Onboarding Past Prep Week

by David J. McGraw

As the seasons change and we put away our summer show-blacks for our warmer show-blacks (please tell me I am not the only stage manager who divides his all-black wardrobe by season) it is also time to train our new staff. Whether working for regional theaters, tours, universities, or the constantly changing Broadway, Fall is the season of new staffing.

Stage managers are very good at training understudies and new crew, but how good are we at training our own teams?

I used to think I was pretty good at bringing new stage managers onboard until I saw how other fields do it. They even use that term: onboarding. The issue, I believe, is that we are so accustomed to incredibly quick training sessions – prepping the understudy or new crew sub for the performance in six hours – that we neglect the long term development of our newest team members. It wasn’t until an awesome workshop session at USITT last March and my own onboarding at my new employer, Elon University, that I have started considering the costs and benefits of onboarding stage managers.

Part of the onboarding approach is determining the optimal time/method to give new information. How many times do we introduce a new person by going around the room with everyone saying their name and then asking the new person to share a little of their background? Do we really expect the new person to process and remember everyone’s name, particularly when we have also just informed the newbie that they will need to summarize their life in an interesting way immediately after everyone else says their name in quick succession? Can we provide a contact list – even better if we can add photos of everyone – and introduce two or three people before the meeting so that the new person has some familiar faces from the start?

An even more important component to onboarding is long-term training and feedback sessions. Hiring a new staff member, particularly a stage manager, can be very expensive when you factor in the time required for both the hiring process and the initial training. But that initial training is usually about the nuts and bolts of the job, whereas the stage management team also needs to represent the culture and values of the organization. I remember being asked by an actor at the end of a first day of rehearsal whether I was “with the theater or with the cast?”. The stage manager needs to know the company’s culture and history to navigate such thorny topics with diplomacy and tact. And culture is hard to pick up while you are taping out floors and assembling first rehearsal packets.

The best theater I know for onboarding new staff is the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. David Stewart, Director of Production and one of the presenters at that USITT workshop, invests the time to integrate new staff into the theatre’s community and to learn what the newcomers can see that he perhaps cannot. As you train your new staff, or are being trained at a new company, consider what steps can support long-term development:

  • Rotating interns among SM/ASM teams
  • Providing related training such as first aid and CPR
  • Joining ad hoc committees from the whole org such as a holiday fundraising group
  • Asking new staff after a month what they wished they had learned sooner

Prep week is just the start of a stage manager’s onboarding.  How can your newest staff help train you?