The world has changed. A global pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter and social justice movements, and the intensifying climate crisis have altered how we live and work. This includes the theatrical industry. These changes, however, have been happening while theaters have been closed. It’s been an opportunity for us to reflect and look critically at our own industry. As live performance returns, it is crucial that theatre makers address how these issues affect our process of theatre making. We are re-opening in a new era, it’s not the world of 2019, this is 2021.
By Matthew Stern at Broadway Stage Management Symposium.
- The role of the corona compliance officer
- Why combining roles is a bad idea
- Mental health and long hours are centre-stage
- Self care for stage managers
As a stage manager, I’m intensely interested in the role of the stage manager and how a new era of stage management can address the huge changes of health & safety, social justice, and sustainability. Stage Managers are in a unique position to have an impact on all these aspects and incorporate social justice, inclusivity, health, safety, wellness, and sustainability into the production process. As the stewards of a theatrical production, stage managers have always been a significant part of creating and maintaining a safe and comfortable working environment, facilitating communication between numerous collaborators, and seamlessly running and maintaining the show. As Lawrence Stern wrote in his book. “The person who has responsibility for making the entire production run smoothly, on stage and backstage… is the stage manager.”1 Tony Honoree Peter Lawrence describes the job this way: “The complete welfare of the backstage [company] and daily interaction with all the elements of a production are the jobs of the American stage manager.” 2 Together, these definitions demonstrate the great responsibilities stage managers have to both the production and the people involved in making it.
“The person who has responsibility for making the entire production run smoothly, on stage and backstage… is the stage manager.”
As we return to rehearsals and performances, stage managers will again lead companies of actors and stage hands. The production process needs to be equitable, respectful, safe, and sustainable; reflective of all we’ve been through and learned in 2020. What should stage managers expect to be tasked with? What should we expect of ourselves? What do we expect of our employers? These are questions that the stage management community has been grappling with to prepare properly for our return.
We can look at this new era of stage management by addressing the role of the stage manager in three areas: Health & Safety, Race & Equity, and Sustainability. This blog focuses on Health & Safety.
The role of the Corona Compliance Officer
Stage managers take care of many of the daily bumps, bruises, aches, and pains company members experience, including ensuring basic first aid is on hand. Covid has shined a harsh spotlight on health and safety and it would seem natural that the stage manager would be the person to turn to for Covid related issues. However, Covid management requires much more than the basic first aid and CPR training that many stage managers have. Instead of taking on many new Covid-specific duties, stage managers overwhelmingly support the creation of a specialized Covid Safety Supervisor.
Instead of taking on many new Covid-specific duties, stage managers overwhelmingly support the creation of a specialized Covid Safety Supervisor.
In an informal poll on the Year of the Stage Manager (YSM) Facebook page (with 8000+ members), 79% felt it was “an unreasonable addition to my job as a stage manager...” or that the responsibility was “better suited for a compliance officer…” 3 Stage managers often take on additional duties, but the additional duties around Covid (testing, PPE, social distancing) should be the duties of a dedicated person outside of stage management.
Stage manager Amy Witherby said, “I got my Covid Compliance Officer training and one of the things stressed is that the CCO should ONLY be doing their Covid-related work, it should not be combined with another position. There is PLENTY for the CCO to be doing and they need to focus on that. And vice versa for the SM” 3 Unions that represent stage managers agree. As Leslie Sears wrote on the same YSM thread, “both AEA and AGMA have said SMs are not to be responsible for COVID health and safety checks.” 3 The stage hands union, IATSE, does not represent stage managers, but also sees the necessity for a distinct position, separate from the stage manager.4 “The newly released 27-page [IATSE safety measures] document reviewed by medical experts calls for… the establishment of an autonomous COVID-19 Compliance Officer.”
Why combining roles is a bad idea…
This position shares many wonderful qualities with stage managers: organized, efficient, empathetic, diplomatic, and calm. It’s no wonder that veteran Broadway stage managers and early career stage managers alike have taken courses, received certificates, and been hired to work as Covid Safety Supervisors (sometimes called CCOs). However, there is too much for a CCO and SM to do in their own roles. Combining them will only compromise both positions. Our process is served best when stage managers can be stage managers. Working with a Covid Safety Supervisor ensures company safety, and allows the stage manager to focus on their duties to manage the production process.
As we return, it is imperative that employers hire a separate Covid Health & Safety Supervisor and for stage managers, union and non-union alike, to support this need. Stage managers will always keep a look out for health and safety; but in this new era, stage managers need to be clear and confident that they collaborate with a Covid Supervisor, so they can stage manage effectively. As USITT states in their reopening guidelines: “The Health and Safety Coordinator (HSC) will work with stage management and producers to adhere, implement, and oversee the production’s overall health and safety plans. The HSC is not a stage manager, and does not perform any stage management tasks.” 5
If a stage manager is tasked with Covid Health & Safety duties, it puts them in a very difficult position with the creative team they are supporting and both jobs will suffer.
If a stage manager is tasked with Covid Health & Safety duties, it puts them in a very difficult position with the creative team they are supporting and both jobs will suffer. The separation of duties, will provide the best adherence to safety protocols and allow stage managers to do their best job managing the production process.
Mental health and long hours are center-stage
Covid, however, isn’t the only health concern that stage managers will be addressing in the new era. Awareness and understanding of mental health issues have been moving towards center stage as well. The challenges of the pandemic and shutdown have highlighted the need for our industry to address mental health. Two concerns that have focused on the mental health of theatre workers are the 10 out of 12 rehearsal days and the 6 day work week.
We’ve seen a rise in the movement to end the practice of 10 out of 12s (ten hours of rehearsal in a twelve hour span), which are incredibly draining on a company, both mentally and physically. The website, nomore10outof12s.com describes them this way. “A 10 out of 12 day is not just a twelve-hour day for most theater workers. For designers, technicians, stage managers and other theatre workers, it can easily be a 16 hour day or longer.” 7 In addition, a growing chorus is advocating to move towards a 5-day work week, instead of the typical theatre 6-day work week to alleviate mental health, safety, and quality of life issues.
“When we release ourselves from the 10/12-the-show-must-go-on mentality, we gain the opportunity to build new people-centered processes and a more equitable future.”
Chaira Klien, artistic producing director of Baltimore Center Stage said, “When we release ourselves from the 10/12-the-show-must-go-on mentality, we gain the opportunity to build new people-centered processes and a more equitable future.” 6 And Shea King from Columbia Basin College adds, “I can say with confidence that it has reinvigorated my spirit. The tech process is just as energetic and enjoyable as the 5 day rehearsal weeks due to the healthy conditions and efforts to respect everyone’s time.” 6
As makers and managers of the schedule, stage managers are in a position to propose changes from the old ways of scheduling and towards better practices. Options like those mentioned above support mental health and safety and focus, not on the number of hours rehearsed, but the quality of the time spent in rehearsals. By demonstrating to directors and producers the value to both the production and the people, stage managers can advocate for these positive changes.
Another aspect of company mental health that involves stage managers are the use of sick days. Sick days have typically always been used for physical ailments, so how a stage manager responds if someone calls out, citing the need for a “mental health day” instead of a typical “sick day,” can greatly affect a company. A compassionate response will go a long way to maintain the positive and safe work environment we value.
Self-care for stage managers
The next challenge may be the most difficult for stage managers, caring for our own mental health. Maintaining work/life balance is something many stage managers struggle with often giving our time and energy at the expense of our own. In May of 2020, the Broadway Stage Management Symposium featured a panel of stage managers and social workers focused on the mental health of stage managers. In August, USITT featured a panel with the organization Behind the Scenes highlighting the mental health resources they have available. “Even without the uncertainties of life in a pandemic, the unique environment and stresses of working in the entertainment industry are extremely challenging. It’s critical to make sure you, and those you care about, stay healthy; mentally and emotionally as well as physically.” 7 The challenges over the last year have highlighted mental health issues our industry has been struggling with. It is such an important topic, a senior stage management student at University of Arizona is doing her thesis on the subject. 3
In this new era, we have to address both personal and company health and safety in more creative and compassionate ways. Rethinking the old process and bringing in new people to help.
1 Lawrence Stern, Stage Management (Allyn and Bacon, 2002), pg. 4
2 Peter Lawrence, Production Stage Management for Broadway (Quite Specific Media Ltd.), pg xi
3 Year of the Stage Manager Facebook group
4 Ryan McPhee, IATSE Releases Safety Measures for Eventual Theatre Reopenings… (Playbill.com), July 22, 2020.
5 USITT COVID-Reopening Guidelines
7 USITT Panel
Matthew Stern heads up Broadway Stage Management Symposium, a forum featuring a series of panels, lectures and seminars by some of Broadway's most experienced stage managers.
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