Stage Management: The SM/ASM Conundrum

by Ross Jackson
SM Ross Jackson at work
SM Ross Jackson at work

Why you might decide to ASM when you could be SM?
If you’ve ever seen a stage manager’s resume you might notice the phrases “stage manager”, “assistant stage manager”, and “production stage manager.” Throughout academic theater, you learn that there’s a sort of hierarchy to the assorted stage manager (SM) positions. Production assistant < assistant stage manager; and assistant stage manager < stage manager/production stage manager. But if such a hierarchy exists, you might wonder why it is that so many SMs bounce between the positions. In the past, when it comes to more “conventional” jobs let’s say, there’s an advancement ladder on which you climb your way up the ranks. The salesperson becomes a supervisor, the supervisor becomes an assistant manager, who then becomes a manager and so on. However, when it comes to live entertainment, there’s a far more fluid way of working. Particularly influenced by our current generation of theatrical practitioners, there’s a focus on collaboration and versatility. The more versatile you can be, the greater your opportunities of collaborating become. Which leads me to what I want to discuss: why do stage managers shift from one position to another so often?

Firstly, it’s important to understand one simple thing. The responsibilities of the SM/PSM and the ASM are completely individual and rely on clear and constant communication with one another. Sure, the SM/PSM will delegate jobs and duties to the ASM while the ASM doesn’t really get to do that in return. But the responsibilities are pretty dissected. Think of it this way: Once a show is up and running, the SM/PSM tends to be responsible for everything related to the company and the execution of the audience experience as created by the artistic choices of the creative staff; director, choreographer, designers, etc. This includes, but is not limited to: coordinating with house management to be sure that the house opens promptly and patrons are sat on time, cue-calling in such a way that the artistic integrity of the production is maintained, and upholding union and organizational expectations amongst your company (timeliness, safety, and compliance). Meanwhile, the ASM’s responsibility is to ensure the proper execution of all things backstage. That might include supervising scene shifts, entrances, exits, general theater magic, advanced theater magic, and monitoring everyone’s health and safety in the process. Not to mention communicating with and facilitating new information and changes to the stage crew, dressers, production assistants, etc. An effective ASM will make it so that the SM/PSM never has to second-guess whether or not things are going to go well beyond the proscenium wall (if you have one).

From my perspective, I start by looking at the demands of a show. I will often make the decision in regard to whether I will ASM (assist) or SM/PSM (lead) based on which I think my skillset is most suited for. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it literally comes down to what’s asked of me by my hiring company, but oftentimes I’ll get to make the decision. For example, Pantos are some of the busiest backstage shows you can find yourself working. The large set pieces and massive set changes with rolling wagons, rotating flats, soft goods of all shapes and sizes, and usually an expansive props list create an exhilarating atmosphere backstage. That’s an environment I love to be a part of, so I will often ask to ASM when I know that’s what I’m signing up for.

On the other hand, if I come across a show that has a large social message or impact; I’ll likely ask to SM/PSM that. I will often do so because I want to be able to fully support that message and ensure the safety and health of those delivering it night after night. An example of that would be taking a job like I took back in 2015 with Knoxville’s Clarence Brown Theater who was not only producing A Lesson Before Dying but was also collaborating with the Knox County library system introducing the book the play was based on to an entire community of readers in the area. This also allowed for presentations, seminars, and lectures to be held on the topics of crime and punishment, policing in black communities, and humanity. With that kind of impact being offered to the entire community around the theater, it was a perfectly aligned production for me to dedicate my skills and talents as a SM/PSM.

For others, like my friend Anne Hitt who is a Seattle-based stage manager. It comes down to relationships and working environments. When asked about why she’d choose to ASM over SMing she said, “I like the close interaction with both cast and crew when I’m the ASM. The PSM has to be in charge of so many things, that the ASM gets more of an opportunity to build those close relationships.” This is outstandingly true. You get a lot more facetime with the cast and crew inherently when you work alongside them backstage. Oftentimes, a lead SM might only see their cast upon their arrival, if they’re not busy address something elsewhere. Hitt also mentioned, “Sometimes it’s worth taking a position that’s not your first choice if the gig is big. I will often take a “lesser” position if it means getting to put a big name on my resume or getting in with a great theater.” Another great point. Sometimes you have to put in the time in order to advance you status with a company. It’s not very often that you’ll walk right in to the “top” position. So, taking the time to assist, especially if it’s your preference anyway like Hitt’s, is a great way to instill trust between you and the company.

I will often ask to assist on productions that present extraordinary challenges backstage as well. Such as a large cast, extensive automation, or ample costuming changes. On the more human side of things, sometimes it comes down to who I get the opportunity to work alongside. If ASMing means I get to work with a friend I love to work with or have always wanted to work with, I might go for that depending on how lush any competing offers might be. On the other hand, if SMing/PSMing means that I get to hire a friend or two or other professionals that often don’t get a shot, that might sway me into the lead position as well. There are truly lots of factors, but the one thing that’s never missing when I’m ASMing/PSMing/SMing are the joys of collaboration, the elation that comes with the first time we get a big gesture to land perfectly, and the exhilaration of the first cue. When it comes to the love of the game, it’s all the same.

Ross Jackson is an Actors' Equity Association stage manager based in Los Angles. His many credentials include Geffen Playhouse, Counter-Balance Theater, Clarence Brown Theater, and Dallas Theater Center. He was a mentor with the 2018 USITT Gateway Program.