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Characteristics of a good Stage Manager January 17, 2006

Posted by escena in Teoría.

From the book by Muriel Resnick, The Son of Any Wednesday
In the quote above, playwright Muriel Resnick praises her stage manager as, "unobtrusively but meticulously organized, highly efficient, funny, warm, and caring." Are these the highest attributes? Let's examine some of the qualities of a good stage manager.

Proposition 1
A good stage manager assumes responsibility.He says to himself, "I am the one who must make things fun smoothly on stage and backstage. Beyond me the buck does not pass." This is an active role, not passive. It is not merely coordination. It is not merely doing what one is told. it is not merely the sum total of the myriad little duties. It is taking charge. It is accepting responsibility.


The significant difference between a professional and nonprofessional stage manager is not whether Of not he is paid, or whether or not he is a member of a union. The significant difference is whether Of not he is witling and able to accept responsibility for making the production run smoothly on stage and backstage in pre-rehearsal, rehearsal, performance, and post-performance phases.
Your professionalism will make a significant difference in your relationship to the theatre staff. The producer, director, technical director, and other staff members are also concerned that things run smoothly. But they have higher priority responsibilities. You are the only one on the staff for whom this is the primary responsibility.
If you can and will accept this responsibility, you are a coequal of the producer and director on the team that makes theatre. If you do not accept this responsibility, and simply carry out a number of assigned tasks (pulling the curtain, giving the actors their calls, etc.), then you are a subordinate of the producer and director. Which are you?

Proposition 2

A good stage manager keeps his cool.

Can you exercise emotional self-control during all phases of production?

You will be working with excitable, conceited, self-centered, temperamental, volatile, sensitive, nervous, explosive people. But calm and serene, you will serve them best by not getting emotionally involved in their arguments, controversies, or displays of temper.
If the leading lady stalks out screaming and crying, hand her a Kleenex to show her you care, but don't tell her or the director who was right or wrong in their dispute. It's none of your business. They will resolve their problems without your help.
If the producer asks for the cooperation of the cast in non-acting chores (cleaning the dressing rooms, selling tickets, publicity, etc.), don't give a non-cooperative cast member a five-minute harangue or diatribe on his or her responsibilities. It is your job to insure that cast members know what the director and producer expect of them the time, the place. You may Post a duty roster. You may hand out written memos. You may phone them to remind them. You may explain. But you may not lose your temper with a cast member for any reason at all.
If a cast member is late for half hour call, even habitually late, and fails to call the theatre, you may remind, you may explain, you may plead, you may cajole, but thou shalt not lose thy cool.
In general, don't raise your voice to cast members. Reply to raised voices in calm, steady, controlled tones.
If a director or producer should reprimand you, privately or before the company, for your prompting technique (as an example) or anything else, don't sulk. Get-on with the job the way he wants it done.
If you blow a cue, don't get upset. Concentrate on getting the next one right.
Know your Own panic response. Then control it. You have reacted to crises in the past. You know you can survive the next one. In time of panic there must be only one question in your mind: "Is there any action I can take to alleviate this situation?" If so, do it. If not, keep your cool. Don't get swept up in the panic. Errors tend to compound.


During a performance a telephone bell failed to sound. The actors started to ad lib thinking that the cue was simply late. The stage manager in the booth realized that it was not late, but a mechanical failure. There was absolutely no way for the stage manager to get the bell to ring. There was no way to inform the cast on stage that the bell was not about to ring. The cast continued to ad lib until one actor picked up the phone saying, "Thought I heard it ring."

What should the stage manager have done?
Answer: nothing.
The stage manager in this case panicked, left the control hooth and ran backstage to repair the bell-even though it was not to he used again during the performance. Subsequently the next two sound cues were omitted. The error was compounded.
It is terribly uncomfortable to watch a cast ad lib around a mechanical failure. But that's the price of insufficient preparation.

1. Did the stage manager test the bell during his precurtain routine?
2. Did he make sure that the bell wire was out from under the feet of backstage actors and crew?
3. Did he check to see that all connections were soldered?
4. Did he have a separate emergency bell wired in? (Do you think this is going too far?)

A week later during a performance of the same play, the bell failed again. It was unquestionable negligence on the part of the stage manager. But a bell was heard. A cast member had brought an emergency bell to ring off stage because she didn't want a repeat of that incident. (Apparently the cast member didn't think an emergency bell was going too far!)

Mr. Stage Manager, if a cast member has to ring your bell for you, it's time to hang up your clipboard.
Keeping one's cool means never appearing harassed, belligerent, insecure, apologetic, or imposed upon. It's not enough to be doing your job well. You've got to let the cast know by your deportment and the relaxed smile on your face that everything is under control. This gives the cast confidence. In this way, your cool may often be a positive contributing factor to the overall quality of the production.

Proposition 3

A good stage manager keeps his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open.

Do you tend to be quiet and observant? If what you say always has to do with the immediate improvement of the rehearsal or production, cast members, crew and staff will listen to you. If you run off at the mouth endlessly, you will have to struggle to gain attention when you have something significant to contribute. Where between these two extremes are you?
If you have a choice between shouting across the stage to a subordinate to change some gel frames, and crossing the stage yourself to deliver quiet instructions, choose the latter. The cast, staff, and crew will come to appreciate the fact that you are the great mover without the vocal display.
Don't waste your own time promoting yourself. Efficient work is hard to hide so you need not explain how efficient you are to staff members.
Be alert to what is going on around you. During breaks, stick with the director. In his casual conversations with actors and staff he will agree to changes in lines, props, cues, or design. You should make these changes, or cause them to be made, without further instruction.


During a break, an actress approaches the director and asks if she may omit a line that's been troubling her. He agrees to the omission. You were getting a cup of coffee instead of staying at the director's side. At the next rehearsal of the scene the actress omits the line. You prompt. The actress breaks character to advise you that the line was cut. You turn to the director for confirmation. The director doesn't remember since it has been three days since this scene was last run. The actress and director discuss it. They agree to omit the line, or the director decides at this time he wants the line delivered. The rehearsal resumes. But there has been a delay that you might have avoided if you had stuck with the director and kept your ears open.

There are no breaks for stage managers. If you must have refreshments, bring a thermos and pack a sandwich or snack in your kit. Don't gossip with the cast. Many times you will be privileged to know things that are going on at the administrative level, or between the producer and the director, or between the conductor and the harp player, or about closing date, casting history, salaries, etc. Keep it to yourself.

If a cast member should ask you what you think of the director, staff, crew, or cast member, try the following, delivered by rote in a loud if not sincere voice: "He's the best director (producer, scene designer, publicist, actor, etc.) I've ever had the pleasure of working with." When you are no longer associated with that production you can say what you really think, but until then, a complete, beguiling display of "l-know-how-to-play-this game" is the most effective way to fly.
Don't align yourself with any clique of actors within a cast. The stage manager is big brother to the whole cast. If you choose to go out after the show with one group habitually, make it clear to the others in the cast that you would also like to be with them. Invite them to come along some time.

Proposition 4

A good stage manager thinks ahead.

Don't just sit there, anticipate.

What is the company going to be doing later today? Tomorrow? Next week? Does everyone know about it? Is everything ready? You have made a master calendar, schedules, do-lists, duty rosters, a prompt script, and check lists. All of these are instruments to help you think ahead. But there is no substitute for constant vigilance.
If something is changed suddenly, what future effects will it have? What other changes must be made as a result of that change? Who must be notified?

One of your greatest contributions to the performance quality is making the most of every minute between first reading and final curtain. If there is any delay in rehearsal or production, it's your fault.
Stage managing may be compared to flying a high-performance aircraft. Once you're in the air, you can't make repairs. Once the curtain goes up you can't stop the performance to make changes in the location of set pieces and discovered props. Pilots and stage managers both have extensive preflight checklists for these reasons.
To land a high-performance aircraft you must take several steps prior to entering the landing pattern, because the aircraft moves so fast there is no time to accomplish everything, once in the pattern. To carry out a tight sequence of light changes and sound effects, the stage manager must also take several steps in advance, like insuring that tapes are cued, that dimmer board presets are cranked in and patches made, and that all hands are rehearsed in the execution of that sequence and understand their cues, because once the sequence starts, there is no time to do all of the things that must be done in advance if the sequence is to be brought off successfully.
Although the comparison might be extended, the point is clear: pilots and stage managers must have the same think-ahead discipline in order to be effective.

Serious emergencies call for both keeping cool and thinking ahead.

A fire should be expected momentarily. Do you have a fire extinguisher in the control booth? Do you have another one backstage? Do you have a phone in the booth? Is it a pay phone, do you have an emergency quarter taped nearby? Do you know the number to call? Is there a clear unblocked space for you to get out from behind your equipment?' Can you give calm instructions to your audience in a tone of voice that will convince them to leave the theatre in an orderly fashion? In a huge theatre, do you have a working microphone in the booth that will allow you to reach the entire audience via public address system? Do you know how to drop the fire curtain (the asbestos curtain that hangs immediately in fr6nt of the main curtain and seals off the stage from the audience in the event of fire)? Are all of the exit aisles, doors, and alleys unblocked? Will the emergency exits open? Was your scenery flame proofed in accordance with city ordinances? Was all electrical equipment wired safely?
If the answer to any question above is no, the stage manager and the producer are derelict in their responsibility' for the safety of the audience and the cast.
The stage manager must force himself out of the rut of thinking that it can't happen here. It can happen here, and everyone in your theatre will be safer if you will just assume that it is going happen here within the next thirty seconds.
Plan ahead for the worst possible type of medical emergency. Assume that a member of the cast or crew will suffer a severe injury or heart attack in the course of mounting, rehearsing, or presenting.
Do you have a company doctor? Is his office or home near the theatre? Do you have his office, home, and service numbers posted? Do you know the location of an all-night clinic? Have you driven there on a test run from the theatre? (It is maddening to find that the clinic entrance is located on a one way street and you will have to drive three extra blocks because you didn't make the right approach-while your passenger is losing blood!)
During such emergencies keeping your cool and thinking ahead become traits of paramount importance.

Proposition 5

A good stage manager is considerate.

(Paul’s Note: This section is a bit too subservient for my taste. You do not have to martyr to be a stage manager. You can go too far in pleasing the cast & director. I know someone who was fired because he did so much for the cast, they cast thought he was too “weird” to work with. I have only included all the examples to maintain the original article)

Do you have that quality of selfless caring which prompts a man to give a woman his jacket when he knows he'll be cold? Can you put the comfort of every cast member before your own comfort?
Is the theatre warm enough? Can you get there a little earlier to turn on the heat so that cast members don't walk into a cold theatre? Can you turn on the lights so cast members won't have to enter dark dressing rooms?
Is the backstage area too drafty? Can you close some doors or make some baffles out of extra flats? Do the actresses have to walk to their cars from the theatre along a dimly lit street? Can you walk them to their cars or ask other cast members to do so? If it's raining, can you provide an umbrella? Is there drinking water backstage and in the dressing rooms? Can you arrange for water service or provide pitchers and cups?
Did you dust the rehearsal furniture before the cast sat down? Do you really listen when cast members speak to you? Can you offer your cast a natural affection?

Backstage in Hollywood theatres I found the lavish affection and terms of endearment that pass between casual acquaintances to be quite surprising. It did not seem very natural to me. But insecurity seems to be a very common trait among theatre people, and they find warmth and affection reassuring. This display of warmth does not come naturally to all people. It is certainly not recommended if it must be forced. But if you can display a natural affection for your cast, as if they were all dear old warm friends or members of your family, why not? Are you considerate with respect to the creativity of others? Can you offer constructive criticism effectively without stamping Out creative instinct? It's very difficult to do.
Many of the creative people the scene designers, costume designers, choral directors, choreographers, and directors-carry their gifts wrapped preciously within thin skin. Yet, in the theatre situation, no creator can work alone. He must communicate with, and gain the cooperation of all the others on the staff if he is to see his own creativity come to fruition. The stage manager, unfortunately, is placed frequently in the position of coordinating the creative efforts of the super-sensitive. It requires a great deal of patience and tact.


Set construction is running behind schedule. The technical director complains to you that the scene designer has no concept of economy in design that he tries to present in total rather than suggesting. He complains that the designer is overburdening the shop with an unconscionable amount of work.
The scene designer complains to you that the technical director has ruined more scenery than a termite on a showboat, that inefficient methods are being used in the shop, and that for two nights running, one of his ornamental set pieces has not
been placed on stage because it is waiting to be repaired and this ~ruins the entire aesthetic balance of the set.

Your chief concern as stage manager is to have the set for the next production ready for the take-in one night hence.

This is the type of Situation that requires tactful, soothing, and massive doses of consideration. If you try to fix the blame at this point, you are likely to find your next production hung up. Cool them off separately. Commiserate with both, separately. Tell them what an incredibly good 1ob they've been doing up to this point. Praise their strong points. Overlook their weaknesses. Sympathize with their problems. Pep them up and send them back to work. They'll get the scenery finished.

Proposition 6

A good stage manager keeps his sense of humor.

Making theater should be a happy experience for all con­cerned. Unfortunately, delays, deadlines, economic pressures, personality conflicts, and other factors sometimes make the process grim.
Don't contribute to the grimness. Leave your personal prob­lems at home. Come to work with a resolve to stay happy.

"I find that most people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be," said Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln considered humor a "labor-saving device" and a "multiple-purpose tool."

"A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done," said Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Try to keep a smile on your face, and have a good reason for its being there. A cheerful stage manager can be a great asset to any theater group. Sometimes a cheerful word can get the whole company over a rough spot.

Knowing jokes is not a substitute for having a sense of humor. There are occasions, however, when a good theater story will put the company at ease. A successful director with whom worked greeted each new cast with a story; it seemed to break the ice and to be very effective for him. A corollary of Proposition 6 is that a good stage manager does not have personality conflicts with anyone. Holding grudges or showing hostility toward any member of the company cannot be a part of your behavior. Go home and kick your TV, but don't let any member of the cast, staff, or crew feel that you dislike him. It simply does not expedite production.

Proposition 7

A good stage manager is organized and efficient.

Throughout previous chapters the emphasis has been on organization and efficiency, so no further comment should be needed.

Proposition 8

A good stage manager is punctual and dependable.

If you are not there on time, or early, or cannot be depended on, you simply cannot be a stage manager.

In summary, a good stage manager

-Accepts responsibility
-Keeps his cool
-Keeps his mouth shut, eyes, ears open
-Thinks ahead
-Is considerate
-Keeps his sense of humor
-Is organized and efficient
-Is punctual and dependable.



1. Ainsley Kerr - January 6, 2013

what’s with the gender specific pronouns? most stage managers these days are female.

samiriah stokes - October 22, 2013

That is so not true there are alot of female actresses but there are also the same amount of males typically i mean

2. k.design - January 11, 2017

You should probably give Lawrence Stern some credit here. This is mostly from his book “Stage Management.” Good stuff, though.

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