29th July 2021

Stage Managers: Use This Time to Become Emotion Scientists

stage managers

As stage managers, the most difficult part of the job is not calling a complicated sequence of cues, the long hours, or even handling an emergency situation. Most of the time, we feel the most depleted, frustrated or overwhelmed because of difficult interactions with others.

We are the first line of defense for almost any issue. We may not be the person who can fix it, but people know we can point them in the right direction and will help in any way we can. Performers, directors, designers, crew, staff, management – all of these people know the stage manager can likely help with whatever they need. The number of issues brought to us are endless, and as a result we are exposed to an array of emotional outputs. These outputs often don’t have anything to do with us directly, but we are inevitably required to navigate conflict and emotions in our daily work life, both ours and those of others.

I was first introduced to Marc Brackett and his book, Permission to Feel, when Brene Brown interviewed him on her podcast, Unlocking Us. As the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in Yale University’s Child Study Center, he knows what he’s talking about. His book explores how we can become ‘emotion scientists’ and move away from being ‘emotion judges’. Becoming an emotion scientist is all about learning how to recognize, understand, and regulate our own emotions, as well as recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.

In order to do this, Brackett came up with the RULER framework – Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, Regulating.

In the book, Brackett says,

“Having emotion skills – giving yourself and those around you permission to feel – doesn’t mean you become a doormat or you roll over and agree with everything everyone else says or does. People higher in emotional intelligence are just as likely to push back when attacked – but they will have an easier time dealing with the emotions in a confrontation and will be more skillful at finding a peaceful solution.”

Finding peaceful solutions is a part of our everyday work as stage managers. Whether we are being confronted directly or mediating between the director and designers at the tech table, being able to accurately recognize and understand all of the emotions at play will greatly increase our chances of resolution and navigating sensitive situations.

Brackett’s podcast conversation with Brene Brown was tangibly inspiring, as she is another front runner in the research on emotion intelligence and its relationship to leadership. Her book, Dare to Lead, teaches us how to have the difficult conversations, remove the armor that holds us back, and become daring, courageous leaders. In a time when our industry is struggling for its life, I can’t think of anything we need more than courageous leaders. The first step towards becoming the kinds of leaders we need is learning to understand and regulate emotion.

Both authors offer tools for learning these essential lessons. Brown’s Dare to Lead Hub offers many options for learning and incorporating daring leadership, including a Read-Along Workbook to accompany reading the book itself. If you’re able and everyone is willing, I recommend doing this with your team at work. As someone who completed the workbook with a team of stage managers, I can tell you it provided incredible insight into my own emotional armor, facilitated more open communication among our team and laid important groundwork for the way we all now approach our work and lives.

During the month of October, Brackett hosted a virtual book club and facilitated conversations about Permission to Feel and emotional intelligence skills. Keep an eye on his website for any upcoming book club events. His team also created a Mood Meter App as a way to help people “track their feelings and moods over time in order to gain greater insight about their emotional lives”. This app is only $0.99 to download on the App Store.

If nothing else, during this time away from the theatre, read these books and embark on your own, individual journey towards a better understanding of your own and others’ emotions. Learn how these emotions and your relationship to them is affecting your ability to lead. You will see the benefits in multiple areas of your life, including work, relationships and your overall well-being.

Also by Vanessa Chumbley:

How Do Stage Managers Market Their Skills Outside the Theatre Industry?

How to Navigate the Emotional Landscape of a Career Change

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After graduating with a BFA in Violin Performance, Vanessa transitioned into stage management. She worked as a freelance stage manager for six years for opera and ballet companies all over the country before accepting a full time position with Houston Ballet. After only three years with Houston Ballet, the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all live performances, ultimately resulting in a layoff for Vanessa in mid-2020. She has since accepted a contract gig in a totally different industry for the time being, but continues to be involved in efforts to improve the working conditions in the performing arts industry, and therefore the lives of all who work in the arts.

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