A Robot-Proof Profession

by David J. McGraw

Robot on HeadsetAn incendiary blogpost hit the stage management circles last week questioning whether stage managers will be replaced by data transfer and cueing technologies. A number of professions have become rightfully obsolete – as much as an elevator operator sounds quaint, I shudder to think that elevators used to be so unreliable and difficult to operate. Meanwhile, I was also part of a strategic planning process in which we discussed Joseph E. Aoun’s book Robot-Proof. Robot-Proof proposes that, with the rise of artificial intelligence, we need to prepare the next generation for jobs that machines and algorithms cannot complete. Do I believe that stage management is one of those jobs? Absolutely. Aoun defines a new discipline, humanics, by which we can see how stage management cannot be replaced by a robot.

Stage management, as a profession, is robot-proof because our job requires an extremely high level of what Aoun calls human literacy. Human literacy “equips us for the social milieu, giving us the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty.” If that isn’t stage management in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. Sure, Siri or Alexa or any of these speech recognition apps can transfer data, but that isn’t communication. There are many, many layers of interpretation, motivation analysis, prioritization, and diplomacy needed to successfully develop an idea from the rehearsal room through a design team to the production shop. And can you imagine Siri running a put-in rehearsal?

The way in which I do see stage managers changing is in our data literacy and technological literacy (again, Aoun’s terms). We need to process and understand more than just what our eyes and ears (and sometimes nose) tell us. The current wave of advancements are not just in output but also input – receiving more information more quickly. As production teams get smaller, we also need to understand more of the technology in use. In the past, if a lighting instrument died mid-show I could have the operator manually compensate with other nearby lights. Such direct control, and operator training, is more rare today in addition the threat of system-wide failures. Perhaps the most incendiary statement that I can make is to question whether stage managers can afford to not learn the technology that we are managing.

In the end, the big question isn’t even about technology. I am sure there was some ancient Greek stagehand who complained about how the new deus ex machina was ruining everything and how he used to carry Medea onstage without a crane. Technology is just a tool that someone chooses to employ. The real question is whether our productions are singular visions or shared experiences.

So much of traditionally collaborative art has gravitated towards singular visions. The film director who controls every single visual element through CGI and editing of hundreds of hours of recordings. The music producer who assembles every single audio track of a song without any musicians through sampling and editing of every note. These are not collaborations – group dynamics are lost to stripped-down components and the sum is not any greater than the parts assembled. These solo artists lock in their visions so that there is no deviation from these “perfect versions.” There is no interaction with the audience, no adaptation to the events of the day, no evolution of the art. We cannot let theatre fossilize.

Will technology change the way we call cues? It has over the past decades, so there is no reason to think it will stop changing. What matters is how we create our art. Theatre brings joy and sorrow, celebration and catharsis, to not just the audience but also to the artists who create it fresh every single performance. I don’t just repeat instructions from somebody who has long left the building. I’ll leave that task to the machines.