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.

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