Why Study the History of Stage Management?

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Print
[As long-time readers know, the Stage Manager’s Kit is written by several stage managers.  We welcome back Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier ]

This past August I started a PhD program studying the History of Stage Management. As far as I can tell, I may be the only PhD student focused on stage management.

My faculty has repeatedly reminded me that as a pioneer, I will be the leading expert. Although I’m not ready to accept such an inspiring title or the responsibility that goes with it, when I tell people what I do, the question that normally follows is, “Why?” The easiest response is: “Because I’m passionate about it. Because it’s captivating to find the tiny threads that connect today’s stage management practices to the past. Because the stories that are uncovered during the process are incredible.”

Often, my stage management friends reply, “That’s fascinating, but your research is not going to help my career or make me a better stage manager. It isn’t going to give me a new innovative way to call cues or provide a magical tip to deal with conflict and unique personalities.”

I understand their opinion. In fact, I’ve spent the last year trying to expand my justification beyond: “Isn’t learning from humanity’s mistakes a large motivation for studying history? Shouldn’t that logic also be applied to the history of stage management?”

Without this foundational history, the academic sphere for stage management cannot be built. Since, Stage Managers are marginalized to the edges of history, they barely make an appearance in any historical work about theatre. With this continued marginalization, it is no wonder that some members of the Actors Equity Association wish the Stage Managers would leave AEA and form their own union. They do not understand the intricately webbed account of its founding. It is time to reclaim the stage manager’s role in theatrical history.

The reason to build a historical narrative for the stage manager is surprisingly simple: to construct a body of scholarly work: theorizing, testing best practices and analytically generating connections between different types of stage management (dance vs. musical); different house sizes (LORT vs. store-front) and different time periods (then vs. now). The reason to do this is to better our future. Stage Management scholars will identify the “unwritten rules” of the past, discern how stage managers have broken those molds and will help identify the artistic frameworks which stage managers can anticipate working within.

The first step is writing the historical basis, or the nuts and bolts of history. This will be followed by a wave of opposition, arguing new ways to consider the foundational monographs. Then comes the end goal: the place where historical scholarship and present day collide. Here is where theory will meet practice, and the knowledge from hundreds of years of stage management will be examined, questioned and improved to create more informed stage managers, who will understand not just how to do their profession, but also why they do certain tasks, how those tasks have been performed, and the best way to accomplish those tasks in the future.

Without those introductory monographs portraying the changing role of the stage manager through time, the end goal cannot be met. Like a house built on sand instead of concrete, it will lack the stability and depth needed to withstand the push-back of skeptics.

But first we need to build the foundation. 

Also read Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier  initial post about why stage managers are part of Actors’ Equity Association.