Careers as a stage manager

A stage manager at work
Find out about careers in stage management and how to become a stage manager, including stage management qualifications.

If you’re very well organised, good at communicating and can keep calm in a crisis, you’ve already got some of the key skills needed to be a stage manager. So would a career keeping actors, creatives and technicians under control be right for you?

What is a stage manager?

Stage managers make sure that a show runs smoothly. Their job has two parts.

While a show is still at the rehearsal stage, they help with the practicalities of running rehearsals and ensure that any decisions or changes that the director makes are communicated to others who need to know about them. For example, they will typically:

  • Help schedule rehearsals and other calls on the cast’s time, such as costume fittings
  • Ensure that there’s a list of props that are needed, and that there are at least stand-in versions of these available for rehearsals
  • Prepare the rehearsal room – for example marking out the outlines of the set on the floor
  • Arrive early each day and set up the rehearsal room ready for the cast
  • Make notes during the rehearsal of all the movement that happens on stage (for example a character walking from one side of the stage to the other), so that there is an up-to-date record of the decisions that have been made
  • Making notes of any other decisions or changes – for example, if a particular prop is suddenly required or no longer needed, it’s good to have a record of this and the props team (if there is one) will need to know
  • Ensure that the cast get the breaks they are entitled to (an overenthusiastic director may forget about these!).

Once the show is up and running on stage, the stage manager is responsible for everything that happens backstage. They need to:

  • Make sure that cast members are in the right place at the right time (and get on stage in time)
  • Check that the set and props have been set up correctly
  • Ensure that lighting, sound and scene changes happen correctly and at the right time
  • Ensure that health and safety procedures are followed
  • Deal with any problems that arise – for example an actor getting injured or a technical malfunction.

What do deputy stage managers and assistant stage managers do?

On many productions the stage manager will have assistants, so they won’t have to do everything themselves.

  • Deputy stage manager (DSM) is a very common role. DSMs oversee the technical team and stage crew during the show, wearing a headset to communicate with everyone else and give instructions, including telling them when their cues should happen.
  • Assistant stage managers (ASM) are junior to DSMs. This is a typical first job and can include things like making sure props are in the right places during performances and helping out with scene changes. On small productions this role may be doubled up with that of an understudy or an actor with a very small part.

Who employs stage managers?

Stage managers, deputy stage managers and assistant stage managers typically work freelance, moving from show to show with different theatres and theatre companies (groups that don’t necessarily have their own venue) and being paid separately for each one. This means that you’ll have to be good at building and maintaining a network of contacts, and do a great job on each show you work on (so that you keep a good reputation and people want to hire you). However, there are also some permanent jobs available.

How to become a stage manager

A typical path to becoming a stage manager is to study a stage management course at university. After university, a usual first step would be to look for work as an assistant stage manager, then progress up to deputy stage manager.

However, if you don’t fancy going to university, you may be able to work your way up to assistant stage manager level by starting out as a stage crew member, for example at a local theatre. Take a look at our article on careers in theatre to find out more about stage crew careers.

Stage management qualifications

If you decide to study for a stage management degree, your options include:

  • A foundation degree in stage management (similar to a standard bachelors degree but shorter – typically two years – and leading to a slightly lower level of qualification)
  • A bachelors degree in stage management (a standard university degree, typically lasting three years in England or Wales)
  • A masters degree in stage management (a higher level degree for students who already have a bachelors degree or a lot of relevant experience, typically lasting one year).

Sometimes stage management will be combined with a similar subject, such as production management or technical theatre. In these cases, check how much of the course focuses specifically on stage management.

How to get onto stage management courses (foundation degree and bachelors degree level)

You don’t usually need specific subjects in your A levels, Scottish Highers, BTEC or equivalent to get onto a stage management degree. However, you will need to prove that you have a genuine interest in this career, so it’s important to get involved in theatre – backstage if possible – before you apply. For example you could:

  • Help out backstage with school, youth theatre or amateur productions
  • Get work experience with a local theatre
  • Go and watch theatre productions, or cinema screenings of theatre productions, and think about what you like and why
  • Take a qualification that includes getting involved in theatre productions, such as the production arts BTEC (which covers a range of off-stage roles) or A level drama (which gives you the option to perform or take various other roles, though not normally stage manager).

For some courses you’ll need to attend an interview, which will include talking about your relevant experiences. In some cases you’ll need to produce a portfolio with evidence of your involvement, such as photos of props you’ve made, a props list you’ve compiled, a programme with your name in it or the prompt copy of the script that you’ve put together (a script annotated with decisions that are unique to that particular production, such as lighting changes and actors’ movements).

Unlike most universities, Birmingham City University does ideally likes a performance-related A level or BTEC, such as drama, for entry onto its stage management bachelors degree. However, it states: ‘We also welcome applicants with practical experience in the performing arts.’

How to get onto a masters degree in stage management

There are a handful of stage management masters degrees available, which are aimed at graduates who have a bachelors degree in a different subject. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Queen Margaret University Edinburgh don’t mind what subject your bachelors degree is in; Guildford School of Acting says that it likes a ‘relevant’ subject but adds: ‘Applicants who can demonstrate exceptional talent and can satisfy the panel of their ability to complete the course may also be considered.’

Taking this route might suit you if you’re not 100% sure about a career in stage management and want to study a broader subject first. However, make sure that you get lots of voluntary experience, such as stage managing student shows, during your time on your bachelors degree.

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