Hunting for a Summer SM Job

by David J. McGraw
A sample page from a stage manager’s portfolio. You can buy a 10-16 page portfolio at most office supply stores.
A sample page from a stage manager’s portfolio. You can buy a 10-16 page portfolio at most office supply stores.

The best routes to take and the best practices to follow in order to land that summer stage management gig

With the chill of winter in the air, it is hard not to dream about summer: sandy beaches, swimming pools, parades and fireworks… and sitting in darkened theatres for 10 out of 12 tech days! Nothing says summer to a stage manager like summer stock, where we trade our regular theatres for theatres in places where normal people vacation. But these jobs don’t come easily. If you are looking for stage management work this summer, here are some suggestions to improve your view while you are on your 10-minute break.

When to Find Work?

Most producers will start offering work to returning stage managers in December and January. Returning stage managers are a boon for producers and what stage manager doesn’t like to feel appreciated enough to be invited back? By mid-January most producers will know which positions will be open.

There will always be the ‘early bird’ producers who will advertise in December and hope to finish their job searches before the other companies even begin. Some major players take this tactic, but often smaller companies will try to beat the competition by locking in stage managers early. But for the most part, first round listings for summer seasons will appear between January 15 and February 15 with some stragglers at the end of February. 

The second round of listings may not be for traditional standalone summer stock theatre but for companies that run for most of the year and are confirming who will be working on their summer projects. These listings don’t appear until the end of February or early March and the producers don’t feel rushed to fill the jobs until April. Many New York City companies take this later schedule and some won’t hire until May. 

The third round of summer hires is actually the domino effect of SMs creating vacancies. Perhaps a returning stage manager got a better offer somewhere else and now the producer needs to scramble. Then there are the major job interviews that happen at the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the New England Theatre Conference, Strawhat, and the annual USITT conference, all of which take place in March. While few stage managers enjoy waiting until the last minute to line up summer work, there can be really enticing jobs that don’t appear until March and April.

Where to Find Work?

Where 1,662 American stage managers found their jobs, according to the 2015 Stage Manager Survey (www.smsurvey.info)
Where 1,662 American stage managers found their jobs, according to the 2015 Stage Manager Survey (www.smsurvey.info)
Stage managers use many of the same employment channels they use during the rest of the year to find work in the summer months. The 2015 Stage Manager Survey (www.smsurvey.info) asked 1,662 American stage managers where they find jobs. The number one method is still word of mouth, but if none of your colleagues have worked in a particular region, try the national sources listed in the survey plus the “Other” category of more genre-specific organizations such as Opera America and region-specific groups such as the League of Chicago Theatres and the Minnesota Playlist. If you have a dream location or theatre, check their website for job notices. You can use a free service like Change Detection (www.changedetection.com) to receive an automatic alert whenever those employment pages are updated.

Social media continues to rise as a channel for stage managers to get work.
Social media continues to rise as a channel for stage managers to get work.
Social media continues to rise in importance as an employment tool. In the 2015 survey, 55% of stage managers reported being contacted for interviews or job offers through social media. Many regions have their own Facebook groups for stage management jobs. LinkedIn is also worth considering as it shows the web of theatrical networks with directors and designers rather than just producers. 

There is a saying that the best jobs are never advertised. And sometimes it seems like a theatre advertises for every single position but the SM and ASM. You can make a “cold call” by sending an unsolicited application; they have been known to work, particularly if a theatre loses a stage manager and wants to fill the position without going through the expense of a full search. But you would do yourself a favor by making contact before sending your materials so that it is a “cool call” rather than an unexpected cold call.

What to Send?

The standard application remains a one-page cover letter and a one-page resume. The cover letter serves five purposes:

Identify the job(s) you are seeking. The theatre may be trying to fill several positions or your resume may demonstrate that you are qualified for different roles. 

Explain why you are ideal for this job. If you don’t have a lot of credits on your resume that are similar to this job, you may need to explain your indirect qualifications. For instance, you may not have Shakespeare credits, but you have worked on large-cast shows with complicated scene shifts.

Explain why this theatre is ideal for you. If I had a nickel for every time I received an application addressed to another theatre by mistake…well, no one collects nickels anymore. But show that you have done your research and spent time on this application, even if you are applying to a dozen different jobs.

Share some of your personality. Show that you understand the culture of the company, whether it be an outdoor theatre with communal meals, a one-week musical stock company that functions on 24-hour calendars, or a downtown theatre that produces edgy new works.

Confirm your availability. One of the biggest hurdles of summer work is finding jobs that fit your schedule.

The standard stage manager resume format.
The standard stage manager resume format.
The first question you should ask yourself about your resume is where do you want to fall on the formatting spectrum. There is absolutely a standard resume for stage managers—you can download our sample here. 

If you follow this format, no one will object but you also won’t stand out from the crowd. If you choose a less traditional layout, you may draw attention to yourself, but some producers are seeking to compare apples to apples and may view your originality in a negative light. If you have amazing credits, you can afford the standard format because your shows will stand out on their own. If you don’t yet have amazing credits, weigh your options and consider the story you want to tell. Try grouping your shows by producer to show that you have been hired back repeatedly. Or group by genre. Maybe you just want to add a splash of color or to draw more attention to your name.

There are a few other considerations for your resume:

Lead with your strengths. You will have 10-15 seconds to impress the reader, so don’t bury your most impressive credits. Many resumes are chronological, but they don’t have to be. Don’t lead with your education unless you are applying for an internship. I expect an intern to be a student or a very recent grad. But if I am hiring a stage manager, show me your experience and skills before you inform me that you are a student. 

Dates or No Dates? Employers like dates to confirm that there are no gaps in employment. On the other hand, if you have been only been stage managing for a couple of years, this fact becomes painfully obvious if you list dates, even if you have been very busy these past few years.

Every contact could be the magic connection. If you list “References Upon Request” you have just wasted three or four opportunities to connect with a producer. The same goes with not listing your directors for each project. You don’t know which name will be the key that gets you to the interview stage. For references, include one director, even though her/his name appears earlier in the resume. The other references should be producers and production managers who can attest to your skills and hopefully already know this potential employer.

Would You Like to See My Promptbook?

The growing trend for interviews is to share a stage management portfolio rather than a full promptbook. A fellow stage manager knows how to evaluate a promptbook, but many producers and production managers only measure how organized it looks rather than analyze the individual components. And, frankly, some producers are intimated by a 200+ page promptbook and don’t want to page through it. 

A stage management portfolio highlights your best work. Instead of choosing just one production, you can showcase your work from multiple projects. You select the best examples of your major documents:

Blocking page(s) 
Calling page(s) 
Inventory Organization such as a Props List 
Personnel Organization such as a Shift Plot 
Rehearsal Report 
Performance Report 
Additional Resume(s) for group interviews

The best portfolios seamlessly support what the candidate wants to convey during the interview. Nearly every interview includes a question about biggest challenges, so include samples not only from those shows but those individual moments. Showcase your most difficult calling sequence or the scene shift that demonstrates your ability to lead a large team and to problem-solve. Most importantly, include photographs from each show. A producer may not be able to tell a good shift plot from a great shift plot, but she or he can be impressed by the production values of the show. This is particularly important when you are trying to work in a new region where no one knows your previous theatres. Include a caption box identifying the producer, director, designers, and any featured actors: give credit where credit is due. But a picture really can be worth a thousand words.

Finding work at a new theatre requires research, planning, and confidence in yourself as a stage manager. Break a leg on finding your next summer home!