Episode 143: Student Stage Managers
It’s important to remember that theatre is not just an onstage activity. There are many roles that have be fulfilled offstage that are just as vital to a successful show. A student stage management team can be your best production ally. But what if you don’t have a lot of backstage experience? How do you encourage and develop student stage managers? Karen Loftus has spent time in the classroom and as a professional stage manager. She fully believes in the power of the student stage management team and she’ll tell you how.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Welcome to Episode 143!
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode143.
We’re going backstage for this episode and I have to confess – this is a big old confession – my background in high school theatre and in university with backstage-type things was minimal by choice and negative – I’m going to say it – by choice. I wanted to be onstage and not, you know, hidden in black in a backstage corner and being ignored by the actors.
I had to take backstage roles a couple of times; I wasn’t good at it and I think, most importantly – more importantly than not good at it – I didn’t try to be good at it. I was backstage for one show in high school and I refused to wear blacks. I’m pretty sure I wore red pants for one and nobody cared and nobody commented but it’s not good! You know, twenty-plus years later, I’m not so happy with that Lindsay Price and I think that I had to learn my lesson well and I certainly have because, if you want a successful show, you need a balance of onstage and off-stage roles.
Theatre is not just an onstage activity. If you are a high school teacher do-it-all director with a small support system, growing a student stage management team can be your best production ally. But what if you don’t have a lot of backstage experience? How do you encourage and develop student stage managers?
Today, I’m talking to Karen Loftus. She has spent time in the classroom and also as a professional stage manager. She fully believes in the power of the student stage management team. Let’s hear her tell you the why and the show.
LINDSAY: Hello, Karen!
LINDSAY: How are you today?
KAREN: I’m good! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m going to say I’m great. I got a nice day. I’m just going to go with that.
LINDSAY: Now, Karen and I, you and I have known each other… I was trying to think. I know exactly when we had our first conversation. It was at the FATE Conference in Jacksonville – face-to-face, anyway.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely. We met. You were the superstar to my kids because we performed Emotional Baggage and they fought tooth and nail. They were just like, “This script is different! What is this?” and then they won a slot at state and [00:03:24 unclear] again so they were like, “Oh, it’s great!”
LINDSAY: That’s right, then they totally switched and it went well. Weird is awesome!
KAREN: Weird is awesome! Yeah, and then, you know, we were kind of Disney friends together as well.
KAREN: Then, I’ve been haunting you guys for years.
LINDSAY: Karen wins one of the awards for most interesting background. I knew her as a high school drama teacher in Florida and then, also, working at Disneyworld which means much love – much, much love – but that was not your first career. When you started out, stage management was sort of your wheelhouse – it still is but that’s where you started.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely.
LINDSAY: Why was that? What about stage management clicked for you?
KAREN: Well, I started out, my undergraduate degree is in acting and directing, and I was going to be an actor.
LINDSAY: Oh, weren’t we all?
KAREN: I enjoyed it but I kind of fell into the niche of stage managing of someone. An upper class man said, “Hey, come and assist me on this show,” and I did and I just kind of fell in love with it. I fell in love with being a part of a lot of different areas of theatre – you know, just being a part of the community – and it seemed like it engaged some skills I had. Like, my house may not show it, but I am an organized person.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s all right. As long as your prompt book is organized, right? That’s all that matters.
KAREN: Exactly. [00:05:14 unclear] not so much at home.
LINDSAY: Well, one is better than none!
LINDSAY: So, where did that take you? Because you were a professional stage manager for a while.
KAREN: I was, yeah. I went to grad school. After college, my undergrad encouraged a lot of people to try to go to graduate school and I went to the URTA interviews and I went to the University of California, Irvine, and got an MFA in Design and Production with an emphasis in Stage Management which is a fancy way of saying I got to stage manage in a controlled environment and make a lot of mistakes that wouldn’t end up hurting my career, you know what I mean? And then, I did my thesis in New York where I got to work with Manhattan Theatre Club and Circle Rep which no longer exists but was an amazing theatre company back in the day. Stage managing in New York is all about networking and just answering the phone and making sure you’re meeting people. I subbed in at Blue Man Group and continued to do some work for Manhattan Theatre Club. But then, I kind of got side-tracked in my life and had a family and did some work in graphics as well so I kind of consider right now I’m a production manager and I kind of consider this my Act III to be honest with you.
LINDSAY: It really has, hasn’t it? Because you have the stage management, you did all that other stuff, got into teaching, and you used your stage management skills as a teacher.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely – definitely!
LINDSAY: We’re going to talk about that.
KAREN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LINDSAY: Now, into phase three, I think I have to say, I’m always impressed with people who can change. You know, I mean, I suppose I’ve had different lives but it’s really been all in one tiny little hamster wheel which I’ve just been going in so I’m always amazed when people can switch things out.
First of all, I want to go back and I want to talk about those stage management mistakes because I think that’s really awesome and I think it’s really something that to all our high school teachers listening is something that we really want to encourage in student stage managers and anyone in your class who is doing stage management exercises. I think that that’s the thing that we don’t get often – the encouragement to make mistakes in a controlled environment.
So, tell us about yours.
KAREN: Yeah. You know, I have to say, one of the challenging things as a stage manager – even to this day – is that – you know, to use the magic word “assessment” – is there really a way to assess a stage manager? Because you’re hear actors or directors say, “Oh, that person’s a great stage manager!” Asking what it is that makes a great stage manager I think is different from company to company. You know, you in your program may need a stage manager to be one thing whereas another program may need a stage manager to be another. My mistakes in grad school were many and varied. But, you know, everything from miscommunication; not getting all of the information out to the people who needed it; not ordering something that was needed in enough time; cue calling and having issues onstage with cue calling, sometimes, even resulting in some safety concerns. There are so many different problems that can happen but, you know, you figure out what they are, how to solve them, and then those are the ones that’ll stay with you forever. Like, there are specific mistakes I have made – like, oversleeping for a production meeting. I will never ever, ever, ever do that – ever again – in my existence because that was probably one of the worst feelings of my life. You know, those things happen and I think now that I’m older and you can look back at it all, well, it’s interesting.
Last night, I was coaching a young stage manager where I work right now and she was terrified and I just looked at her and said, “No one is going to die if you call the cue incorrectly.” She had to laugh about that. I said, “Nobody knows but you and the director. If you explain to the director what’s going on, you know.”
It’s just that idea of putting everything in perspective, understanding how to fix the mistakes, and, also, you know, checking with your students’ attitudes about the mistakes as well because we’ll have the students that’ll freak out and have a meltdown and then we’ll have the students that are like, “Yeah, whatever.” You’ve got to kind of check that attitude too and say, “Hey, you might want to step it up a little bit. I know you’re better than this. You need to be a little more thorough,” that kind of stuff. But, yeah, I’ve made – oh, god, yeah – and professional stage managers make it, too.
I was working a very high-profile event the other night and one of my stage management heroes made a mistake and, I have to be honest, on headset, I was like, “Yes!” only because I’m like, “Yay! He’s human, too! Woohoo!” You know, these things happen.
LINDSAY: Let’s talk about stage management in an education setting. You were a teacher in Florida for five years?
KAREN: Eight years.
LINDSAY: Eight years – a ton of years!
KAREN: A ton of years.
LINDSAY: How did you bring your stage management skills to the classroom?
KAREN: I think it worked out the best when I started to kind of let go a little bit. I think I went in with the feeling of “oh, I could never have student stage managers. This could never be done by students. What? Am I crazy?” Once I started to kind of let that go and slowly train kids to do various things, the more they stepped up to the plate.
I kind of set a goal for myself and my goal was that I wanted to sit in the house and watch the shows, you know what I mean? I didn’t want to be backstage. I didn’t want to be in the booth. That didn’t always happen – that’s for sure. There were times that I needed to be somewhere to kind of fill a hole. But I remember the first show that it happened with and it was an amazingly wonderful experience. I had a stage manager in the booth calling the show. I had a trained deck crew running the show. I had wardrobe crew in the back. I had everything from orchestra captains too. Having everybody have a job that is assigned to them, that they know what their responsibilities are, and that there’s kind of a checklist that they can follow so that they know what it is that they need to do is kind of key, I think.
LINDSAY: I think there’s two things there that I really want to get into – this notion of training and this notion of checklists. Let’s start with training. How did you train your first student stage manager?
KAREN: I think, really, the only way to do it is to let them do it and to let them do it on a smaller scale. You know, my hat is off to those first group of kids that I worked with that I kind of just threw right into the fire. They didn’t have the luxury of shadowing anyone. They just had to listen to me say, “Do this, do this, do this, do this,” and learn it as they go. But then, the goal was that we would have a staff and that there would be a PSM, a production stage manager, an assistant stage manager, and production assistants. That kind of serves a few purposes – (1) there’s someone in-charge that people can go to, but (2) there’s enough stage managers too because we know our kids’ schedules are crazy – you know, if so and so can’t be there for one rehearsal or the other, they can cover each other. So, the ASM is learning from the PSM and the PAs are learning from both of them, and they’re seeing what’s being done and the traditions in your space and then they know that so then the next year they become the ASM and the ASM becomes the PSM – that kind of thing. We even got to a point where we had to assign shows one year because we were doing pretty well on stage managers so it wasn’t the same stage manager over and over again.
LINDSAY: What kind of jobs do your different stage managers have in a school setting?
KAREN: In a school setting, the production stage manager – or the highest in the food chain, if you want to say – the production stage manager, they’re the person who would be communicating mostly with the cast and with myself. Their responsibilities include communication with the cast. If it’s approved by you, I mean, you have to go by what the rules are at your school and things like that. My students had a Facebook page that they would communicate with each other on. I know, now at the school, they use Edmodo, I believe, to communicate to each other.
And then, that stage manager runs the rehearsals as well as calls the show – calls the lighting and sound and any shift cues during a show. And then, the second assistants or the assistant stage manager will be the person who’ll end up running the backstage where the production stage manager will be out in the booth with the light operator and sound operator. Your assistant stage manager will be on the deck – also known as a deck manager – and they’ll be the one guiding anyone working backstage.
During the rehearsal process, the assistant stage manager kind of starts that process by tracking the props and costumes. Where do they need to start at the top of the show? Where are they exiting from? Are there any special requirements for props or costumes? How does the scenery move around? They’ll work that out in conjunction with the production stage manager. But, again, the assistant stage manager is running the deck. They are the one in-charge back there. They are the one in communication with the production stage manager.
If you’re lucky enough to have a second assistant, then that person would be on the other side of the stage. If you’re lucky enough to have a headset system, then all three of them are on headset.
We started out by using cell phones and Bluetooth headsets that we borrowed from people before we even had any kind of radios or things like that. I’ve experimented with radios for years and then, eventually, we did have a comm system which was great.
And then, your production assistants, they help out in rehearsal. They’re your runners. They do all of the miscellaneous work that needs to happen during rehearsal. “Go get this group of actors. We need to rehearse now.” Or, for musicals, sometimes, we would assign a PA to work exclusively with the music director. Sometimes, we would assign a PA to work with the wardrobe person. I was very, very lucky and had an exceptional wardrobe costuming parent – an award-winning costuming parent. This woman was amazing. You know, assigning a PA to work directly with her and then that PA, when the show comes around, they become the wardrobe crew chief so they’ve been involved in costumes from the very beginning. They’ve been involved in the rehearsal process so they know the cast, they know the show, and they know the costumes so they’re the perfect person to be the wardrobe crew chief.
And then, I’ve had production assistants move to follow spot. Again, a great person to be on follow spot, they know the show, they know the actors, so your production assistants can be as many as you can handle and then they can transition into run crew positions.
LINDSAY: Do you have an itemized checklist of what everybody’s job is that you give before you start rehearsals? Is this something that evolves? Is there a piece of paper? How do you establish what the roles are and how everybody knows what job they’re supposed to do?
KAREN: Well, you know, I have to be honest, that’s the area where I think it would be and would have been easier if I just handed them a checklist, and I think that might be a great way to start. But – I have to be honest – it isn’t how I started per se. Like, there were checklists that I would make available, but it was more conversation with them about the things that had to get done because – I have to be honest with you – there were times stage managers were like, “Oh, hey, Miss Loftus, we need to do this, this, and this,” and I’m like, “I didn’t know that,” you know what I mean? Because there may be some things they know a little bit better about the building that you don’t, oddly enough. I know that sounds really odd.
They come up with great ideas and those ideas then go on to their checklist. So, I encourage them to create their own, but I do want to meet with them and make sure that everybody’s on the same page as to who’s doing what when because, otherwise, it becomes a potential battleground for “so and so is not doing their job” or “they’re doing my job” and it keeps the bickering down.
I was very lucky in that aspect that I had very limited issues with stage managers not getting along. I was very, very lucky in that instance. It’s not always the case but I think that being as clear as you can in defining it – whether you give them a list or whether you have a meeting and have them write down their own list – that is key so that everybody does know what they’re supposed to be doing and who else is doing what.
LINDSAY: And it would really help when things aren’t getting done. You have this piece of paper that says, “These are items X, Y, and Z. I only see X.”
KAREN: Exactly, and I think I got lazy on that point because, if something wasn’t happening on the deck, I’d immediately go to the deck manager, you know what I mean? So, knowing kind of what area each stage manager is taking care of lets you know who you need to go to as well, you know what I mean?
KAREN: That’s also pretty helpful.
LINDSAY: Did you ever have issues with your actors not taking their peers seriously? Because this seems like it’s a role of responsibility to have this crew, and the stage manager probably was in a position of authority sometimes.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, you will. You’ll get, “Oh, that’s just a student who said it. I’m not going to listen to it.” That’s really when the teacher has to step in and say, “They are my voice. They have conferred with me. What they’re saying is what I want.” You have to back them up but you also have to make sure that they’re treating students fairly and they’re not getting little power trip issues and things like that. But backing them up is key. Also, I think, really defining actor responsibility as well, and I do that with the contract. That’s something that I’m very specific about – being on time for rehearsal, not missing rehearsals.
We had a point system that I used and, after you had a series of points, you would either be removed from the show, if possible, or in agreement with administration, you’d be disciplined some way.
It was also a binding contract with parents because I know, as teachers, we run into this situation sometimes where parents want to utilize taking their child from a production as a form of discipline and that contract served not only to let the actors know their responsibility – and the stage managers as well – but it also let the parents understand that, when they pull their child from a show, they’re not punishing their child; they’re punishing twenty to thirty other children. By really, really making that clear in the contract in the very beginning, that kind of sets everybody up.
I also remind the kids that Actors’ Equity Association has a list – and I post it on call boards – called the Responsibilities of the Actor so that, when the stage manager is saying, “Hey, you were late for places,” that’s in the Responsibilities of an Actor. That’s what a professional actor is expected to behave like. You know, if there are issues that the stage manager can address, if they’re being blown off too much, then those just get reported to me and then I would sit down with the actor and deal with it from that point. But I had some pretty tough stage managers, I have to say.
It’s great too when you have stage managers, when you’re deciding who you think would make good stage managers, think about their relationship with their fellow students as well. How do they treat their fellow students? Because that is very important. I mean, you can have kind of driven or you can have a harsh stage manager who gets things done but not everybody’s terribly happy about it. You’ve got to find that balance between efficiency and just being civil and being nice to everybody.
LINDSAY: The stage manager – you know, in a professional show – they’re the one who’s left, aren’t they?
KAREN: Oh, yeah.
LINDSAY: They’re the ones who are communicating with actors. They’re the ones who are keeping everything afloat and I think that that whole notion of community that we’re trying to establish with school productions, that it’s all about that teamwork, I think that by having a student stage manager – and one who is communicative as opposed to perhaps a little tougher than they need to be – I think that’s a really important thing – to build that community.
KAREN: Yeah, and they understand that you can’t demand respect. You earn respect. You know, you can demand civility but, you know… I’ve seen some stage managers be more successful at it than others, not just in the school environment, in the professional environment as well, and I’ve seen actors who don’t listen to stage managers in the professional environment as well so it is something that’s going to happen – so many different personalities afloat.
One school year, I was so proud of my kids because, sadly, there were a lot of issues. There were a lot of personality clashes and conflicts overall in the whole company and they chose, as a group to sit down and have a meeting on their own to try to hash out the problems that they were having and what solutions they could come up with together as a group and they allowed everybody to have a certain amount of time to air their grievances. I mean, I was really, really super proud of them. I’m sure it didn’t heal all the wounds, but I think it was so much better than sweeping it under the rug, you know. But they learned then how to kind of arbitrate themselves, how to make sure they’re communicating in an effective way that isn’t hurtful, but being able to express their opinions and ideas and stuff.
LINDSAY: I think that’s amazing.
LINDSAY: As we close up here, what is your advice for high school teachers who are doing it all and they’re looking around and trying to see how they could incorporate student stage managers into their program and they’re working at ground zero? What’s kind of the first couple of steps that a teacher could take to implement student stage managers in their program?
KAREN: That’s a great question. I think the key thing is going to be to make a list of everything that you do and everything that you need because things are unique to your school setting. For example, back when we were doing our shows in the cafeteria, we set up our commercial space differently than when I was rehearsing in the classroom. You know, when we were doing a show out at somebody else’s school, there were different needs versus doing the show right there at our school. So, make a list of everything that you’re currently doing – even that other parents or other teachers are currently doing. Make a list of things that maybe still need to get done, a list of things that are unique to your program, and then start figuring out how you could assign those to certain students. You probably do have to start very structured and you’re going to have to give them a list of these are your responsibilities and you may have to walk them through how to do it and show them what it looks like when it’s completed successfully, you know. And then, know also how your school feels about how much responsibility can be given to the students. I was allowed to let my students use keys to open the concessions stand and things like that and then return the keys to me. Some schools may say no keys to students ever. Like I said, each program is unique so starting out by writing a list of your needs and the things you’re already doing and then the next step is thinking about the students that you have and what their strengths and weaknesses are – also, how they work together – and then deciding whether they can handle some of those tasks that you’ve put on your list. That’s kind of step one, I think. It’s a big step.
LINDSAY: It is a big step but I think that that’s an awesome step. You know, sometimes, we forget how much it is that we do or things that we need. To put it down on paper, it becomes a lot easier to divvy up tasks that way, I think.
KAREN: Exactly. You know, that’s really what you’ll find. Your stage managers will then start to learn how to delegate from themselves to their assistants because, if you as a teacher don’t know how to delegate, you’re not teaching how to delegate, do you know what I mean? They need to see you turn over some things so that they can then turn over some things and then it becomes a shared experience. It becomes shared responsibilities. Nobody feels overburdened and you then know who to go to if something hasn’t been done or who to say “great job!” to when things are done the way that you all had planned.
LINDSAY: And what an amazing skill, you know?
LINDSAY: Like, what an amazing skill this is teaching students. I just think that stage management in itself is something that gets missed in a lot of programs because, many teachers out there, they’re coming from an acting background or directing, and it was somebody else who was the stage manager. I think that it’s really important to bring that piece into the classroom – or even just into your drama club – where you are utilizing students. Nobody has to do this alone, do they?
KAREN: Yeah, it’s true. You know what, dear teachers, the way you treat your stage managers is how your students will treat your stage managers. If you’re coming from a place where you are just like, “Oh, hey, throw this spike mark down,” “Go get me this,” if there’s that feeling that the stage management staff is just there to serve – you know, to kind of be a minion – then everyone else will treat them that way as well. But, when the director and when the teacher treats the stage manager as like they are a vital part of the creative process, everybody feels like they’re a vital part of the creative process. The way you treat your actors will model the behavior of the way your stage managers should treat your actors as well. You know, I know that’s kind of an obvious and a given but, sometimes, people forget. You know, they forget that the students are always watching our behavior – what we do – and they mimic our behavior.
LINDSAY: I think that’s an excellent note to end on, absolutely. You know, they’re always watching!
LINDSAY: Well, Karen, this was great. We’re really keen on bringing these kinds of conversations about other areas of the theatre to this podcast and I really appreciate you taking the time.
KAREN: Sure! Thank you!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Karen!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
You know what, since we’re talking backstage, I’m going to use my time here – it’s my time, I can do it how I want – I’m going to use my time to promote Podcast 142. Yes, it’s just the one that just happened, but maybe you skipped it, maybe you didn’t listen to it because it was a backstage activity, but it’s so important – theatre safety.
Kristi Ross-Clausen gives some excellent tips – some I was totally unaware of – for the high school theatre teacher and the high school theatre. Always, always, always, always, always be safe. That’s Podcast 142 – Theatre Safety. I’m putting the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode143.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.