By Stephanie Martinez
During my time as a production student, I learned so many impactful lessons. In design classes, during production meetings, during strikes, etc. So many of these lessons not only made me a better stage manager but a better theatre practitioner as a whole.
Here are some of my favorites:
How to offer and receive criticism
When I was a kid, I couldn’t take criticism or anyone telling me to change the way I was doing anything without getting very upset. I didn’t know how to receive it, and I didn’t know how to offer it either at the risk of sounding mean. When I started in the production sequence of my undergrad institution's drama department, all students had to dip their toes into every aspect of design and learn to critique each other’s work. Not only this, but we had to hypothetically grade each other too, live and in real-time. This was daunting until we were given some ground rules: 1. We are always on each other's side, and we seek to make each other better. 2. We speak kindly, but we speak the truth. 3. If you don’t agree with the criticism you received, that’s fine, but you cannot ignore that it was said. This radical notion that criticism was a helpful tool as opposed to an unkind judgment completely changed my perspective. If you cannot give helpful criticism, you are not helping anyone grow as an artist. And if you cannot receive it, you are hindering your own growth.
Being able to see the bigger picture
When you hole yourself into one aspect of theatre, allowing yourself to only be one thing, you fail to see the bigger picture of the production, and you fail to realize that you are only one cog in a bigger machine. Many of my friends who are actors have experienced this, and only realize it after they’ve been on a production team. At my undergrad institution, there is a production course that everyone has to complete five semesters of. All students, actors and production students alike, are assigned some job on a production team, such as a build crew, costume crew, etc. Because of this, I had many actors as my assistant stage managers on various productions. Through the process, they witnessed the radical shift that is being “on the other side of the table”. No longer running lines but on book. No longer finding their light but operating the light board. To be a part of a production in a new way like that is eye-opening, and gives you a greater appreciation for the work. I maintain to this day that everyone in theatre should be an “ASM” at some point in time, for this exact reason. But to be fair, I am a little biased.
No matter what aspect of production you’re involved in, you need to be at least a little organized. Every aspect of production may require a different type or method of organization, but organization nonetheless. No production team or show can run efficiently without it. For example, over the summer, during a general production class that I was teaching as part of a theatre summer camp, my students’ final project was to design nearly every aspect of a fairy tale of their choosing. The set, the costumes, the props, etc. They only had five days to do this, and before we even started, I stressed the importance of planning and organization so that they could complete the project on time and stress-free. Some kept track of their progress by writing it out, some delegated a day to each aspect, and some even timed themselves on their phone so that their attention was split evenly each day. They organized their materials by their purpose, and each had their own spot on a shelf to store their work. Every student used whatever modes of organization worked best for them, and they all finished the project with flying colors.
Collaboration and communication skills
When you’re on a production team, you’re going to be dealing with lots of different personalities. Sometimes the lighting designer is flakey, sometimes the director is too ambitious, sometimes the spotlight operator is constantly late. Learning how to work with all types of people and speak their personal language is a life skill that transcends the theatrical world. As a stage manager, the communication hub between everyone on the team, this is something that I’ve had to master. Being able to work well with everyone, no matter the circumstance makes you a better asset to the production as a whole.
How to “throw spaghetti at a refrigerator”
A former professor of mine who specializes in set design (Hi David!) taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my studies: the idea of throwing spaghetti at a refrigerator. Have you ever boiled spaghetti in a pot and thrown it on a surface to see if it sticks? If it does, it’s been cooked perfectly and ready to eat. If it falls to the floor, it needs to keep boiling for a few more minutes. When designing, you’ll come up with many designs that don’t work or don’t feel right, but you have to keep trying them out until one does. The same goes for directing or stage managing or even acting. The ability to keep throwing that spaghetti, to keep trying new ideas, and to not get yourself down because the spaghetti isn’t cooked yet (because after all, we have an infinite supply of metaphorical spaghetti) is an invaluable, but learned skill.
Despite all of these wonderful attributes and skills that students gain from production experience, there is a striking lack of production opportunities for students in K-12. Take a look at your local theatre’s education offerings for the spring or fall. How many production classes do you see? How many opportunities are there for students to work on a creative team in their school’s drama club? When we only offer performance-based theatrical education opportunities, we’re not just saying that only actors are “real-theatre kids”, but we’re isolating an entire group of students who want to be involved, but don’t aspire to be front and center on stage. Give students the chance to make props, design sets and costumes, direct scenes or stage manage or operate a sound-board, and make those production-based opportunities just as available as performance-based opportunities. It’s about time we allowed the “behind-the-scenes” kids to be a little more seen. I think we’ll end up with many more plates of delicious spaghetti that way.