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YSM2020: February – Advocacy & Community

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier • Stage Management History • February 5, 2020

Photo credit: Lalesh Aldarwish

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. February’s theme is Advocacy & Community and we are going to take a step back into history to see why advocacy was such an integral and important part of our framework.

For a large part of theatrical history, stage managers were actors. In fact, AEA stage managers weren’t prohibited from acting or understudying in the shows they stage managed until 1948.[1] The delay demonstrates how much of our relationship with AEA derived from our acting origins.

This year we celebrate the centennial of when the executive council voted to add “stage managers” to the contractual language, explicitly giving us the protection of the union. AEA has always maintained in its records that stage managers have always been a part of the union. This is mainly because AEA believed stage managers were ACTORS, who stage managed on the side, rather than a separate, specialized field. Based off historical records, it can be assumed that Producers did not agree that stage managers were covered by the AEA contract, which is why the additional language was necessary.

The stage management community petitioned AEA Executive Council several times between 1924 and 1941. As more and more stage managers joined the fight for better working conditions, the tension between stage management community and AEA continued to grow. By December 1941, 45 stage managers lobbied for reforms, including a ban on understudy and acting assignments. As noted in “Stage Management Grievances in 1942,” AEA denied the stage managers and wrote a scathing rebuttal.

In response to each petition, AEA responded by maintaining that stage managers were actors and should not receive special treatment above other members. In 1942, key AEA administrators disagreed with the stage management community that the stage manager’s work was a “specialized, technical, and organizational [field] placing them in a category of theatre work different from and having little in common with the actor.[2]” AEA Administrators opposed so heartedly that they regarded that opinion as “dangerous to the welfare of American theatre as well as of this Association.[3]

They further noted: “from a practical standpoint, it is essential that competent stage managers should be actors and still in the business of acting.[4]” And that “stage managers should be protected in the same manner and to the same extent as other actors…. And [with] as few differences in working conditions between stage managers and actors as possible.[5]” In my dissertation, I demonstrate how this response reveals their interpretation of “stage manager as actor” and exposes how little they understood the position or the stage managers’ working conditions.

Stage managers, dismissed by AEA, spent another five years tolerating these existing conditions. By May 8, 1947, the stage management community had, once again, had enough. Over 125 stage managers met and signed a petition requesting that council reconsider their plight and offered eight proposal clauses that would affect stage management working conditions. Similar to the 1942 proposal, they sought:

  • a stage management minimum basic wage
  • to prohibit stage managers from acting and understudying
  • a two-week full-salary guarantee for any pre-production work required
  • mandated qualifications before accepting stage management contracts
  • a specific stage management contract outlining the above provisions

In addition to these 1942 proposal items, they requested a committee of three to advise the Executive Council on stage management concerns.

This is where our topic of advocacy comes in. While researching the relational history between AEA and the stage management community, it became increasingly clear how disparate each entity interpreted stage management and its function in theatre. Community and advocacy was (and continues to be!) the remedy for these challenging situations. Solidarity was demonstrated in the growing number of stage managers who signed the petition and culminated in the appearance of the Stage Managers’ Association in 1947.[6] AEA members sent telegrams and letters asking the Executive Council to consider their colleagues’ plight.

In one passionate letter, John Kennedy* advocated that the Executive Council carefully consider each of the stage management proposals noting, “As this number comprises nearly every important stage manager in the business, with the exception of those on tour, it should impress the Council with the seriousness and justice of their requests.[7]” He continues, arguing the merits of the stage managers’ requests and tackles the previously given reasons for denying stage managers these requests from 1942.

For example, on the account of stage manager’s acting and/or understudying he writes:

            “This, to me, seems so logical and reasonable a request as to require no comment at all. But in view of some opposition to it at the last council meeting let’s go into it.

                        (a) Why have a Stage Manager do an actor out of a job?? Are there so many jobs that we haven’t enough actors to play them? Or is it our duty to help the manager save, what is usually a minimum salary?? For a long time Council has been puzzling its collective brains to make work for actors and here is their big chance. Why not do the obvious?

                        (b) One of the principal duties of a stage manager is to watch the performance and see that it is played properly eight times a week. How is he going to watch a performance when he is in it? …

                        (c) As for the Stage Manager making $25 or $50 more a week by playing a part, what kind of reasoning is that?? Pay your Stage Manager a decent wage and he won’t need to take a minimum actor’s job at cut rate….

                        (d) The argument was advanced a few years ago that many actors got their start as stage managers. What a completely silly argument. Let them get their start as bit actors if they are going to be actors. Stop them from taking the places of men who want to make a career in the technical end of the theatre. That’s important too, you know.[8]

Because of this strength in community and advocacy, AEA Executive Council “approved” four out of the eight clauses pending success at the bargaining table. While notes in AEA records indicate that “Stage Managers would not act or understudy parts” was accepted and added to the 1948 contract, it was not reflected in the “AEA Rules Relating to Employment” until 1952, which was when the “Stage Manager” section was added to the rulebook. In lieu of a stage management-specific contract, the council voted to make those proposals that passed a part of the regular Equity standard production contract. The council also sanctioned a stage management advisory committee.

It is important to note that change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen without assistance and support. Though it would be hard to argue that Kennedy’s passionate pleas to the council were THE reason stage managers fared better this time around, his advocacy and ability to highlight the fortitude of the stage manager’s alliance certainly worked in their favor. As revealed in AEA’s historical records, Kennedy was a vehement supporter of stage management and played a significant role advocating for stage management concerns throughout the 1940s.

Check back soon to read about Kennedy’s role in the initial 1947 Stage Manager’s Association as we continue the conversation on advocacy and community!

[1] Some AEA contracts still allow the assistant stage manager to understudy today.

[2] Correspondence from Rebecca Brownstein, Paul Dullzell, Walter N. Greaza, Bert Lytell and Paul N. Turner to the AEA Executive Council. 2 March 1942, WAG.011, Box 6, Folder 32, Actors’ Equity Association Records, The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York, New York. 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brownstein, 2.

[6] The 1947 Stage Managers’ Association is a different organization from the contemporary Stage Managers’ Association which was formed in 1981.

[7] Correspondence from John Kennedy to the AEA Executive Council. 24 May 1947, WAG.011, Box 9, Folder 46, Actors’ Equity Association Records, The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York, New York. 1.

[8] Kennedy, 1-2.

* In Dec 1947/48 Kennedy was the chairman of the committee to investigate the Stage Managers’ Association to decide if their constitution & by-laws were breaking AEA membership rules. All of his correspondence was marked from St. Louis, and he stage managed at one point in his life, (though his letter made it sound like he was a director/producer in the 40s-50s).


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!

Want more content about #YSM2020?

Year of the Stage Manager: What is #YSM2020?
January: What is Stage Management?
February: Advocacy & Community
March: Diversity & Inclusion
April: Parenting & Dependents
May: Awards & Recognition
June: Self-Care
July: Skillset & Possibilities
August: Politics & Livelihood
September: Training & Resources
October: International Stage Management
November: Financial Planning & Life Transitions
December: Looking Ahead to the Future of Stage Management



Photo credit is Lalesh Aldarwish

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