Women in Stage Management: Revolutionizing History with Inclusion

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Prompt Corner. Photo Courtesy of Archives.org THE THEATRE AT WORK A Glimpse Behind the Scenes by James Cleaver
Prompt Corner. Photo Courtesy of Archives.org THE THEATRE AT WORK A Glimpse Behind the Scenes by James Cleaver
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Since I started compiling research on the history of the stage manager, I have run into at least 10 different claims for the “First Female Stage Manager.” In a 1987 obituary, the Los Angeles Times credited Phyllis Seaton as being “Broadway’s 1st Women Stage Manager” (around 1940’s), The Washington Post interviewed Maude T. Howell about her role as an American stage manager in 1928, and Maud Gill wrote her See the Players autobiography which includes a chapter about her experiences as Stage Manager in 1920’s London. Even before this, in the 1860’s we have Laura Keene stage managing her own theatre, Charlotte Cushman stage managing at the Walnut Street Theatre in 1842-1844, and Charlotte Charke takes up the prompting mantle in England in 1754.

The designation for “First Female” is problematic for several reasons, the least of which, is that there can only be one FIRST Female Stage Manager, a difficult claim due to the sheer amount of history in this world, can we ever really be sure? Another major challenge is the changing title and job description for Stage Managers (see my previous article for more information: A Crash Course in American Stage Management History Part I and Part II) and the huge undertaking required to reclaim a feminist/minority history in our field.

In almost every one of my graduate level classes, the topic of “Inclusive History” is discussed: whether it is minority labor, the tropes associated with actresses, or the gendered/stereotypical perceptions created onstage. It is much-discussed and dissected in my liberal, theatre-centric, often feminist-focused courses. However, once I step out of my academic bubble, I meet quite a bit of contention. The assumption is often made that because it hasn’t been written about, or isn’t well-known, it didn’t happen.

For example, prior to the release of Hidden Figures, if one were to ask, “Did African American Women work for NASA in the 1960’s?” many would have answered with a resounding “no” or at least have general uncertainty about the answer.

In a similar manner, there is a pervasive assumption that stage management was a controlled field restricted to white men, mostly failed actors. Although more research needs to be completed before I could write a succinct article with footnotes, I would unwaveringly argue that female and minority stage managers and prompters have long been a part of the business. However, I would also acquiesce that white men, in some eras more than others, have dominated the stage management field.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, there was a gradual increase in stage management handbooks, several of which tout that the “female” population make the best prompters, assistant stage managers, and stage managers because of their organizational skills and general disposition. In Scenery Simplified (1934), Glenn R. Webster and William Wetzel describe the Assistant Stage Manager* as a “she, for the duties cry for the influence of a ‘she.’” (pg. 119) Even though these dated texts are extremely sexist and make their own assumptions about gendered roles, they do provide a foothold while reclaiming female backstage presence.

Largely due to its inherent nature, this article will never adequately examine the nuances of gender, race, and/or sexuality studies, instead a fully flushed out, succinct and notated article will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, I urge each of you to assess your own prejudices and gendered concepts regarding this profession: as the question should not be: which sex performs this role best, but instead should be what qualities are required for success?

*In the 1930’s, the ASM was executing many of the duties associated with the SM today.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.