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 importance of discussion
- Articles and strategies
- We can do better
- Setting a tone of inclusion
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, we experienced a new social awakening. We See You White American Theatre 8 published a powerful, critical, insightful, and thought-provoking treatise enumerating the many ways systemic racism has infected the theatre and detailing how our industry needs to change.
To be an effective leader in rehearsal and performance, it has become clear that new learnings and understandings must be part of a stage manager's skill set.
To be an effective leader in rehearsal and performance, it has become clear that new learnings and understandings must be part of a stage manager's skill set. Only with new tools can we combat the systemic racism that is embedded in our culture. During the shutdown, many members of the stage management community have taken on the responsibility of educating themselves.
The importance of discussion
The Year of the Stage Manager facebook group became a meeting place for stage managers to lean into these conversations, learn in public, and rebuild our process in order to do better. YSM founder, Amanda Spooner said in American Theartre Magazine, “I think what stage managers should be doing right now, as much as they can, is learning exactly how white supremacy culture functions in the performing arts… What am I doing to dismantle white supremacy culture? You can’t dismantle it unless you know it, unless you see it. When stage managers go back, and their role is as a middle manager, you can pretend that because you’re not legally a supervisor, you can wash your hands of it. But you’re lying to yourself, because you’re clearly an authority in the room. You’re clearly functioning as someone who is guiding a project and guiding priorities and keeping clear goals.” 9
One way to begin this process of learning was with reading and discussion groups of the books “White Fragility” by Robin DeAngelo & “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. These discussions lead to smaller informal chats where stage managers could share their understandings of cultural differences, the impact of micro-aggressions, their own privilege, and how white supremacy has been built into many of the systems we have accepted.
Ira Mont said stage management is “fundamentally…taking care of the human beings working on a show”
Ira Mont said, stage management is “fundamentally…taking care of the human beings working on a show,” 9then we need to develop a much better understanding of how what we say and what we do affect BIPOC company members and perpetuate a culture of white supremacy. Readings and discussions and self-education are a necessary step for stage managers to realign our actions with the values of equity, equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Articles and strategies
Some stage managers have written about the systemic issues in our industry. The insightful article “Hold, Please,” written by six BIPOC stage managers 10 states the vital importance for stage managers to critically access their process. “For stage managers in particular… we must be mindful of the ways we facilitate our rehearsal and performance processes. Choosing not to practice continual self-reflection and adjustment perpetuates harm to ourselves, everyone around us, and particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” 10 The article gives specific examples of how concepts like: Urgency, Perfectionism, Objectivity, Power-Hoarding and more contribute to white supremacy culture.
“For stage managers in particular… we must be mindful of the ways we facilitate our rehearsal and performance processes.“
Leading stage management educators, Narda E. Alcorn of Yale, and Lisa Porter of UC San Diego, collaborated on an article to help stage managers “emerge from this lengthy COVID-19 pause prepared to navigate a new production landscape.” 11 Some of their detailed strategies for stage managers include:
- “Intentionally incorporating anti-racist language can prioritize the deconstruction of systems of oppression.” 15
- “Establish boundaries when racist language is part of the content of a play, clearly stating how that language will be used by different members of the company. This strategy is especially important for stage managers who will prompt or stand-in for a particular character.” 15
- “Speak up as an ally and stage manager, taking on the responsibility of disrupting and interrupting racist aggression towards non-White colleagues who have been harmed.” 15
- “Recommend that the director and creative team open conversations about race… For example, opening conversations about costumes, hair, and makeup are especially important since, even within a multiracial cast, the default might be to white skin color and hair texture.” 15
- “Question microaggressions that are typically normalized in the production process, like a White colleague commenting that a Black actor speaks Shakespeare well...”15
By critically looking at our practice, we discover “there are so many places we, as stage managers, can be culpable in perpetuating white supremacy… “:11
We can do better
The 2021 Broadway Stage Management Symposium brought together some of these authors and and other stage managers to discuss Anti-Racist Stage Management, the work they are engaged in the importance of reflecting and evaluating our own processes. Stage managers will be on the front lines when issues arise and need to take personal responsibility to learn to see and discuss race issues, foresee and address concerns. This is critical to creating the safe and equitable spaces we want our theatre to be.
The Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) released a statement in June of 2020 that says: “We at the Stage Managers' Association stand with those who are committed to fighting oppression, racism, and hate. We can do better. We must do better. We call upon all stage managers to pledge to respect everyone in the room and everyone at the table. To read, to listen and to learn so that we can understand individually how to help make the rehearsal room and the performance stage a place for joyful creation, with mutual respect and collaboration for all people working together in the artistic process.” 12
Access and diversity in stage management is also part of the new era of stage management. Stage managers are actively creating avenues to bring more stage managers of color into the tight-knit networks that have a huge impact on a stage manager’s career. Broadway & Beyond: Access for Stage Managers of Color has created networking events and an online database of stage managers of color. Cody Renard Richard and Broadway Advocacy Coalition created a scholarship program for BIPOC theatre makers 13. The SMA launched a social media program to highlight 101 Black Stage Managers that comes with free membership in the professional association. the Broadway Stage Management Symposium (with the support of BIPOC stage managers) created scholarships for stage managers of color to attend the professional development and networking conference for free. 14
Setting a tone of inclusion
Gender identity is another area where the leadership of the stage manager is important. Incorporating respectful use of pronouns allows a stage manager to set a tone of inclusion. A colleague once told me about the book: A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns and how they would keep the book on their stage management table. Company members would be curious and ask about it. This educates company member and sets an important example. Leadership helps bring a better understanding of diversity, in all its manifestations, to our industry. The theatre should be a welcome and safe place for all and stage managers set this tone with their actions.
The theatre should be a welcome and safe place for all and stage managers set this tone with their actions.
In the new era of stage management, stage managers can become important allies and advocates by engaging in self-education, welcoming challenging discussions, listening, learning, and creating an equitable and safe space for the creation of theatre.
9 Jerald Raymond Pierce, Managing the Stage, and Managing Expectations, (American Theatre) Sept. 29 https://www.americantheatre.org/2020/09/29/managing-the-stage-and-managing-expectations/
10 Miguel Flores, R. Christopher Maxwell, John Meredith, Alex Murphy, Quinn O’Connor, Phyllis Smith, and Chris Walters, Hold, Please, (Howlround),
11 Narda E. Alcorn and Lisa Porter, We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education, (Howlround)
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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