Trailblazers, Then and Now

by David J. McGraw

Woman Exploring a ForestThis week we celebrated the annual Del Hughes awards, a lifetime achievement award for “Excellence in the Art of Stage Management” sponsored by the Stage Managers’ Association (the American SMA, not the British version). This year’s recipients are Maxine Glorsky, Roy Harris, and Lyle Raper, as well as a special award for Achievement in Stage Management Education for Peter Sargent.  I was honored to interview Lyle Raper for the Standing in the Dark podcast.

I have to admit that the Standing in the Dark series, another project of the SMA, is one of the most enjoyable assignments I have ever had: I got to visit some of the pioneers of our field and spend an afternoon chatting about their adventures. Lyle had stage managed Peter Hall’s 10-hour production of Tantalus at the Denver Center and later a British tour in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like the Greek dramas themselves, this production had twists, betrayals, epic adventures, and casualties.  

Earlier this summer I traveled to Atlanta to interview Cindy Kearns, who holds the record for having stage managed the entire official canon of Shakespeare…twice. What the podcast cannot convey is just how much fun I had touring the Shakespeare Tavern Theatre’s prop storage and hearing how Cindy navigated through near disasters with just ingenuity and a bit of luck. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.

If you are a member of the SMA, I hope you will download these and other interviews. But the goal of this post isn’t to sell SMA membership. Rather, these two interviews illuminated a common trait of many stage managers: the pioneering spirit.

Stage managers are highly-trained, analytical, disciplined professionals… who willingly head into uncharted waters. While we enjoy creating hyper-organized structures, we are drawn to chaos. Think of your favorite SM success stories; are they not based on inventing some novel solution to a problem or creating a team from the most dysfunctional of groups? Your story might even be about taming a ‘wild’ venue: it wasn’t designed for your purpose but you made it work.

We can celebrate stage managers like Lyle and Cindy for the longevity of their careers, but what makes their stories remarkable is the way they approached their work. They invented their solutions. They were the cornerstones that made their theatre companies successful. And they blazed their own trails. I remember when I brought a working prototype of the Stage Manager Simulator* to USITT in 2012. Several stage managers that I respect took me aside to caution that widely-adopted software could “standardize” stage management and the way we call cues. Despite our love for structure and order, our field values our opportunities to innovate.

In a decentralized, apprentice-based profession like stage management, it is critical that we protect our history and record the oral histories of our pioneers. And, even on the longest running of shows, may we never lose their passion to explore.

*The project is still in progress with no release date. The challenge remains licensing the third-party technology at a rate that would not be cost-prohibitive for the comparatively small base of 2,000-3,000 users.