By Mike Lawler
A reliable way to determine what theatre professionals actually do is to ask them how they respond when their second cousin from Peoria approaches them at a family reunion and says, “What d’ya do for a livin’?” Michael Broh, production manager of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin since 2000, has his own canned response. “I say, ‘I’m in charge of all the backstage stuff at the theatre—y’know like costumes, sets, lighting, sound, props—that sort of thing.’ Usually, that’s all someone wants to know. Then they start asking me about actors.” Broh does not exaggerate with his cousin. Each and every person who is a part of the production team, including all of the areas mentioned, is under the jurisdiction of the production manager, sometimes simply known as the PM.
The work of a PM must be done by someone, so even the smallest theatre companies have one, though he or she may have a different title. Sometimes they are known as the operations manager, director of production, or production coordinator. In some cases, technical directors are responsible for what will be described here as the duties of a production manager, even if there is no one on staff with the title. Many production managers cite people management as their primary concern. In this capacity, PMs can be a critical link between a theatre’s administration and artistic team and the production staff they supervise.
‘Wait for things to go wrong’
“I do the stuff that our producing artistic director should not be bothered with,” explains Rafael Castanera, production manager of Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock. “I really play the role of liaison between our administration and our production staff.” As with most technical theatre careers, the duties of a production manager vary from venue to venue, dependent on the size, location, and prestige of the theatre, among other considerations.
Generally, production managers have a hand in most areas of a theatre’s operation, but focus primarily on keeping the production team afloat. Their duties can be boiled down to a handful of general categories: creating and overseeing budgets; hiring and scheduling technical staff (including the negotiation of contracts); and, perhaps above all, ensuring that every technical aspect of a production is completed in a safe and timely manner.
In terms of the budget, production managers will usually advise the business or general manager what the financial and technical needs will be for a season or specific production. Once the budget has been agreed upon, the PM is central to deciding what funding each of the tech department’s will need to do the work. This is usually done with the advice and input of each department head. At times, production budgets will need to be tweaked in order to accommodate an unforeseen expense, or a design concept that has shifted in some way. On other occasions, one department may find themselves under-funded for a project and must consult with the production manager in order to either remedy the financial situation, or find alternatives to fit the constraints of the existing budget. In other words, handling the financial side of technical theatre is a huge part of the work that PMs do.
In regards to production staff, while the production manager may delegate hiring to individual department heads, such as the technical director, he often has a say in who will be hired (and fired). As part of their duties in this area, PMs will also create contracts for a variety of technical positions, including designers, scenic artists, and miscellaneous other tech jobs.
The overall quality and safety of the technical aspects of production ultimately fall squarely on the shoulders of the production manager, so it is vital that the person in this job take very seriously every detail of production. This is something that will affect all other areas of a PM’s previously mentioned responsibilities. They will fight for a larger budget, work to hire the best people, and attempt to provide the best possible contracts—in order to assure that the production elements for which they are directly responsible are at their very best.
To make sure all this happens efficiently, the PM works collaboratively with designers, the technical director, the administrative team, and the artistic director. Ultimately, the production manager is responsible for these decisions because he or she alone is aware of every angle: money, time, safety, and quality.
The modus operandi of a typical professional production manager is quite simple, according to Fran Brookes, PM of the Arden Theatre Company, a classical LORT theatre in Philadelphia. “Prepare as best you can,” he says, “and wait for things to go wrong.” Brookes is being candid—it’s a realistic admission that something will probably not work out as planned. The skilled production manager learns how to adapt to the ever changing realities of producing the technical side of theatre and is adept at tackling unexpected malfunctions during all phases of a production.
For some production managers, working double duty as the technical director and production manager makes the job even more demanding. When she was employed at the Virginia Stage Company, Stevie Dawson worked non-stop in her capacity as both PM and TD (She’s since moved to North Carolina, where her husband is a lighting designer, and is seeking new technical theatre opportunities.) “It was not unusual for me to go from nine a.m. to six p.m. without a pause in the meetings, phone calls, e-mails, and just plain questions,” she says. “That meant that any work requiring concentration couldn’t even begin until the business day was over and the building had begun to empty out.” (Since Dawson was interviewed for this story, Virginia Stage has changed its staffing and now has both a technical director and a production manager.)
While Dawson’s experience at Virginia Stage demonstrates the demanding nature of combining two such important jobs, some theatre companies must structure their production team this way in order to work within their operating budget, though it is an uncommon practice among larger theatres.
The artist within
There are technical positions that theatre folks consider artistic and there are technical jobs that they don’t. Designers, for instance, are in the art camp. So, obviously, are scenic painters. The line gets blurry when talking about carpenters and costumers because they actually build many of the beautiful things seen on stage. More easily placed across the line in the tech camp are management positions, and many designers do not hesitate to make that line clear when challenged in their artistic work by a stage manager or production manager. Ask a production manager what they think, and you will likely get a much more reasoned response. “I think everyone in the process should have a say,” notes Brookes. “Though, one should be judicious about when their opinion is voiced.”
According to Josh Friedman, the longtime PM of Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis and now production manager of Houston’s Alley Theatre, the best work is always accomplished through fair and open collaboration. “The key to a successful team approach is for everyone to have input and for everyone to respect the decision-making responsibilities of each job,” he says. “In other words, it’s good to make suggestions to the set designer, but you have to respect that at the end of the day they make the decision.”
Broh is precise when addressing the matter of managers and artistic input. “I do feel that a producing theatre has a responsibility to evaluate shows aesthetically,” he says. “Ideally, the artistic director is the person vested with that responsibility.” For his part, Broh knows that his job goes beyond the aesthetics of the show. “It is my responsibility to evaluate if we can do it, if it is on schedule, and if we did it well,” he explains. “It is not my job to say if it’s ugly or not.”
This isn’t to say who the true artists are in any creative process, but rather to make clear that even those technicians who thrive in management and administrative positions are artists too. Understanding the acceptable bounds of a manager’s input is critical to achieving cohesion among the production and design teams, and it is important to remember that without the pragmatic approach of production and stage managers, many art institutions such as regional theatres would simply cease to exist.
From stage to production
It may seem odd to compare the duties and outlooks of people in such diverse areas as stage management, production management, and even company management by lumping them together under the broad umbrella of management, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that many production managers begin their careers in theatre as stage managers.
“Production managers are in the middle of facilitating a production process in the same way stage managers are the pivot to facilitate the rehearsal and performance process,” explains Friedman.
Broh, a stage manager for Second City in Chicago before pursuing a graduate degree in technical design, believes that the transition from stage management to production management is a natural one. “Stage managers tend to be people that have brains built for organizing,” he says. “I think many stage managers see these traits as being valuable in a production manager, and therefore see the job as something they could easily transition to.” The career change is understandable, given the odd hours put in by most SMs. “The reasons for the transition tend to be about someone looking for more nights and weekends off, to spend more time at home, perhaps to raise a family,” Broh says. A career trajectory that begins with stage management and leads to a position as a production manager may be a very desirable one, considering the issues of working hours, and family time.
One might also consider the rate of pay as a possible motivation for making the transition from stage manager to production manager, but this isn’t always a factor. The pay scale for a production manager is often dictated by the type of theatre and area of the country in which one is working. What’s more, professional stage managers, represented by Actors Equity Association (AEA), are paid according to a precise set of terms and conditions, and can expect to earn within a certain pay scale range. The professional production manager, however, is not so lucky. In most theaters, the production manager is usually one of the most highly paid individuals, and rightfully so, considering the amount of responsibility he or she shoulders. But PMs who work for small companies are not as likely to earn salaries as predictable as stage managers who are members of AEA.
Another trait that is common to both stage and production managers is that of clear and open communication. One of the primary functions of a stage manager is facilitating information that pertains to the production. And, like SMs, a production manager must be good at facilitating information. For a PM, that generally entails the information for the production that is rehearsing or running, in addition to all the productions that are part of the ongoing season, and shows that are coming up in future seasons. As a result, PMs tend to think and talk a lot about how they handle the communication aspect of the job.
When communication and coordinating detailed information is vital to a job, the notion of honesty and openness is critical. “Be honest and direct with everyone,” Friedman advises future production managers. “You need to first acknowledge that everyone involved has a stake in the project and feels compelled to do their best work, then face the realities of time, money, and creativity to get the best results.”
“The best approach is honesty and transparency,” echoes Broh. “Most people respond very well to honesty.” Furthermore, PMs are privy to information of all sorts, much more than any one technician, director, or designer on the production team, and when you are the person responsible for keeping track of such a wealth of information regarding a show, honesty becomes a necessity. Otherwise, it’s hard to keep your stories straight.
Organizational skills are also crucial for a PM. He or she must possess the ability to focus on details while remaining acutely aware of the (very) big picture. The sheer number of decisions that need to be made regarding a variety of areas can be overwhelming for novice PMs—and, at times, can push even the veteran beyond the ceiling of acceptable levels of stress. The best managers have the ability to deal with the stress of working with a multitude of personality types, and the expectation of being the final decision maker.
During his six years as a stage manager for Second City, Broh learned a lot about dealing with the stress of live performance. He also thinks it taught him to be a decisive leader, a valuable skill for a production manager.
“One of my myriad of responsibilities as a stage manager was to take the lights out at the end of improvised scenes,” he says. “This is an extremely high-pressure responsibility. If a scene is going well, and you miss a potential out, then a scene will likely begin to fail,” he explains. The other side of the coin was taking the lights out too early, disappointing the audience and the actors if it was a skit with potential left unrealized. A nerve-wracking responsibility indeed. “I think that experience helped me to become more comfortable with my decision making, and allowed me to take some pressure off of myself for self-preservation,” Broh adds.
Paths to a career as a production manager
Considering the essential nature of production management in theatre and the growing number of universities offering programs of study in theatre management and technical production, it would seem that preparing for such a career would be relatively straightforward. And it can be. Having a solid background in theatre is essential of course, but beyond that anything goes. There are many PMs who have little expertise in technical production, and many whose primary focus—in practical experience and training—has been in technical direction and design.
Although there are many college programs offering concentration in production and theatre management, a general degree in theatre arts may be just as desirable for a hopeful PM—especially as an undergraduate degree.
Castanera, for instance, grew up in Puerto Rico and came to the United States to study theatrical design at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His career took him to New York City, where he freelanced, designed window dressings, built costumes in a large shop, and worked in the film industry. “I always knew that I could do certain things,” he says. “I just needed the opportunity.” Eventually, recalling his roots in theatre and longing to return to them, he found his present position—his first as production manager for a theatre. “The hardest thing about getting a job like this,” he tells me, “is getting the first one.”
There is a good dose of luck needed. Dawson may be the prime example of being in the right place at the right time. “I fell into it, more or less,” she tells me. In the midst of a complete artistic and administrative change, the previous production manager decided to leave. Only a few months into her stint as TD of Virginia Stage, Dawson was offered the chance to take on the duties of the production manager as well. “The company was not, at that point, in a financial position to hire a new production manager—so I took on those responsibilities.” Her situation is uncommon, of course, and many PMs come at the job in a more traditional fashion.
As advanced training and degrees in technical theatre and design become more prevalent, there is no shortage of graduate programs for those wishing to pursue production management. But there is more than one way for a student or young technician to climb the ranks to management. Friedman and Broh both had advice for aspiring managers on this subject. “Work around a bit,” says Friedman. “You need to understand what an electrician does, what a painter does, and what a TD does.” Friedman is being brief. A production manager should understand each and every area of technical theatre at least well enough to communicate effectively with the people doing the work. A broad base of experience coupled with the traits of a good manager is essential. “Pay attention to the gripes you have as a technician, and address them as a manager,” says Broh. “Above all, remember that there is no such thing as being in charge. You just spend less of your time answering to your supervisors, and more time answering to your staff.”
Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.