2020 is the year of the stage manager, so this is the perfect time to talk about how I get the most out of my Sound Designer/Stage Manager relationship! The Stage Manager is the one person that probably knows the most about the show and the actors. They are also the one who is going to make sure your design is executed exactly as planned at each and every show. Basically, the Stage Manager is someone you really want in your corner, so I want to go over just a few of the ways my relationship with Stage Managers has been beneficial.
First of all, I completely support listing the Stage Manager as a part of the creative team. I’m stating this, maybe obvious (to some) fact, because it just doesn’t happen a lot. Frankly, I’m still beating the “LIST THE SOUND DESIGNER IN YOUR POSTS” drum loud and hard, because that title is also one that is often left off…. I guess because you can’t see that design in a photo. So if I have to constantly remind people that Sound Designers are part of the creative team and need to be listed in posts, I can’t imagine how much harder that fight is for Stage Managers. Let’s just think about it for a minute though. What defines a creative team? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a succinct “Theatrical Creative Team” textbook definition, but I did find this “Advertising Creative Team” definition from smallbusiness.chron.com, and honestly, it totally fits:
A creative team is made up of several key members, starting with a creative director, and including copywriters, editors, graphic designers and artists, and web developers. In short, it’s the group of people that comes up with the advertising ideas and brings those ideas into being.
This is basically the same for theatre, right? The Director, Choreographer, Music Director, and Designers are the key members that come up with the ideas and bring those ideas to the stage. But from the first concept meeting, the Stage Manager is also there. They are running the meetings, taking notes, and sending those notes out to the team. The Stage Manager is keeping track of all of the action that’s going on in rehearsal and keeps the rest of the team updated daily. They will remind the director of Designers’ ideas, and likewise, let Designers in on things that might help or hurt their design idea—like informing a Sound Designer that a group of actors are constantly blocked to be in a place where a speaker was going to be. They are the ones firing sound cues in rehearsal and reporting on how it was received by the director, and any good stage manager will practice calls over and over until their “GO” lands at that perfect swell in the music that will ensure every audience member leaves feeling all the feels. That’s art. Stage Management is an art form, and they have every right to be recognized as part of the creative team, and basically, what I’m saying is that the more we openly recognize that fact with our Stage Manager friends, the better the working relationship is going to be.
I mentioned that the Stage Manager probably knows more about the actors than anyone else. This is really useful to the Sound Designer of a musical. For years, I would make my plans about which microphones to use, which lavs to put on actors, what I would use to change the color of the lavs if needed, what kind of tape or other attachment method to use, and which style mic belts to assign well ahead of tech on my own. Many times over the years, I would run into situations where I was changing tape on an actor because they were allergic to what I was using, or switching out a mic belt because of a blocking direction that was just given, or what have you. It was frustrating, and would often create a domino effect if I was short on equipment or supplies. I soon learned that consulting the Stage Manager while I was preparing these plans alleviated a lot of those issues for me before I even met the actor. The Stage Manager would not only know the nuts and bolts information, like allergies and blocking, but also more personal things, like actor preferences: This actor likes to wear the lav on the left side of the face, that actor has their own mic belt, etc. Once I realized that I could unlock that info ahead of time, it was a definite level up for me.
The Stage Manager is also very invested in protecting your design and maintaining its original intention throughout the run. There are sometimes situations in which microphone and lav placement are very specific, and I’ll tell a Stage Manager that if this position moves an inch one way or the other, the sound will change. Many of the Stage Managers I’ve worked with in the past take that information very seriously and will note actors throughout the run for the sake of the design and the production. I’ve also worked with Stage Managers in the past who, during rehearsal, will bring up things I’ve said in the past about which circumstances give us the best sound quality if it looks like the Director is blocking actors to be somewhere or do something that is not conducive to excellent sound quality. Because I like to keep a line of open communication between myself and my Stage Managers, I’m able to count on them to be my voice, even if I’m not in the room.
When it comes to theatre allies, Stage Managers are definitely a group of people I want on that list. I want to know that they care as much about my design as I do, and will give their all every night to make sure that it is executed perfectly. I think that as Designers, we can sometimes feel overprotective of our work, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that the questions, the emails, the regular check-ins from a Stage Manager are all in pursuit of the same goal as us—a perfectly crafted piece of theatre.
Elisabeth Weidner is a freelance Sound Designer/Composer and Audio/Video Technician based on the Central Coast of California. She holds a degree in Commercial Music from Florida State University and has been working professionally in the live sound industry for over 15 years.
Prior to being a full time freelancer, she served as Sound Director/Resident Sound Designer/Composer for PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre from 2009-2019. While in residency, she also served as Faculty for PCPA’s Technical Theatre Conservatory. Elisabeth sits on the USITT Sound Commission jury for Current Practices and Research in Sound paper/article submissions and is a proud member of ASCAP and the TSDCA. www.elisabethanneweidner.com