Stage Manager: The Best Friend A Singer Can Have
When you are hired to sing at an opera company, singing your best is certainly a priority, but not your only consideration. In this volume of Voices, a series highlights expert advice on various components of working well with the company who hires you. This issue’s article looks at the relationship between you
the singer — and the stage manager.
They sit at the table with score, notepad, and reams of paperwork. Rehearsals start and end on their word. They can be the kindest or most stern people you have ever met, but they are an invaluable resource. The best ones are there because they enjoy creating an environment where performing artists can do their finest work and have to worry only about performing. Many of them are singers or instrumentalists in their own right. What brings them to the table are often the same things that bring you to the stage; a love of the art form and of live theater. I am speaking of the stage manager.
The stage manager can be the singer’s best ally. According to soprano Brenda Harris, “My advice to beginning singers is to ALWAYS make friends of stage management. They can make OR break your job experience.” They hold vast amounts of information about the production, the schedule, the company, and often the city in which you are performing. Establishing a good relationship with the stage manager can make your performing experience much nicer.
The role of the stage manager varies from company to company. The majority of opera companies in America do not have a resident stage manager. Like the singers, stage managers are usually contracted. However, many stage managers have their “circuit” of companies for which they work, so they tend to know the cities and companies very well. They usually arrive from one to seven days before the cast. During this time, they tape the floor in the rehearsal hall, prepare contact sheets, start to organize the schedule, and get the all-important coffee and tea service ready.
The function of the stage manager is one of service, not servant. While they usually arrive early enough for rehearsal to prepare coffee and tea in addition to the rehearsal hall, they are not there to clean up after the cast. Each stage manager has his or her own version of the “I am not your mother” speech. However, the best casts are the ones who don’t need that. If you would like to endear yourself to the stage manager, clean up after yourself in rehearsal.
Most companies today hire at least a team of two stage managers, a
production stage manager (PSM) and an assistant stage manager (ASM). This allows some division of labor as they document and prepare the show for production. The ASM will generally take responsibility for either props or costumes (sometimes both), while the PSM is responsible for scenery placement, light cues, and schedules. Some small companies hire only one person, and that person has a huge burden to bear.
Scheduling of rehearsals is a major part of the stage manager’s job. Making sure the entire show has been rehearsed, everyone has had their breaks, and everything is running on time falls on the stage manager’s shoulders. Generally, a company will have one particular day of the week assigned as the day off. If so, this is usually announced at the start of rehearsal. In addition to rehearsals, stage managers also schedule your PR interviews, costume fittings, wig fittings, and other company events. You may find that the stage manager is reluctant to give you more than three or four days worth of schedule at any time. This is simply because schedules are always changing. Check with the stage manager about how to get updates. I often had an answering machine or voice mail with the next day’s schedule recorded on it. This allowed artists and staff to call a particular extension to check for their next calls. Keep this number with you if such a service is provided.
The stage manager, or assistant director (if the production has one), is the person dutifully charged with recording the blocking for the cast. The production book is where all of this is recorded. If you have blocking questions and would like to look at the book, ask to see it. That’s what it’s there for. However, don’t remove the production book from the table. Every stage manager has nightmares of losing their production book. Even taking it over to ask the director a question is enough to strike fear in the heart of most stage managers. The entire show is recorded there, so, please refer to it as often as you need, but please don’t remove it from its place. The blocking notes are usually taken in shorthand, but a stage manager will be happy to translate for you. It is usually something you can pick up quickly once you learn their style of notation.
Be aware that the production table is not the place to deposit your bags. When I am stage managing, I try to make an area for artists’ personal effects. Often, the production table is a six-foot space shared by the stage manager and the director, each of whom need large amounts of information available to them at a moment’s notice. This is why you often see the production table covered in file folders, schedules, and production books (all neatly arranged, of course). If you need a place to put your personal items, ask the stage manager.
Another responsibility of the stage manager is to know where all cast members called to a rehearsal are at any time. Murphy’s law of rehearsal says that the moment you step out of the rehearsal hall without telling the stage manager is the exact moment the director or conductor will ask for you. A simple acknowledgment to any member of the stage management staff that you are stepping out saves a moment of searching when you are needed.
Most stage managers these days carry cell phones. Make sure you carry the cell phone number of the stage manager with you and that you have given them your number in return. If you are late to rehearsal, a phone call to the stage manager can explain why you aren’t there as scheduled. Unless you call to let the rehearsal staff know that you’re stuck in traffic, there is nothing to prevent them from thinking you are stopping for coffee.
If there is no company manager where you are working, the stage manager is often your best guide to things you need in town. If they don’t know the answer, they can either find out or direct you to someone who knows. If you are sick, the stage manager can direct you to a pharmacy or put you in contact with the company physicians. Often, they can work with people to get you an appointment, even when the schedule is supposedly full. However, if they don’t know you are sick, they can’t help you.
Once a show moves to the theater, the duties of the stage manager multiply. Not only are they coordinating the activities of the cast, stage crew, and costuming crew, they also remain your resource. Especially in this busy time, the call board is the primary outlet for information, including call sheets, schedules, and sign-ins. Check the call board at the beginning and end of each rehearsal; it will keep you informed.
A word about sign-ins: Most theaters are cavernous compared to the rehearsal hall. In a rehearsal hall, the stage manager can look around and see if everyone is there, but this is an impossible task in the theater. To save time and sanity, the stage managers rely on the sign-in sheet for attendance. If you are stopping by to drop stuff off and then going to dinner before your call, don’t sign in until you arrive to stay. Once you have signed in, stay in the theater.
The stage manager continues to be an important source of information in the theater, as are the assistant stage managers who supervise the deck and make sure everyone and everything gets on stage. If you need to talk to a stage manager, remember that they ha
About the Author: Production Manager, Indiana University; Technical/Production Committee Member, OPERA America