From our SM Kit Blog: Where was the Stage Manager?

by David J. McGraw
Where was the stage manager during an abuse of power?

This post is not about the #NotInOurHouse, #MeToo, and #TimesUp movements; I wanted to write about those movements back in January but I did not feel that it was my place as a male stage manager when it was others’ turn to speak. This post is not about the (at this point in time) allegations of bullying surrounding the suicide of Jeffrey Loeffelholz; I am not connected to Chicago and one of their former stage managers has spoken about the atmosphere surrounding that production to the blog Justice for Jeffrey. But the unmaskings of abusive behavior by theatre leaders in the past year has produced one chilling question: where was the stage manager?

wow.

As a group, stage managers focus on the safety of our cast and crew, and our companies have therefore grown to expect us to protect them. So much so that, when a member of my own company becomes injured, even when all safety protocols were in place, I feel awful. I question whether I could have done more. I beat myself up about not catching tiny indicators that something was wrong. And all of this is just about a physical injury caused by some accident.

So where were the stage managers during emotional, sexual, or physical abuse by people in positions of power?

In many cases, we were right there and felt powerless. Perhaps we were in denial, but perhaps we knew something was not right but did not know how to respond. And what would happen if we did take action? If we see something physically unsafe, we will stop a show. But what if we see something emotionally unsafe, do we feel we have the authority to intervene? Do we need permission from the victim to intervene? The fact that Actors’ Equity Association has hired legal counsel to investigate Loeffelholz’s death may be a turning point in how we view the emotional health of our companies.

I have heard calls from several sources for stage management training in school. I wish this could be part of the solution, but I fear that it will just ‘kick the can down the road’ and make the issue someone else’s problem to solve. As a college instructor, I have asked different institutions what training we can provide and how can we provide it. And the most common response has been that we need to check with Risk Management. Because if we provide the wrong training, we can do more harm than good and be sued.

Think about something as simple as helping a choking victim. In order to learn how to dislodge an object blocking an airway, Americans are expected to go through certification every two years. And the recommended solution has changed over the past decade: when and how to give abdominal thrusts versus back blows. Plus we have to train rescuers to approach the victim, ask if they are okay, and then ask if they want our help. All of this for a problem as simple and obvious as obstructed breathing. Now imagine the training and number of steps required to determine the safety of a situation when we hear that a person in authority has offered to meet with a young artist after hours. This may go well beyond first aid training. And who is qualified to teach it?

But the fact that something is difficult is not reason enough to not try. When the issue of smoke/haze was first raised, the pushback was that there wasn’t an effective way to measure the threat and that the movement impeded the artistic intent of productions. I am certain that most movements to improve the health of performers and stage managers seemed nearly impossible at the time they were proposed. As more and more voices have proven over the past year, now is the time for all of us to hold this conversation.

Bullying and harassment have no place in theatre; just because it was tolerated at some point in time does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to abuse. It does not make us stronger. It does not make our productions better. It only serves the abusers and ruins the lives of artists. No more.