Part II A Crash Course in American Stage Management History

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

The term “Director” was introduced in the late 1800’s, although scholars continue to debate who was the ‘first’ American modern director, I attribute it to Augustus Daly. Augustus Daly (among others), changed the production process in theater. Daly expected more out of his actors, requiring attendance at all rehearsals, beginning the rehearsal process several weeks or months in advance and for several hours at a time. Prior to this, rehearsals for specific productions were sporadic, and totaled a few hours spanning over several weeks. He fined actors for lateness, absenteeism, and forgotten lines or blocking. Overall, he regimented the rehearsal process.

At the same time, naturalism began to rise in American Theater as a theatrical movement, shortly followed by realism. The cloth drop scenic designs transitioned to actual walls, props went from minimal to realistic, and special effects became spectacular sights. A New York Times article from the 1860’s, details the ways in which theatrical artists made a three-story apartment building burn onstage. (Again, remember - no electricity, just gas, oil, and calcium lamps!) With this, the audience began to expect perfection from the actors, necessitating line memorization and longer performance runs, stripping prompters of one of their duties.

As more and more theaters hired directors, the stage manager slowly moved off into more of a technical director role. The director would indicate design desires; however, it was the stage manager who made them happen. The stage manager began to build sets that were not in stock, find or purchase props as necessary, etc. The stage manager also continued to act in the performance. The prompter remained off-stage, prompting in emergencies, recording the show in the promptbook, and calling the show cues.

In the late nineteenth century, the second industrial revolution inspired huge technological advances, paving the way for programmable electric lighting, cue lights, and the use of machinery in set design, among others. In 1884, the Linotype was invented, which was the first mechanical typesetter, allowing texts to be mass produced and sold. It is no wonder that shortly after there was a huge boost in theater guidebooks and handbooks teaching amateurs how to produce theater. These texts are instrumental in providing contemporary historians with a clear indication to the roles and responsibilities of the prompter and the stage manager. For example, check out How We Managed Our Private Theatricals: or A Guide to the Amateur Stage, 1872 published by the Happy Hours Company.

As revealed when analyzing early stage management handbooks, the definitions of the “stage manager” and the “prompter” gradually changed between 1870 and 1930. At first, the stage manager is described as the stage director: giving lines, blocking, and motivations to the actors. A few decades later, the stage manager is portrayed as the technical director: building and creating sets while continuing to act in the performance. And finally, by the 1940’s the stage manager is associated with the responsibilities we are familiar with today. The prompter is initially described as the person in charge of the promptbook and calling the cues during the performance. Gradually the term “prompter” changes to “assistant stage manager,” and by the 1940’s the stage manager has stopped acting onstage, and has taken over calling the show.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list as we didn’t cover the social implications of theater as it transitioned from a disreputable practice to a socially respectable institution and its effect on theatrical hierarchy. Nor did we discuss the founding of theatrical unions and its role in defining the stage manager’s responsibilities. Or the nuances of how and why the title of prompter morphed into its designation as the assistant stage manager.

Since the 1940’s, the characterization of the stage manager’s duties in American Theater has largely remained the same. However, the techniques and tools used to carry out these tasks have drastically changed how the job is performed. For example, the widespread use of the typewriter allowed for clearer notes and paperwork, rather than hastily written on a piece of paper and stuffed into the promptbook. This eventually led to the computer, which now allows stage managers to repeatedly update and reprint paperwork instead of needing to rewrite or retype the entire document. In recent years, there has been a push for software apps for phones, tablets, and computers that will make the duties of the stage manager even easier to complete.

This is certainly not meant to be a comprehensive history of stage management; however, it will provide a basic understanding as I move into more specific areas of historical stage management. As with any research study, brevity allows for an overarching understanding, but lacks a thorough approach; whereas a microhistory allows for a systematic methodology but can only sustain an analysis on a specific moment.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.

In case you missed Part I, go here: http://bit.ly/SDCrashCourseSMHistory