A Backstage History: Reflections on Stage Management and Gendered Labor

By Rachael Nuckles

Before I devoted my life to full-time graduate school and academics, I was working hands-on in the world of technical theater as a stage manager and designer. It’s a world I hope to get back to after obtaining my degree, though maybe in a different capacity than before. Stage management often requires a considerable amount of emotional energy that isn’t always part of the job description. Sometimes taking care of yourself means taking a step back from something you love to focus on your health and wellbeing. For me, a break from stage management was certainly necessary in order to sleep more regularly, eat a little better, and prioritize my own emotions.

The American Association of Community Theater describes stage managers as people who “typically provide practical and organizational support to the director, actors, designers, stage crew and technicians throughout the production process. They also are the director’s representative during performances, making sure that the production runs smoothly.” [1] Recently, I endeavored to write a talk for an assignment about gender and stage management. In writing this talk I discovered two major considerations: first, there is very little written (at least that I can find) about the history of stage management. There are manuals and archival documents from which we might write a more legitimate history of the role and mentions within larger histories about technical theater more generally. We can also see mentions of stage managers in plays, sometimes under different terms. For instance, the word “prompter” is thought to define the closest role during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in several of his works we can find reference to them. [2]

The second discovery I made, perhaps from my own experience on the job, is that stage management is a highly gendered position. The League of Professional Theater Women conducted a study from 2013-2018 which revealed that the only two technical theater positions dominated by women were stage managers and costume designers. These results were compiled after surveying thirteen different artistic categories (job positions) at twenty-two off-broadway theaters. For the 5 year period, women comprised approximately 72% of all costume design positions and 70% of all stage management positions. Every other category placed women significantly under the 50% mark, meaning that the positions were male dominated. [3] This is a fairly recent study, so it’s likely that numbers have not changed too much.

If there’s little on stage management history, there’s even less on women’s history in the position. One manual written by Larry Fazio notes that women in the U.S. were not given opportunities as stage managers until after World War II. [4] Although, one stage manager historian has discovered several instances of women stage managing much earlier. Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier, whose brief blog post on women’s history in stage management is some of the only I have been able to uncover, describes women working as stage managers, prompters, or equivalents as early as 1754. [5] Fazio’s manual notes that after World War II, women stage managers were able to obtain jobs on Broadway and other equivalents. This is necessary to note due to the prestige associated with such institutions and the fact that most remain male dominated spaces. Other than the occasional factoid such as this, I have found looking for women’s experiences with stage management are difficult to locate.

Because there is so little written, I want to speculate on why stage management is one of two female dominated positions in technical theater. Modern stage management requires a nurturing, gentle persona, traits traditionally associated with femininity. Besides impeccable note taking ability and more administrative duties, I find that the caregiving requirement can dominate the day-to-day work of the stage manager. I want to borrow a definition of caregiving from Jessica Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight. She notes that caregiving involves an “array of activities and relationships involved in maintaining people both on a daily basis and intergenerationally.”[6]  The stage manager, quite literally the manager of all people involved in a production, maintains relationships of all kinds in order to make the process of putting on a show as smooth as possible. 

With this in mind, I wonder if we might consider stage management within the history of other, similar roles. Perhaps…the secretary? Annalyn Kurtz, an editor at CNNBusiness, writes that in 1950, the secretary became the most popular job among women. [7] It can’t be a coincidence that women stage managers also began to dominate in this decade. Furthermore, secretary and administrative professional positions have evolved to handle many of the same management duties as stage managers: running meetings, managing projects, composing correspondence.[8] While these connections between stage management and secretarial history have not necessarily been analyzed in any academic text, I think uncovering the relationship between secretary and stage manager will prove crucial to understanding our modern day gender disparities in technical theater positions. 

Going forward, I have two questions. First, did women become stage managers because the job required “feminine” qualifiers? Or, did the position become gendered once women began to dominate? As I continue my work as a student, before I get back to tech work, I hope I can get closer to an answer. Emotional labor, as found in stage management and other secretarial positions, can take a toll both mentally and physically and affect one’s overall health. This type of work has been disproportionately filled by women, as evidenced by our current health crisis and the labor of other professional women caregivers such as doctors and nurses. In fact, women make up 70% of health and social workforces globally. [9] As we continue to navigate uncharted waters, I urge you to thank your caregivers from stage managers to doctors regardless of gender. They all perform a thankless job which is crucial to our world’s overall health and wellbeing.

Endnotes:

[1] “Stage Manager.” American Association of Community Theater. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://aact.org/stage-manager.

[2] For some further reading on production during Shakespeare’s time, I’d like to recommend Stern, Tiffany. Making Shakespeare: from Stage to Print. London: Routledge, 2004. One of my favorite (and perhaps more recognizable) examples of the prompter appearing in Shakespeare’s work is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play-within-a-play.

[3] Trujillo, Jackie. “A Look at the Theatre Industry’s Backstage Gender Gap.” New York Minute Magazine, December 20, 2018. 

[4] Fazio, Larry. Stage Management: the Professional Experience. Boston, MA: Focal Press, 2000. 5.

[5] Sears Scheier, Jennifer Leigh. “Women in Stage Management: Revolutionizing History with Inclusion.” Stage Directions, December 19, 2017. https://stage-directions.com/all/theatre-blogs/sm-history/women-in-stage-management-revolutionizing-history-with-inclusion/.

[6] Wilkerson, Jessica. To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. 5.

[7] Kurtz, Annalyn. “Why Secretary Is Still the Top Job for Women.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, January 31, 2013. https://money.cnn.com/2013/01/31/news/economy/secretary-women-jobs/.

[8] Eagle, Amy. “A Job Once Filled by Men Became a Pink Profession.” chicagotribune.com. Chicago Tribune, August 23, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-04-26-0604260160-story.html.

[9] United Nations Population Fund. “COVID-19: A Gender Lens.” United Nations, March 2020. https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/COVID-19_A_Gender_Lens_Guidance_Note.pdf.

Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and participation in subcultures, activist media technologies, and performance studies.

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