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RELATIONSHIPS: Director – Stage Manager

June 27, 2012

Alright, back to some of my favorite topics on what Stage Managers really do: balance the many personalities of relationships involved in a production.  All the relationships are important, but perhaps the most essential is the Stage Manager-Director relationship.  The Stage Manager has some cross-over between the Tech crew and the Actors; we “swing both ways” so to speak and relate to both sides of the conversation, even when they’re not getting along.  The Director has the vision, and also relates to both sides of the coin.  However, the Director’s vision may not always be safe or possible within the limitations in any given production.  To avoid problems in bringing the Director’s vision to life in a safe and humanly possible way, the Stage Manager and Director must have an open and trusting relationship established before rehearsals start to avoid tension, frustration, wasted time and money.  As always, the relationship must be clear on both sides, but the relationship is mildly different in pre-production, rehearsal, tech, and performances.

In Pre-Production:

In Pre-Production meetings, the Director must be vocal about his/her ideas so that the tech staff knows how to properly spend the budget and create the technical elements.  Let’s say we’re in an experimental piece where the set is an over-sized playground.  There are 8 swings on a set, suspended from the lighting grid that hang 5′ in the air.  The Scenic Designer’s intention may be for purely visual effect.  However, if the Director sees this potential, s/he may already be thinking “wow, let’s have a human ladder and the main character will climb to the top of the highest swing! It’ll be great!”  If the Director or Scenic Designer doesn’t bring it up [before the Lighting Designer keels over because of how these swings will shake his/her lights], the SM needs to have the intuition to say, “hey, are these weight-bearing?… how can an actor safely get up there?…etc.”  Find any potential problems early, so that the Designers and Director can be extremely clear and working towards the same outcome before anything is built or bought.  It will help the SM identify these potential issues early if the Director is open about the concept s/he plans on staging the piece, particularly in non-Realism.

In Rehearsal:

Okay, so let’s assume our Giant Playground Play is an AEA production.  Before rehearsals start, the SM should ask the Director how s/he prefers to take breaks [5-every-55 or 10-every-80] and if the Director needs a warning for the breaks.  I’ve found that “break warnings” work well, if there is a way to tell the Director how long until the next break without the Actors also hearing.  Not to keep anything from the actors, but I’ve experienced where the second you say “5 [minutes] to a 10 [minute break]” the attention span goes out the window, and I’ve even seen Actors start checking their cell phone at this break warning.  It’s the SM’s job to make sure the Rehearsal time is used wisely and productively.  This includes stopping the Director when he/she goes off on tangents; noticing Actors who may no longer be needed at  rehearsal because we’re running behind/running ahead of schedule; giving the Actors breaks at appropriate times and PROTECTING those breaks.  Dearest Directors, a break does not mean you go around to each actor to give individual notes.  They need to relieve themselves, check the status of their next callback, grab a coffee, answer their Mom’s voicemail, and confirm with their Agent the location of their next audition.  They only have 10 minutes, make sure they get their personal needs taken care of so they have your full, undivided attention when they return from breaks.  A break is a great time to touch base with your Stage Manager about what you plan on doing for the rest of the rehearsal.  Touch base doesn’t mean discuss with them for their full 10 minutes [we have needs too] but no one wants to come back from break just to watch Stage Management take 5 minutes to set the next scene.

Also, no secrets!  The Stage Manager should hear almost everything said in a Rehearsal Room.  Even if you don’t think it pertains to them, don’t whisper to the Actor how s/he is supposed to do a back flip onto the Upstage Swing.  Even if you need to “tell a secret” to the actor to get what you need out of their performance, you should tell them this secret near the SM table or relay precisely what was said to Stage Management.  Reason being: even though we’ve already decided with the Scenic Designer that that is the swing that will be safe, this development of the back-flip means the SM has to note in the rehearsal report to Costumes that the Actor will be wearing something appropriate and safe for the stunt.  This also goes for any added prop.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:

SM: “Hey, so Actor A is doing this weird pantomime thing with his/her hands; what’s going on with that?”

Director: “Oh, we don’t have that prop yet… can you get something for rehearsals?”

SM: “Uh… which prop is this?”

Director: “The coffee percolator with rubber duckies attached of course!”

SM: “… right.  Let me know next time you add a prop.”

Director: “What did you think she was doing?  She was shooting out bubbles from the spout”

SM: “… the duckies shoot bubbles?”

Director: “No the frog soap dispenser does!”

SM: “… now tell me about this soap dispenser…”

… You get the idea.  Communication is the key and the Director/Stage Manager open forum of communication is essential to setting up a smooth tech process.  If the Director chooses to use an Assistant, one-on-one conversations with the SM are still essential.  It’s like the telephone game, if the Director explains the frog soap dispenser to have a bubble coming out  of it, the Assistant Director may think plastic bubbles as a design element, while the Stage Manager puts in the report that bubbles overflow and cascade down the sides when what the Director actually wanted was a cardboard “thought bubble” to appear out of the frog and hold up the actors next line.  Talk to your SMs, it just saves time.

In Tech

It’s the Stage Manager’s show now.  Let them run it, but be vocal about any notes as you go through tech.  It’s kind of pointless to Tech a scene just to get to the end and have the Director say, “so that second light cue was all wrong and the sound wasn’t right at all.”  That’s what Tech is for.  Just let the Stage Manager be the one to say “Hold Please,” going through proper channels keeps everyone calm and on task.

During Performances

Okay, it’s Opening Night and Actor A didn’t twirl onto the Swing counter-clockwise; she twirled clockwise!!!!!!  How devastating!  Now, the Director may want to rush Backstage the second the curtain call is done, but it’s not your game anymore.  No more notes.  If the Director sees a show on or after Opening, and s/he sees something out of place, notify the Stage Manager [the SM has probably already noticed the improv] and ask him/her to talk to the Actor.  This is the proper channel, this makes sure the performance is maintained in the best way possible.

Directors, help me out here, what else can we Stage Managers do to make for a harmonious Production process?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012 8:24 am

    What a delightful post–I sent this link to my student stage manager who will run/rule/manage/orchestrate the world when she leaves us this in the spring. So glad to have found this site!

    • September 26, 2012 8:55 am

      We’re glad you found us, too! Feel free to send your students our way — we’d love to have them learning along with the blog! 🙂

  2. October 9, 2014 4:11 pm

    What about when the director feels threatened by a Stage Manager’s greater age, experience, ability to work well with others?

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