Over the years I have been struck by the methods used by stage managers in supporting the creative process. Creativity is a sensitive process, full of vulnerability; unstable and volatile, while also intimate and friendly. There is a strong sense of discipline about theatre and performance, but not in the regimented way one might associate with military discipline, for example.
Most models of management focus on strategic leadership qualities; less attention has been given to day-to-day problem solving, dealing with issues ‘in the moment’ – an area where stage managers excel, of course. The pressure of the real-time flow of events that is the performance; combined with the interface with hyped and stressed performers, leaves little time for reflection. The stage manager is only too sensitive to the volatility of the situation, and the need to persuade rather than command.
This isn’t new – in fact, the character of the stage manager goes back a long way. Alan Read, in Theatre and Everyday Life, (Routledge 1993) cites a journal from 1734 called ‘The Prompter’ which describes someone who “though he seemed not to command yet all his instructions were punctually complied with, and in the modest character of an adviser had the whole management and direction of that little commonwealth”. The characteristics described – punctuality and modesty – are still the same one can observe today.
The sheepdog theory works on a number of levels. Primarily it describes an approach to problem solving. Sheepdogs circle the flock (ie the problem) rather than barking at it, slowly moving the sheep in the required direction from behind. They have to work hard in covering all that ground, making sure none has been left out. Unlike the leadership model, where the emphasis is on ‘the shepherd’ setting the task, the reality is that the sheepdog uses a wide range of discretion in achieving the objective. Even the casual observer will recognise the teamwork quality of the relationship, however much whistling and shouting is going on. Skilled sheepdogs know what the task is, and hardly need telling, reading the signs almost before they have been made. And it goes without saying that the sheepdog is totally loyal to both the shepherd and the flock, and will flog themselves to death to get the job done, coming back from the ravine with the lost sheep, dripping wet and exhausted.
Contemporary management, in a democratic setting which still demands decisiveness, seems to need more of the sheepdog style: the ‘modest character of the adviser’ rather than the imperiousness of the shepherd; creative artists require curating more than directing.