USITT19 Throwback: A Conversation with Stage Manager David J. McGraw

February 10, 2020

Photo provided by David J. McGraw

At USITT19 in Lousiville, we sat down with stage manager David J. McGraw and talked about his most influential mentors, finding a work-life balance and his outlook on diversity within the world of stage management.

Tell me a bit about how you got your start in stage management.

I am a stage manager the kind that was baptism by fire, train myself, and read a chapter ahead of whatever we were doing in rehearsal. I really did not have training. I did some summer stock and really felt like that was how I earned my keep at the beginning and then I did go to grad school and the best thing about graduate school for me was that certainly, I learned a lot, but what I learned most was that I deserved to be in the room and it really leveled the playing field that I came from a small school and I really didn't think that I was eligible. Suddenly, to be there with the big names and go, I can do this. It's everything I have been doing, I'm just scaling up at this point.

Who have been some of your mentors along the way?

I would call it a "peer mentor." When I started graduate school, I was there with Jenny Friend. Jenny is currently at Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis. Jenny and I met the first day of grad school and I quickly realized that there was someone who was nicer than I was. Everyone always told me I was a nice guy and easy to get along with.

When I met Jenny it was like, "Wow, I have a nemesis who's even nicer than me but in a really great way." It made me ask myself, "How can I be even more welcoming and more nurturing?" And so it was this great contest between Jenny and me to really push each other. I feel like sometimes you get to a point in your career even early on, where people are congratulating you for doing good work, but you want to be challenged more. Sometimes it can be criticism and other times it can be this sort of friendly competition. It just worked out really well with us and we're still friends.

What advice would you give someone who's trying to break into the industry?

I think regardless of the particular area in which you want to work, never lose sight of the why and remember your own origin story. For me, it was when I was in high school and I went to see a low-budget Hamlet in a church basement. After that, I said, "Well, that's my life." Like it was done. No more choices needed. And so many times we will let the stress of the job ruin the experience for ourselves or you lose sight of the people that we're trying to connect within the audience. Unfortunately, a lot of us define ourselves by our work. Then when we change jobs, we think that we are no longer that person. So for me as a stage manager, when I'm not stage managing, am I still a stage manager? I think a lot of people just feel like they can never step away. And that will lead to burnout. And we all go through burnouts.

How do you find a work-life balance?

It's not easy, because unfortunately, we're in a bubble and it's hard to make connections. I think everyone in the United States is struggling with that right now. The situation of not even knowing your own neighbors because "I'm only within my small sub-community." For a work-life balance, it's certainly the idea of finding multiple identities for yourself and the ways beyond you defining your work as your identity. For myself, it's a struggle and it will be a struggle, but certainly, it's worth all the effort that goes into it.

What value do you find at USITT both in coming to Conference as well as year-round?

Starting with the Conference, I find it very inspiring because every time I think I understand it, I realize how many people are still pushing envelopes. Because I work in management, I go to all the management sessions, but at this Conference, I went to a sound session but I've never been part of the sound community ever and it was an incredible experience. Just to hear the conversations and see how they were pushing envelopes. It was great, too, because they had management questions within their session that really got me thinking, "How do I do this?"

You don't know what you don't know until you come to USITT. And then you realize, oh my goodness, I should spend a week over here and just talk to folks.

For me, overall it's that sense of the community. I was just at the Behind the Scenes booth and they're running their annual raffle here so that they can fundraise. The raffle supports technicians and artists who are injured and what's great about it is the understanding that we take care of our own.

I really get a sense that there is a community here and it's open. I also have to say that in terms of diversity and the freedom that people feel to be themselves while they're at the Conference is wonderful. I have worked in communities where you are careful about how you dress and who you hold hands with, but you can come to the Conference and really be yourself.

Tell me about the state of employment in the field of stage management. Have you seen a growth in interest? What about diversity?

Right now we're at growing pains, in that everyone has recognized the need for increased diversity, but are struggling with how to achieve it effectively. I just went through a hiring process myself where everyone in the hiring committee recognized the need and said it out loud. But then as we were looking at candidates, we were falling into subconscious ways of distinguishing based on identity. We realized that even the job description was really focused on individuals who are privileged to have that level of training. We realized, "How would we ever increase diversity if we keep looking at the same mold and expect something else to come out of it?"

I'm very happy to say that we were able to hire a candidate who would greatly diversify our staff. I think that we have a really good plan to onboard that person and make sure that we are only expanding our community. We're not asking someone to adapt to another community.

Tell me a little bit about your blog work with our media partner Stage Directions Magazine.

I've been writing the Stage Manager's Kit Blog for three, four years now. It's really to take a step back. Social media is wonderful, but sometimes it's that immediate first response and so it's nice to be able to step back and look at some of the bigger pictures or to realize that maybe the first 10 responses crowded out some of the other opinions. The blog actually first started as, "What are some cool tips, techniques, and latest apps?" Over time it's evolved into questions about onboarding new team members, what the end of careers might look like, or simply the proverbial question of graduate school such as why and where? Hopefully, it's something that's a fun read, but also can dig a little bit deeper than just that two-sentence poll online.

Bio provided by David J. McGraw

David J. McGraw is an Assistant Professor and the Program Coordinator for the Arts Administration program at Elon University.  He formerly served the head of the stage management and arts entrepreneurship programs at the University of Iowa as well as the Executive Director of the Iowa Summer Rep.  In 2008, he designed the  UI Certificate in Arts Entrepreneurship.  Mr. McGraw is the author of "The Epoch Model: An Arts Organization with an Expiration Date," which was featured in 20UNDER40: Re-inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. Mr. McGraw also founded SM-Sim, LLC, a business focused on developing tools for stage managers, and the Stage Manager Survey, the largest study of stage managers in the world.

A proud member of Actors' Equity Association, Mr. McGraw has stage-managed for the Chester Theatre Company, Iowa Summer Rep, Arizona Repertory Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre, Geva Theatre Center, Oldcastle Theatre, Perishable Theatre, StageWorks on the Hudson, Vilar Performing Arts Center, White River Theatre Festival, and the Yale Repertory Theatre. He also is serving as a Director-at-Large for the Stage Managers Association (having served as a Second Vice Chair in 2007).

Mr. McGraw was selected as one of the first stage/theatre managers to serve on the Fulbright Specialist roster. He was chosen by the South African State Theatre for their Share Your Journey, Set My Journey project in May 2019. This project investigates how the new musical FREEDOM can tour the United States as well as provides workshops on stage management, producing theatre, grant-writing, and touring theatre.