Season Planning for Stage Managers

One of the biggest challenges I face as a freelance stage manager is putting together a season of work. When I say season I really mean three different things: first, I mean enough shows to keep me busy from Sept-June (acknowledging that Vancouver’s summer theatre scene is sparse at best); second, I mean work that will pay my bills year-round (which means more than enough to live on, since I need to save for that work-free summer); and third, I mean a semi-cohesive mix of shows that is artistically fulfilling with collaborators I enjoying creating alongside. It’s a tall order, so where do I start?

I start from my relationships – relationships with directors, artistic directors, production managers, general managers, actors, and playwrights. I have a very short list of people who I will ALWAYS say yes to working with, regardless of the project. And that shortlist is always who I approach first when I’m starting to put a season together: does their company have a spot for me? Are they working on any as-yet-unstaffed freelance gigs that they could put my name forward on? Can they introduce me to the company producing the premiere of their new script? Many years these conversations do not lead to anything. Or at least nothing for that year, but often they have led to long-term collaborations with many projects in years to come.

Sean & I inadvertently dressed as twins during rehearsal for Except in the Unlikely Event of War.

Sean & I inadvertently dressed as twins during rehearsal for Except in the Unlikely Event of War.

Sidebar: I first met one of my most frequent collaborators (playwright/producer/actor/occasional director Sean Devine) in an elevator where I mistook him for someone else and made a total fool of myself. I have now done six projects with him and often get texts from him that say things like, “I’ve had an idea! I’m going to apply to Canada Council to do [insert crazy idea here]! Can I list you as a collaborator on the grant? This project would be four years from now.” And my answer is always the same: “That sounds really cool. Go ahead and use my name – we’ll sort out the logistics when we get that far.” Not all of these ideas come to fruition but I really like working with Sean even when I get stressed out and will continue saying yes if only to see what he dreams up next. (Congrats Sean on your nomination as the federal NDP candidate for your riding. We’ll make more art sometime after the election.)

I also like to think about my ideal season. There’s always the dream of a stress-free, artistically-fulflling, well-paid resident position but since that is not a reality for most people my ideal season comes from a more realistic place. It includes:

  • One or Two fringe/other festival shows on a profit share/Equity collectives (if they’re out of town accommodation must be provided and airfare must be affordable/covered/on points): These are usually passion projects where I’m doing them because of the people more than anything else.
  • One or two workshops of one or two weeks – easy to fit into the schedule and make a little bit of extra money while getting to sit in on the ground floor of the creation process where the SM gets to partially act as a dramaturg (in situations where I have a strong existing relationship with both the playwright and director and that sort of artistic input is welcomed in the room. That would not always be the case).
  • No more than one Indie 2.1 contract (In Canada the Indie 2.1 is an Equity contract that only requires the company to pay you half of the weekly fee with the other half deferred against profits. And I have never gotten anything more than the original amount on one of these shows. So for $290-$325/week you are expected to be doing 48 hours of work. That’s only $6/hr.) These shows, while financially inadvisable are often very artistically satisfying and the ones I agree to are always with artists that I really want to work with. Working with people I like is the only reason to do an Indie 2.1 contract.
  • Four to Six CTA/ITA/Guest Artist Contracts. These are the bread and butter of a season. They are still scaled by company size so a 100 seat theatre playing five shows a week isn’t going to pay as much as a 300 seat theatre playing eight times a week etc)

Looking at my past seasons, an average year has about 10 projects. My 2013-2014 & 2014-2015 seasons broke down by contract like this:

Screenshot 2015-08-19 11.27.27Screenshot 2015-08-23 10.53.58

(The purple “other” work in 2013/2014 was a combination of a paid mentorship & a marketing position, filling the gap for a tour that was unfortunately cancelled. It wasn’t full-time, but it was something – had I not found it to fill that gap it would have doubled my weeks of unemployment from eight to 16.)

France Perras in The List, a one-woman play by a Quebecois playwright in English translation. Photo by Tim Matheson.

France Perras in The List, a one-woman play by a Quebecois playwright in English translation. Photo by Tim Matheson.

My ideal season is also a variety of genres of shows: new plays, revivals of modern texts, Shakespeare & other classics, musicals, comedies, operas, physical theatre, devised theatre, puppetry, comedies, dance, tragedies, and every combination therein. For example, 2013-2014 saw a new drama, a new opera, a new circus, a revival of a British modern drama, a new political dramedy, a devised physical theatre piece, a revival of a modern Canadian play, a revival of a modern American play, and a new dance workshop. 2014-2015 saw a new Canadian musical, a new Canadian play with music, two revivals of French-Canadian plays in English translation, a remount of a devised physical theatre piece, a workshop of an adaptation of a Canadian play, a new Canadian political comedy, a remount of a Canadian political drama, and a revival of an American existential comedy. Every year is a different mix, but I know that if all I did was one type of theatre all year I would get just as bored as if all I ate all year was pizza. Pizza’s good, but its better when I haven’t eaten it every single day.

But back to the nuts and bolts: relying on one’s friends to get a job is not a way to build a full season. It’s a good way to book one or two jobs every couple of years, but to build a season requires CONSTANT VIGILANCE  and job hunting skills. In my earliest years of doing this, that meant sending out more than 30 envelopes with resumes, cover letters, references and a headshot (much like an actor would) in the hopes of connecting with producers and making sure they knew that I was looking. Now it is emails that I send – partly because of the environmental implications of sending that much paper, and partly because I now have a relationship with most of theese people and don’t need to be quite as formal in my approach. The more I work, the easier it is to become complacent about job hunting – people now seek me out for work, other people hand out my name, and I have less and less legwork required each season. But for every time that my names gets passed along, there is another situation where a producer says to me, “Oh! I didn’t realize you were still based here/still in town/not already working on another project during those dates. We would have loved to have you on this project!” I’m subscribed to CAEA’s EDrive which posts auditions, SM jobs, other theatre jobs and notices of interest to the theatre community. It’s totally free and easy to sign up for: http://www.caea.com/EquityWeb/OnTheBoards/default.aspx

Other places to watch for job postings include:
– Craigslist (People always say this is a dumb place to look, and sure there are some terrible gigs posted there, but I have also done some gigs that I found on Craigslist that were really wonderful and that had great people involved. Just be smart & do your research)
– Local theatre alliances (In Vancouver the GVPTA & Alliance for Arts & Culture both share job postings either through newsletters or on a job board. Find their websites and read what they post)
– Facebook & Twitter (Social Media is becoming more and more a part of the job hunt. I got my first job based on a twitter conversation six years ago and it has since become common practise for companies to advertise through these means for someone who is turning down a gig to crowd source names to suggest through these means. Because of this when I joined Equity I created a FB group focused on non-equity SMs in Vancouver so that I would be able to pass along postings I could no longer accept)

Part of building your own season is being aware of the seasons that companies are producing. Do your research. Be connected & informed. Take the onus on yourself to watch for season announcements and look at them to see what gets you excited and then pursue those shows. It’s always more fun to work on a show you are excited about. Building a season that pays enough to live on each year is a success in and of itself. Building a season that you are artistically proud of and enjoy for the duration is an art form all its own that takes time to figure out. The most important thing is to find a balance that works for you.

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About Lois

I am a Vancouver-based Stage Manager and frequent theatre goer. After graduating from Trinity Western University I spent two seasons as the resident stage manager at Pacific Theatre. Now I am working as a freelancer with various companies in Vancouver.

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