The 2017-18 Broadway season is officially in the rearview mirror and culminated in the Tony Awards a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve been reflecting on the season and about stage managers. Because stage management is what I think about. And I wondered why there isn’t a Tony Award for the stage manager?
Our industry honors so many in our industry, but on its special nationally televised night. There is no stage management acknowledgement. In fact, there is no annual stage management award at any of the big ceremonies: Drama Desks, Obies, Outer Circle Critics, Lortels, etc…
It would be great to be recognized, of course; but we stage managers don’t make the cut. Why? Here are my six reasons why stage managers don’t get awards
#1. Awards focus on what you see onstage: the fine work of the actors, directors, choreographers and designers. What you don’t see from the audience is the contribution of the managers making it all happen. Our “art” is bringing all the creative bits and pieces together and coordinating all the logistics for a show to run smoothly, seamlessly and frankly, as if we were doing nothing at all. When we are doing a great job, the audience shouldn’t know we even exist, aside from the preshow announcement. So, if you can’t see it, how can you judge it?
#2. You may not notice good stage management from the FOH, but you can see bad stage management. Lighting cues not in line with the music, or lights coming up before a transition is complete? Or worse, crashing scenery! All that could be the stage manager making errors. Are the understudies not prepared, is the show expanding, extra bits creeping in and the show is not as tight or clean as opening night? The stage manager may not be maintaining the show well. And if the SM has to announce a hold during the show and literally keep the audience in the dark? That’s when the audience is keenly aware of the stage manager. Now it may not be the stage managers fault, but they are the voice of the stop and the person associated with the incident. So, if the audience is only aware of us when there is a problem, we have a problem, right?
#3. Stage management is ephemeral, it is what happens between people in time and space. You can’t show great listening skills, persuasiveness, gentle confidence building, simple kindness and all the other leadership skills that great stage managers use to communicate, coordinate and keep a show running well. Award shows have a tough enough time trying to figure out a good way to showcase plays and playwrighting, how would you show leadership, compassion, scheduling, etc… You can’t take a picture or video of great stage management to showcase it. Maybe you can show off your production book, but no matter how great looking your paperwork is, that alone is not going to convince someone to give you an award.
#4. Only stage managers really understand stage managers. Unless you have stage managed before, you really don’t understand what it is we do and/or how we do it. Not that you can’t appreciate your stage manager, but there is a difference. It’s similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. You can give me your sympathy, but unless you’ve been in exactly my situation, you can’t empathize. We stage managers go through a unique crucible from pre-production, rehearsals, tech and the run. We deal with everyone else’s concerns, it’s never about us or our needs, always about taking care of the rest of the company. We sacrifice breaks, lunches, sleep and more; but we do it because we love it. This is not a complaint, but rather an acknowledgement that unless you’ve done it, can can’t really understand. And if you don’t understand what I do, how can you give me an award for it?
#5. A few years ago, the Sound Design Tony Award was taken away, leaving many in the industry confused, sad and even angry. Well, the Sound Tony is back thankfully, but it highlights how misunderstood the contribution of this design element is. On the Tony broadcast, all the design awards are given out during commercial breaks, so unless you are in the live audience you don’t get to see those awards handed out. Watching from home, you just get the one sentence of their acceptance speech that is telecast. I bring this up because if the design elements are not understood or acknowledged in the same fashion as the other awards, I can’t imagine how a stage manager award would stack up.
#6. A good friend of mine recently described herself as, “A King maker, not a King.” I thought this was quite appropriate for us stage managers. We work tirelessly, so that others can reap the glory. That is who we are and what we do. It would be great to be recognized, but we are not interested in that and as a profession, don’t really advocate for it. You may be aware (hopefully you are) that Actors Equity is advocating for a new Tony Award for best ensemble and best chorus to acknowledge the important contribution they make and I fully support that effort. However, there is no advocacy for a stage manager award. Why would a King maker ever tell the king to give them a crown? Even this article isn’t about why we should get awards, it’s about understanding why we don’t.
With all that said, there is a bit of an exception here. the Stage Managers’ Association created the Del Hughes Award many years ago to honor lifetime achievement in the art of stage management in any part of our industry. The winners are a long list of some of the best stage managers ever. You can read more about it here: https://www.stagemanagers.org/del-hughes-award/
This is one place where stage managers get a chance to honor other stage managers at an annual award ceremony in midtown Manhattan. It’s from and by the people who are their colleagues and can see, understand and comprehend their work. This award is for lifetime achievement though, so you really have to have a great career to win, no one hit wonders in this elite club! You can’t be a Marissa Winokur or Sutton Foster and win this one in your 20’s!
In summary, there are many reasons I don’t think you’ll see a stage manager Tony Award, but that’s okay. In part because we know that we are the glue, not the glitter, but also because the nature of our job is extremely hard to judge.
Thankfully, the Del Hughes Award exists as a way where we can honor stage managers for their body of work and contribution to our profession. And the Tony committee occasionally gives an Honor for a stage manager (for example, Peter Lawrence in 2014) which is awesome. But for now, we stage managers will continue on doing the great work we do, awards or no awards, because we love what we do and know what an important job stage management is.