A “Syestemic Racism” Case Study: Diversifyng Stage Management

Stage manager

A study published by the Actors’ Equity Association, the union for both actors and stage managers, revealed that between 2016 and 2019, 76% of stage managers employed on theatrical productions across the country were white. Only 2.63% were Black. Does that mean there is “systemic racism” in the theater world?

Absent a thorough analysis of the path by which individuals enter the field of stage management across the country, there is no justification for concluding that. I assume that the main factors are economic. Theater is an economically impossible pursuit. Those who go into it as a profession are often able to do so because they have financial resources from family or elsewhere that allows them that freedom. African Americans are less likely to have family wealth to support them, and performing has a greater potential for achieving wealth than the behind-the-scenes role of stage manager. As for the performers who, as an actor friend once put it, become actors because they aren’t good at anything else, they are not likely candidates for stage management because stage managers, like any other kind of managers, have to be smart. The theater is, in general, not a profession teeming with smart people. If you are smart, you choose a profession that isn’t financially unsustainable.

To be convinced that the lack of black professional stage managers is caused by racism, I would need to know what the pool of black stage managers is, and whether there are many qualified black stage manager who cannot find jobs. I don’t see that data. If the 2.63% of stage managers who are black represent all or most of the pool, is there a problem? Why? Who cares what color a stage manager is, if the individual knows how to handle the job and does it well?

One issue that the “systemic racism” advocates can’t seem to get their story straight about is the question of how race effects staff and management relations. In a healthy culture, there is no reason why a black stage manager couldn’t successfully oversee a predominantly white cast in a production, or the reverse. However, the racial distrust that the current “antiracism” rhetoric and policies engender almost guarantee conflict in a modern cast where there is racial diversity. Take it from the director of over 200 shows of all sizes and budgets, one thing no production needs is conflict.

Are black stage managers more likely to find racial grievances in a production environment? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be shocked if that was the case, but I will say this: I wouldn’t hire any stage manager of any shade who had a reputation for stirring up controversies. Stage managers exist to solve problems, and to make everything run smoothly. A social justice warrior stage manager? Not on my show.

A factor that is probably at work in keeping down the number of black stage managers is the basic and immutable logic of artistic team building. Successful and experienced producers and directors accumulate a group of people over the course of their work that they enjoy working with and who they believe contribute to their success. They will, in new projects, try to work with those same people. There is nothing wrong or unethical about that. But black directors and producers tend to have regular teams that reflect their social and professional circles, and white directors and producers are the same. Is this racism? I would call it “human nature” or “life.” And the more members of your team that you have no prior experience with, the greater the risk to your production. If I’m taking artistic risks, and I do, I want to minimize organizational risks.

In an article about efforts to make the stage manager position more diverse, veteran professional stage manager Lisa Porter, who is also a professor of stage management at the University of California at San Diego, is quoted as saying, “A stage manager is like a conductor. We conduct the tempo and the tone of rehearsals throughout the entire process. That’s why I believe fluency around antiracism is so important.”

I believe her last sentence is a non-sequitur. I don’t want racists in my cast and crew, nor do I want the issue of race interfering with any aspect of the production. Indeed, any political agenda unrelated to the playwright’s work is unwelcome in a competent stage production. I want the best, most talented artists I can find, and I don’t care about any of their personal opinions or characteristics, as long as they can contribute to the success of the project. “Fluency around antiracism,” whatever that jargon is supposed to mean (if anything), isn’t merely not a priority, it’s not on my list at all.

The article is rife with the presumption of racism that has caused much of the accelerating rot in civic discourse. “When Black stage managers do get hired, it can be difficult for them to make their voices heard,” the article informs us. “After graduating with an MFA in stage management from the Columbia University School of the Arts, R. Christopher Maxwell was hired to work on the acclaimed Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” But instead of being put on the stage management team, he was hired as a production assistant, a lower position in the hierarchy.”

“I didn’t have a voice in the room,” Maxwell told the author, who writes,

“Even on shows where he has been a more prominent part of the production, Maxwell said he has struggled to get others to listen to him. On one show, he said he tried to explain to a white production manager that the dancers in the chorus had to wear a certain kind of shoe that matched their skin tone. ‘They didn’t listen and bought the wrong kind of shoes,’ he said.”

Ah HA! Racism!. Of course, people not listening to others on a production staff who are convinced that a superior is wrong is as common in a theatrical setting as anywhere else. So is not getting hired for the job someone feels they are qualified for. However, only the black theater professionals have the luxury of blaming these situations on racism, and increasingly, the culture encourages them to do so. As a stage director, I do not want or need a member of the production team who will play the race card every time they do not prevail on a matter. I do not want or need a member of the production team who will think about race every time they do not prevail on a matter, or when they see another team member “of color” not having their opinions accepted.

Systemic racism?

The article’s contributors presume racism without ever citing real evidence. “After George Floyd, people were able to see the disparity in how people of color are treated,” says Lisa Dawn Cave, a black stage manager. “It’s not that people didn’t take it seriously, it’s that they didn’t see it as widely as they thought, or they’d say, ‘Yes, it’s happening, but we hired one person of color on the team so it’s fine.’” That’s the level of analysis in the entire article. Those dots don’t connect: a rogue Minnesota cop engages in police brutality against an arrested felon with no indication that race played a part, and this leads to a realization that black stage managers are being systemically discriminated against? Admittedly, this is not atypical of the logic of the entire “antiracism” propaganda effort, but it should be self-evidently nonsense.

We are then told about efforts to increase the number of black stage mangers in the “pipeline,” which tells me that that my suspicions are correct that the lack of black stage managers at the professional level reflects a dearth of blacks going into the stage management field. And if that is the case, so what? Why does stage management, or any field anywhere, have to match a demographic quota? If there are programs now encouraging African Americans to become stage managers and facilitating their efforts, wonderful. I’m completely supportive, but because the theater needs as many good stage managers as possible, not because I see any systemic effort to exclude blacks.

Finally, the case for “diversifying stage management” deteriorates into familiar talking points and cant. “It makes you realize that of course there are great black stage managers,” says a veteran white stage manager. “We just don’t know them because we haven’t been in the same circles, and because of our circumstances and our privilege.” Oh. Our “privilege.” Another problem with theatrical politics is that artists always work in a left-of-center-bubble where progressive narratives are assumed to be sacrosanct. We also hear a teaching stage manager say that she had “unconsciously and complicity upheld white supremacy culture within the production process.” Her example of a white supremacy cultural norm in theater? Perfectionism.

That’s right: artists insisting on perfection are discriminating against black professionals.

I call that contention “systemic racism.”

19 thoughts on “A “Syestemic Racism” Case Study: Diversifyng Stage Management

  1. Jack wrote, “A study published by Actors’ Equity Association, the union for both actors and stage managers, revealed that between 2016 and 2019, 76 percent of stage managers employed on theatrical productions across the country were white. Only 2.63 percent were Black. Does that mean there is “systemic racism” in the theater world?”

    Nope, that doesn’t mean there is systemic racism in the theater world.

  2. Jack wrote, “I don’t want racists in my cast and crew, nor do I want the issue of race interfering with any aspect of the production. Indeed, any political agenda is unwelcome in a competent stage production. I want the best, most talented artists I can find, and I don’t care about any of their personal opinions or characteristics, as long as they can contribute to the success of the project.”

    BRAVO!!!

    • I had a potential cast member ask me when I offered him a part in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, “Do you really see me as Charlie Brown?” I said “personality wise absolutely not, but I know your talent as an actor will sell it to the audience” and holy cow was I right! In fact I would have put that particular cast and crew up against any cast anywhere doing the same show.

  3. I didn’t get into this because it was a detour and I didn’t have the data, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of stage managers are female, and the vast majority of those who aren’t, are gay. Most of my shows were stage managed by women, and I never had a male stage manager who wasn’t gay.I’ve never heard anyone complaining about that “diversity” problem.

  4. “ Those who go into it as a profession are often able to do so because they have financial resources from family or elsewhere that allows them that freedom. African Americans are less likely to have family wealth to support them”

    This is the argument for systematic racism, in a nutshell. They don’t have wealth of others because they were slaves and then harassed until approximately the 1960’s or later, so they had less opportunity to acquire generational wealth. (Never mind I know many of all races who have not managed generational wealth either, enslaved past or not, never mind that most people who arrived in the US, whenever that happened to be, had almost nothing.) I think this argument is, perhaps, valid in one way. When you have been held a slave, you have a culture and people that doesn’t know how to fend for itself. They were not allowed to do it and now they’re being released but without instructions. The biblical story Judges is this story of teaching the Israelites to manage themselves after being freed from Egypt. Other freed enslaved people didn’t have that rigid structure to start with and so continue to struggle with the assistance of groups enabling their victim status.

    • Bingo! If thirteen percent of stage managers aren’t black, money needs to be provided to make sure a sufficient number of black people become stage managers IMMEDIATELY. We can’t wait for black people to become wealthy enough in a generation or two so they can send their children to theater school and afford to work for next to nothing while living in very expensive cities. Nope. It has to happen now.

  5. That’s right: artists insisting on perfection are discriminating against black professionals.

    I call that contention “systemic racism.”

    I agree! Unfortunately that’s the kind of systemic racism that is completely acceptable to social justice warrior imbeciles.

  6. Let’s see: “Systemic Racism.” “White Privilege.” “Antiracism.” “George Floyd*.” Did I miss anything? I don’t think so. Let’s move along. Nothing to see here.

    jvb

    *Ed. Note: “Saint George of the Floyd.” I am fascinated by all of the evils exposed by St. George of the Floyd’s Crucifixion. I suspect that even St. George would approve of the Pride kink parade. Yes, he would. If St. George approves something that’s good enough for me.

  7. “African Americans are less likely to have family wealth to support them, and performing has a greater potential for achieving wealth than the behind-the-scenes role of stage manager.”

    There’s your answer. Those who lament the presence of African-Americans in positions of authority in any creative endeavor will point to the historical wealth deprivation of blacks by whites to prevent them from being equal to whites the same way it keeps them from being equal to whites in home and business ownership. The Left will argue that, if blacks are unable to be stage managers because it requires one to be independently wealthy, then systemic racism robbed blacks of that wealth. It needn’t make much sense, but any port in a storm for them, I suppose.

    Right now there is a labor shortage in the U.S, likely for a number of reasons. I saw a sign admonishing customers to remember that everyone is short-handed and to please not take out their frustration on the employees who showed up for work.

    It takes me back to my days in college working for a local McDonald’s. Inevitably, there were employees who called in sick (or just didn’t show up) and this required the rest of us to work all that much harder. The customers were frankly unsupportive. I remember one manager being called to the front during an especially busy period so a customer could tell him that he should “hire more people”. We were hiring. We could not force people to apply, to accept jobs or even to show up to work. Firing those who occasionally turned up for work was counter productive as the place was then left without experienced employees who could do the job when they were actually present and forced the need to hire and train new employees. A vicious circle, so to speak.

    Today’s businesses can’t force people to apply or stay employed any more than my old McDonald’s did. No industry can force any individual person or desired demographic to pursue a career in that industry. STEM companies cannot force women to go into those fields; theaters cannot force African-Americans to take that career path. In the past, sure, women and minorities were kept out of certain professions or, at least, high-ranking positions in those professions. There are fewer obstacles now. How do we get this desired equity in historically-closed professions? Do we force formerly-oppressed people into these professions in order to level the playing field? Do we continue to lower standards to accomplish that? Is this going to be a Soviet-style system where, “Oh, sorry, we have a quota to meet in this field so you are actually not going to be an accountant, but a ditch digger.”?

    How do we meet a perceived demand where there is apparently no eager supply?

  8. If 76% are white and less than3% are black who makes up the rest ? Seems to me the problem rests with too many API’s managing the stage.
    Can any of these people do math?

  9. My experience, of course, is in post-secondary academic theatre, where the overwhelming majority of professional theatre people are trained. I don’t know how many shows I’ve been associated with in some capacity over the years—hundreds, for sure, of which I’ve directed about 45 in academic settings (plus a couple in community theatre, summer stock, etc.) since undergraduate days. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a black stage manager, or even assistant stage manager. I’ve cast more than a few black actors; I’ve had a black assistant director; I’ve worked with a black producer… but never someone on the stage management team.
    Indeed, I can’t remember any black students with a particular interest in stage management; I don’t recall that any of the 100+ faculty- or guest-directed plays produced at my university in the last two decades have had a black stage manager, although there have been several with predominantly if not exclusively black casts. Obviously, there have been plenty of black students whom I think very well might have been good at the job had they tried it out, but that’s not to say they’d have enjoyed it. (I didn’t.)
    Our program straddles the line between liberal arts and pre-professional. Not all, or even most, of our graduates go on to work in the professional theatre, but some do, and a good deal more move into theatre education, for which experience as a stage manager is extremely useful. What this means in terms of the question at hand is that our first responsibility is to find appropriate work for students who are “in the program,” even if all that means is a stated recognition of the value of learning more about what a stage manager does. In other words, we are seldom specifically recruiting stage managers from within the current student population.
    This doesn’t mean that students don’t come to us as actors and end up as stage managers. This is not uncommon. But it’s the student who needs to get that process moving by showing interest (initiating a conversation with faculty, enrolling in the stage management course, etc.).
    And here we may begin to see where the problem (if indeed it is a problem) starts. We don’t get black students applying to our program as stage managers. They want to be actors, directors, technicians… but not SMs. In other words, the field is already delimited, at least to some extent, at the high school level.
    It is also true, of course, that someone who has the skills to be a stage manager also has the ability to do a host of other jobs that society values more. One of the best student stage managers I’ve ever worked with went on to become the lead stage manager for at least some mainstage productions at one of the country’s most prestigious regional theatres at the age of 24. She quit after a year or two and started renting commercial real estate, where she could make more money for less work and considerably less stress, and she had her nights and weekends free.
    It may be that black teenagers are steered towards such careers earlier than their white or Latinx peers. If so, this could be attributable to a host of potential causes. One, to be sure, is systemic racism: if they’re being told they don’t have what it takes, that’s a problem. But they may come from high school programs in which the SM is little if anything more than a note-taker and go-fer, and who wants to do that for a living? By the time they would get to the point at which the possibility of actual stage management presents itself as a possibility, they’re likely already established as actors (for example) or they’ve already changed majors.
    Or there may be socio-economic reasons: it’s true that good stage managers (and props masters) are in short enough supply that they’re far more likely that their friends the actors, directors, and designers are to find work, but the pay is still pretty low, and breaking into the business often involves unpaid (or virtually unpaid) internships which only the folks who can borrow a few thousand dollars from the parental units can afford to undertake. That is certainly a problem across the profession, although I don’t see why it would necessarily be more true for one sub-discipline that for another.
    Finally, it’s worth mentioning that stage managers are also disproportionately female: just short of 2/3 in Equity’s survey, over 90% in my personal experience. Does this mean that there’s systemic discrimination against male stage managers?
    What the Equity survey reveals about race in the industry is unquestionably cause for further investigation. But, as you say, Jack, we’re going to need more information before we start assigning causality. I strongly suspect that the percentage of black stage managers in professional productions corresponds pretty closely to their percentage in university programs. If so, and assuming that the skill-sets of black and white stage manager are comparable, then there’s nothing Equity can do to change those numbers without hiring less-qualified applicants to fulfill quotas. High schools and perhaps universities may be another matter. It’s worth finding out.

    • Maybe the answer is simpler than we think: maybe the percentages actually meet population demographics and maybe Blacks are not interested in those jobs. I’m not – I have no interest in being a stage manager and not for any other reason than I don’t want to do that job. What is that old expression: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”?

      jvb

      PS: There; that word again.

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