Theatre stage managers coordinate all aspects of a theatre company to ensure the successful delivery of the performance. In order to do this, they must have excellent people management skills.

They manage rehearsals, actors, technicians, props and costume fittings, and liaise with front of house staff and the director.

A stage manager needs to have a good understanding of both the technical and artistic elements of a performance so that they can ensure it is delivered exactly to the director's requirements.

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

Larger productions will typically have a stage manager supported by a deputy stage manager and one or two assistant stage managers. However, small shows may just have the stage manager working on their own.

Responsibilities

Roles vary depending on the size and type of organisation, but the tasks stage managers will typically be expected to carry out include:

  • setting up and running rehearsal schedules;
  • procuring all props, furniture and set dressings, and in small companies, assisting in set construction;
  • arranging costume and wig fittings;
  • distributing information to other theatre departments;
  • managing the props and possibly the design budgets and liaising with the production manager regarding costs;
  • supervising the 'get in' to the theatre, when the set, lighting and sound are installed, and the 'get out', when all the equipment is removed;
  • compiling and operating 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;
  • making alterations to the set between scene changes, prompting actors and cueing technicians;
  • ensuring the company's welfare and maintaining a good working knowledge of all relevant health and safety legislation and good working practice;
  • running the backstage and onstage areas during performances;
  • liaising with the director, stage personnel and other technical departments, e.g. costume, lighting, sound;
  • calling actors for rehearsals and performances;
  • during a long run, maintaining and replacing props and costumes as required;
  • liaising with resident staff at other performance venues (if touring).

Salary

  • Starting salaries for assistant stage managers range from £17,000 to £20,000, with deputy stage managers earning slightly more. Regular stage managers usually start around £20,000 to £26,000.
  • Once significant experience has been built up, salaries of £26,000 to £40,000+ can be achieved.

Salary levels vary depending on the company, location and type of contract under which stage managers are employed. Additional payments, such as touring allowances, may be available. Freelance theatre stage managers may earn more, particularly in West End theatres, where they 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

Working hours typically 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. Stage managers 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. Stage managers are commonly expected to 'muck in' and apply their skills to any given priority, especially at the beginning of their 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;
  • theatre production/professional practice;
  • stage management;
  • performing arts;
  • music.

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

A stage manager must have a range of skills. You should 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. Being able to read music may be beneficial and is essential in opera, ballet and (to a lesser extent) musical theatre.

A familiarity with period costume and good sewing skills can also be useful.

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:

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

There is 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 whilst 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.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Most training is 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 stage managers 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).

For those who 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, will progress to deputy stage manager.

With further experience, the 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.

Ambitious stage managers may go on to become theatre managers or producers (sometimes called production managers or production directors). 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 is often needed for 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.