The Ins and Outs of Stage Managing

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Photo Source: Matthew Dunivan

Michael J. Passaro has been a stage manager for three decades. In addition to working on Broadway (he’s currently in the booth for “Phantom of the Opera”), he also heads up the stage management concentration at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Passaro talks to Backstage about why that means more than calling cues.

How did you become a stage manager?
I sort of fell into it. I was working as a production assistant on “Starlight Express” in 1986. The show was so complicated, technically; it included a cast of 30 on roller skates. They said they needed another stage manager. I had no idea what a stage manager did, but at 23, when they present you with an Equity contract, it makes sense. Only a 23-year-old with no fear would do that.

What does a stage manager do?
The role is really a hybrid of a chief executive officer and chief operating officer in our version of a Fortune 500 company. With those two role models in mind, we’re in charge of setting the tone, atmosphere, and culture for the rehearsal space. There’s also the day-to-day logistics of delivering that show to an audience eight times a week.

Is there a personality type that is best suited for stage management?
That’s key. You have to have a strong foundation in the methodologies, but the stage manager is the human resources person on the highest level because you have to be able to deal with myriad personalities. You have to know how to navigate all these worlds and have the glossary and the facility to handle the different languages that those different people speak.

What advice do you have for aspiring stage managers?
Get experience in every aspect of how shows are put together, whether that’s on the academic level or the community theater level. I don’t necessarily recommend going straight from undergrad to a grad program. We had a student at Columbia who had stage management experience as an undergrad and had dabbled to some degree after that. One of the reasons we let him in was his extensive experience managing a supermarket. Those experiences you have outside the theater will absolutely make you a better theater manager.

Why do you enjoy teaching?
The passing down of knowledge, how this special art form is created, is part of all of our jobs, whether it’s me at Columbia or someone at a community theater…. I used [teaching] as an extension of what I’d been doing for many, many years as a professional stage manager. I wanted to put my money where my mouth was and put into practice what I’d been preaching. The great thing about my students is they make me practice what I preach. They keep me honest.

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