Clandestine Learning

by David McGraw
L to R: Laura Krause (SM) and Amber K. Lewandowski (shadow) Washington National Opera Production: Tristan & Isolde
L to R: Laura Krause (SM) and Amber K. Lewandowski (shadow) Washington National Opera Production: Tristan & Isolde

How to Shadow a Stage Manager

Contrary to novels & TV shows, this kind of shadowing is not about spying on suspicious SMs, but observing them as they call shows. One of the best ways to improve your stage management skills is to observe other stage managers in action. Shadowing a SM is both an incredible learning opportunity and a way to network for potential future employment. So how should a new stage manager handle shadowing a veteran SM?

The Ask

First you need to find the stage manager, which might require a bit of sleuthing. Some dance/opera/theatre companies are very transparent and list their full production teams with e-mail links on their website. Most are not so forthcoming with information. You may need to call the company to get this information. And be ready for a generic This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. address at first.

Touring shows can be particularly difficult to shadow, both because it can be very challenging to track down the touring stage manager and because tours that perform just 1-2 days in a location often don’t have the time to take on guests.

Another great option to find shadowing opportunities is to join the SMA and use their Operation Observation. Stage managers volunteer to take on observers for their productions during certain periods of time. Some veteran SMs will even offer shows on tour. Getting an observation through the SMA is alone worth the cost of a student membership.

Contact the stage manager 3-4 weeks prior to when you would like to shadow. You don’t want to rush the SM or make your request appear as a last-minute demand. You also don’t want to ask months in advance or before a show has even started rehearsals as your request might get put aside being too early for the SM to know whether observers are even possible.

Think of your request as two parts: First—Is the SM willing and able to take on a shadow? Second—If so, when is the best time to shadow? Some shows are high stress environments or include artists that do not respond well to having guests backstage. These aren’t bad shows, but they are not good observation projects. Most stage managers enjoy the occasional shadow, but they don’t want to be overwhelmed if they have had shadow requests every week of the run. Also you also want to be flexible and find a time that is most convenient for the stage manager. I personally don’t want any observers during a major understudy performance or when I am working in new crew members. Plus, I also need to find a performance where there will not be other backstage guests (directors/choreographers returning for a visit, etc.). This is another reason to request an observation at least two weeks in advance.

Pro Tip: See the show before requesting to shadow it. I have gotten requests from students who clearly just wanted free tickets rather than to truly shadow my work. So, don’t pester the Hamilton stage managers if you really just want to avoid the multi-month box office wait. And sometimes shows are just so engaging that it is hard to focus on the SM rather than on the stage. If you approach me and explain that you have already seen my show and that you would really like to see how I call it, I will be much more receptive to your request.

In all cases, be prepared to be politely declined. Accept the rejection with grace and thank the SM for considering the request. If the SM seems willing but not able to offer you a shadow, offer to take them out for coffee and a conversation. Or perhaps see if you can arrange a daytime tour of the theatre before the show staff arrive.

Preparing for the Big Day

But suppose your request is granted, how should you prepare? First of all, if you cannot see the show, study it. Read the script, listen to the cast album, do whatever you can so that you can break out of the mindset of an audience member and observe everything happening off-stage. Start thinking of questions about how the production achieves the most challenging effects or most emotionally charged moments. Research the stage manager and her team online: what can you learn about their backgrounds and previous work?

Dress in show blacks, even if the host does not request them. You may be tucked far away from audience sightlines, but show blacks also double as a uniform: you will look like you belong backstage. It also demonstrates to your host and the entire crew that you are serious about this shadowing experience. Wear protective footwear and be ready to climb ladders. If you require any accommodations, let the stage manager know when she/he accepts your request: the stage may be accessible but calling positions may not be.

Be prepared to store your belongings in the stage management office; try to travel as light as possible. Some people bring resumes—I strongly discourage this practice. There is a distinction between networking and asking for job. You don’t want the SM to think that you only asked to observe in order to submit your resume. It is much better to see if you would be a good fit with that team and, if so, then send your resume attached to the thank you e-mail. Let me form a positive impression of you first and then we can talk about future opportunities with my team.

Most stage managers will want you to meet them at either the stage door or the box office; take note of the location and the time. Offer your phone number in case there are any last-minute changes and store the SM’s cell number in case you are late.

Don’t be late.

Show Time!

It is important to remember that, although you won the stage manager’s trust for this shadow, you now need to earn the crew’s trust. Be very friendly and grateful to the entire crew. Some stage managers announce your visit to the entire cast and crew; while you should feel honored, know that it is also a security matter—the SM is giving you clearance to be backstage.

Bring questions! This is the number one problem with shadowing a stage manager. By our nature, stage managers learn through observation. So, when we shadow, many of us would prefer to quietly observe. But when we host guests, we want to answer their questions. You might be taking in all of the stimuli of a new backstage experience, but the show will be ‘just another day at the office’ for us. Devise questions both for yourself and for your host. Demonstrate your knowledge and skills through good questions. Have questions that you can pose to both the SM and the ASM(s) to see how their responses differ. If you are running out of questions, ask if you can see some of their paperwork—this often jump starts the conversation.

If you are impressed, share it. I have had guests that were simply amazed but they looked like they were bored. Be prepared for the stage manager to say a quick goodbye if she needs to take care of any issues before people leave for the night or if she prefers to write the show reports in private. If it’s the final show of the week, expect everyone to want to leave ASAP.

Absolutely send a thank you, preferably the next day. Tell your host what you learned from this opportunity. Pro Tip: if you observed the SM’s choice of coffee or a sweet tooth, drop off a small gift for her to receive the next day.

Final Thoughts

There is a growing trend that I find very disturbing: some companies are now charging stage managers to shadow. In fact, some producers are now selling shadowing opportunities to visitors who are not stage managers. Personally, I am not a fan of “civilians” being backstage. But I am even more worried that this will become yet another obstacle to young people learning the profession of stage management if they do not come from wealth. One way to fight this trend is to limit how often shadowing experiences happen, so some stage managers may decline your request because their show is getting too popular with shadows. Remember that accepting your request means additional work and risk for the stage manager. Many stage managers accept this risk because we know it will help our profession in the long run. Be mindful of this gift.