A stage manager is essentially the head traffic controller of a live theater or television production. Once the director has issued his or her final notes to the cast, this person usually assumes command of the physical stage area, dressing rooms and backstage greenroom. All staff, such as lighting, sound, props and scenery technicians, report directly to him, and he in turn remains in constant communication with the director by in-house phone or wireless headset. He has a number of duties to perform throughout the entire production process, some of which he might delegate to other individuals.
Before rehearsals begin, the stage manager usually meets with the director and producer to get a basic concept of what they want the show to look like or achieve. He might provide his own ideas about what might work and explain some options available for props, lighting and other elements, such as costumes or sets. If the manager is working in a new space, he also uses this initial time to get familiar with the theater layout and resources.
Another major duty is initially scheduling rehearsal times and making sure those times are respected. As he does this, he thinks about how long it should take people to learn their parts, as well as how to address giving understudies enough practice. If unforeseen problems come up, such as the theater being temporarily without power on a rehearsal date, it's usually up to him to figure out if and when to make up the practice and to contact everyone involved. Contemporary professionals in this field often use technology such as email to set up a calendar and communicate quickly with actors, actresses, stage hands, directors and producers.
Another task is to get the space the production will use ready for rehearsal and performance. Initially, this might be as simple as making sure the heat and lights are on in the theater. Eventually, however, it involves jobs like striking the set, readying audio and removing equipment that might be in the way, such as a podium. Efficiency is critical here, because many actors, actresses and other staff members are paid hourly — if they have to wait to perform, it costs the producer more money.
Once the rehearsal calendar is active, the stage manager plays a part in security. He usually unlocks and locks the building and rehearsal space for everyone else at each practice, unless he doesn't usually work at the venue — in this case, the house manager or another security worker that normally handles the rehearsal space might control entrance and exit. It is common for him to be the first one to arrive at the theater and the last to leave.
During an actual rehearsal, one of the most important roles a stage manager has is recording all of the blocking, lighting cues, prop usage, costume changes and entrances and exits of all the performers. The tradition of putting all of these elements into a notebook and executing them inspired the theatrical description of the position, "running the book." Ideally, if he does his job well, someone else could use his notes to oversee the technical aspects of a rehearsal or reproduce the show to a certain degree. Usually, gathering this information means that he has to shadow the director.
Once the stage manager has a good idea of what the producer and director want and how the show is supposed to progress, he delegates tasks to other stage hands, such as costume directors or audio-visual specialists. He makes sure they understand what they are supposed to do and checks that they have everything they need to complete their goals. It is common for him to schedule and host staff meetings so that everyone working on the production sees how their work fits into the big picture, and so they can collaborate if needed. It is often necessary to provide some visual or sound cues for staff to keep things moving, with the first few rehearsals usually being the shakiest and most frustrating.
An old theater tradition is for those working on a show to have some coffee before a rehearsal. Not everyone follows this idea, largely because of the expense, but if a producer and director would like to let staff, actors and actresses participate, the stage manager is usually the person who makes the drinks available. Many people appreciate this small gesture, because it can get across a sense of community and relaxation on top of getting everyone through long practices.
On the day of the live performance, a stage manager quickly checks that everything is working the way it should and that everyone, including staff, is available. He works with his crew and other individuals such as ticket salespeople at the door to make sure that initial settings on equipment are ready and that people have access to the venue when promised. It is often his responsibility to issue the familiar call of "Places, everyone!" and to count down the time until the curtain rises.
Even though staff typically quickly learn what to do for a production, they often still look to the stage manager for permission to proceed. An audio technician, for example, might know that he is supposed to start the show right at 8:00 p.m. sharp with a specific track of music, but he generally waits for a cue before initiating anything. The flow of the show, therefore, is largely in the stage manager's hands.
Occasionally, just before or even during a show, technical and human crises come up. A crucial prop might be lost, for example, or someone might have a wardrobe malfunction. One element of this job, therefore, is to take emergency messages, analyze problems quickly and find solutions so that the show can go on as planned. The ability to think under pressure is very important.
As hectic as a performance might be, the person running the stage still is supposed to take notes about how the show went, including about how many people were in the audience. Directors and producers use this information to make improvements. Elements such as performance length can be extremely important in competition sequences, as a cast and crew might be disqualified for going over time or other technical problems. When things go well, these records can inspire congratulatory messages.
When a show is over, the stage manager usually handles things such as an after-production party, making sure props, sets and costumes are put back into storage and returning any equipment that was borrowed. In some cases, he might be involved in handling bills related to the show. Cleaning up the space and checking for personal items are additional duties.