Do You Need an MFA to Stage Manage?

by David J. McGraw

How much higher education is necessary for stage management? It’s a demanding position—but does starting out in it now require a terminal degree? 

The answer is simple … and complicated. The simple version is no, a stage manager does not need an MFA to be successful. If you had good training, if you have a good support network of fellow stage managers, and if you are happy with the direction of your career, then you don’t require an MFA. Unlike many other theatrical fields, you don’t need a graduate degree or a trust fund (or both) to launch your career in stage management.

Good internships—particularly those for a full season or under multiple stage managers—can teach you how to stage manage. While decades ago you might have started your career without an internship or production assistant position, those are now the norm. Internships are so critical that many MFA programs will not admit applicants unless they have already interned at a professional theatre. It is in an internship that you learn the day-to-day rigors of stage management. The key to making the most out of these opportunities is finding mentors with similar values and personality traits so that you can observe their leadership techniques and learn what works for you. 

Before we get into exactly why it’s more complicated than that, a disclaimer: I lead the Stage Management MFA program at the University of Iowa, so I have some stake in making the answer complicated. But I am not a career academic. Working professionally and full-time as a stage manager, I saw the obstacles and the burn-out that drive many good people from the field. I became a teacher because I wanted to help others avoid some of the traps that plague our field and to succeed at stage management in a way that goes beyond merely calling a good show. Internships prepare you for the job; the MFA prepares you for the career. 

Making the Argument

While good internships and strong mentors will provide a path as a stage manager, an MFA will allow you to explore multiple paths and create your own style of show management. It will force you to analyze and innovate. Prior to graduate school, I had a blocking system that was perfectly acceptable and efficient. I also hated it with my whole being. But I wasn’t going to jettison something that worked, especially with all the regular demands of stage management. I kept telling myself that I would try something new during a smaller show. But we all know how no show stays small and simple. Graduate school acts as both the cattle prod and the safety net needed to try new techniques, correct deficiencies and push yourself to your limit without jeopardizing a production or a theatre company.

A stage manager doesn’t need an MFA to helm the ship of a challenging production, but the MFA can help you develop the analytical and mentorship skills needed to lead a team of stage managers. In some companies, all of the stage managers have risen through the ranks of the same system and follow in the model of the PSM. But many companies seek stage managers from different backgrounds and with different management styles. And where else but grad school can you observe and experiment with multiple stage management techniques and styles? 

Besides a broader perspective, what else can a good MFA program give a stage manager? Career stamina. Think of all of the talented young stage managers who burn out and quit the career before they reach age 30. They were successful on each individual project, but they were running production sprints instead of a career marathon. Like an athlete in training, a stage manager in a good MFA program learns not just how to succeed in the moment but also how to take care of themself in the long term. And part of that coaching includes cross-training: you might have experience with Shakespeare, but how about developing new plays with an active playwright? Or managing modern dance? Or opera? Few professional companies want to hire you for your first opera, but you can broaden your range and strengthen your core skills in a grad school environment.

To be fair, all of these opportunities come at a cost. You will improve your career stamina, but it will cost you two-three years in training before you re-enter the field. Luckily, we are not actors, so it is not as though we are forfeiting the best years of our career if we are in school at age 24. We are more like directors in that we sometimes fight to earn authority due to a perceived lack maturity based on age. The MFA can help silence critics, particularly your biggest critic. Grad school evens the playing field and helps you convince yourself that you are ready for the big leagues.

Then there are the financial considerations. Graduate program expenses vary greatly and most of the expenses are tied to the host university. I will refrain from pitching my own university—but no matter where you are considering, ask about scholarships and assistantships. 

 The level of stage manager’s education correlated with the percentage of their income earned from SM’ing. Taken from the 2013 Stage Managers Survey. ​And what is the return on this investment? Will you earn more over your career if you have an MFA? To be honest, we don’t know yet. My program conducts a national survey of stage managers—the only one of its kind—but even we haven’t been able to find a definitive answer to this question. In our 2013 survey, 904 stage managers responded to a question about education and training. Of that group, only 105 had MFAs and another 22 had some graduate training. (Further proof that you don’t need a graduate degree to be a stage manager). We then asked all survey participants how much of their annual income came from stage management. Participants with MFAs led the field with the highest percentage of their incomes coming from stage management and the lowest percentage of participants who did not earn any income from stage management. 

But we cannot read too much into these results. The survey sample size is statistically small and we cannot account for variables on why some participants without MFAs did not work more (e.g., family care-giving, military service, or simply splitting your passion between two careers). We have only anecdotal evidence on the return on investment at this point. (If you want to help us gather more data and refine our results, the next round will take place this November; you can read more at www.smsurvey.info.)

Real World (And Rehearsal Room) Considerations

Another consideration is how other theatre artists may view you if you have an MFA—and not necessarily in a good way. The catalyst for this essay was the initial resistance I faced this summer on a new gig when my colleagues learned that I had an MFA. Much of it was good-natured ribbing, but there was also some actual concern about the degree. If you have worked in theatre for decades with excellent stage managers without advanced degrees, then why do stage managers need this additional credential? Many theatre artists are wary of academia, perhaps rightfully so, as being separate from the “real world” of theatre. The irony is that some of these same artists have no problem leading workshops even with no “real world” teaching experience. 

It doesn’t help things when some recent MFAs (both stage managers and other theatre professionals) come across as arrogant or haughty as they believe three years of training makes them experts. Although a resume with an MFA in stage management may help in some job interviews, there may also be some preconceptions to dispel when you enter the rehearsal room. 

Motivation is also a concern. Stage managers who pursue MFAs come from a wide range of backgrounds, but many pursue the degree for one of two reasons. The first group—the type that many people envision—are those who want to teach. The national survey showed that more than 20% of responding SMs with an MFA were currently teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some returned to school to get their advanced degree after working professionally for years. Other MFA-seekers are preparing for future teaching, planning on returning to academia after working professionally for a few years. Program heads have to be very careful about this group lest we create teachers without enough practical experience. Other fields have faced this battle: students become teachers because academia is all they know. The best MFA programs help graduates map out paths that eventually return them to teaching later in their careers.

In the second group of applicants are stage managers who have climbed as far as they can go in a particular theatre community and realize that they have to move on to move up. These “big fish” know that they have been swimming in small ponds and will use graduate school to explore new communities for their next artistic home. Some of those old ponds are not small, but there might be very little turnover or room for advancement. Graduate school offers a clean break from old employers without burning bridges. Candidates are not forfeiting old relationships as much as they are moving to something new. These students know that long resumes may have little value in new communities and do not look forward to returning to PA status after managing their own teams for years.

Which points out another possible pitfall of returning to grad school for the professional. Much of graduate school is peer-learning, so you need to find a group of fellow students that can support you through the challenges of graduate school. This does not mean that you need to find your twin, but you should look for a program that fosters diversity of backgrounds and beliefs. Through sheer coincidence, my graduate program admitted only female students for three straight years and I considered it a weakness of the program to not have a broader gender identity. 

A returning professional may not be comfortable in a program where most students jumped directly from undergrad to graduate studies. This may lead some candidates to ask “Is it too late for graduate school?” The answer to this question is, “What do you believe?” It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you think it is too late to return to school, then you will find many ways of proving yourself right. It is not so much a matter of faculty or courses, but rather your fellow students. While the graduate stage managers will be a small group at any university, it still has its own culture. Find a culture where you will be supported.

Simply put, the graduate school question is complicated. But the act of asking yourself this question will help you determine where you want to go. And the journey is just as important as the destination.