skills I learned from stage managementAs I’ve taken more risks in my life (in fact, almost making a habit of it some days!), I’ve come to the conclusion that the wide variety of practical skills I learned in theatre have been instrumental both to my successes and the very fabric of who I am. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the skills I learned from stage management.

Sometimes these skills come from actor-stuff, helping me make more sense of social life and living in a different culture.

Today, I want to talk about a very different type of skill set from another essential job within theatre –  Stage Manager.

I tried out stage management not because I wanted to do it professionally, but because it’s a vital job within a theatre production and I wanted to learn more about it. Tackling a new job only tangentially related to your area of expertise and experience, or even completely outside it, is always a great way to stretch your brain. View it as a challenge, and work to apply your existing skills in new ways (that’s right: your existing tools might be very successful when applied in unorthodox or novel ways!). If nothing works, seek out new skills to cope. We don’t always succeed at these ‘risky’ experiments, but being curious about how systems work is a great way to make new mental connections, skills, and develop a top-down model of your life and work.

A Brief Description of Your Job, Sometimes, Maybe

You are both in charge and not in charge. You’re expected to be invisible, immediately come to the forefront when problems arise, and then disappear again. You get dumped on, a lot – because the buck stops with you. If you’re lucky, you have a good working relationship with your bosses and crew, but that’s not a foregone conclusion. You have a dozen different personality types pushing and pulling. You’re basically on call 24/7. And, you have to do it all while both allowing yourself to be trod upon, keeping your cool, and not pissing anyone off too much, while at the same time telling people what to do, when to do it, and sometimes even how to do it, all without seeming like you’re dictating anything.

If this sounds like you, let me demonstrate how I parlayed this procedural, document-heavy theatre job into tackling problems big or small, personal or professional!

It turns out that Stage Management is full of helpful professional skills, skills that are vital in virtually any job or career situation. Whenever employers present me with a job that has many steps, communication across colleagues, is especially long-term, involves a large team, requires scheduling/calendar work, or is producing any kind of documentation, I’m confident that it’s something I can handle, because the basic skills are all baked into this job.

Here are three that I’ve learned… and one that I’m still working on.

Problem Solving: With Great Perspective Comes Great Opportunity

skills I learned from stage managementA Stage Managers business card might also read Chief Problem Solver and Responsibility Taker. Here’s how I applied those problem-solving skills.

Whatever you do, give problems a good period of analysis first.

To effectively problem solve, my process looks like this: Zoom in, Zoom out… then Synthesize, Contextualize, and Prioritize

You do a lot of these four things as an SM. Being able to keep problems large and small in mind is an important skill, and predicting what will happen when you synthesize various solutions is important, but the next step is arguably harder: plug these into the Big Picture. From there, you can give your problems necessary context, and proceed to fill in the dynamics and information that form the pathway into the future. Finally, if time is an issue for multiple problems, you can prioritize your solutions.

(And don’t forget your number one tool in your toolbox – delegation!! Monotask half of these into someone else’s workload and double-team your crises.)

This ability to recognize and then prioritize both macro- and micro-situations can do a lot to help your peace of mind when dealing with incoming crises. The science says that people – all of us – are really, really bad at making decisions. Furthermore, making decisions depletes willpower, which is a finite resource.

Mentally filtering incoming issues into categories like “solvable,” “solvable, soon,” “solvable, but later,” “unsolvable, for now, but we might be able to solve given time/money/people,” and “permanently f*cked, find a new angle” gives you the freedom to continue to deal with current crises while also heading off upcoming problems at the pass.

TL;DR: Filter and Interpret what your senses and your team give you to create a meaningful picture of your project.

But, I should mention, THIS IS NOT MULTITASKING….

Monotasking and List Making: Make the Monster Bite-Sized

skills I learned from stage management…BECAUSE MULTITASKING IS A MYTH and you’re stressing yourself out over it!

Sure, casual multitasking is possible, usually by separating your multiple tasks into steps and then layering them. But the ‘this stuff is out of control and my project/life is careening toward a cliff at top speed’-feeling that comes when the tasks just won’t stop pouring in, can be stilled with the application of one thing: Focus your attention.

At this point you’re synthesizing, contextualizing, and prioritizing your brains out. This stuff all takes your brain, as much of it as you have (I’m not claiming to have a lot, which is probably why I advocate monotasking for getting stuff done). Put on your thinking music and get in your zone. You’ll have to start recording it all in writing at some point, before you start losing track of things, and for a lot of people that will mean a to-do list.

Full Discloser: I love to-do lists. I operate solely from a to-do list that oscillates between a mere handful of tasks and dozens, and I’m using it multiple times a day (incidentally, I use the iOS app Clear, which I highly recommend).

Your end result is gonna be a todo list that gains 3 tasks for each 1 you cross off. That’s ok, you’re just doing it right, and since each task is a bite-sized morsel, they can get crossed off quickly.

The answer to a massive to-do list? Monotasking.

I learned this from an SM mentor fresh out of college. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you tackle one task until it’s entirely out of your hands. Devote yourself exclusively to each issue in turn, and watch the list cross itself off.

My mentor used a little image of a tennis racket when she explained this to me. Her mental image (and now mine) is of a tennis court where you’re playing singles. Except there are, like, 50 courts, and you’re playing all of them one after another.

Completing incredibly long task lists (I mean, you can’t even imagine what an SM deals with, it’s just such a crazy mix of totally banal and batpoo crazy) is a piece of cake when you’re not trying to keep your mind on several different games at the same time. Just breathe, and volley. Breathe, and volley; hit the ball back into their court and move on.

If they have followup questions/problems you can be sure you’ll hear about them, and then tackle each as they arise and according to their priority.

Scheduling, Communication, and the Big Picture

skills I learned from stage managementI think of myself as being a massive rocky point in the ocean. There’s eddies of flotsam and frantic people swirling all over you, and they have a wide variety of personalities and problems.

You are the monolith in this analogy, only able to stand tall because you’re both above the fray and completely subsumed by it. If you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the project, you have valuable insight into how the whole works, and you can use this to your advantage.

Scheduling and effective communication are a lot of time-consuming work. Fortunately, you know the whole situation, be it your personal life or a project from work. Part of each of us is an SM of our own life, all the time, and you can transfer your newfound ability to manage others into an effective way of managing your own life, dreams, and challenges.

Scheduling and communication is not without errors, though, and to really get everything right the buck has to stop with someone – it might as well be you. Take the responsibility no one else wants, but do it because you want it done right, whether that means taking the blame, taking the credit, or admitting your own failures. It sucks sometimes, but better to get it out there so everyone can move on and really solve whatever challenges are being faced.

The great thing about these things is that no one actively wants you to fail. Other people are invariably tied up in your success. No one succeeds at the big goals in a vacuum, no matter how talented and amazing you are (and I know you are!).

When you’re communicating effectively, sometimes people don’t even know you’ve done anything – and that’s a sign of effective leadership. Remember, you can be a Leader even when you’re not the head honcho.

Finally, remember to breathe and stretch. Very few things can’t benefit from a moment of consideration, reflection, and an extra infusion of fresh oxygen to your brain.


…and one I’m still working on…

Improvised Grace Under Pressure

skills I learned from stage managementTen minutes before your show and the light board explodes? Been there. Missing actor just before they go on? Done that. The biggest quality of successful stage managers is that they are imperturbable. It’s like knocking on a petrified tree – even her chair catching fire beneath her ass won’t elicit much more than step to the side and a “fire extinguisher, go.”
I’d never been able to truly manage this before traveling abroad. I’ve had friends say I’m like a firecracker, apt to go high-intensity at a moments notice (I like to think about it as mildly excitable, ha ha). Remaining calm in the face of madness (which is what moving to SE Asia occasionally felt like back in 2013) is difficult for me. I’ve slowly been able to tone it down, and I think I’m making real progress. Usually, it usually involves nothing more complicated than keeping my darn mouth shut and counting to ten.
Someday I hope to be able to take anything in stride without the knee-jerk reactions. Before coming here I couldn’t say that, and didn’t think it would ever come to pass. Today, I can say that (basically) my 30’s are awesome and I’m not sure how I managed to survive this long, but I’m glad I did!

These are just a few of the Skills I Learned from Stage Management.

Let’s look at these objectively – these are all valuable skills that came from an unlikely place. Having gained this knowledge is simply one more reason I’m thankful to have studied theatre. I’ve said it before, but it’s true – theatre grads can be very well-rounded in their skill sets. It’s a shame that the trend today is towards extreme specialization… in fact, I view it as a curse upon theatre artistry in general. All artists should be cross-trained, because divine inspiration comes from the most unlikely places.

These lessons are universally useful across professional and personal situations, and I think you’ll find them applicable to your own life as well – even if you’re not doing anything more than viewing your own life a little more objectively. It’s difficult sometimes, I know.

Up next in this mini-series, things I’ve learned from Technical Theatre! This is gonna be a difficult one to distill into four topics… but here goes nothing!

Holler back in the comments if you’ve got more to add to this series of “great things I learned from theatre” – involving Stage Management or not! Still trying to figure out comments, I’m sorry. 🙁