• Natalie Chernicoff

Year of the Stage Manager

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, this post would be coming to you from Monmouth, ME, where I was supposed to be the AEA ASM for Theater at Monmouth’s summer repertory season. I was supposed to be the ASM on Julius Caesar and Cymbeline, and the calling SM on Callie Kimball’s Sofonisba. As you’re probably aware, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and that contract—along with thousands of others—was cancelled. The theatre where I did a Christmas show last year (and would likely have returned this year) has preemptively cancelled their entire year, including the holiday show. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence—theatre artists across the country are broadly unemployed in a way that, quite frankly, has never been seen before. And the reality from where I’m sitting is that it’s going to remain this way for a quite a while.

Nearly every stage manager I know has pivoted somehow—from those established-career SMs who are now working as census enumerators, to the friend who graduated from a top MFA program in May and is now trying to retool her resume to showcase her “masters degree in management,” to the acquaintance who is now a barn manager. The reality is that our job prospects aren’t great right now, or for the foreseeable future, but that we all have skills that will allow us to work in other industries until we’re able to return to theatre. We are project managers by another name, and I encourage everyone to keep that in mind while working on your muggle resume.

Those who work regionally will likely see a return to theatre long before those of us in NYC—it’s already happening in the Berkshires, and SF Shakes is doing their summer season entirely online. Rents are lower outside of NYC, which means bottom lines are lower, and regional houses can likely afford to space out audience members in a way NYC houses cannot. So what can we do in the meantime?

Honestly, when I first started this post I wanted it to be about how to stay connected and how to hone your skills while not actively working, but now? There are so many resources for that—I highly recommend checking out Year of the Stage Manager on Instagram for a plethora of wisdom from more SMs than I can count. So instead, let’s talk about the changes we need to see in this industry when we return to work.

Today, I saw a stage manager who works on a well-known off-Broadway show say that she recently learned that she lives barely 25 minutes from the beach at Coney Island. This isn’t something she’d ever known before because she has never had time to take advantage, because we all blindly accept that working professional in theatre just means that we don’t have time for ourselves. I truly believe the most important thing we can do upon our return to work is abolish the six-day rehearsal week, because there is no reason for it. We rehearse Monday to Saturday because that’s “what we’ve always done,” and “how it’s always been,” and frankly, that’s not a good reason. What we do for work is where others come to relax and entertain themselves, and it’s ironic that our industry doesn’t allow those who work in it to have time to relax and entertain themselves.

The idea that theatre makers deserve a reasonable work-life balance shouldn’t be radical, and yet I can’t think of a single other industry where it’s both common and expected to only have one day off. For stage managers, this is compounded by the fact that we’re first in/last out, and frequently put in significantly more time than just the hours seen on a schedule. We need to learn to advocate for ourselves, because we cannot bring our best to the table at work if we cannot adequately take care of our needs outside of the room because there aren’t enough hours in the day.

So, while we wait for theatre to return, we will best serve both ourselves and our (future) jobs by learning how to restructure. Though the shutdown of our industry for a year (or more, who knows?) is devastating both artistically and financially, this is our chance to make meaningful change, and to return with a stronger, and more sustainable, art form in 2021.

Natalie Chernicoff is a stage manager living in Brooklyn with her husband and two cats. She did not go to college and wants to remind other artists that that’s a valid choice.

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