Propared is a web-based production management tool, designed by producers, for producers. After managing & producing thousands of shows, we asked ourselves some tough questions. Is there a better way to organize all of the information we need, to do our job in the best way possible?
Our company was founded by professionals, and we value the input of others in our field. Anyone who’s moved up the ranks in Stage Management or Production Management will tell you: advice from those who’ve been in your shoes is incredibly valuable.
That’s why we’ve decided to bring you a series of blogs featuring the expert advice of Production Pros we’ve come to know.
This month, we’re excited to feature Ms. Mandy Berry. She’s a seasoned veteran of Live Event Management. Her experience ranges from the corporate world, to Live Theatre, Opera, Dance, and more. She’s proven herself to be an indispensable asset to many organizations, and her story illustrates the challenges faced, and lessons learned, by those who choose a career in Event Production.
Propared: You attended East Carolina University, and studied with their Theatre Program. Why did you attend? What attracted you to this school? What was your general mindset, at 18, getting ready for college?
Mandy Berry: I chose ECU because it was a fantastic liberal arts college. I chose not to go to a Conservatory, and study only Theatre. Because, being in the Theatre means replicating life. And how do you replicate life, when all you’ve done is Theatre?
Propared: So, you wanted a more complete education?
MB: I wanted an education in life. My philosophy is, “You work hard; you deserve what you get.” Make yourself the smartest person you can possibly be. When I went to school, I originally thought I was going to be an actor. Quickly, within my Freshman year of college, I realized that the audition process, the lifestyle of an actor, is exhausting. I don’t want to be judged by [what I look like]. I don’t want to be told, “You know what, you’re 20 lbs too heavy. We’d like you as a brunette, etc.” This is who I am, take it or leave it. I wanted [a skill set] that was quantifiable. [In an audition], you might look at me, and think I might be perfect for the job, but maybe I’m not. The thought of walking into a job, and being horrible at it? That scares me.
Propared: This seems to suggest that you had a stronger sense of identity than maybe a lot of college age kids have at that time. Is this a personality trait that might lead someone to pursue behind-the-scenes work, like Stage Management?
MB: I feel that, in general (not just in Theatre), everybody gets kind of pigeon-holed into something. “Oh, you’re a little weird. You must be into Theatre, etc..” And people get pushed into careers based on this, often. And probably a large percentage of these people are suited for these careers. You find identity where you find like-minded people.
What propelled me to go into a career in Stage Management? When I was in school, I found out quickly that I didn’t want to act, but I loved the process of producing something, but I didn’t know exactly what that would lead to. SO I worked as a carpenter for a year, and thought, “Oh, I’ll be a scenic designer,”, so I took those classes. But that wasn’t really me, so I studied lighting design, and it was great, but it wasn’t “the whole thing”.
Finally, I took a Stage Management class. It was my Junior year…
Propared: …And by then, they [college administrators] like for you to have it [your Major] pretty much figured out, right?
MB: They do! And I told my professor, “Why didn’t you tell me about this class three years ago?!?!” It was everything I wanted out of my experience. I get to be involved in everything. I get to see the whole process, I get to talk to everyone involved, and I’m the central hub of communication. So I came to it organically, and that was great. And I find that people who come to these realizations organically, end up excelling, because there’s a sense of ownership to it.
Because I came to Stage Management organically, I had a better chance at succeeding. I had been a carpenter, an electrician, a lighting designer. Now I knew what the needs would be of those people, what information would be relevant to them.
Propared: How did you learn the skill of the budgeting aspect of Stage Management? It’s not something that’s covered thoroughly in most schools.
MB: Our [East Carolina Univeristy] Theatre program was pretty good. It helped us figure out where we would be most likely to succeed once we left college. They helped me realize that professionals wouldn’t necessarily know about my school, our program. They might not know anything about East Carolina University. They wanted us to have the confidence to take the next step, to know where to start after leaving school. That was invaluable.
Propared: One theme we find ourselves revisiting is the tight, communal nature of the Theatre world. Building relationships seems to be held in such high regard for those studying & pursuing a life in Live Theatre and Event Management, respectively. How important is that to your success in this field?
MB: Absolutely. I knew where I fell in the world, what the reality was for me in terms of my professional ambitions and opportunities. And I applied for jobs that were definitely a little out of my reach. I applied for a job with Cirque du Soleil right out of college. And yes, I could do the job, but I wasn’t qualified in that I had no “real world” experience. But you have to go for it. Shoot for the moon. I went on plenty of interviews where I totally fell on my face, and I could pinpoint the moment when I lost the gig. But you have to get out there, and you have to try. Because that’s how you get better, how you learn.
When I graduated, I got a job at Julliard, right out of college. It was a great opportunity to learn, to get out of North Carolina, see what it would be like to live in a big city as a professional. And that was a great experience. I’m now an alumni of this great institution. I get alumni letters! And I didn’t have to pay the $40k or whatever a year to go there. And it’s an amazing program, and like all programs, it’s what you make of it. So you make the most out of it. If you move to NYC, go to NYU, and have access to all these great connections, but don’t do anything with it, then nothing is going to happen for you.
Propared: This is a skill-set not necessarily taught in school.
MB: Exactly. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself. And at East Carolina, I got a great education. But there are maybe two of us from the Tech Dept. that have “made it”. And that’s probably true of almost any career. Your plans change, your priorities change. But making great connections, learning to network, that carries through as a valuable skill no matter where you end up.
Propared: A lot of people who got into the professional world in the early 2000s, many of them with post-graduate degrees, found themselves suddenly out-of-work when the economy crashed. These were people who had focused on being singularly good at one or two things, and when the large companies and organizations they worked for laid them off, they found themselves pretty lost. The people in their network were all going through this too; they weren’t prepared for many of the challenges faced by those of us who choose to work as Freelancers. The stuff we go through every day. The challenges that having these think-on-your-feet, adaptability-as-a-virtue skills can help us overcome.
MB: I think it’s even more basic than that. I think it comes from the principle of having to struggle. I came to New York, and this first job paid me $250 a week. That was what the Julliard Internship paid. So how do you live in NYC on $250/wk? You just do. You go into a little credit card debt, and you deal with it.
Some of these people that you mentioned, who get these jobs right out of University, they’re making $60-80k a year, and it’s great. And they think that everything is going to be fine. So then, when that reality falls apart, they are lost. And those adaptability skills that I learned, they don’t have. They weren’t used to having to think outside-the-box. And Theatre professionals, and probably most Freelancers, you have to have those skills.
Propared: So, you went from Julliard to…?
MB: I did a couple of Off-Broadway things, then worked for Alvin Ailey for two years, and then I did a bunch of Freelance Opera gigs….
Propared: Those are all very different kinds of jobs. How does your experience differ from each of these?
MB: My job is always the same. Always. What’s on stage is different. What people need is different. Musicians need different things than acrobats. But what I’m doing for them is the same; I’m providing for your needs. What you need to do your job the best that you can…my job is to make sure you have that, before you walk in the door.
Propared: So, when someone is looking to hire you, they see this resume with all of these different kinds of jobs, and they know that you have the adaptable skill-set to manage & produce all of them, because you’ve tended to the unique needs of each. Can you speak a little bit to what the “Big Picture” challenges of Project Management are? On day one of a new job, what are those things that a successful Stage Manager/Project Manager needs to know and do effectively?
MB: To me, it’s all the same. I have to be prepared, and so a big part of my process begins with research. What is this project all about? What are the client’s goals? What are their objectives in paying to produce this event? You have to understand that, because that will help you interpret the design concept, and all of the elements that go into it. You have to know what it’s going to look like on the first day of the show. Then you work backwards from there.
Budget is a huge part of this. The client wants some big spectacle? OK. How much is that going to cost? You adjust, without straying too far away from the original vision. And you start negotiating from there. How much does the client have to spend? What’s the timeline? Can’t pay for a big staff? OK, let’s get some interns! But if they’re not as skilled, then maybe you get a few highly-skilled people in there, and try to get it done on a shorter timeline. It often comes down to the wire, down to the hour on this stuff. And you have to adjust, constantly.
Propared: These are all skills that business owners have to have. Even though you are hired as an employee, you’re thinking like an owner. You’re essentially a consultant who knows how to look at the Big Picture, and see all the moving parts as they should be, and you do what you can to make it happen.
MB: Right. Your company says, “The client wants to do this arena show in Dubai.” OK. But there’s no arena. What do you do? The client wants the arena show, and there’s no arena. Well, we’ve done tent shows, so how do we adapt the arena show to fit in the tent?
Or for example, if you tour in Australia, you can’t enter that country with any raw wood, because of the threat of a certain kind of termite. But your drummer’s drums that go with that set are pure Brazilian wood. How do you get that into the country?
Propared: Yeah….how DO you get that into the country?
MB: Money! (laughs) They had to be specially fumigated, and your documentation has to be IN ORDER. You had to get special permission from the government.
Propared: Wow! I bet you didn’t think you’d be learning international business relations when you were in school for a career in Live Theatre!
MB: No, I didn’t! I’ve learned so much about Customs Laws, and the very special requirements of these exotic places I’ve now worked. It’s been really interesting.
Propared: What about language barriers?
MB: Well, when I toured with Cirque du Soleil, the spoken language was English, at least within the touring company. But yeah, you hire local stagehands, and so each department has a translator. Electrics get a translator, Scenic gets a translator, and that’s all helpful. But you also learn how to get the most out of your people with simple gestures and hand-signals.
Propared: I imagine that Stage Managers & Production Managers are dealing with a lot of the same issues today, as they were two-thousand years ago, right? A show is a show, and you need people, and a space, etc. But what are some of the challenges that are maybe more unique to this Modern Age?
MB: Because so much of my job is people management, there’s always the problem of motivating people to do the job well. That’s not a variable that’s so exact, or measurable. But you have to get it done. If I’m in Morocco, and the promoter wont speak to me, because I’m a woman, well….how do I deal with that? He refuses to speak to me, and will speak to every one else BUT me, even though I’m two feet away. That’s a very real cultural barrier that a woman in this position has to deal with.
Propared: Do you find that Stage Management & Production is still a male-dominated career?
MB: For the most part, in Production Management, it’s about 70% male. Stage Management is different; it’s probably slightly more female-dominated. But there’s also a preconception about what kind of woman a Stage Manager is going to be, and I find that I’ll often come onto a job, and hear, “Oh, we were expecting someone totally different.” And yet, I’m exactly what they want. So, it’s worked to my advantage.
There’s definitely a stereotype of the female Stage Manager that’s less-than-flattering. It’s a position of power, and of control, and a lot of women have a hard time being assertive, without coming off……well……without being called a bitch. And there’s definitely a way to get people to do the job, and be assertive, and not draw that comparison, but it’s difficult. You have to be professional, and not necessarily be friends with everyone. I’m not the kind of Stage Manager that’s going to be friends with the actors, or the acrobats, or the musicians, because that’s not what I was hired to do. A lot of times, they can’t handle me telling them a hard truth if that line between boss & friend became blurred.
I think I learned that in college. You go to have a drink with someone after a show, and they look at you, like, “Why are you talking to me? You just yelled at me!” But I had to call them out if they missed their cue, because that’s what a Stage Manager does. It’s not about you. It’s about the Show.
Propared: Time management is big part of successfully running any show. Are you a notebook-keeper? What kind of technology do you integrate into your process?
MB: The timeframe of the show has a lot to do with it. I love the idea of using technology, but if I have to enter in a ton of information at the beginning of a show, then it might not be that helpful at all. Filemaker is great, but creating an entire database for EACH show is incredibly time-consuming, and I usually don’t have that kind of time.
My process is: I get a contact sheet together, and I make a schedule. That’s first. And I’m going to make that schedule readable in a way that’s both easy for me, and easy for the people who have to use it. Some people need to see a calendar format. Then maybe I break it down into a daily timeline. I actually end up creating multiple versions of the same schedule for this very purpose. I need to have the overview for myself, and then the broken-down version for everyone else.
Each department has their own needs, their own deliverables, what they need to accomplish, and that needs to be reflected, clearly, in whatever document or spreadsheet or whatever that I create. In a huge project, like a fashion show, the production schedule is key. A lot of people share this document. So it has to be easy-to-read & digest. A lot of times, this schedule can illustrate important facts, to the client, about what challenges their show might face.
Propared: Can you give us a real world example?
MB: Sure. I recently did a show for….it was an orchestral concert. Big dreams ~ this was going to be a donors banquet, so those in attendance would (hopefully) want to give money to the client to do moreshows. So I purchased this venue for a day. OK, how long is “a day”? From 10am-9pm. That’s how much time we had. OK. What time is the show? 7pm. OK. How long is it? One hour. So, that means we’ll have an hour to load out. That’s tight. It’ll take the musicians an hour to get their instruments off-stage!
So, then we have to work backwards. Show’s at 7pm. House opens at 6pm. You’re gonna want a final run-through before the house opens. But the musician’s union states that they have to have a one-and-a-half hour buffer between a run-through and downbeat. SO, we have to start the run-through at 3:30pm. So everything has to be set by then ~ that’s cues, lighting, staging, audio, EVERYTHING. So you have to be cuing lighting from 1pm-3pm, and leave a little time for a break.
So the scenery has to be in place by 1pm. So they’re doing their thing from 10am-1pm, and that’s not including setting up the audio, staging, etc. Sooooooo, can we load in the night before? How much more would that cost us? And none of this timeline includes things like, the train didn’t run on time, or the computer doesn’t work, or all of those things that can, AND WILL, go wrong.
I say all of this to illustrate how important that production schedule is, and how the client needs to see it, visually. You can’t just tell them, “No, I don’t think we can do this in eight hours.” You have to show them. They need to see exactly what it takes to get their vision working. And that’s where I start, those very general questions about what it’s going to take. And you can’t start the process, without doing this kind of due diligence. Because, if something goes wrong, and it will, you can’t say, “Not my fault.” It’s up to you, as a Stage or Production Manager, to see these things ahead of time, and address them. If you don’t, who would hire you?
Propared: So then, managing the expectations of the client keeps coming up as a crucial part of what you do.
MB: Managing expectations is everything. Nobody likes to say “No” to the creative ideas, but somebody has to. And that somebody is the Stage or Production Manager. And it’s important to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t just shut people down.That’s the approach that a lot of people miss. Offer solutions. Find a better way. Maybe you end up with a more interesting & creative production because of the initial limitations.
Propared: Is this true only of larger shows, where you are acting as Production Manager? Or is it true also for Stage Managing as well?
MB: Oh, it holds true for both. You might be overseeing a smaller element as a SM, but the process is the same, and its importance cannot be downplayed. For a young SM, you have to learn to speak up. Take responsibility. It’s your job.
And involve everyone else. Let them offer solutions. Even if you have the answer, if a stagehand comes up with a solution you already had in mind, let them take credit. It’s their show, too! And that’s a more subtle part of what Stage & Production Managers do. Helping the crew feel like what they’re doing is important, and valued.
Thanks, Mandy! Your story is inspiring, and we hope that readers learned as much about what it takes to be an effective Stage & Production Manager as we did.
Stay tuned for more tips from the pros, as we collect more stories, and feature more interviews with our industry’s leaders.