Stage Manager Longevity (and How to Achieve It)

by Marguerite Sugden
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"If you get tired learn to rest, not to quit"  ~Banksy
Courtesy of @happsters

Do stage managers have a ticking time bomb working against them? Is there some sort of magic number of years or experiences or productions that they can work on before getting burnt out? It almost seems inevitable that a stage manager cannot manage the stage forever. Why is this? What are the causes and can it be avoided or fixed?

As I began researching the burnout syndrome and how it specifically affected stage managers, I studied Joe Drummond from the Goodman theatre in Chicago. He recently retired after 42 seasons of stage management with the company. In an interview for Backstage.com he was quoted saying "You have to want to do this because you just plain want to," which I think speaks a lot to how draining this job can be; it’s not for everyone. In another interview for a staff profile at the Goodman Theatre, he stated that in order to recharge his stage management batteries, he makes sure to spend time with his family. With all that is required from us as stage managers, it is vital that we take time to re-charge as Joe so nicely stated.

Joe Drummond is just one example of someone who has been able to make a full career out of stage managing but I think that Joe may be the exception. He was lucky enough to find a company that he could stay with for over forty years while also starting a family. However, this type of employment in the stage management business seems very few and far between. I would say that the norm for stage managing is working contract by contract to pay the bills and sustain health coverage. Not to say that we do not all love what we do but the stress and long hours can take its toll on your mind and body. Jumping from job to job with little to no time to recharge becomes extremely exhausting. Furthermore, it creates this detrimental cycle where we have no time to reflect on past experiences and learn from them so we may keep turning out sub-par work.

In a recent phone interview with Cheryl Mintz, from the McCarter Theatre, she confirmed this hypothesis. She agreed that being an independent contractor is exhausting because not only are you constantly moving and advocating for yourself but with each new company you must give 110% to prove yourself. It takes a lot of energy to always present the best version of yourself and there is a lot of pressure with each new job to be perfect and make no mistakes so they ask you back. When asked how she has been able to avoid getting burnt out, Cheryl spoke about keeping herself refreshed. For her, this meant working between genres so that when she had a gap in her schedule at McCarter she would work on an Opera. She feels that switching it up every now and again keeps us fresh. Different genres require different mindsets and provoke different parts of our artistry which keeps us challenged and engaged. Spending her off weeks on an Opera is how Cheryl would stay feeling fulfilled with her work. Now, she finds fulfillment spending her off weeks with her family.

Working in Opera may not be for everyone but the point is to find a way to keep yourself fresh. It is all too easy to get bored and not feel fulfilled if you constantly go contract to contract in auto pilot. Now again, Cheryl represents a small percentage of stage managers in the industry who were lucky enough to land a PSM gig. Like Joe Drummond, she works for the same company annually and is guaranteed work. Because of how well her artistic goals align with the company’s and the artistic director’s, she is also often doing work that she is interested in and enjoys.

So is landing a PSM job the solution to beating the burnout syndrome? It definitely helps, but unfortunately there are not a lot of opportunities for up and coming stage managers to get such positions. Even Cheryl admitted that networking is not the same as it used to be and that theatres do not seem to want to hire stage managers on full time. So the dream may be to follow in Cheryl’s footsteps and find a company you like and work your way up until you are their PSM but most PSMs are happy where they are, and they will not be leaving any time soon.

How then can we avoid getting burnt-out in this industry, as things exist now? Is there a way we can fix the problem? Finding a way to keep yourself fresh is a great first step but, as seen in the most recent Stage Manager Survey, a lack of artistic fulfillment is among many other contributing factors in the decision to leave stage management.

 

Contributing Factors in Decision to Leave Stage Management
2015 Stage Manager Survey

 

Combined, these factors create the perfect burn-out recipe. A stage manager deals with these challenges on a daily basis. This may just be the nature of the job so like Joe said you should only do it if you really want to it. But I find it hard to believe that despite how advanced our nation and culture has become, that there is not some magic formula to help prevent some of the burn-out that occurs.

In speaking with a close friend and fellow stage manager, Ryan Heath, who recently decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from theatre, it appears that a lot of changes need to be made for us to want to stay in this field. Stage Managing for him became unhealthy. He was constantly feeling anxious and was unable to find a healthy work-life balance. Despite being fortunate enough to only work in theater, every show became all consuming. The moment he woke up he felt like he was just preparing for the rehearsal or performance later that evening. I was surprised to hear this from someone so many people adore and admire. Everyone who worked with him loved him and favored him as one of the great stage managers in San Diego. But this pressure also took its toll. It was too much to live up to and he felt like the spotlight was always on him to not make any mistakes and never say anything wrong.

 

Ryan Heath and the author with their A Christmas Carol family
Ryan Heath and the author with their A Christmas Carol family

 

Hearing about Ryan’s experience broke my heart. Here is someone who I know was born to be a stage manager and who has so much to contribute as an artist. My research and conversations with both Cheryl and Ryan have only pushed me to want to find a cure even more than before.

I believe that there is a ticking time bomb working against us but I do not believe stage management must be this way. I think that we need to reevaluate the role that a stage manager plays and model the position in a way that recognizes the need for recharging our batteries.

Through this process I have made many discoveries and have outlined a few steps we can take to help ensure a healthy future in our careers. There is no guarantee that following this outline will work for everyone but it is at least an attempt to help fix the current crisis. I would like to thank both Ryan and Cheryl for helping me formulate this list.

  1. Advocate for yourself. Have open communication with your team about your needs and your feelings.
  2. Fight for paid time off and higher pay.
  3. Actually take time off and spend your time either working in another genre that forces a different kind of collaboration or spend your time doing something completely not related to work that makes you feel accomplished.
  4. Practice ways to de-stress and make it a part of your daily routine. Whether it be monthly massages or daily yoga. Take time to yourself every day with no phones and no internet.
  5. Find a mentor or good therapist.
  6. Be flexible and adaptable but know your limits and make them clear.
  7. Set boundaries for yourself, especially with your production team.
  8. Help reframe the idea of what a stage manager is and does