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There are two ways to become a stage manager, and each has distinct advantages as well as drawbacks. One way is to learn by doing, working your way through the theater ranks as an intern. The other way is to go to college and receive a degree in theater while also getting practical experience. In both cases, you should plan on a lot of long hours and hard work.
The stage manager is a crucial member of the team in a theatrical production. He or she supervises the backstage crew while also ensuring that the needs of the cast are met. A good stage manager keeps things running so smoothly that most people aren't even aware of what he or she is doing, and this person is prepared to deal with a wide range of situations, from an actor who is missing in action to a damaged light board. Stage managers need to be flexible, quick thinkers, and a good one can command a very high salary for his or her services.
The most important thing to ask when you are considering a career in stage management is whether or not the career is right for you. Stage managers work very hard, and the job is often extremely stressful. They must be able to deal with a wide range of personalities and situations with calm, and they must be willing to do any job, no matter how menial it seems. Even the best stage managers mop a stage now and then, or drop off someone's dry cleaning. People who are firm but polite and extremely organized, while being levelheaded and quick on their feet, tend to do well as stage managers, while people with fiery personalities and a lack of organization may not do so well.
Traditionally, stage managers have learned through apprenticeship, often starting young. The advantage of an apprenticeship is that it allows a person to learn every aspect of backstage work; a good stage manager is capable of operating a light board, handling sets, dealing with the production's sound, managing props, and so forth. The best way to get these skills is through doing them, working your way up to an assistant stage management position and ultimately becoming a stage manager.
While learning through internships, trainees may not get the best wages, but they sometimes have a chance to work with very talented directors, actors, and theater crews, and they can establish a network of connections that could be very useful later. Ideally, trainees will work their way up on the theater circuit, starting out in community theater and ultimately ending up in professional theater organizations. This allows them to pursue union status, which can be very useful for a professional stage management career.
Becoming a stage manager by getting a degree in theater also has its advantages. Some theaters like to work with college-educated individuals because they are well rounded, with a broad depth of knowledge about the history of the theater. Most colleges with stage management programs also offer plenty of opportunities for learning in the college theater, and they encourage students to pursue internships with theaters in the area to get lots of practical, hands-on experience. A college degree in theater also allows someone who wants to become a stage manager to pursue a master's in fine arts, which can be useful if he or she wants to teach.
I studied theatre and have done a fair amount of non-professional acting, and hope to go professional when I finish school. I think the difference I have seen between a good stage manager and an excellent one is that excellent stage managers have experience doing other aspects of the production- not just technical roles, either, but at least some acting. It means that they understand all the pieces that go into the puzzle they're responsible for putting together. It also means that the stage manager can better prevent animosity between performers and technicians, because he or she can really value everyone's role.