Overstocking Our Pond?

by David J. McGraw
Photo by Peter Woodward
Photo by Peter Woodward

I’ll give credit to social media for one thing: it allows you to see if others are facing the same problems. Recently there was an online discussion about shadowing, a topic near and dear to me, not just as a training tool for new stage managers but also as an opportunity for established stage managers to reflect. Nothing like having company over to motivate you to clean up your place/calling station/callboard/promptbook!

This particular discussion was about academic courses requiring students to shadow professional stage managers and then leaving it up to the students to make it happen. This is just plain wrong. This is the kind of wrong that gives stage management teachers a bad name. Do NOT drop the responsibility of teaching your students on someone else without even asking. You are getting paid to teach, so if you want them to shadow [which, let me stress, is an excellent way of learning the job skills and the profession as a whole] then you need arrange the sessions yourself.

But a parallel discussion arose, perhaps spurred by the graduation season, about the number of students being pushed out into the professional world and told they are ready to be stage managers. Can our field support hundreds of new stage management job hunters each year? 

If your immediate response to that last question was an emphatic “NO! There is not enough work as it is!” you are not alone. I have a good friend who is wary of giving early career stage managers their Equity card for ASM roles for fear of increasing the competition in a crowded market. But I would ask you to reconsider.  I believe that we need hundreds of new stage managers entering the market each year if we wish to remain a viable profession.

Thousands of new actors/dancers/singers emerge from colleges and training programs each Spring (insert wildlife documentary language here) and some will get roles for younger characters.  And some of those lucky performers will then start to build networks and get cast by other companies during the acting prime of their 20s. And an even smaller percentage will adapt (and avoid major injuries) and find work in their 30s. And a tiny percentage will make a career out of performing.

But stage managers face a different career cycle.  Stage managers don’t age out of roles – if we are lucky, we can find a single job and stay in it for decades, if not our entire career. There is no generational rotation of stage managers. But we need a rotation if we are to innovate our jobs and stay relevant. I am in no way claiming that only young stage managers can innovate – all stage managers innovate as we adapt to new surroundings.  But the trick is facing new environments and challenges; our jobs are so time-demanding that it can be hard to justify experimenting when we have been using a functional system with the same company for years.

Do we really need to experiment if we are already successful? If we start thinking our jobs are secure and we can keep doing what has worked all of our careers, then we may as well join the encyclopedia publishers, switchboard operators, and classifieds editors at the back table. We must stay relevant.

So, yes, we need hundreds of new stage managers entering the market each year - if for no other reason than we will not fix our diversity issues unless we get new blood among our ranks. In fact, we should be pushing the academic pipelines to make sure that we are getting new stage managers with a broad range of non-theatrical knowledge and skills. If all they know is theatre, we are not adding to our collective knowledge.

And we veteran stage managers need to reconsider our ‘overstocked pond’ mentality to make sure that we don’t slam the door on the next generation as we see them emerge with their new ideas and viewpoints. Yes, it will be even more crowded and we will need to hustle more, but every single one of us learned how to hustle to get work when we started in this crazy business.