The Evolution of the American Stage Manager

by David J. McGraw
in Feature
Although the stopwatches are mostly for show now, some things haven’t changed over the years for SMs.
Although the stopwatches are mostly for show now, some things haven’t changed over the years for SMs.

A stage manager celebrates 25 years of saying “Go!” by looking at the changes in his own career, and the field as a whole

The fifth edition of the Stage Manager Survey, a national study of the field based on responses from 1,662 stage managers, happened to coincide with my 20th year of being an Equity stage manager and 25th year of working as a stage manager. And while many an ol’ timer would claim I am just now hitting mid-career, I believe that I have filed enough performance reports to take a moment and look back at how our profession has changed over the past quarter century. And the responses from the five editions of SM Survey can be viewed as a longitudinal study of our field.

When I created the original survey in 2006, the scope was limited and the goal was simple: discover how other stage managers formatted their promptbooks and called cues. Since we are such an isolated profession (despite the efforts of the SMA and publications such as SD), many stage managers—particularly those working in smaller communities—wondered if other stage managers used the same methods and if they had missed any advancements in the field. Our limited conferences and workshops are primarily designed for students and early-career stage managers; the only gatherings for full-time professional stage managers tend to be social events at bars. So the original survey was designed to find common practices. Subsequent editions of the survey have expanded the range of questions while tracking how the original responses have changed over time. And while there’s not enough room here to track all the results from the survey, interested readers can dig deep into the data on their own. All the results are available online at www.smsurvey.info.

The survey has always included questions that stage managers geek out over in private: Should cues be in pencil, on Post-its, or typed? Cues on the left or right side of the script? No matter the year of the survey, stage managers are pretty evenly split on whether blocking and cues should be in the same promptbook or separate books. And a larger-than expected number of stage managers (1) state that you should create back-up copies of the promptbook while (2) admitting that they failed to do so on their last show. Yes, rehearsal hotlines may have been replaced by online callboards and group texts, my stopwatches are mostly for show as there are now plenty of ‘apps for that,’ and I can’t remember the last time I bought fancy stationery for my resume, but some things never change.

 

Run the Numbers

2015 Survey Results: Gender Ratios by Age Brackets
2015 Survey Results: Gender Ratios by Age Brackets

The growth of survey participation from 283 stage managers primarily working in theatre in 2006 to nearly six times as many stage managers from all the performing arts makes tracking some trends over time difficult. But we can still see major developments. In the 2006 survey, 66% of participants were female, but male stage managers were in the majority for every age bracket over 40. Female representation rose to 68% in 2009, rose to 70% in 2011, fell slightly to 69% in 2013 (as we added more than just binary male/female options to the survey), and has now climbed to 73%. Now the only age brackets in which male stage managers hold the majority is 61-70 and 71+ years old.

As much as the survey respondents are representative of the larger field, we can expect that 75-80% of stage managers will identify as female within the next decade. This leads to the question of why the stage management profession differs significantly from the general population in terms of gender. Is it that the performing arts offer opportunities to female leaders that other fields do not? Are men being dissuaded from pursuing the profession (or funneled into other careers) at some point in their training? Should it even be a concern? After all, stage management is lagging far behind national census numbers in diversity of race/ethnicity—should we focus our efforts on that disparity and worry about the gender divide later?

What is just as interesting as tracking changes over time is seeing how some things never change. Back in 2006, I thought a sure-fire new trend was calling from a laptop. Just over 11% of participants had tried calling cues from a screen rather than a printed script. And satisfaction levels were perfectly divided: 34% recommended the practice, 31% had no opinion, and 34% recommended against it. I thought it was just going to be a few years before we were all going to call shows from screens. But that 11% had grown to just 12% in 2009, then it inched to 13% in 2011, saw a slight climb to 18% in 2013, and this past year – ten years after the original survey –  it finally grew to 21% who had ever tried calling from a screen (we are no longer limited to laptops for our screen options). So much for the hot new trend that would sweep our field. What’s worse: only 18% of that 21% even recommend calling from a screen, 64% have a neutral opinion, and 18% recommend against the practice. Moreover, the reasons for not calling from a screen haven’t really changed at all over the past decade: fear of a computer crashing or freezing, difficulty in navigating quickly through a script, risk of being distracted by other things on the screen, and simply screen glare. I am glad I didn’t invest any money on my 2006 hunch.  I also don’t feel so bad when I pull out my pencil and ruler to write cues: everyone knows Post-Its are too risky.

 

Fiscal Matters and Barriers to Entry

Like Americans in many other professions, stage managers are apparently postponing retirement. It is difficult to track this aging of the profession conclusively, as perhaps simply more older stage managers are now taking the surveys or even that the same stage managers are taking the survey but are now 10 years older as a group. But anecdotally, successful stage managers are staying in their jobs later in life. And, unlike other professions, stage managers don’t become too expensive to hire as they grow older. If you are a member of Equity, the producers pay the same health and pension contributions for a 55-year-old SM as they would for a 25-year-old SM, so there is no financial disadvantage to retain older SMs. And given the union base wages, that 55-year-old SM probably isn’t making two or three times the salary as the 25-year-old at the exact same theatre, which can be the case for other management fields. So the good news is that older stage managers aren’t getting pushed aside. The bad news is that this may reduce turnover and thereby reduce job openings in smaller markets where there might be one or two large theatres followed by a half-dozen smaller ones.

Weekly Payment for Most Recent Internship/Apprenticeship in Past Two Years
Weekly Payment for Most Recent Internship/Apprenticeship in Past Two Years

On the other side of the equation are internships. The percentage of stage managers who learned through internships remains very steady and the popularity of shadowing opportunities has only climbed. But how much training should be expected? Is a six- or nine-month internship sufficient? Many respondents of the latest survey reported interning with multiple companies, sometimes for more than two years after finishing college. Do our jobs require that much training or is it more a matter that so many companies offer internships but no subsequent entry-level positions? Extended training in turn restricts who advances to become a professional stage manager. My very first gig as a non-AEA stage manager paid decently and included housing. I ate my fair share of ramen, but I didn’t have to go into debt to learn on the job. Meanwhile, when I look at entry-level positions today, many pay the exact same amount that I earned twenty-five years ago. How different is the today’s intern/apprentice pay  from 2006 or 1996?

There have been a number of prominent British theatre actors who have spoken out about how changes in their education structure mean that only wealthy Brits have access to the best training programs. In the United States, I fear that you must come from some wealth in order to afford the internships and entry-level training necessary to enter the profession of stage management. Could the need for substantial financial support be contributing to our lack of diversity in backgrounds? Are we losing great future stage managers because they cannot afford the long training process?

2015 Survey: How Satisfied are You with your Work/Life Balance
2015 Survey: How Satisfied are You with your Work/Life Balance

Not all trends are negative in their forecasts. The stage managers who took the 2015 survey were generally satisfied with their work/life balance. In addition, many active SMs and ASMs are quite happy to continue working: 22% were very satisfied and another 55% were satisfied with their careers. On another question, only 6% of those surveyed thought it was “very likely” they would leave stage management in the next five years, the lowest percentage in the history of the survey.

If I look back on my own career with the help of these surveys, the big picture I see is that our field can offer very fulfilling careers in creating art. The challenge has always been breaking into the field in the first place. We expect that challenge: the excitement and joy of creating art lead many people to desire a life in the arts but few succeed. My worry, however, is whether larger economic trends in America are slowing down natural turnover and growth. We have the benefit of being a popular profession, but we cannot risk cutting off the flow of new talent and innovation. We must keep our community of stage managers healthy and growing.