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The Humane Mentor: David McGraw

Lisa Mulcahy • In the LimelightMarch 2020 • February 26, 2020

David J. McGraw

David J. McGraw exemplifies the notion of generosity in leadership. McGraw is a stage manager, educator, and contributing writer for Stage Directions including his SM Kit blog. McGraw has also overseen five editions of the SM Survey (http://www.smsurvey.info), the largest stage managers’ study in the world, which looks at trends in stage managers’ lives and work. He has also recently launched the SM 2030 Project, a new longitudinal study of early career stage managers, which dovetails nicely in with YSM2020, The Year of the Stage Manager celebrations. McGraw thrives in his role as assistant professor and program coordinator for the arts administration program at Elon University. Additionally, he previously served as the head of the stage management and arts entrepreneurship programs at the University of Iowa and he held the position of executive director of the Iowa Summer Rep. More distinctive achievements McGraw has earned: he designed the UI Certificate in arts entrepreneurship and authored The Epoch Model: An Arts Organization with an Expiration Date, which was featured in 20 UNDER 40: Re-inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. And if that is not enough, McGraw also founded SM-Sim, LLC, a business focused on developing tools for stage managers. 

McGraw’s extensive stage management experience include work for Chester Theatre Company, Iowa Summer Rep, Arizona Repertory Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre, Geva Theatre Center, Oldcastle Theatre, Perishable Theatre, Stageworks on the Hudson, Vilar Performing Arts Center, White River Theatre Festival, and the Yale Repertory Theatre. He also is serving as a director-at-large for the Stage Managers’ Association (having served as a second vice chair in 2007). In addition to this hands-on technical and creative work, McGraw was selected by the South African State Theatre for the Share Your Journey, Set My Journey project in May 2019. His work on the project included an investigation as to how the new musical Freedom can tour the United States as well as offer workshops on stage management, producing theatre, grant-writing, and touring theatre.

And most admirable of all? McGraw wants to share the knowledge he has accumulated with as many budding ASMs and SMs as possible. Here, he explains is philosophy on key issues in stage management, and discusses his approach to helping his mentees meet their own boundless potential

McGraw at work

Appreciating the Creative Artist

McGraw’s first significant experience with theater was pure emotion. “In my junior year of high school, I saw a production of Hamlet—it was a real moment of love,” he says. “I saw a group of Cleveland area artists who found a school basement and put on the most low-tech production you can imagine for maybe 30 audience members. There was such a sense of community in that room—you had to be there!” 

Following that indelible experience, McGraw knew he loved theater—but initially didn’t know how he wanted to pursue his interest further. “At first, I never had a career plan regarding stage management,” he recalls. “Like so many people in our industry, I kind of fell into my work. I lucked out on a job with the Perishable Theater and started focusing my attention on stage management when I was at the College of the Holy Cross.” He excelled at the job but was realistic about what it entailed. “I saw very early how difficult it was to be a stage manager,” McGraw explains. “Managing creative individuals is the goal, with an approach geared toward the creative potential of the group you’re working with as a whole. You know, in working on the SM Survey, it is very clear to me that there’s no single ‘right’ way as to how this should be done.”

One experience in particular taught him the importance of flexibility in his management style. “I once stage managed a production that had a company consisting of three artistic directors,” says McGraw. “It was a poker game, and I was the dealer playing with a room of card sharks. What I needed to do was look for openings for growth in terms of what we could all do that was best for the production. But the dynamic was challenging. Collaborating with these three artistic directors meant using three different approaches. One needed a task master; one needed a support system; and one was a peacemaker who wanted to stay above the fray, who wanted not to have conflict when one of the other two thrived on conflict. In managing different artists at the same time, it’s important that no one feels like they have given up their voice.”

Navigating the Unexpected

A stage manager’s goal is always to maintain efficiency, even in the face of turmoil or unwelcome surprises. McGraw’s approach in these situations is to deal with problems quickly and decisively. “You don’t want issues people on your production are having to affect other areas of your production,” he explains. “When I think that when there is going to be conflict—when I see, as the stage manager, that we are not going to be able to avoid it, that we just have that disagreement early. I will say, ‘Let’s have it out now.’ You don’t let problems get worse; you discuss the problem and as the stage manager, try to show everyone the way to its solution.”

Because McGraw has done extensive research in the field of stage management, he understands from both physical experience and from a point of academic theory what the less experienced need. McGraw’s projects include faculty and artist workshops, as well as writing and producing the info-rich training film, Standby Cue 101: An Introduction to Calling Live Performances, [which is available on Amazon]; he also developed a stage manager simulator. When it comes to one-on-one advice, McGraw unfailingly cuts to the chase. “In working with an ASM, I will always ask, ‘What is it that you want to work on?’” McGraw says. “Knowing what you need to learn is so important.” 

As is the ability to keep going. “When you make a mistake, how well can you move on? How can you forgive yourself? This is a question stage managers need to be able to answer,” McGraw stresses. “I think it’s very important to identify what happened as stage managers, and ask ourselves, how are we responsible? You never want there to be a situation where there is abuse in a rehearsal, for example, and people are asking, where was the stage manager? You have to take responsibility to stop it. Safety and trust are so important.”

McGraw also believes in total mutual respect on a show. “Because I believe there is no singular approach to stage management, I’m very happy to work with younger people, of course,” he says. “I think, here is a fully fledged collaborator, a complete artist—who just happens to have less experience than me. I can fill in the gaps. I also view it as, here is my colleague who has information that I lack! What really matters to me is, what are my colleague’s values? Simple knowledge can be learned—when working with my mentees, I always emphasize the fact that we are ALL artists.”

Facilitating the Future

McGraw’s accolades, which include selection as a Fulbright Specialist for 2017-2020, the New Venture Challenge Award, the Innovations in Teaching with Technology Award, and Iowa Centers for Enterprise Elevator Pitch Award, inspire the next generation of stage managers he works with for sure. Yet he is equally impressed by their potential. To this end, he’s starting a new project to track it—SM2030. “I look forward to following a group of stage managers after they graduate through the first 10 years of their career,” McGraw says. “I want to know about their journeys in terms of how their expectations change, or don’t change. What their support systems are like. How do they sustain themselves in that period of time? In checking in with them every two years, we will see how they see their profession, and we’ll all understand more about our work as stage managers.” 

In the end, gaining competency is what stage management is all about. Often, there’s a moment when you feel you’ve made that leap, and it gives you the confidence you need for years to come. McGraw remembers his. “A pivotal moment happened for me when I decided to go to grad school,” he summarizes. “I made that decision because I didn’t have a network, really, and in terms of stage management, my undergrad studies were not in depth. But I got what I needed at Yale. I remember sitting at the table read for a John Guare play there and I realized I was on the same playing field as everyone else in the room. That felt very good.” Thanks to McGraw’s commitment to sharing his knowledge, scores of other stage managers have enjoyed their own moment of making it as well. 

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