Love Theatre? 4 Things to Know About Stage Management Careers

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Leslie W. Price10
Theatre director, writer, and arts educator.
April 15, 2024 at 11:21PM UTC

A stage manager can make or break a production, and a good one is incredibly valuable. There’s a shortage of stage managers throughout the country, so theatre artists who are hoping for lots of opportunities to work and are comfortable spending their working lives behind the scenes might want to consider stepping into this important role. While stage managers are vital to great productions, they don’t always get all of the appreciation they deserve. For example, there’s no Tony for stage management. Your reward will be in the satisfaction of a job well done and — hopefully — lots of appreciation from the colleagues you work with.

What is the role of the stage manager?

During rehearsals, the stage manager keeps everyone involved in a theatrical production on task and helps facilitate a smooth collaboration between the actors, director, choreographer (if it’s a musical) and designers. Once the show is open, the stage manager makes sure the production runs smoothly at each performance, that actors are consistent in their work onstage and that any problems are taken care of promptly. To do the job well, a stage manager has to have a working knowledge of every element of a show. The best stage managers combine that knowledge with lots of intuition and a little bit of magic. 

Main duties and responsibilities.

Stage managers are responsible for so many tasks both large and small that listing them is easier said than done. 

At the start of the production, a stage manager might be present at auditions. If they are part of that process, a stage manager will help keep track of time and assist with making sure resumes and headshots are organized in a manner that works well for the people making casting decisions.

Once rehearsals begin, the stage manager is responsible for all communication between the director and the actors outside of rehearsal. They’ll make sure everyone is aware of schedules as well as changes to the script. During rehearsal, the stage manager also takes notes about blocking (how the actors move around the stage) and about any notes the director has for the designers or other collaborators on the show. After each rehearsal, she writes up a rehearsal report that organizes this information in a way that is clear and concise. This allows everyone to prepare in advance of the next rehearsal or production meeting. 

As with auditions, the stage manager is responsible for keeping track of time at rehearsals. If a production is employing actors or stage managers who are part of Actors Equity, the stage manager is required to make sure breaks are taken at certain intervals and rehearsals begin and end on time.

Responsibilities shift a bit as the show nears opening night. As technical rehearsals begin, the stage manager will start to help pull together the various elements of the show to make sure that not only are the actors on stage when they’re supposed to be, but the lighting, sound, and scenery are functioning as they need to. She will communicate with technicians and stagehands via headset to cue them throughout the show, making sure the timing of each element is perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the play. It’s a bit like being the conductor of an orchestra, and a talented stage manager can truly make a difference in a performance’s energy. 

Live theatre is never the same from one performance to another, and the stage manager is there to keep things as consistent as possible. They tend to everything from letting actors know if they’ve skipped lines to alerting technicians that a design element needs a repair. In extreme cases, the stage manager may even halt a performance for the safety of actors. Stage managers need to have excellent judgment and feel comfortable making challenging decisions in the moment sometimes. 

What qualifications do I need to be a stage manager?

A stage manager needs to be unbelievably organized to be effective. They’re facilitating the collaboration of lots and lots of artists, so making sure everyone knows what is going on and when everything is happening is one of the biggest responsibilities. 

Additionally, a stage manager should have plenty of knowledge about all of the elements that go into creating a theatrical production. Those areas include lighting, sound, costumes, choreography, directing, acting, fight direction, scenic design and construction and front of house needs. That list is by no means exhaustive since every show is different. While a stage manager need not be proficient in all of those areas, they do need to have the vocabulary to talk about them and participate in bringing everything together.

Finally, a stage manager really helps set the tone for the whole process of creating a show. While the full responsibility of creating a comfortable environment doesn’t lie only with the stage manager, a helpful, encouraging, can-do attitude goes a long way toward keeping folks happy and productive. 

How much money do stage managers make?

As with almost every job in theatre, this depends on the company you’re working with, the size of the show, and the geographical area in which you live. Not surprisingly, Equity stage managers make quite a bit more money than folks who aren’t in the union

According to Playbill, the base salary for Broady musical stage managers is $3,342 weekly or $2,872 per play, while it's $2,649 for a musical and $2,347 for assistant stage managers. In contrast, The Chicago Tribune reports that the weekly pay for a union stage manager in Chicago is around $550. 

Many companies who don’t work with Equity continue to use a stipend system where stage managers are paid a lump sum for the full production. This stipend varies from about $500 for the whole rehearsal period and run to a few thousand dollars. Always ask lots of questions about the scope of the job before agreeing to a fee, and don’t hesitate to push back if an employer tries to add to your list of responsibilities without additional compensation.

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