How To Become a Stage Manager
Stage Managers work behind-the-scenes to bring productions to life. They coordinate the logistics of performances, communicating with Artists and Directors to make sure their audio, lighting, and visibility needs are met.
Kelly Kerins of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra describes his job as doing a lot of “advance work. Correspondence between the Music Director and Guest Conductors about setups for different pieces, talking to Principals of each section about their needs.”
He then conveys this info to the Stagehands, who then put together the requested setups. A Stagehand by trade himself, he can sometimes be found “working with the crew in the moment when I need to, but I’m mostly behind my desk,” scheduling required labor and crew members after attending production meetings.
He’s either “working on the week coming up or onstage with the guys,” who are “doing things per my direction.” When he’s on stage he’s helping “set chorus risers, set recording mics,” setting up the “red carpet and photo walls for opening night, all before 7 pm. This place never stops. It’s the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest.”
He says, “nobody really knows how intricate the stage is. Every section has different needs. Different Conductors have different preferences as to where to set the strings.” The job involves making “big stage changes in front of an audience,” and using skills like Auto CAD and figuring out dimensions.
The Stage Manager also helps coordinate the logistics of transportation, shipping, and customs when the orchestra, opera, etc. by which they’re employed goes on tour. Kerins says he travels with the orchestra, supervising and helping out with moving the symphony’s cargo onto trucks and into venues, making different pieces work on different stages.
Stage Managers work with Stagehands, Music Directors, Conductors, and Section Members.
The average yearly earnings for a Stage Manager are approximately $54,000. Stage Manager salaries can range from $29,000 to $67,000.
Stage Managers can be paid hourly, by contract, or through a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the union, IATSE. These agreements expire every 3-5 years and then a new one has to be negotiated.
Kerins says, “they spend their whole lives working. When you go to bed at night, they’re working. When you brush your teeth in the morning, they’re working. They’re continuously trying to start one [production] while finishing another one.”
“It’s a challenging business,” he says, but “they’re an amazing bunch.” In show business, he says “we’re like a weird cult” because “you have to put work first.” To make all this happen, Stage Managers work with Stagehands, Music Directors, Conductors, and Musicians.
The schedule is intense. Stage crew can be “unloading a truck in the middle of the night. Your fingers are bloody. Your knees hurt.” Often, especially when the orchestra is on tour, the stage crew will have to load in equipment and gear at 6 am for a 10 am rehearsal, sometimes after a late night.
“Some days are eight hours, some days sixteen hours. Sometimes everyone is here all day long or some are in during the day and others at night.” The “hours are not consistent in any way,” sometimes ranging “between 40-60 to 80 hours a week and sometimes even more. It’s a tough business, but it’s what you know so you just roll with it.”
The Stage Manager is the head of the stage crew, so advancement in this position would mean getting hired by a more prestigious venue or receiving a boost in wages.
Kerins’ path started as a Stagehand in high school and college, followed by an apprenticeship. He then got his journeyman’s card, working operas, musical theatre, industrial shows, and outdoor rock ‘n’ roll events. He worked for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a Stagehand for many years before becoming the Stage Manager.
He suggests that the best way to get a job is to major in theatre tech and to reach out to the industry afterward because “it shows you’re serious about the business. Learn the trade and then reach out with credentials.” The Stagehands’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) can be helpful in this search.
- Major in theatre tech in college
- Work on developing technical as well as people skills. You “need to understand the technical end like how to build a platform or rearrange a setup.”
Experience & Skills
Kerins cautions that he “wouldn’t advise people to think that they’ll become a Stage Manager by becoming a Stagehand,” although he himself is a Stagehand by trade and the two positions certainly do share some overlap.
For many, work as a Stagehand is a family tradition, and they start learning the necessary skills as teenagers by helping out on projects that their fathers and grandfathers are working on and that need extra help. To become a Stagehand, one must serve an apprenticeship, earn all the required certifications and take a written test.
Many began as “theatre techs in college, with fathers or grandfathers in the business” and “started in small theatres or houses, then they reach out to the unions” to find work. “If it’s meant to be, it’s where you go,” he says.
An apprenticeship gives an aspiring Stagehand all the foundational knowledge of the trade. “It’s not like the building trades where it’s specific to one” skill set such as welding, he says.
“Some of my guys are really good electricians, some are excellent audio men. Everybody knows a little bit about everything because it all has to be done in a certain amount of time” because the scale and the fast pace of “productions demand the continuity of the people who facilitate them.” So a broad skill base in areas such as lighting, rigging, carpentry, and audio, etc. is a must.
“People skills by far,” are the most important skills for a Stage Manager to have, however. A Stage Manager has to be able to take different “types of personalities and manage your job through it. We’re right there, front and center, with high-level performers” who can have varying needs and temperaments. “The artists have to deal with us, too,” he says.
The type of person who would make a good Stage Manager is “a Stagehand in the trade who’s able to learn how to do advance work,” learning through “trial and error, hard work, and who can overcome any fear of failure.” Kerins says, “it’s not an artistic profession by any means. It’s industrial and mechanical but you have to have the finesse” to pull off a large-scale artistic performance.
Stage Managers and Stagehands have to “be kind of wound,” he says. “They can’t really be laid back” because of the demands of the profession. “You have to be assertive but you can’t be mean-spirited. You have to treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Education & Training
“Stage Managers of major American symphonies are tech-based rather than musical-based,” Kerins says, so a deep knowledge of music isn’t necessary, although some Stage Managers in the opera world do read music. He adds that his “liberal arts degree really helped me as a Stage Manager because it taught me how to write” and project a professional appearance when corresponding via email, etc.
He advises that aspiring Stage Managers “go to college and major in theatre tech,” especially because “at college, you get all the necessary certifications.” For example, to build scaffolding, stage crew must have a working knowledge and experience in the process, which they prove through a scaffolding certification.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is the best resource for Stagehands and Stage Managers. It provides support, community, and can help find jobs. If an orchestra, for example, already has ten Stagehands on staff and they need more for a production, the Stage Manager can reach out to the union and they’ll send over more workers.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Go to college and major in theatre tech.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
They underestimate the sacrifice in one’s personal life that the job requires. “Forget about weekends and holidays. You can think you’ll be off at 6 pm and you don’t leave until 12 am because production isn’t going the way it should.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
People often ask if opening night is going to be fun for the Stage Manager. “Fun is never in your mind,” Kerins says. After all, this is work—hard work. “You can never live in the moment because you’re always in the next moment. You’ve moved on. People ask me what I do and it’s hard to answer unless you’re in the business.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Attention to detail. I never overestimate myself. I don’t take anything for granted. No detail is to mundane.”
Kelly Kerins is the former Stage Manager of the world-famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A Stagehand by trade, he worked as the symphony’s Stage Manager for twenty years, managing thirty-five tours and traveling nearly everywhere in the world. He also served as the President of IATSE Local 2.