You are in the audience watching a play; the conflict of the story has just been resolved and the main character sits alone onstage. The actor raises their head to face the audience under the guise of looking out a window. In their expression you can see everything that character feels about how this story has concluded and just when the moment of their connection with the audience has lasted the perfect amount of time the actor lowers their head and the lights on stage fade out in perfect unison leaving us with the feeling that, with the loss of their gaze, our connection to their world and their story has also been lost. The audience applauds. One audience member turns to their companion and says ‘That actor performed that so beautifully’, and they are right. Probably no audience member turns to their companion and says ‘That cue was called so beautifully’, although they would also be right. Every moment on stage is a convergence of the work of many artists: playwrights, musicians, lighting designers, makeup artists, actors, each with their various works arranged like pieces of music painstakingly put together by the composer or, in this case, the director. If a piece of theatre is like a piece of music and we could look out on an orchestra of all the artists involved sitting in their seats; the strings holding costumes, the brass waiting with cumbersome set pieces. If you could follow their gaze to the conductor, in black, standing at the center with their baton poised as if to say ‘Standby’ you would see the unsung heroes of the stage. At the hand of this conductor these artists could perform a symphony or a cacophony; in theatre we call them the Stage Manager.
In case the introduction above wasn’t sufficient evidence I would like to make a confession: I love Stage Managers (SMs). When I first got the chance to direct I considered it one of my first priorities to get a good SM. As I began my first foray into directing I could barely contain my excitement and as I shared that excitement (perhaps not always in moderation) I got a question that surprised me from my friends who are not involved in theatre: ‘What does a Stage Manager do anyway?’ My first thought was: ‘What don’t they do?’ but I felt my friends deserved a better answer and this led me to reflect on the essential, but somewhat intangible, callers of cues. In every production that I have been involved with there have been differences in the responsibilities of the various players involved depending on the creative processes of those involved. This variability and the finitude of my experience makes it impossible for me to give a definitive definition of what it means to be a Stage Manager but what I can share is my observations of what some SMs do that has caused me to love them.
SMs excel in that critical area that I know myself and other artists can often struggle: organization. Before the rehearsal process even begins the SM is scheduling, and communicating with producers and designers. Once a show is cast they are scheduling read-throughs, rehearsals, fittings, etc. During a rehearsal while actors and their director are exploring a scene the SM is taking a flurry of notes so that when the director says ‘that was perfect!’ there is some record of the perfect formula of blocking, timing etc. to reference. Even before opening night the SM is indispensable but on and after opening is when, in my opinion, they truly shine. In most productions I have worked on, the last opportunity for the director to give notes, make changes etc. is before opening night. After the show opens the SM runs the show, literally. Like with a piece of music it is all about the timing; when do the doors open to let the audience sit? When do the lights change after this line? When does this actor change costume and who helps them? When (not if) something doesn’t go according to plan, what do we do? All these questions find their answer in the SM. Their artistry is in ingenuity, diplomacy and timing, timing, timing. But there is another key to the art of the SM, I realised, and here is where I came to understand the question asked by my friends on the other side of the fourth wall. When done well this artistry, like magic, is nearly imperceptible. As an audience we believe the reality of the characters and we willingly forget that what we are seeing is contrived, and for that to be possible we forget that there is a Stage Manager. We forget the SM looking out on to that stage as that actor gazes off stage left where a window would be. We forget that repetition after repetition of this scene has led that actor and SM to know just how long is the right amount of time to hold the emotion on that actor’s face; it may be slightly different every night. Like two musicians who have played together many times they have an understanding, a trust, and just at the right moment the SM says “LX cue 89, Go” and the lights fade just as the actor lowers their head. In that moment we believe and we forget. The audience applauds and it is beautiful.