Stage Managers Shed Light on Opera’s Hiring Crisis

Published November 1, 2022   |  By Musical Artists  |  Post in All Areas

On July 28, OPERA America published an article entitled "Opera's Hiring Crisis" that was met with criticism from workers in opera, particularly staging staff. Since the article is behind a paywall, it is not linked here. Today, a group of Stage Managers share their perspective on Opera's Hiring Crisis.

Stage Managers Shed Light on Opera’s Hiring Crisis

Written by Stage Managers Brian August, Lynn Krynicki, Ray Menard, Trevor Regars, and Leslie Sears 

OPERA America published an article on July 28 regarding the “hiring crisis” in the opera industry. While opera is indeed experiencing a hiring crisis, context and relevant perspectives are unfortunately missing from the original piece, which is told from a hiring manager’s point of view. For instance, the article completely omits the experiences of Stage Managers.

As opera Stage Managers who work at both AGMA and non-AGMA companies, we felt the need to respond after having passionate conversations with many of our colleagues. We are concerned the greater opera ecosystem doesn’t realize there is a problem specific to our job category. Without researching the integral role of Stage Managers or speaking directly to us, how can one possibly understand how we got here and how to move forward?

The truth of the matter is that, for years, Stage Managers have agreed to subpar pay and conditions knowing the large pool of professionals made it almost impossible to self-negotiate. When COVID-19 shuttered our traditional workplaces, we saw years of self-managed bookings quickly disappear, and unemployment systems unfit to deal with our multi-state medley of W2s and 1099s. Even with the Union’s advocacy and support, we felt the immediate emotional and financial impact.

What did we do? As Stage Managers, we used our natural resourcefulness and well-tuned abilities to seek employment outside of the opera industry. Our highly specific skill set is easily transferable and many of us realized we could apply those skills to new fields, such as project management, accounting, and office administration and earn double the salary of a Stage Manager. What also came with that was more reasonable hours, easier access to health care, bonuses, cost of living increases, and, to put it bluntly, far less stress.

As the opera industry came back to life, some Stage Managers returned to the industry, and some did not. But speaking for those who returned, we did not come back the same as we left. Many returned with the lessons they learned from their time in those other industries – what it means to have work/life balance, a more stable employment period, paid time off, clear access to benefits, and more secure finances. And those who hire Stage Managers are now faced with the reality that we reevaluated our perspective on appropriate working conditions and schedules. We also realized that the industry now comes with even more instability and stress, which gave us all reasonable pause.

Unsurprisingly, the OPERA America article references the idea of the “struggling artist,” saying “‘ is a top driver for resignations. When freelance artists and technicians were forced to pick up supplemental sources of income during lockdown, it increased their standard of living and made it harder to come back to a freelancer performing career.’”

Money is only the “top driver for resignations” because Stage Managers often don’t earn a living wage. Artists shouldn’t be struggling; there is nothing glamorous about being a struggling or “starving” artist. Arts work is work and people deserve to be adequately paid for their labor. The current wages are too low for the range of responsibilities Stage Managers bear and for the experience companies often require. Our fees no longer reflect our workload. Some quick math: if you take a salary of $1,400 a week for a 60-hour week that means you are worth about $23/hour to the company and only a handful of companies are paying at that rate or higher. 

Money is only the “top driver for resignations” because wages have been stagnant, or barely increasing, for a decade, not coming close to necessary cost-of-living adjustments prior to the inflation surge of 2022. What would help? Here are some ideas. Opera companies should start paying Stage Managers as employees, rather than independent contractors. As well as being the more legally appropriate classification, sometimes that differentiation is the factor that makes people decide whether or not to apply. Regardless of a company’s pay structure, do they have anything in place for cancelation fees? Given the upfront costs some companies ask Stage Managers to take on for travel and housing, there needs to be extra attention to reimbursement schedules and change fees. A company should be upfront in their listings and include these details.

Money is only the “top driver for resignations” because we are simultaneously overworked and underpaid. Stage Managers are essential to the process, and the fees and culture must reflect that. Companies expect us to wear multiple hats—from HR to emergency and medical response to COVID compliance—while simultaneously balancing our regular Stage Management duties of running rehearsals, communicating with departments, and safely and efficiently running techs and performances. What can be done in this area? Appropriate payment relative to full-time staff members and their hours, cost of living adjustments, a manageable schedule, and reasonable job expectations. When planning rehearsal schedules, be sure to include time for paperwork and production meetings; a Stage Manager’s workload entails more than just the rehearsal room or the stage.

In most AGMA signatory companies, singers hit overtime after six hours in a day and 30 hours in a week, yet most companies find it acceptable to expect 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week from their Stage Managers before overtime is enacted. To do our jobs safely, and to maintain career longevity, we must be allowed opportunities to rest. While other performing arts institutions have reexamined their practices, the opera world remains stuck in its ways. For example, the theater world is looking at the benefits of eliminating 10-hour calls and how to shift away from a six-day workweek. Every opera company can take note of this and take the initiative to reduce workloads to create safer and more inclusive environments. Stage Managers need mental and physical rest to precisely, artfully, and safely do our jobs.

Money is only the “top driver for resignations” because we often have to choose between a paycheck and our personal lives. While full-time staff traditionally have access to paid time off and personal days for significant events, Stage Managers’ in-advance requests for time away are often rejected. This is something we have come to expect, to the point where if a job listing conflicts with a scheduled special occasion in our personal lives, our option is to miss the event or arrange jobs so that we are unemployed on those dates, sometimes resulting in an employment gap of 4-6 weeks. Companies must be more willing to make allowances for joyous events such as weddings, not just personal tragedies. The logistics, financial insecurity, and strain on family relationships take a toll. To maintain vital ties to family and community we need to be able to be present to periodically renew those bonds and maintain perspective on our work. 

Before the pandemic, there was a plethora of opera Stage Managers at various experience levels, with not enough jobs to go around. Today, companies are struggling to staff shows at any time of the year. Stage Managers are burning out faster than they can be replaced. The OPERA America article mentions the pipeline issue for production staff but it’s important to distinguish that the responsibility and accountability fall to the companies, not to other workers or freelancers, through the use of well-paid internships, training, observation, feedback, and allowing space for mistakes and learning opportunities.

Opera needs to recognize the butterfly effect of this hiring crisis. As the industry loses more experienced and seasoned professionals, it is losing decades of built-up soft skills and institutional knowledge. As companies continue to have high turnover in Stage Management, other artistic or production personnel are expected to pick up the slack, leading to greater job dissatisfaction and lower morale all around. Not to mention new Stage Managers entering the profession are losing potential mentors. Keeping a healthy and consistent Stage Management team leads to an overall better environment for everyone on all sides of the stage. The health toll of sustained stress can include depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, and more, which should encourage companies to take steps to reduce it on the people steering their productions.

Companies should focus on retaining existing workers by soliciting our opinions and listening to our needs. If you have a fantastic Stage Manager who can’t call spots anymore because there's too much in their headset and the technical rehearsal schedule has become too compressed, evaluate having someone else call spots to lighten their load. If Assistant Stage Managers can’t generate new paperwork for crew between tech sessions because they spend afternoons lightwalking then get other people to stand onstage for those hours. If a company without a scheduling department is producing a musical, consider having a dedicated scheduler position. 

OPERA America wrote: “Others, having been furloughed at the start of the pandemic, simply decided they didn’t want to come back…Tired of overwhelming stress, inflexible work schedules, and the physical demands of some roles, workers simply decided the work was no longer sustainable for them.”

And who can blame them? We want to be clear: there is nothing “simple” about choosing to walk away from not only a career, but a passion. Many of us went through extreme existential crises as the pandemic ripped away our livelihoods. We did not “simply decide” the work wasn’t sustainable, because it was never sustainable. What the pandemic gave us was time to pause and truly reflect, though it was terrifying. It forced us into other professions which gave us new perspectives. As the performing arts industry returned, with social justice and equity at the forefront of conversation, companies made sweeping promises they would come back from the pandemic stronger and with more equitable workplaces. Many Stage Managers are still waiting to see what that looks like in action.

Yes, there are opera professionals who are considering leaving the industry for more balanced and stable lives, but it seems as though opera is content to push them all out the door without so much as a conversation. For those of us trying to stay in the industry to which we devoted our lives, we are begging companies to meet us halfway.