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5 things you don’t know about… stage management

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When she decided to come back to Malaysia after nine years in the U.S.A. Melissa Teoh assumed she’d have to give up stage management. “I didn’t think I’d find work in the theatre here.” She’d had no experience in the local scene prior to leaving for the US and very little knowledge about the industry upon returning.

However, as fate would have it, she met the Dama Orchestra team (now knows as Dama Asia Productions) through a neighbour so began her work in Malaysian theatre.

Since then, Melissa’s career has been stellar. She has overseen large-scale performances and events in Malaysia and Singapore. She has headed the team for original works in Malaysia and travelled to China, Taiwan, Japan and Australia.

All this required a steep learning curve – there are quite a few differences between stage management and production here and in most western countries. Here are some of them.

1. There, there are universal processes

Here a lot of stage managers have, out of necessity, developed their own systems. Often it works well in that company, but it means there’s an unnecessary learning curve each time you bring someone new on board. In western countries, knowledge has been shared and built upon for decades so there are best practices for everything, “including rolling cables”, Melissa says. These processes improve efficiency, safety and communication. They also reduce opportunity for error.

When the team, directors and actors are receptive, Melissa shares the techniques and processes she has learned. In many other cases, she has to adapt to very different ways of working. “I do not adopt everything I’ve learnt abroad because I feel there is a necessity to understand how things work within our own culture. For me, it is adapting and finding the best practices. And often I’ve found new systems here that work better.”

2.  There, it’s a recognized career

Overseas there are degree courses in stage management. And while, like in Malaysia, it is possible to be a self-taught manager, there even this is made easier because standardized practices ensure that wherever you work, you are working from the same book as everyone else.

There, stage managers are also paid like the professionals they are. In the U.K., for instance, a starter salary for a stage manager is about the same as clerks and book-keepers, while highly-experienced stage managers can make as much as dentists, judges and architects.*

3.  There, the stage manager makes all the calls

Here, there could be one person cueing lights, another sound, another for actors. “Often the lighting or sound designer is actually hired on as operator,” says Melissa.

There are a few reasons for this. A new stage manager may not be entrusted with the duty to avoid error; or a director may simply prefer for the designer to run the show. The designer might even be available to operate and that would be seen as a better option due to their familiarity.

However, when designers are also operators, they may be less receptive to getting cues from someone else, because they have a ‘feel’ for when things should happen.

4.  There, they are unionized

Organizations such as the Actor’s Equity Association (US), Stage Management Association (UK), and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees provide a strong, united voice to ensure stage managers are treated fairly.

These associations intercede when members are unpaid, underpaid or asked to work in unsafe conditions. They publish guidelines which include what falls and doesn’t fall under a stage manager’s responsibilities. Some offer mentorship programs, training and career advice.

Melissa clarifies that, “This is not to say that with a governing body we would be in a better place. There are artists who choose not to be part of a union for other reasons.” She does believe that having an unofficial SOP amongst practitioners will aid in creating a better working environment for all.

5.  There, stage managers are brought in at the beginning

Here, stage managers are often a last-minute addition to the company. They are only brought in after most decisions have been made – which means they are more enforcers than partners.

There, a stage manager’s value to the entire production is recognized and they are involved and consulted from the start. Bringing in the stage manager as part of the initial team ensures smoother operations from first meeting to final curtain. 

That’s what’s different. So what is the same?

Wherever they are, Melissa says, “our job as a stage manager is not only to realize the director’s vision, but to also maintain good morale within the company.”

The bulk of their work is handling people, so what Melissa looks for in an ideal crew here is the same as there. “I look for people who are independent, proactive and quick. They also need to have initiative and a sense of humour.”

Back by popular demand, Melissa Teoh will be teaching a Stage Management Workshop on 10 March, 2017. Tickets are RM35 and RM20 (students). There are only a few spaces left so sign up today.



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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.