a different approach, but there is almost nothing that can’t be done. That’s really helped me as a physician. The other thing I learned is that when you finish something, you say, that’s done, what else can I do? That ability to solve problems in an unrelenting, persevering way and the ability to have an excellent work ethic really sets us apart.” 

Other important soft skills include the ability to read a room. “Something big that transfers from stage management is how to understand people and what they are saying and reading body language,” says Manning. “If you’re not used to taking the temperature of a room and trying to make sure everyone is playing nicely with each other, you don’t think about doing it. When you have a client who doesn’t understand why something has to be done a certain way, and you have to pick up on the miscommunication and find a common thread, you realize it’s like translating the director’s desires to the designer. Being able to figure people out is also where the job really translates.”

Bolder and Wiser

But it’s not just a one-way street. The new paths Gilboa, Long and Manning have taken have taught them things about stage management as well. 

“The truth is there’s a big cultural push to not be judge-y, and yet using judgment is a crucial part of doing a good job, as a physician and as a stage manager,” says Gilboa. “You don’t get to feel good about not judging, at the price of their life or their child’s life.” 

As far as returning to the field, “There would be a great learning curve to get back and remember everything,” says Manning, but she also thinks she would definitely be better at it. “I think I would be more self-confident and less concerned about making sure everyone was perfect and happy. What I have gained as a paralegal is the ability to be more confident in my decisions, because I am directing more at this office. If I make a decision, I can rest assured it’s the right decision. Before, stage management mattered so much to me that I worried about not getting it right and it would make me a wreck about almost everything.” 

Long also thinks his decision making would be different thanks to his time away from the position. “As a stage manager I used to think that I was very globally minded, that I was aware of all these things happening around me,” Long shares. “And as a production manager, I have taken that up a couple of notches. It would be interesting and also be very difficult to rope some of that in, and not get into areas where the stage manager is not supposed to tread. But on the plus side, I think I would be much more in tune with how what the director or actors want to do right now has implications for other departments. I would be better at that level of detail than I was before.”

Not losing sight of the big picture, Gilboa says that she would “feel stronger about negotiating my own contract, and that’s the difference 20 years makes.” It’s not just all about the paycheck, though. “I would be able to focus on the work and feel less susceptible to getting drawn into people’s personal drama. Also, I happened into a lot of jobs that I enjoyed, but I wasn’t at all strategic in choosing the things that I did.  When you’re starting out you never think you’re going to get another job. Now I think I could recognize that and take jobs that I had a great reason for doing.”

“There’s nothing scary about changing jobs,” agrees Manning. “If you want to do it you should think about it and figure out what you really want to do. But don’t be afraid to do it, because you have a huge skill set that is going to be valuable to an employer in some other field. You’re not tied down and you’re not second class; you are ahead of the game in a lot of ways.”