Perhaps the hardest working people in the theater, stage managers oversee all aspects of a production. They work closely with the director to mark every piece of the production – from where the actors and sets are placed, to the sound and light signals. During “Tech Week,” when a show hits a theater, they go through the rehearsal process to ensure that the technical aspects of a production run smoothly before opening night.
The stage manager is also responsible for communicating with all the different backstage teams, from lighting and sound experts to dressers helping actors make quick changes.
“A stage manager is like a conductor,” said Lisa Porter, who over a 25-year career has worked on shows at the Public Theater and La Jolla Playhouse, among others. “We direct the tempo and tone of the rehearsals throughout the process.
“That’s why,” she added, “I believe mastering anti-racism is so important.”
Like many theater positions, however, the directing has remained stubbornly seamless. A study published by the Actors’ Equity Association found that between 2016 and 2019, 76% of managers employed in theatrical productions across the country were white. Only 2.63 percent were black. As with many industries and fields of the arts, the George Floyd protests forced Broadway into a conversation about representation, and black stewards and their white allies were active participants. They’re creating new organizations for racial equity, creating more opportunities for future directors of color, and even looking at aspects of their work that can do more harm than good.
Because stage management is a behind-the-scenes job, a lot of people who grow up doing theater don’t know it exists.
Narda E. Alcorn, who directs Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives” in the Park this summer, started out as an actress. During her sophomore year at Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, she realized she wasn’t the best in her class, but discovered another set of skills.
“I knew how to anticipate people’s needs,” she said, “and how to communicate with different types of people, like how to speak differently to an actor versus a director or a production person. didn’t realize there was a job for it until my teacher, thank goodness, recognized it in me.
Alcorn, who is black, earned a BFA in Production Management from DePaul University and a Masters in Stage Management from Yale Drama School, where she met Porter, who is white.
Since then, they have been friends and are both directing professors: Porter at the University of California at San Diego, Alcorn at Yale. They incorporated their respective experiences into their 2019 book, “Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice”.
“Race has always been a factor when Lisa got a job and when I got a job, consciously or unconsciously,” Alcorn said. “However, in our country, there is no name for whiteness: it is the defect, the norm. Peers have often cited my race as the reason I was hired, while with Lisa they cite her experience and skills. For years, I felt diminished and symbolized. (Porter agreed with his colleague’s assertions.)
When black managers are hired, it can be difficult for them to make their voices heard.
After earning a Masters in Stage Management from Columbia University School of the Arts, R. Christopher Maxwell was hired to work on the acclaimed Broadway production “Oklahoma!” But instead of being integrated into the management team, he was hired as a production assistant, a lower position in the hierarchy.
“I didn’t have a voice in the room,” said Maxwell, who is currently assistant stage director for Lynn Nottage’s play “Mlima’s Tale” at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.
Even on shows where he took a bigger role in production, Maxwell said he struggled to get others to listen to him. On one show, he said he tried to explain to a white production manager that the dancers in the choir had to wear a certain type of shoe that matched their skin tone. “They didn’t listen and bought the wrong kind of shoes,” he said.
Before George Floyd’s murder, Alcorn, Maxwell, and other directors of color had rarely spoken of their experiences.
“After George Floyd, people could see the disparity in the way people of color are treated,” said Lisa Dawn Cave, a black woman who has been running the scene since the late 1990s. “It’s not that people didn’t take it seriously, was that they didn’t see it as widely as they thought, or they were like, “Yes, that’s happening, but we hired someone from color in the team so it’s fine. ‘”
Statistics from the Equity study show the importance of making sure there are black managers in the pipeline. “I only knew about four or five,” Maxwell said. “So it became my personal mission to see who was there. “
As part of this assignment, he co-founded the Black Theater Caucus, where he is currently vice president of production artists. They have partnered with organizations like Cave’s Broadway & Beyond to create initiatives for directors of color who have been overlooked.
Maxwell became a delegate to Equity, where he helped push through a successful bill that addresses the monitoring of hiring practices of union bargaining partners, increase digital access to hearings and recognize peoples indigenous peoples in union communications.
He also highlighted black and Latino workers in an Instagram series called Celebrating 101 Black Stage Managers. The Stewards Association took note, offering free membership and arranging meetings with seasoned managers for distinguished individuals.
Matthew Stern, who has been a stage manager for over 20 years, leads the Broadway Stage Management Symposium, an annual networking event that created scholarships this year that allowed five color managers to attend the May conference.
“It makes you realize that there are of course great black managers,” said Stern, who is white. “We just don’t know them because we haven’t been in the same circles, and because of our circumstances and our privilege.”
American regional theaters have also intensified. On June 30, the Alliance Theater in Atlanta announced that Shaina Pierce, a black graduate from the University of Alabama, would be the first recipient of a new BIPOC Stage Manager Fellowship.
For Alcorn, change must start with training itself.
In the past she has said: “I was very aware of diversity, representation and tried to be inclusive, but I wasn’t actively anti-racist, because I didn’t really recognize it as a value. . Now I think that’s as important as empathy, kindness and the pursuit of excellence.
In a 2020 essay for the HowlRound theater website, Alcorn and Porter admitted that as stage managers they had “subconsciously and complicitly supported the culture of white supremacy in the production process.” Now, when she teaches stage management, Alcorn shows students how to dismantle preconceptions that she believes can cause harm, such as perfectionism.
“Managers are human beings who make mistakes and mistakes like everyone else on a team,” she said. “I prefer to teach the value of excellence,” which she defines as “tackling mistakes with grace and generosity, and moving forward with greater understanding.”