THE UNNOTICED STARS of the show wear all black and remain in shadows. Stage managers serve as timekeepers, surrogate directors, and confidants of the company: from chorus to leading player. They have the power to make a show work.

Samantha Watson, a freelance stage manager, gives off a friendly and gracious air in her current office at the Laura Pels Theatre, operated by the Roundabout Theatre Company. “I’ll try to say something intelligent for your article,” she smirks, as she juggles the evening’s production duties. Watson recently served as the production stage manager of Broadway’s Significant Other under the direction of Trip Cullman. At the time of this interview, she was working on The Last Match, a sports-themed drama by Anna Ziegler.

The Last Match is a complex play with tremendously tricky cues to call, punctuated by more than 300 precise hits of a tennis racket. Stage managers must keep track of and prompt — that is, “call” — all cues for crew members, as designed by the production team during technical rehearsals. The SM calls three different kinds of cues: the warning (given about a minute before the cue), the standby (given in the seconds leading up to the cue), and the go (given the precise moment the cue must be executed). Calling The Last Match properly is “like the same thing as watching a musical theatre conductor conduct an orchestra,” Watson says. “You have to be almost like a performer in the show in order to call it.”


According to Actors’ Equity Association, in addition to calling a show, a stage manager schedules rehearsals, keeps attendance records, ensures discipline and timekeeping in accordance with Equity regulations, assembles and manages the promptbook (a record of the blocking, properties tracking, and special technical notes), maintains the artistic intentions of the director and producer, and runs understudy rehearsals. Equity is careful to point out that these duties vary with each production.

Stage managers are the only theatre professionals other than actors who can join Equity, which underscores the deep relationship this position keeps with performers. AEA requires musicals on Broadway to employ at least three stage managers, two for straight plays. Often, productions will bring on even more members to the stage management team, especially production assistants, many of whom wrap their work on opening night or continue as substitute stage managers when necessary. The production stage manager oversees and typically hires their entire team.

As PSM, Watson works with a stage manager and a production assistant on The Last Match. These terms can be tricky to nail down, and their definitions often change according to the needs of the production and team. Jobs performed under these contracted titles are dynamic ones. This antithesis to the 9-to-5 job is what attracts many people to the field.

Lizzy Lee, PSM for Ars Nova’s massive Off-Broadway spectacle KPOP, says of her job, “I’m still trying to figure out what it is. And that’s the beauty of it. It always changes and grows with the gaps in the production to make it the best it can be.” She sees her role as a problem-solver, looking at elements of production in terms of “what they are and what they can be.” Beverly Jenkins, PSM for Broadway’s A Bronx Tale, defines it more simply: “I am here to make it work.”

Samantha Watson in her office.
Samantha Watson in her office at the Laura Pels Theatre. Photo by Keith Paul Medelis.


This make-it-work attitude was instilled in Jenkins starting with her freshman year at Howard University in 1982, when she worked on a production of The Wiz. Like all eager freshmen, she auditioned, but having no dance training, she wasn’t cast. That’s when her mentor thought, “She’s my smart one, let’s have her stage manage.” In her first production meeting, she gained a deep appreciation for the profession. “That’s where I discovered that theatre happened not on stage but backstage,” Jenkins says.

When hiring her team, Jenkins looks for someone she would take to dinner. “You are going to be spending a lot of time with these people. I need someone I can break bread with.” She adds that she doesn’t like Broadway zealots and star-gushers. “This is a business, not a fallback. You’re here to work.”

Work is something very familiar to stage managers, who are often the first people in the theatre and the last to turn off the lights and lock the doors. Indeed, they not infrequently roam their offices into the wee hours of the night and come in on days off to catch up. That said, stage management offers some of the most reliable and stable work in performing arts. In a 2015 survey by University of Iowa, 32 percent of stage managers nationwide reported that every bit of their income comes from stage managing, and 18 percent said that more than 75 percent of their income comes from this work, including well-paid (and often lower commitment) special events management and trade shows.

Watson is one those full-timers. After receiving her M.F.A. in stage management at University of California San Diego, she worked on everything from tours to Broadway to regional theatre, specifically La Jolla Playhouse. But master’s degrees like Watson’s are not the norm. Thirty percent of stage managers have a general B.A. in theatre, 16 percent have a B.F.A. in stage management, and 13 percent have no formal stage management training. Only 10 percent have a graduate degree in stage management.

Lee transitioned from a pre-med track at Kenyon College without really knowing what stage management meant. With an ironic smile, she recalls that it sounded like “so much fun” to add the theatre to her life while taking the MCAT.

It didn’t take long for her to commit her career track to stage management, and she soon found her way to an internship with Actors Theatre of Louisville. Lee then worked as a production assistant for three years, and in her fourth and final season at Louisville, she was offered her Equity card. A hub for new work creation with its Humana Festival of New American Plays, ATL is where Lee developed a love for new works that she carried with her to New York. She has since served in crucial stage management roles for the national tour of FlashdanceSpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway, and Ars Nova’s The Wildness.

Samantha Watson and Kyle Largent discuss promptbook notes.
Samantha Watson and Kyle Largent discuss promptbook notes. Photo courtesy of Kyle Largent.


Internships, both paid and unpaid, often serve as on-ramps to a stage management career track. Other production managers start out as production assistants at places likes Williamstown Theatre Festival, which annually gathers top-tier theatrical talent for a working vacation in the woods.

While attending North Carolina School for the Arts, John Ferry, PSM of the Off-Broadway immersive production of Sweeney Todd at Barrow Street Theatre, worked summers at Williamstown. In 2006, after finishing a Sunday matinee, Ferry moved to New York City and began working as a show stage manager for the New York Musical Theatre Festival on Monday morning. “I’m fortunate to have never really looked for a job since,” says Ferry. He points to the connections he made at Williamstown for this success.

Kyle Largent, who has served as Jenkins’ production assistant, is learning to make these connections. Largent graduated from Northwestern University in 2016. During his time there, his passion and work ethic led him to take on PSM responsibilities throughout the undergraduate theatre department, while seeking outside internship work in exchange for class credit. He got contact information for the PSM of Amazing Grace during its out-of-town tryout in Chicago and blindly emailed him, asking for a stage management internship. He got it, and that production compelled Largent to pursue more professional opportunities. Like Ferry, Largent also worked in Williamstown, allowing him to make connections essential to moving forward.

“I went online and I researched all of the stage managers’ names for all of the shows running on Broadway. I went to Staples, printed out a bunch of copies of my résumé and handwrote letters to each PSM, requesting anything from a job to a coffee meetup.” He then followed up with each stage manager and eventually started getting regular gigs. Largent says, “In the theatre, everything is personal, and everything is networking. You might think it’s just two friends getting drinks, but you also might need to be hired by them at some point.”

“Lots of people can go to school for stage management or be a stage manager, but if you want to work in the industry you have to know what’s going on,” Jenkins told Largent. “You have to be able to catch the reference when someone says, while holding up a scale rule in rehearsal, ‘At last, my arm is complete’” — just as Sweeney Todd does while holding a silver razor. “I’m still very much working on that.”

“I have hired a lot of stage managers for a lot of shows, and I don’t care about their previous experience and qualifications as much as I do about how willing and how excited they are to get to work,” Ferry says. “The people I end up taking with me are not the most educated nor the most talented, they are the hardest workers and the most pleasant to be around. You have to have people people.”


Production stage managers take on a director’s role in understudy rehearsals. Once the show premieres, rehearsals with the stage director come to an end, and the PSM must maintain that work. They also must monitor the cast to anticipate issues that may affect a performance or even require an understudy.

Ferry, who recently stage managed Randy Weiner’s bacchanalian circus Queen of the Night, understands how essential it is to keep a finger on the pulse of the cast. The circus performers in Queen of the Night are sometimes the only ones in the world who can perform their particular feats. And they often get injured. If they are nursing an injury with ice pack, Ferry knows he will have to reorganize the show — with Weiner’s original intent in mind.

As the cast of The Last Match arrives for their half-hour call, Samantha Watson is sure to check in with each person. She looks for subtle hints of fatigue or emotional distraction that might affect those 300 plus cues.

“You have all of these people in tech and rehearsals and previews — then, opening night, everyone is gone. I am the through-line. I was there from the very first day to closing. I am the one who has experienced everything the actors have experienced. I was there for that funny moment in rehearsal or that day in tech that was really hard. I want people to be happy and to be able to talk to me,” Watson says.

In the booth, high above the Laura Pels Theatre, Watson quietly commands this massive operation. Her eyes constantly scan the stage, the page, the time, and — at the occasional pause — a brief text message. From the booth side of the stage comes a constant barrage of, “Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.” From the house, it all appears seamless.

When asked if she ever gets nervous, Watson says she does but never shows these nerves. As the epicenter of the play, such tensions could easily trickle down through both cast and crew. She upholds the cardinal virtue of stage management: grace under fire.

“You have to have a lot of self-fulfillment to do this job. We don’t get a curtain call every night. You have to be satisfied with your work and know that what you are doing is integral to the production. If everyone isn’t doing his or her bit, it doesn’t work,” she says. “It’s not about you. It’s about the show.”

This story appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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