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  • Sarah G. Harris, AEA Stage Manager

Keep Learning, Have Faith, & Empower Others

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

If you take a long hard look, there are fundamental values — internal choices — pivotal moments that got you to where you are right now. For better or worse, they have defined your life, taught you valuable lessons, and carved the path you call "your journey."

Below is a bit about my unique path to becoming a professional stage manager. I hope there’s something useful that you can take with you.

In high school, I dabbled in theatre, but it wasn’t until my senior year that I fully immersed myself by accepting the role of Assistant Director/Stage Manager for Our Town and The Music Man. There was something about it — the organization of chaos, the responsibility, the scheduling, the blocking diagrams, the camaraderie, the problem solving, the complicated calling sequences — that lit a fiery passion within me. I wasn’t this excited about math or science or writing or history. I had found my jam.

But I didn’t know anything about stage managing in the professional world! Where do these organized beings work? How much money do they make? What does a career in stage managing even look like? I had so many questions and no professional contacts to answer them, so I let the dream go.

I decided to, instead, become a nurse. Some might say that's 180° from stage managing, but really it's not! You take care of people, listen to them, stay calm, organize paperwork, anticipate problems— it has some key similarities. The only problem was... I cringed at the thought of changing bedpans and worried that someone might die in my hands from a minor miscalculation or single mistake. Even as I began my second year of nursing school, these fears kept knocking at my door until I finally let them in and contemplated what my life would be like without them— without becoming a nurse. I realized that I wanted my career to be something that I was wholeheartedly passionate about. So I marched up to the Fine Arts building with my high school prompt script (a blocking/calling script combo platter) to let the chairman know that I wanted to become a stage manager and I was switching my major to theatre.

Little did I know, he was looking for someone to fulfill that role! He quickly offered me my first college stage managing job and connected me with an advisor to guide me on this new path. As my advisor and I planned out my remaining semesters, he recommended that I minor in business management — which was brilliant! It included courses on organizational behavior, leadership, human resources, and personal finance. All skills I would need in the real world.

He also encouraged me to look into internships and offered the class a chance to go to the South Eastern Theatre Conference (SETC) to participate in workshops and interview for summer jobs. Most internships were already taken, but I lucked out because Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) was looking to fill a few stage management internship positions. It didn’t come with a paycheck, but they did offer food and housing. I was thrilled for the opportunity to learn things outside of the educational theatre bubble I had been in. A few weeks later, I got a call from BTG, and they offered me the chance to work at their beautiful stages in Massachusetts!

I had no idea what I was getting into. I drove up to Stockbridge and hit the ground running. Immediately we were helping company management assemble room kits, cleaning rehearsal spaces, and doing whatever was needed in the moment. I quickly realized my adaptability and patience would be key to getting the most out of this internship — and, boy, did I learn a lot!

However, as much as I appreciated the internship, I also found myself wishing I was able to focus more on learning how to be a stage manager rather than juggling additional roles. Being a lover of systems, I went searching for a better way. My professor loaned me a book, “Steal Like An Artist,” in which Austin Kleon outlines how to “climb your own family tree” — find a role model, learn everything you can about them, research three people they love, study everything you can about them, and repeat the process until you’ve created a tree. So I set out to do just that.

I started by looking in the Playbill Vault online, searching through successful Broadway stage managers’ “baby bios,” as I like to call them — the first time in their career that they were listed in a Playbill. I discovered that these early bios had more regional theatres listed, and I knew from my research that many of these places offered internships. See the dots connecting? So, of course… I made a huge spreadsheet of all the stage managers and the regional theatres they had worked at. Then, I narrowed it down to the top three most frequented companies, which were Paper Mill Playhouse, Seattle 5th Avenue, and La Jolla Playhouse. (If you’re looking for internships, don’t just apply to these because I listed them! These were my results in 2014, based on what was important to me. I encourage you to do your homework and research what’s best for you.)

For my last summer in college, I applied to these three companies and was thrilled to get a call from La Jolla Playhouse, offering me an internship for the world premiere of Come From Away! I learned so much that summer from everyone in the room and am so grateful to have been a small part of it. As the internship came to a close, Martha Donaldson, who was the Production Stage Manager on the show (aka my boss), invited me to breakfast, where she kindly told me that I had a great work ethic and ability to anticipate and read the room. She asked if I’d be interested in coming to New York to be an intern for The Crucible on Broadway. I was stunned and overjoyed at the possibility!

A month after I graduated, I found myself in New York City, setting up for rehearsals alongside a brilliant team of Broadway stage managers! Martha, Justin Scribner, and Katie McKee really accelerated my career from there. I asked them questions about how the biz worked, what their origin stories were, who their mentors were, what they had learned along the way, and asked them for feedback about what I could improve on. I really wanted to get to know these amazing human beings and learn everything I could from them — and genuinely enjoyed doing so.

After The Crucible, I had times of feast and times that felt like famine. There were weeks I was working and weeks I was not. I had no control over this and wasn’t sure what to do. In that first year, I was still holding onto an idea of what I assumed a career in stage managing should look like. I assumed I’d be employed the majority of the time and maybe have a week off here and there, but I never imagined going 3 or 4 weeks without work. The thought that crept up most often was, “I’m not working because no one wants to hire me.” But the truth was that not many people knew me and the people who did know me actually were recommending and hiring me! I had to learn to let go of the thought “I am not enough” and open my eyes to see that that was not my reality. I had to discover for myself how to have faith — if I was genuinely passionate about stage managing and, more importantly, learning from the people I admired, there was nothing else I needed to do.

I don’t know that I would have been able to see that without the help of my mentor, Justin Scribner. He has taught me so many things about life, joy, authenticity, kindness, gratitude— I could go on and on. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from him is how to empower other people. It’s the common thread — or superpower — of the best leaders I know. They all have this very intentional and sincere way of enabling someone to be the best version of themselves and allowing that person to do their best work. When you start identifying this quality in the people around you, it’s amazing how quickly you can begin to define it for yourself and shape what it looks like in your own life.

This idea of empowerment is very different from what I experienced as a college student. On a trip to New York, I was quite literally told “Good luck with that [becoming a PSM on Broadway]. It’s a gentlemen’s club.” That was in 2014?

Now, every job I work on, I feel like I see people empowering others left and right — like looking through a kaleidoscope, empowerment keeps growing. I see individuals giving their co-workers space and enabling them to speak their mind and then, together, collectively taking action. I see companies listening to their employees, examining their own traditional practices, asking the right questions, and making fundamental changes. I see producers encouraging writers to create diverse work and erase racial lines in casting. I see directors and designers hiring more people of color on their team, not as diversity hires, but because they truly believe in the people they’ve chosen and they want the world to be a better place for future generations.

These actions of empowerment — of support, care, trust, encouragement, advocacy, and love — have a ripple effect, no matter where you are or who you are. Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, White, non-binary, male, or female... Whatever your race or gender identity, you have the capacity to empower and be empowered.

In many ways, we still have a very long way to go in empowering women, people of color, younger generations, and our LGBTQIA+ community. Empowerment, though, is a wonderfully infectious gift that we can choose to give to others.

I want to leave you with a challenge…

Think about a moment when someone has empowered you. I don’t just mean a small act of kindness, but think about a time when someone genuinely believed in you and enabled you to be your best self and do your best work. Think about that feeling, look for it throughout your life, and find ways to empower others.

Every small step in the right direction matters. | @sarah.g.harris

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If you’re interested in finding a mentor, Open Stage has a great program called “Act 2.” They pair high school juniors and seniors with an industry mentor! Click here to check out their programs.

If you’re entering or already in the industry and thinking “how can I find a mentor,” here’s my advice to you: keep an open mind, notice the people you naturally click with, genuinely seek out advice from people you admire and ask for their feedback (but know that not everyone is looking for a mentee), when someone gives you feedback — accept it gracefully and process it out loud with that person. Be open and patient as you cultivate these relationships. You may have a lifelong mentor, or several mentors throughout your life, or mentors outside the industry, or none at all — keep your eyes and heart open and you’ll find what works for you!

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