- by Tayneshia Jefferson
Making the leap from academic to professional stage management
So, you’ve spent all of this time building a stellar academic management career at your institution of choice, but now it’s all about to go out of the window because graduation (and the daunting prospect of post-graduate employment) looms. Launching a professional management career can feel like a herculean task. There are so many questions to be addressed. Do I pursue an internship? How soon should I try to get my Equity card? How long can I defer these loans that I have to pay back? Fear not, I consulted three recent graduates to find out how they made the successful transition from students to professional managers.
Graduation: Indiana University, 2012
Current Job: Houston Grand Opera’s Opera to Go!, Touring Stage Manager
New Jersey native Julie Hurley joined the staff of Houston Grand Opera less than three months after graduation. Fascinating fact: She was hired for a position that she never actually applied for. “I had applied for a different job with HGO in April of 2012,” explains Hurley. “I ended up not getting the job, but they passed my resume along to my current boss who was looking for a stage manager. I had two Skype interviews and then got the job!”
It doesn’t always happen quite so seamlessly, but Julie’s training (she studied Italian in school and reads music well) helped put her in a unique position to walk directly into a coveted spot with one of the nation’s largest opera companies. In addition to her course work, she spent a summer working as a production assistant at the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre and then further augmented her opera chops by spending the first semester of her senior year studying abroad in Italy. But even with her strong credentials, her capacity for networking and the connections she made outside of school played a role in helping her earn her current gig.
“In addition to the professional experience and knowledge I gained working at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, I definitely think the people I met helped me land my current job,” she says. Although it is not always possible to make a personal connection with the company one might aspire to work for, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. Many hiring entities are quite candid about the fact that they would much rather hire an individual that they can obtain direct knowledge of from an acquaintance or a professional associate. “Two of the production stage managers at UFOMT are assistant stage managers at HGO. I’m sure knowing them gave me that extra push I needed!”
Julie’s job is a challenging one. She is responsible for organizing and installing both production elements and performers at elementary and middle schools all around the city of Houston and beyond. Each day brings new challenges, whether it’s a van stuck in an underground parking garage or a broken piece of scenery. The biggest lesson she’s learned so far is not to dwell on the mistakes you make early on.
“If you are as lucky as I have been you’ll be surrounded by wonderful people to learn from and to laugh with.” So, get out there and network!
Graduation: Texas State University, 2008
Current Job: The Robot Planet’s Intergalactic Nemesis: Books I & II, Company/Touring/Stage Manager
Making her home in the ultra-hip, but somewhat fiscally challenging Austin, Texas, Jessie Douglas has managed to carve out a prodigious career in a town where few artists are able to sustain themselves on solely theatrical endeavors. In the space of a few short years, she has managed to carve a niche for herself at Austin’s largest Equity theatre and become an integral part of the production team of a brand new touring phenomenon and modern cult classic. But she began her career someplace even cooler than Austin, in fact, it was downright cold: Juneau, Alaska.
“My first professional job after graduation was working at Perseverance Theater in Juneau,” says Douglas. “I was the Company/Stage Management fellow. March of my senior year in college I began applying for every entry level position in stage management I could find on backstagejobs.com. I interviewed with five or six different theatre companies around the country and found that Perseverance was my best fit.”
Like Hurley, Douglas also networked hard to get that first gig. Even before her sojourn to Alaska she was trying to engage in experiences that would help her to make connections that would assist with her career. “During college I participated in internships every summer,” she says. The difference for her was avoiding tunnel vision. Her internships were in many different departments. “It helped me see what I liked and didn’t like about this field. Ultimately, it gave me the knowledge to pinpoint exactly what I wanted to do with my career.”
Which is not to say all of that experience was sunshine and rainbows. While working in a yearlong fellowship, the company Douglas was working for went through a major staff shift that “put a lot of extra responsibilities on the fellows,” Douglas explains. “This was a very trying time for me that honestly I did not always handle with grace. However, the added responsibilities gave me a chance to learn exactly what it takes to keep a theatre company running.”
Adversity is part of theatre, just like any other job. If you stay in this business long enough you will probably work for an organization that experiences some “challenges” at some point. It’s important to maintain your sense of professionalism, even under duress, and to avoid burning bridges. “In the end that fellowship did not only give me true hands on experience but more importantly gave me the confidence I needed to pursue other opportunities.”
Graduation: University of Denver, 2009
Current Job: Cirque du Soleil’s Kà, Stage Manager
As a student at the University of Denver, Christopher Luebke coupled his Theatre major with a minor in Business Administration and managed to develop several innovative systems and solutions for stage managers working in environments with limited resources or without the benefit of assistants. He managed to digitize his entire process, enabling him to become a one man blocking, tracking, line-note-taking machine! Even with all this digital prowess, though, his first gig still came about through old-fashioned networking.
“Being a graduate is a really nice way of saying unemployed, but keeping in contact with former bosses and stage managers paid off,” Luebke shares. He got his first professional gig off of a tip from a former colleague he met during his internship on Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity. “I received a message saying that Kooza was looking for a temporary backstage manager and needed them to start in three days. I had luckily just been able to shadow Kooza’s stage management team during their run in Denver, so I shot the general stage manager an email thanking her again for letting me hang out with them for a few days, and to let me know if any positions came up that I might be interested in. She called me the next day and said, ‘We were just talking about you, and wondering about your availability.’ Two days later, I was driving to LA to start the first of many adventures!”
Cirque du Soleil recognized his talents, and Luebke has worked his way up through the Cirque ranks quickly, now working as a stage manager on Cirque’s Vegas spectacular, Kà. But this early career success also has its challenges. Chris talks about one that he still faces.
“Honestly the toughest obstacle in my early career is the fact that I’m young,” says Luebke. “Walk into a multi-million dollar show, which has been running for over a decade, and here comes this 20-something hotshot who is telling people what to do. That’s sometimes the preconceived notion we’re up against as young stage managers.” The best way to counter this? “Smile and be genuine, really listen to what people are saying, and ask questions.” Stage managers of all ages need to be aware of the impression they leave people with, of how people react to them. Half the battle of being consistently employed is simply being someone with whom people want to work.
Inevitably, all three of the stage managers look back on their academic careers and muse about what they would have done differently to better prepare themselves for their eventual professional lives. Hurley wishes that she had spent more time shoring up her fundamental stagecraft skills and that she had pursued more courses and projects that would have provided greater challenges. Because of her company management responsibilities, Douglas laments that she didn’t take a few more accounting and finance classes. Luebke just wishes that he had taken the time to enjoy school a bit more: “Looking back now I wish I would have realized that we were all there to learn. To make mistakes. To take risks. And that failure is OK, because you have the safety net of the educational system behind you.”
Tayneshia L. Jefferson is currently an Assistant Teaching Professor of Stage Management at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and is the current Vice-Commissioner for Stage Management for the United States Institute of Theatre Technology.