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Defining Stage Management

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier • Stage Management History • January 13, 2020

Glimpse of a Guidebook

With 2020 heralded as the Year of the Stage Manager (see YSM2020: 100 Years of Being Explicit for more details), each month has been given a theme to encourage the generation of new stage management content. January’s subject for YSM2020 is “What is Stage Management?” and contemporary stage managers have wonderfully flocked to social media to contribute. This month’s theme is particularly fortuitous, as I concentrate on writing the handbook chapter in my forthcoming dissertation, Defining American Stage Management in the Early Twentieth Century. This chapter grapples with the transformation of stage management definitions through a 50-year time period (1900-1950) focusing on the tasks associated with each term and the methodologies recommended in carrying the task out. One proclaimed adage from 1919 emphases that an unnoticed stage manager is the best kind of stage manager. It should come as no surprise that a hundred years later, we are fighting for visibility in the field.

When I first told my parents that I was applying for a Masters of Fine Arts degree in stage management, they baulked. Their hesitation stemmed from their unfamiliarity with what a stage manager did and their fear that I would be a starving artist the rest of my life. A few months after my departure, my parents called to say they had changed their minds. That evening, the Red Sox had made a birthday shout-out to their stage manager, shifting to a shot of her in the booth with her headset on. If the Red Sox had a stage manager, then maybe my career choice wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Like many others, it had never occurred to my parents that stage management didn’t necessarily mean theater, or more obviously, Broadway. This year is all about giving notice to the thousands of stage managers all around the world who work in theater, opera, dance, corporate events, etc. Let’s not forget the stage managers that work on the Olympics, the Golden Globes, the Super Bowl or Mickey on Ice. The world is filled with events that use stage managers to keep them on schedule and in the right cues.

This month (January 2020) is all about defining stage management. I was once told that if you were to ask 20 theatrical professionals with different job titles (i.e. Costume Designer, Actor, Technical Director, etc.) to explain what the stage manager did, each person would answer differently. The explanation I was given was that each person witnesses a fraction of the labor performed by the stage manager and, as such, approaches how to define the job from that point of view. Add on the amount of invisible labor performed by the stage manager, and even stage managers have a hard time encapsulating all that they do in a few quick phrases.

Glimpse of a Guidebook
Ever since I started writing this blog, I’ve always imagined creating smaller themed pieces, to feature research sources, individuals, etc. to highlight them in new and interesting ways. So, here is the first Glimpse of a Guidebook. Approximately 20 stage management handbooks sit on my research shelf at home, with at least another 20 titles saved digitally on my computer. Each provides a slightly different definition for the stage manager/prompter and each marks an important step in the transition from “stage manager/director” to “contemporary stage manager.”

The handbook presented in this blog is from 1879, which falls just before my dissertation time frame, when the stage manager performed much of the what we consider the directors work. The prompter notated and held the promptbook, called the show and offered backstage support. As shown in the above graph, the handbook was published just before the term “stage director” appear in stage management publications. As you can see, once the stage director makes an appearance, the definition of stage management slowly transitions to mean technical director before becoming what we call the “Production Stage Manager” today.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at how this 1879 theater manual defines the tasks and role of the historical stage manager and prompter, (if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Crash Course in Stage Management History Part I and Part II to understand how this handbook fits into stage management history!)

Amateur Theatricals
Walter Herries Pollock and Lady Pollock
London: Macmillan and Co. published 1879

Anticipated Audience:
Anyone interested in creating an amateur production, usually performed in a parlor room for family and friends.

How is the stage manager defined?
The stage-manager must not act himself, but be prepared to direct every one, and to do this he must know a great deal about acting, and have an artist’s eye for the picturesque in order to arrange the positions of the actors throughout the piece and the tableaux at the end of each act. He must have tact and good temper, for amateur actors and actresses have usually their full share of vanity and are apt to imagine that they know where to stand and how to speak better than anyone else. (p 40-41)

How is the prompter defined?
A prompter is a necessary addition to the company. The stage-manager sometimes undertakes this office; but the prompter has enough work if he does nothing else, and his office is the most important of all for ensuring the success of the play. He ought to attend the last two or three rehearsals, to be quite sure where the actors fail in their parts, and to be prepared to help them at the right moment. It has often been observed that the same person will fail over and over again in the same place – no matter how well he knows the rest of his part; and this is especially the case when he is nervous. A prompter’s part is by no means an easy one, for he has to be distinct to the actors without being heard by the audience. (p 45-46)

Are the terms director or assistant stage manager used in the text?

Where can you get access to this book?


Ways to celebrate YSM2020:

  • Share Stage Management content, educate your colleagues on stage management, and show appreciation for your stage managers.
  • Join the Facebook page for Year of the Stage Manager 2020.
  • When sharing on social media, don’t forget to use the hashtag #YearOfTheStageManager or #YSM2020.
  • Follow on Instagram at SMInsta2020, where stage managers all around the world will be hosting Insta-takeovers each and every day!


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