A Rose by any Other Name

by Katy McGlaughlin
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Red rose.  Photo by Enid Martindale
What's in a Name?

In a field where personal satisfaction often out-weighs monetary payment a title can mean a lot. When I was hired for my last job I was officially called the “Production Assistant/Stage manager;” in reality I was assisting the production manager, shopping/buying for the shop, managing budgets, contracting crew, stage managing the Main Stage season, and working with the Second Stage stage manager. After I had been working for several months, and really started to understand the scope of the job, I had a meeting with my boss about changing my title.

I knew they weren’t going to raise the salary any time soon (although they eventually did) but with the title PA/SM I felt like I wasn’t even building my resume accurately.  In this case I certainly felt that a title was important.

Recently, while chatting with a Whisper (group) of stage managers the title Assistant Stage Manager came up in discussion - the title “assistant” frequently has a connotation of “lesser”, this isn’t necessarily true in the theatre world but there were strong opinions about the word in our little group. Stage managers and assistant stage managers do very different tasks on a production and are arguably completely separate jobs (although while stage managing solo the stage manager does all of the tasks (or as many as possible) so if someone comes in and helps with those jobs are they not an assistant? Or at the very least, assisting?) One comment that stuck with me from the aforementioned conversation was, “I don’t want people to think I just fetch coffee” which is sometimes the case with more traditional assistants.

We talked about several different alternatives – deck stage manager  (vs. calling stage manager) – but worried that a title like that would make producers feel like they didn’t need a “deck stage manager” until they were on deck. Another option was “tracking stage manager” (vs. blocking stage manager) but these felt too specific. We looked at the rest of the theatre world; designers often have both assistants and associates. Associates usually help with remounts and can often make design decisions in the designers absence  - they have a level of autonomy but are still part of the team, they do a fair amount of paperwork that the designer would have to do otherwise, and they generally don’t pickup coffee. Should we change the title Assistant Stage Manager to Associate Stage Manager? We wouldn’t even have to change the abbreviation.

If you work in theatre and you are an assistant stage manager it is a safe bet that your colleagues know what that means. On the other hand, as a stage manager (lower case) who would rather ASM than SM, there is a certain amount of push back, disbelief, or disdain when this distinction is made. It is assumed that being the Stage Manager, or perhaps the Production Stage Manager is the highest rung on the SM ladder and we should all be striving to reach it even though each job requires different skill sets and focuses. Perhaps it is this unconscious desire to overcome this psychological block that leads to the reexamination of the title Assistant Stage Manager. Personally, I want to do the work that I prefer and not lose any respect just because it comes with the title assistant.

We haven’t changed the responsibilities or the pay scale, is changing the title of value? Is there a better word for assistant stage managers? Do we need a different distinction? Should we be backstage engineers?

Katy McGlaughlin is a co-author of the new book Stage Management Basics: A Primer for Performing Arts Stage Managers, available through Focal Press.