As a stage manager, you’re among some of the most adaptable people on the planet as every project you lead presents new challenges, a unique community of personalities, and urgent situations requiring innovative solutions. Often a freelancer, you’re accustomed to seeking supplemental income, navigating moments of unemployment, and handling the many uncertainties that accompany a career in entertainment. 2020 was chosen to be the Year of the Stage Manager, a grassroots campaign committed to educating people about the profession and celebrating its workers. Many have pointed out it was only natural the year would end up ushering in a pandemic and a performing arts shutdown. Why? Because stage managers are who people look toward to handle the unexpected. Your abilities as a stage manager don’t make this historic moment easy but through your resourcefulness and broad skillset, you can find ways to make professional pivots work for you during the pandemic as many stage managers already have.
With the COVID pause, the natural progression for stage managers was to follow the performing arts into the virtual sphere. Whether it’s a play reading, a cabaret, or a gala, stage managers are handling the logistics and technology. Zoom is delivering more than college classes and makeshift holidays. It’s also acting as the stage while cues are called over FaceTime. Some stage managers are working with companies such as Broadway Unlocked, which has been serving the digital event arena for years–even offering virtual concession lines that allow patrons to briefly connect with one another as though they’re in an actual lobby. If you want to pivot to the virtual space, options are available.
In addition to working online events, many stage managers sought temporary work in unfamiliar areas. Trading in their black clothing for red, many found themselves at retailers such as Target. Some became census enumerators and contact tracers. In these new fields, employers are quickly recognizing the work ethic and initiative inherent in stage managers and are advancing these workers through departments. Others looked to work they were already doing to supplement their arts income and tapped into hobbies they realized could serve their financial needs. Many are making masks and selling them online. Others are working as nannies, arborists, and educators while some are reading tarot cards and hosting sports radio shows.
While COVID may have forced some folks into a temporary career transition, others made the choice to leave stage management permanently, some even before the industry took pause. Nina Trotto went from working in theaters all over the country to becoming a barn manager at a horse farm in upstate New York, where she says her job is surprisingly familiar to the one she knew as a stage manager. Katrina Olson took a job as the senior manager of events and operations for a nonprofit cultural collaborative. She was on the stage management team of a very popular show on Broadway for years before finding her new career that has more of the “heart of downtown theater.” Additionally, Katrina and her partner knew they wanted to start a family, a process that is generally more time consuming for same-sex couples, and the stage management schedule does not allow for repeated doctor visits and the self-care required for fertility treatments.
Even in the performing arts, stage managers encounter people who do not understand their job. It’s universally understood, however, that the show cannot go on without you. It can be hard to imagine communicating your stage management skills to someone hiring in real estate or the insurance industry, but consultants like Deb Sherrer make the transition easier. Once a stage manager herself, Deb knows that the corporate realm would benefit from self-starters who communicate well, manage large groups of people, and can resolve conflict. The trick is speaking the language of the job description. With online applications, bots are often searching for keywords to narrow down pools of candidates making it imperative that you use the employer’s vocabulary. Deb teaches clients to tell their best story and, to do this, examine each of their many attributes in order to quantify their experience for the job they seek. Timely submissions are key in this age of COVID and being able to nimbly respond to a search, without succumbing to panic, is essential.
Despite the opportunities, these times are still challenging. Much of the gig work and entry-level jobs don’t cover the cost of living and rarely provide benefits. With children not in school, guardians must often choose between working and parenting. Any job that requires interfacing with the public carries a risk of contracting COVID and the technology required to learn new software and interact with online events can be cost-prohibitive. Some stage managers are still waiting on unemployment benefits, made complicated by having freelanced in multiple states. Systemic privilege left some better equipped for a long stretch of altered income while marginalized communities are disproportionately affected.
Like any good show hold, this pause is a temporary one. The performing arts have been around for thousands of years and have survived plagues, global conflicts, and economic downfall. Despite the hardships, stage managers are committed to overcoming this moment together and making the industry more equitable and healthier on the other side. By sharing experiences, technology, and opportunities, the community is functioning to serve the collective whole. Per usual, stage managers are working through the break and embracing 2020 as the year in which truly anything is possible.
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