On October 30th, 2015 | interviewed Equity/AGMA Stage Manager Peggy Dahlquist over email. Peggy shared a variety of experiences and advice for anyone with future plans to become a professional stage manager. From this interview I developed a clear understanding of what the job entails and that having passion and experience for this type of work is the key to being successful. I came to this understanding through the first hand account of her career path, where and how she works on productions, and how she develops relationships and overcomes challenges.
Peggy’s career path provided insight into what kind of a person is fit to go into this career. She got into stage-managing, as she put it, “late in the game” and also “by accident”. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Medical Photography degree in New York City she spent many years photographing cancer patients in cancer research hospitals in upstate New York. She had a small taste of artistic work but found the work to get depressing. She, so to speak, started to question her life’s passion.
Peggy decided to go back to school and major in all the “fun” things she missed, such as, dance, art, creative writing, and theater. While she was in school someone asked her to ASM a show and after that she was hooked. Her career path is unconventional and inspiring. She searched for her passion and found a niche that she fit into. Pinpointing her passion lead her down the road to gaining more experience. Along with a passion for the field, Peggy expressed the importance of experience in being a successful Stage Manager.
Peggy described herself as, “completely self-taught,” and having will to experience, make mistakes, and not be afraid to change how she learned. From her first gig, which she describes as a “blur,” she has been fortunate enough to work in a variety of venues. She said her time, as an Academia Stage Manager was not efficient experience for the real world, because the Union houses were so different. However, being thrown into it she picked up rather quickly. Her home for the last couple of decades has been the Kennedy Center in DC. Most of her work has taken place in theaters such as, The Opera House and Eisenhower Theater.
Her favorites are the Concert Hall and Terrace Theater. The longer she worked as a Stage Manager, the less she wanted to work on productions that would last too long. She prefers to work on “opening night festivals” and “oneday wonders”. Her experience from more conventional longterm shows had prepared her for the tough job that she describes as “not for the inexperienced. You load-in at 8am, set up and focus, rehearse (out of order) all the talent and set cues, and call those cues for the first time during the one and only performance”.
Because Peggy had opened herself up to a variety of settings she was able to gain valuable experience and find ways to spruce up a career she has been doing for years. With both passion and experience a stage manager can start to develop a rewarding career. Gaining experience through different productions, a stage manager begins to develop their own way of doing things. Peggy described that her most rewarding experience derived from her time at the Opera House.
According to Peggy, “nothing can prepare you more than working with one hundred choristers, huge orchestras, elaborate costumes, sets, lighting, props and “divas”. My first thought was, “how does she handle all of that? ” After I asked this question her sense of humor shined through. She said, “I drink, but no one finds that funny”. Peggy said that if stage managers immerse themselves into the task at hand it would just flow. Here it became clear that personality had a lot to do with how a person works in this field.
Peggy is very passionate nd has a laid-back sense of humor about the work. She described her work as “more organic, but still organized”. Some logistics she said that you couldn’t live without were, reformatting the script, looking out for things you might have missed before, and flow charts that document any problems that arise during a performance. Another significant skill needed to become a stage manager is creating affective professional relationships with the director and actors. Peggy said that when developing an affective relationship with a director “preparation is key”.
She advised that if the show isn’t a new one you should delve into any material you can find on the source, such as, scripts, scores or even a film. She found that films were the most affective in giving you a raw idea of any props you might need for a specific production. Because the relationship between the Stage Manager and Director is so critical to the shows success, Peggy prefers to work closely with the Director and develop a healthy communicative relationship early on. She said, “It is important to know them so well that you can anticipate what they may need or want”.
This was interesting because she valued close personal relationships so much and that is something that may be difficult to attain with some Directors while also keeping it professional. When asked the same questions about the actors she cleared up the confusion. She said, “There should always be a heightened level of respect… you can make friends but more often than not you won’t see these folks again. Just make them feel supported and relaxed”. All in all it was most important for Peggy to develop trust and security with the actors and directors.
Even with passion, experience, and perfect professional relationships challenges still arise. I found this to be the most valuable information regarding making a choice whether or not this job is for you. Starting with her first gig Peggy talked about her biggest challenge being separating Stage Managing from her private life. After she got married and started a family she wished that she could go back and try to make her family the first priority. However, she said she learned her lesson and tries to work harder everyday at balancing the two.
Another huge challenged she experienced was teaching herself how to read music. Peggy worked on many musicals and although she played guitar as a child she said she would never say she was a “musician”. She overcame this by opening her mind to simply push herself to learn how to do it. Peggy advised, “any challenges you may face as a stage manager can be overcome if you expose yourself to olutions”. Ultimately Peggy’s passion, experience, relationships, and willingness to learn shaped her successful career as a stage manager.
At the end of the interview she was asked if she found this job rewarding and if she had any advice for a student who might consider going into this profession in the future. She said, ‘Yes, I am very happy every day I walk into a theater. There are some basic things to remember. When starting out (especially while in a new situation)—Listen, don’t talk. Inexperienced stage managers tend to want to share their experiences, proving they know something, when in fact it’s a red flag-showing insecurity. Also always use the pronoun “we”.
We need, we want, we disagree… asically it helps you not look like you’re on a power trip or a nag”. That quote beautifully captured Peggy’s personality and what kind of person should take on this job. You need to be someone who is passionate and willing to learn. It is important to remember that you are not going to know everything because every production is a new experience to learn from. Peggy painted a clear picture of what it’s like to become and be a Stage Manager. She also revealed how different and random everyone’s path will be and how you have to work according to your personality.
Through her career path, her theater experience, and her challenges and relationships I learned that being passionate, willing to experience new things, and also developing affective relationships will contribute to my success if I decide to go into this career. However, through this interview I gathered that although this job seems rewarding and interesting it is not really for me. Mostly, I couldn’t imagine working well under the intense pressure. If anything, I learned a lot about Stage Managing. I find Peggy’s attitude inspiring and I want to carry some of her advice into any career I wish to have in the future.