Adaptive Leadership

by David J. McGraw
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Replacing Cues.  Photo by Sarah Smiley
How much do you change for each specific production? Photo by Sarah Smiley.

If you work in a close-knit theatrical community, you can guess the director or choreographer of a show just by its staging.  And despite creating environments in multiple time periods and locations, many designers also have ‘visual signatures.’  So do stage managers have a style that is apparent to other theatre artists even when the SM is not physically present?

Of course there are the telltale artifacts of paperwork, groundplan taping, and props table organization.  But can you find the stage manager’s fingerprints in the mood and tone of rehearsals and techs?  More importantly, should you?

I’ve long believed that a good stage manager will adapt to meet the specific needs of a production.  If there a breakdown in communication anywhere between the cast, the director, the designers, the technicians, or the administrators, I will work to improve that connection or perhaps serve as the liaison myself.   Some teams need a lot of organizational support.  Some theatres lack good internal communication.  And where trust has not been established or, worse, it has broken down, then part of my job is to ensure that all members of the team have a safe space in which to create their art.  Good stage managers are very cognizant of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

But how much do we really adapt to specific productions?  Are we really filling in the gaps or do we have a checklist of steps that we apply to every show whether it needs it or not?  I tell my students that the novice stage manager’s hardest show is the second one.  One the first show, the newbie stage manager is simply reacting in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants fashion to all of the needs of the production.  If your observations and instincts are good, you will survive and probably get bitten by the SM bug.  But then you will try to apply all that you learned by duplicating your steps rather than observing with fresh eyes.  While one collaboration of artists might thrive with a stage manager who acts with authority and keeps the production on track, other artists might bristle under such an autocratic approach and benefit more from someone who can serve as a confidante and mediator. 

So if we do keep checklists, as we are prone to do, perhaps one list should be an analysis of the production’s culture.  How do we fit within this community of collaborators?  Do we need to be the good cop, bad cop, cheerleader, reality-bearer, audience advocate, devil’s advocate, protector of order so that others can embrace the chaos of creativity, or the confident veteran who makes jokes so that we don’t take our work too seriously?  Of course, we might need to play all of these roles in a single week.

What is your ‘style signature’?  What SM fingerprints do you leave on your productions?