If you have great organisational and people management skills, you would be suited to a career in theatre stage management

Working as a theatre stage manager, you'll coordinate all aspects of a theatre company to ensure the successful delivery of the performance. In order to do this, you must have excellent people management skills.

You'll manage rehearsals, actors, technicians, props and costume fittings, and liaise with front-of-house staff and the director.

You'll need to have a good understanding of both the technical and artistic elements of a performance so you can ensure it is delivered exactly to the director's requirements.

You will be involved from the rehearsal stage through to the live performances, where you will be on hand to deal with any emergencies or issues that may hinder the show.

Larger productions typically have a stage manager supported by a deputy stage manager and one or two assistant stage managers. However, if it is a small show, it is likely you will work on your own.

Responsibilities

As a theatre stage manager, you'll need to:

  • set up and run rehearsal schedules
  • procure all props, furniture and set dressings, and in small companies, assist in set construction
  • arrange costume and wig fittings
  • distribute information to other theatre departments
  • manage the props and possibly the design budgets and liaise with the production manager regarding costs
  • supervise the 'get in' to the theatre, when the set, lighting and sound are installed, and the 'get out', when all the equipment is removed
  • compile and operate prompt copy - also known as the 'prompt script' or 'the book', which notes actors' moves and cues, and the requirements for props, lighting and sound
  • make alterations to the set between scene changes, prompt actors and cue technicians
  • ensure the company's welfare and maintain a good working knowledge of all relevant health and safety legislation and good working practice
  • run the backstage and onstage areas during performances
  • liaise with the director, stage personnel and other technical departments, e.g. costume, lighting, sound
  • call actors for rehearsals and performances
  • during a long run, maintain and replace props and costumes as required
  • liaise with resident staff at other performance venues (if touring).

Salary

  • Starting salaries begin at £20,000, with deputy stage managers earning slightly more.
  • Once you have gained significant experience and are well known with a professional reputation, you can earn substantially more.

Salary levels vary depending on the company, location and type of contract under which you are employed. Additional payments, such as touring allowances, may be available. If you work as a freelance theatre stage manager, you may earn more, particularly in West End theatres, where you are paid per production. If employment is not consistent, however, the overall pay throughout a year may be less. Minimum rates for stage managers are negotiated by the UK trade union for professional performers and creative practitioners, Equity.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Your working hours will include regular unsocial hours, as evening and weekend work and long hours are typical.

What to expect

  • Self-employment or freelance work is possible. Experienced stage managers may opt to work freelance in order to gain more varied experience and earn higher rates of pay.
  • The work is based in theatres and other arts venues. Conditions backstage can be hot, dusty or dark, although this depends on the age and size of the venue. Open-air theatres may be just the opposite.
  • Physical stamina is essential. You are often expected to help move or lift props.
  • A good head for heights may be needed, depending on the technical area of work.
  • The work is physically demanding and brings ever-changing challenges. You will be expected to 'muck in' and apply your skills to any given priority, especially at the beginning of your career.
  • Most venues have a play in rehearsal at the same time as one in production, which may mean a constant heavy workload.
  • Stressful parts of the job include dress rehearsals, technical rehearsals and dealing with different personalities. On the plus side, the work affords genuine opportunities for personal and team achievement.
  • Jobs are available in most areas of the country, and there are also opportunities to work overseas.
  • Travel within a working day may occasionally be needed. In a touring company, you may spend long periods away from home.

Qualifications

Graduates from all degrees can get into stage management work but the following subjects are particularly useful:

  • drama/theatre studies
  • music
  • performing arts
  • stage management
  • theatre production/professional practice.

It is particularly useful to study a degree that is accredited by Drama UK. You can search for relevant courses at Drama UK - Course Finder.

Entry with an HND is possible, and relevant subjects include performing arts and technical theatre.

It is possible to enter the profession without a degree or HND, however this will be at a junior level such as a member of the stage crew. You may then be able to work your way up to the role of an assistant stage manager and then progress further. This may be difficult though, as you will face competition from those who do have the relevant qualifications.

Postgraduate courses are not essential but they are available, and will be helpful to those who do not have a related first degree. Search for postgraduate courses in theatre studies.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • excellent communication and organisational skills
  • a sharp eye for detail
  • a sense of humour and the ability to stay calm in a crisis
  • people skills: persuasiveness, patience, tact and the ability to deal with 'artistic temperaments'
  • computer skills and awareness of current technologies
  • the ability to work under pressure, especially in the run-up to a performance
  • problem-solving skills and the ability to think on your feet
  • confidence, decision-making ability and negotiation skills
  • stamina, to cope with long hours during technical and dress rehearsals, and for touring.

A driving licence may also be an added requirement in some roles. Other useful skills include familiarity with period costume and good sewing skills. If you want to work in opera, ballet and (to a lesser extent) musical theatre, it's essential that you can read music.

Work experience

The majority of employers will expect you to have practical experience of theatre work. Try to gain this through student, community or amateur theatre groups and get involved in as many different areas of the theatre as possible. This can help to build up contacts, which may lead to future job opportunities.

Employers

There are theatre stage manager jobs in all parts of the UK. Employers range from small touring companies to medium-sized repertory companies and large-scale commercial theatres, such as those in London's West End.

Opportunities can be found in:

  • alternative, community, prison and children's theatre
  • fringe theatre
  • regional theatre
  • theatre-in-education companies
  • touring theatre.

National theatre, opera, and dance companies are prestigious employers, and include:

However, these represent only a fraction of the opportunities available.

In addition to theatre work, stage managers may also be needed at open-air music concerts, festivals and theme parks.

Work is available at some holiday camps and on cruise ships, which can be useful during 'dark' periods for stage managers who usually work in provincial theatre.

Look for job vacancies at:

Many posts are filled through personal contacts and so networking is key. Direct applications to theatre groups and companies, by CV and cover letter, may lead to work.

You will face stiff competition for jobs in theatre and even experienced stage managers have periods out of work. The summer months, when there is less work, are often referred to as the 'dark period' for theatre companies.

You should contact local stage managers for advice and to find out about any available work. Networking is a key factor in getting a job - many vacancies are filled through contacts made while working - so it is wise to keep a log of any contacts you make in the field and stay in touch on a regular basis.

If you decide to work on a freelance basis, find out more about self-employment.

Professional development

Most of your training is likely to be on the job. Few venues or companies can afford to fund in-service training and so you will be expected to take responsibility for your own continued professional development (CPD) in technical areas.

The Stage Management Association (SMA), which is the professional body that supports and represents stage management in the UK, runs a range of short training courses that are available to members and non-members.

The courses aim to help you develop existing skills and are useful if you wish to move into company management and production management. Details of current courses can be found at Stage Management Association - Training.

The SMA also arranges numerous networking events, which are good for building contacts and keeping up to date with industry news.

If you want to focus on developing the technical side of the job, useful courses are provided by the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT).

If you are interested in design and production, short courses and details about degree exhibitions and shows that are useful are provided by the Society of British Theatre Designers.

Career prospects

You will typically start as an assistant stage manager and, after gaining skills and experience, may progress to deputy stage manager.

With further experience, your next step is to become a stage manager and then company stage manager, although this is usually only in the larger theatres.

Some stage managers remain as assistants or deputies for their entire career, (especially in larger organisations). Others may move between companies, filling roles as assistant, deputy or stage manager, as required.

It is possible to develop certain skills to move into specialist roles, such as theatre lighting director, sound manager or wardrobe manager. This would involve expanding the technical or design skills that you have learnt through the stage management role in order to specialise in the relevant area.

If you are an ambitious stage manager, you could go on to become a theatre manager or producer (sometimes called a production manager or a production director). This would involve working in larger theatres, running significant budgets and coordinating the whole physical production of a play.

With experience and further training, some stage managers go on to become theatre directors. You may be able to use the skills and experience gained in the theatre to work in production jobs in television or film, where you could potentially enter roles such as a trainee floor manager.

It is possible to move into stage management of large-scale music concerts or become an events manager.

Geographical mobility will help your career development. In order to acquire the best skills and build up substantial experience, it is usually necessary to work with a number of different companies or travel with a touring company to a number of different performance venues.