Alexander Parsonage, artistic director of Finger in the Pie, discusses the role of Stage Managers within their productions.
I suspect there are as many different ‘ideal’ stage managers as their are different productions. I work in devised physical theatre with a small touring company. So even ignoring the different demands of different productions, the role of a stage manager within the productions I work on is probably very different to script based more traditional projects.
We tend to only have the one stage manager, not for us a small army of ASMs DSMs and other acronyms. This is not for any ideological or artistic reason. We’ve just never been able to afford them and you don’t tend to miss what you’ve never had.
The second difference for our productions is they tend to be self contained on the stage – once the show has started the cast are responsible for everything that happens. This is partially an artistic preference, a nod to Grotowski’s Poor Theatre ethos that all effects should be created by performers on the stage in view of the audience. Though once again it is convenient that the artistic demands of the Poor theatre are more than compatible with poor theatre.
From painful experience we also don’t like using a separate person to call the show and op it – our shows are heavily clown based and improvised. The operator needs to feel the show and know when states / effects should change based on a shared sense of timing with the cast. Having someone slavishly following a script calling through to someone, who’s attention is split between what’s happening on stage and what’s coming through on their cans, does no one any good if the cast have just discovered something amazing on stage and thrown the script away. Much better to have a single person, in the moment as much as the rest of the performers, and able to keep up with them.
So what is the ideal stage manager for our work? I’d say it’s first and foremost about organisation. Being part of the devising process on the ground: identifying, and more importantly proposing solutions to, logistical issues before any one else has even noticed there is an issue. Fundamentally being an enabler to the creative process.
I once heard a producers role being described as trying to cotton wool the creative team from all the dramas, headaches and pain of the practicalities of mounting a production – leaving them free to be creative. If that is a producers role on the macro level of the production, for us – ideally – it is the stage managers role on the micro level. The person who allows the creativity to keep flowing by not allowing logistics – be it having to move a set, finding a stand in prop, keeping an eye on the schedule or fixing a vital item – and generally finding solutions to any practical issues that may arise on the ground. It is one of the most important roles in our company: when the relationship works well – it really does make the difference between a show coming together or falling apart.