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Stage management is the practice of organizing and coordinating a theatrical production. It encompasses a variety of activities, including organizing the production and coordinating communications between various personnel (e.g., between director and backstage crew, or actors and production management). Stage management is a sub-discipline of stagecraft.
A stage manager is one who has overall responsibility for stage management and the smooth execution of a production. Stage management may be performed by an individual in small productions, while larger productions typically employ a stage management team consisting of a head stage manager, or "Production Stage Manager", and one or more assistant stage managers.
Between the Renaissance and the 16th century, actors and playwrights took upon themselves the handling of finances, general directorial duties, and stage management. Stage management first emerged as a distinct role in the 17th century during Shakespeare's and Molière's time, though it wasn't until the 18th century in England that the term Stage Manager was used. This was the first time a person other than actors and playwright was hired to direct or manage the stage. Over time, with the rise in complexity of theatre due to advances such as mechanized scenery, quick costume changes, and controlled lighting, the stage manager's job was split into two positions—director and stage manager.
Many playwrights, directors and actors had as their first job in the theatre work as an assistant stage manager. Writer and director Preston Sturges, for example, was employed as an ASM on Isadora Duncan's production of Oedipus Rex at the age of 16 and a half:
When one is responsible for giving an offstage cue, even the simplest ones, like the ring of a telephone or a birdcall, demand considerable sangfroid, and the job is nervewracking. One is very much aware that everything depends on the delivery of the cue at exactly the right microsecond. One stands there, knees slightly bent, breathing heavily...
Sturges didn't last long in this job, due to his calling for thunder and then lightning instead of lightning and then thunder, but 16 years later Brock Pemberton hired him as an ASM on Antoinette Perry's production of Goin' Home, which led to the first mounting of one of Sturge's plays on Broadway, The Guinea Pig, in 1929.
The responsibilities and duties of stage management vary depending on the setting of a production (i.e., rehearsal or performance) and the type of production (e.g., theatre, dance, music). Most broadly, it is the stage manager's responsibility to ensure that the director's artistic choices are realized in actual performance.
As the lighting, sound, and set change cues are developed, the stage manager records the timing of each as it relates to the script and other aspects of the performance. The stage manager maintains a prompt book, sometimes called "the book" or "the bible," which contains all cues, technical notes, blocking and other information pertinent to the show.
During rehearsals, the stage manager typically serves as an adjunct to the director by recording the blocking and ensuring that cast members stay on script, have the requisite props, and follow the blocking. Stage managers are responsible for helping establish a show's rehearsal schedule and ensuring that rehearsals run on time. The stage manager typically documents each rehearsal in a rehearsal report.
Once the house opens for a performance, the stage manager controls all aspects of the performance by calling the cues for all transitions (this is known as "calling the show") and acting as communications hub for the cast and crew. Large productions may utilize a stage management team in which the manager is responsible for calling the show while other team members operate backstage to ensure actors and crew are ready to perform their duties. After a show opens, the stage manager is also responsible for calling brush-up, put in and understudy rehearsals to make sure that the show's quality is maintained.
The stage manager ensures that lighting and sound cues are acted upon at the right time by issuing verbal standby and prompt calls. Each cue call begins with the word "standby" to indicate that an action is imminent and, in response, the technician who will perform the action acknowledges readiness to perform the action. Occasionally, after a long pause or break in the production's action, the stage manager will give a "warning" cue. This warns the technicians that the next cue is approaching. At the appropriate time, the stage manager will prompt immediate execution of the action by saying "go".
In the United States, Stage Manager is a generic title that may be applied to anyone who performs stage management functions. On small shows, one person typically performs all of the tasks of stage management and, in such cases, that person is simply referred to as the stage manager. In larger shows, there is often a need for two or more stage managers. In such cases the head stage manager is titled Production Stage Manager (commonly abbreviated PSM), and working under the PSM is one or more Assistant Stage Managers (commonly abbreviated ASM). Shows that employ three stage managers have a PSM and two ASMs, though the program credits may list them as Production Stage Manager (first or head stage manager), Stage Manager (second stage manager), and Assistant Stage Manager (third stage manager).
Some professional stage managers in plays and musicals may choose to be represented by a union known as the Actors' Equity Association. In addition to performing their typical stage management duties (e.g., maintaining the prompt book and calling performances), Equity stage managers are also required to uphold the union's rules and rights for Equity artists. Union stage managers for opera, ballet, and modern dance are represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists and perform most of the same duties as their counterparts in plays and musicals.
In the UK, the structure of a stage management team depends on the type and size of the production. It can consist of stage manager (overseeing the running of the show), deputy stage manager (commonly called DSM) and assistant stage manager (commonly called ASM). A fringe theatre show may employ one stage manager to carry out the tasks of an entire team, whereas a West End theatre show in London might employ multiple ASMs. Professional stage managers are represented by the British Actors' Equity Association, which also represents performers.
The DSM prompts actors and will usually cue technical crew members and sometimes cast, while following the orders of the director and stage manager. The DSM calls actors to hold while technical problems are sorted out during rehearsal, and determines where in the script to restart halted scenes. The deputy stage manager (DSM) is a separate position in some theaters, while in others the responsibilities of the DSM may be assumed by the stage manager or assistant stage manager.
The assistant stage manager (ASM) has varied responsibilities, which are assigned by the stage manager. The ASM assists in finding and maintaining props during rehearsals and the run of the show. The ASM may take attendance or estimate audience size, may manage the backstage technicians, may act as a liaison between crew, cast and management, and may call some cues. Mundane tasks such as mopping the stage and brewing coffee or tea may fall to the ASM. If the stage manager is unable to perform his or her duties, the ASM must be able to fill in.
The assistant may also be in charge of one wing of the stage, while the stage manager is on the other wing.
Many live shows around the world are produced with the forehand knowledge that they will have a very long run, often measured in years. These are usually known quantities that are very expensive productions and have a guaranteed audience because of their location. Typically, they are on cruise ships, in theme parks, Las Vegas or at destination resorts. These shows warrant very long range development and planning and use stage managers to run almost all technical elements in the show, without benefit of many of the other traditional crew members, such as sound, lighting and rigging operators. In these cases, show control systems are installed and connected to all other technical systems in the theatre, which are specifically designed to be controlled by show control and to operate safely with minimal supervision. Stage managers working these shows usually have the additional responsibility for programming the show control system, and often the other control systems as well.