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Effective Leadership: Book Review of Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice

Sherrice Mojgani • February 2020Stage Management • February 5, 2020

As a freelance lighting designer and assistant professor, I have experienced many different leadership styles; in my own experience—in administrative, educational, and artistic contexts—I’ve discovered that each new group of people I am leading needs a slightly different approach. In order to be a successful leader, I must constantly adapt to serve the needs and purpose of the group.

As we enter a new decade, Routledge’s Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice by Narda E. Alcorn and Lisa Porter is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in expanding their understanding of effective production leadership. In building their successful careers and training programs, Porter and Alcorn have applied general leadership best practices to a theatrical context, and in their new book, they distill those 25 years of shared translation into a thoughtful and clear offering of stage management wisdom.

Applicable to Everyone

Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice presents a leadership style that is both equitable and adaptable. With chapters on communication, culture, ethics, and purpose, theater artists, administrators, and educators will find that the book transcends the discipline of Stage Management and is applicable to everyone from the chair of the board to a shop supervisor. It’s a quick read at 125 pages, and each chapter of theory is peppered with “experiential stories,” in which Porter and Alcorn share personal stories, exposing vulnerable moments and how they shaped their growth as leaders. Emergent strategists will recognize these stories as examples of the principle of “Never a failure, always a lesson.” As an educator, there are certain lessons that can be difficult to pass along to my students outside of practical rehearsal room experience; this text is a wonderful opportunity to bring those lessons and the theory behind a “good room” into the classroom. 

In my undergraduate design and technical program, I often feel that my stage management students are the hardest to serve, and they are frequently tasked with taking on the most responsibility. On a student production, when everyone—from the director to the run crew—is learning, the needs of student stage managers can be overlooked or under prioritized. As faculty mentors and administrators, we rely on them to take on a highly complicated role, to be confident, correct and exercise authority amongst their peers. I have seen brilliant stage management students suffer from anxiety and burnout. Our program is working towards prioritizing the needs of this small but integral cohort of students, but it is a work-in-progress for all of us.

An Invaluable Resource

Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice is an invaluable resource for that goal, as the center of a new advanced stage management course. It’s one thing to teach students how to write a rehearsal report or call a sound cue, but Porter and Alcorn offer a model for the more difficult (but critically important) lesson in how our students can become leaders among their peers. The end of each chapter contains a helpful “In Theory and Practice” section, which can be used as assignment prompts or to spur discussion and provide an opportunity to apply the newly learned theory to students’ own experiences or a future career. This book’s focus on preparation—which goes far beyond calendars and templates and delves into topics like “learning to ask specific questions” or “diagnosing the culture of your collaborators”—will give students many real world skills along with confidence to adapt with grace when things inevitably don’t go as planned, and enable them to manage fallout, hurt feelings, and miscommunications.

I have great respect for stage management; as a lighting designer, I need them to understand my goals, my capacity during a 10 out of 12, and above all, I need to trust that my design will be maintained after opening, if for instance an actor starts shifting out of their light or is saying a speech too quickly for a set of cues to complete. As a graduate of UC San Diego’s MFA design program, I have been fortunate to work with many stage managers who have been trained by Porter, and I know I can always trust them to be thoughtful, respectful, and generous leaders. Her mentees taught me what I should expect from a stage manager, and what an amazing partner that person can be. Leadership skills I’ve developed in the past 10 years—holding boundaries, asking clear questions, providing suggestions to problems that need solving—these are all things I first saw clearly demonstrated by my stage management classmates at UC San Diego. I am thrilled that this new text will help me model my undergraduate stage management curriculum after Porter’s and Alcorn’s highly successful graduate programs.

While Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice is a great textbook for stage management training programs, its lessons provide concrete leadership skills applicable throughout the theater industry—across all areas and from top to bottom. I recommend it to anyone and everyone who has ever needed to lead a team of collaborators. 

Find this book at: http://bit.ly/routledgeSMTheoryasaGuidetoPractice  

Sherrice Mojgani is a Washington, D.C.-based theatrical lighting designer and an assistant professor in the School of Theatre at George Mason University, where she also serves as the head of design. She is a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829 and serves as co-chair on the USA 829 Diversity Committee. Mojgani holds a BA in theatre arts from UC Santa Cruz, and an MFA in lighting design from UC San Diego.

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