By: Sarah Altman
Sarah Altman here, I am an early career professional stage manager and I am posting on Chels' blog to talk about a situation I recently found myself in and how I handled in. I could have never done what I did without the help of an older colleague, so I figured I'd share the experience/ story here to maybe help someone else in a similar scenario in the future.
So first, a little background: I am the production stage manager for a show in NYC, name and venue are irrelevant to the story. But I am a team of one with 10 actors, the director and the playwright-- one of the smaller companies I've worked with, but just as good as any! We are going into tech next week and it was time to go see the space we were performing in, I was so excited and the place turned out to be a quaint little theatre in the East Village! As we were seeing the space with the theatre manager I was asking a bunch of questions about tech operations, as that was all on me to my knowledge. In the contract "tech operations" included operating the lights, sound and projections. Totally fine, I've worked on shows where SM's operate the boards, no problem at all!
However, the next question I asked made a red flag pop up. I asked who was programming the lights. We are working from a rep plot in the theatre, there is no designer so the question was important to ask in my opinion. The answer was "you are" and naturally my immediate response was "great I'll read up on it, let me go ask what kind of board it is"-- that was the right answer in the moment, and I thought that was the end of that. I reached out to lighting designers and electricians that I knew to see if they had any advice for me as I have never programmed before. I was on my way!
For the next few days I was really stressing out, seeking help outside of the rehearsal room and drowning myself in the ETC Express manual. To say it was confusing to make sense of a language that I have never explored before is an understatement, but I wanted to do right by the show and company. If that meant learning how to program (which is a skill I've actually always wanted to learn), then so be it. I went to have coffee with a former stage manager that I was connected with at USITT (KEEP YOUR CONNECTIONS... ALWAYS) and we were just talking about where I was at and what I was doing; I told her about what was going on and she came to a halting stop. Her immediate response was "that's not the job of a stage manager" to which I was thought and was like, "yeah I guess you're right." I wasn't sure how to advocate for myself though, my mentality has always been that I'm going to to whatever I can for the production; sometimes that has its limits.
I simply took a step back, looked at the equity showcase code I was working under and got my footing. After seeing in the rulebook that it was indeed not within my prevue I talked to our equity deputy to get advice, luckily the deputy also happened to be a friend of mine. We formulated questions and possible solutions for this specific scenario, and moving forward I spoke with the director and playwright regarding this issue. I simply said something along the lines of, "I am happy to do what is needed for the production and I want to do right by the company, however this is not in my prevue as a stage manager and according to the showcase code we are working under it is not in my wheelhouse. I have never worked on a show where the stage manager was in charge of programming lights or sound". Other words were exchanged, negotiations, all civil-- just a dialogue. We went back and forth for a little bit ultimately ending with the conclusion that we were going to try and find another technician, but it would take time and was up in the air.
Conversations are now under way, and it looks as though (as of right now, knock on wood) I will not be doing any programming. I can not stress enough the importance of standing up for and advocating for yourself! Especially as a young artist trying to get your footing wherever you are, I know and understand the concerns about wanting to do everything and wanting everyone to like you and wanting to leave a good impression... the list goes on and on, but that doesn't mean you should undermine your abilities and worth-- you are just as important to the production as anyone else and if you are not working with 100% of your energy towards what you were hired to do: take a step back, take a breath, think about where you're at, what you're doing, and how to effectively and efficiently move forward.
Here are just some tips for any young career professionals who might find themselves in a situation like mine/ similar to mine:
1) Know your rights. Always know the contract you're working under-- know what is in your jurisdictions and not.
2) Ask questions!!! I cannot stress this enough, if you are unsure of something whether it be if you don't know where someone enters from or if you need something explained again... ask and DON'T apologize for needing clarification. Questions are so important, and there is never a dumb question.
3) Don't beat around the bush. Try to leave words like "just" and "like" out of your vocabulary in a work setting. You're not just clarifying... you ARE clarifying. And yes, it can be tricky to word properly, but you can do it!
4) Don't be afraid to say no. I know as an early career professional it's a yes-mentality. You want to get out there an hone your craft in any way possible, but know your worth. It's easy to get swept up in the thrill of those first few job offers post-grad. I cannot stress this enough: don't work for free-- you're better than that. You might think things like "oh well I'm a young artist, that's how it goes" or "at least I have a job in my field, I should be thankful for that" and while you should be thankful to be working in your desired field, don't sell yourself short... you are a professional artist.
5) Stand up for yourself. If you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable or you feel like you're doing something that is not outlined in your contract or agreement, SAY SOMETHING! Of course, you need to find the right time and platform to speak up. Obviously don't do it with your colleagues all sitting around you, but find the right way to go about it in any given situation.
6) Take action if something seems fishy. Odds are if something seems a little off to you it probably is, check with colleagues and peers and get their opinions before jumping to any conclusions... but check it out if your curious.
7) Start a dialogue. People aren't mind readers, a lot of the time everyone is not even aware that something might be wrong or misconstrued. All it takes is a simple, "hey can we please touch base about xyz? I want to make sure I understand this fully." Having an open dialogue is a main key to a successful collaborator!
Thanks for reading (and thanks for letting me post Chels!) If you would like to follow me and my projects/ endeavors as a stage manager check out my website smsarahaltman.com or shoot me an email at email@example.com :)