Last night, as I stumbled back to my home fairly exhausted from my 18 hour work day, I was thinking a little bit about a friend who did not land the gig he wanted on the show I’m working on.
We’ve known each other for years, and I feel that we’re both pretty good at what we respectively do, so I got a little mired in the unfairness of the situation for a minute.
It reminded me though of this basic formula that I’ve found to be the key to success as a stage manager (and maybe for any job really).
SUCCESS = HARD WORK (LOTS OF HARD WORK) + LUCK
Hard work starts in college. I volunteered for everything related to the theater department while I was there. I was at every light hang, every work call day. As a theater major, I had to put in 30 shop hours a semester.
I put in hours that were in the hundreds. The only times I would skip work calls was when school work or something very important conflicted, but even that being said – I made sure to balance my life so that it was rare that I was swamped with school work. I knew the work day schedules and pretty much never waited to the last minute to do any school work.
In my free time, I read anything I could find about stage management. If that book had stage management in the title., I read. I read the textbook I was assigned from cover to cover and then read any book referenced in it.
Ok… to be fair, I didn’t read The Backstage Hanndbook. But I flipped through it and held onto it for reference.
When I finished with the main stage management books I could find, I moved onto personality books and read everything I could about people’s Briggs-Meyers types and the love languages they spoke and any other personality explaining book.
Let me tell you, budding stage managers, 14 years into this career and that was the second most useful thing I ever did for my career (the first was growing up playing an instrument). People are crazy – especially performers.
I would never recommend manipulating people, but all of those books improved how well I can diffuse people. Even a book as silly as the The 5 Love Languages taught me how to make people feel appreciated – which just goes miles as a stage manager. Some people need you to sit there and get to know them. Others are happy as a clam if you buy them a candy bar. Seriously, who knew that it was that easy but also if you gage the person wrong, listening to them ramble for an hour doesn’t matter to them at all and you’re throwing away a dollar if you give them a candy bar.
At this point, I hit my first bit of luck. I had accidentally picked a school with a really small theater program and, as a sophomore, no one wanted to stage manage the spring show.
So, I became a stage manager.
And then I stage managed all but one show from then until I graduated. The little bit of luck that got me the gig as a sophomore collided with all the hard work I did in preparation and I succeeded.
Since I got to stage manage nearly all of the shows, I worked with our visiting directors and professors from different departments and I had a little network going there.
I also continued working any light hand, set build, work call that came up. Because of constantly being there and learning, when the next bit of luck hit, I was ready.
An opening happened for student scene shop workers and I was in. Now I was making money working in theater.
I worked there for a while, did well and built up something that was the start of a theater resume and then there was an opening for crew in the performing arts center that helped build different skills and paid more. The previous work led to that luck.
I went to grad school for an entirely different subject, but worked for a tiny touring theater company that went out on weekends there. The pay was pretty bad, but enough for the area to get my rent paid and help put a dent in my school bills. This was pretty much just all hard work
However, all of the hard work below added up to me being ready to jump on a cruise ship when luck pulled through and I landed that gig.
Once onboard, I made sure to kick butt with all the skills I’d already built and spent a ton of time learning more about moving lights, automation and the basics of digital sound boards because I knew nothing about them. I also started reading a ton of management books, because a lot of those skills are really useful for being a stage manager. When I couldn’t get half of my crew to regularly speak in English instead of Tagalog, while I kept yelling at them to speak in English, I learned Tagalog.
I just kept working hard.
I’m not tooting my own horn or anything here. I’m really just trying to point out, to younger stage managers especially, that you need to just keep moving for a while there at the beginning.
Keep being awesome.
Keep working your behind off.
And pray for that bit of luck. Because no matter how awesome you are, it still takes a little extra push to really succeed in this business.
I do believe that for most of us, that break does come eventually, so just make sure you’re ready to crush it when it does.