Actors’ Equity Association has named 2020 as the “Year of the Stage Manager,” commemorating the decision made 100 years ago to encode stage managers in the union. It feels like an appropriate celebration at the Michigan State University Department of Theatre as well; in just a few short days, Troy Gährs and Shelby Eppich will become the first MSU students to graduate from the Department of Theatre’s new Bachelor in Fine Arts Stage Management degree program.
Stage managers are often the unsung heroes of a staged production, working in the shadows to ensure a show runs smoothly and professionally. Since its inception in 1968, the MSU Department of Theatre has trained students in the art of stage management, but it was never a formal degree track until 2017.
I knew that stage management was something I wanted to keep doing. I felt more myself than I ever did in the acting arena. It was my transitional point.Shelby Eppich, BFA Stage Management 2020
When Tina M. Newhauser came to Michigan State in 2012, she brought with her more than 30 years of stage and production management experience on hundreds of shows, that included working on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “The Boy from Oz” starring Hugh Jackman and award-winning corporate events for Fortune 500 companies. Department Chairperson Kirk Domer asked Newhauser to be the faculty mentor for all student stage managers and the seed for the BFA program was planted. Newhauser began building the curriculum and learning outcomes in 2015 and the degree officially launched in the fall 2017.
“By that time, we already had a few students interested in stage management,” Newhauser said, “and the program became an opportunity for them to jump to the BFA track.”
That jump proved to be a natural progression for Shelby Eppich.
“I came to Michigan State as an actor. I liked my acting classes, but I felt like something needed to change,” Eppich said. “I took a stage management class my sophomore year and loved everything about it. I really connected with Tina. I knew that stage management was something I wanted to keep doing. I felt more myself than I ever did in the acting arena. It was my transitional point.”
For Troy Gährs, his college journey was not as straight a path.
“Stage Management is like my sixth major at MSU. I started in political science and switched through a whole host of things, one semester at a time. But I was always doing theatre as an extracurricular and really enjoyed that,” Gährs said. “I realized theatre was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know exactly what aspect of theatre. I spent a lot of time visiting with Amy Lampe, the wonderful advisor we have for the Department of Theatre. She helped me explore the options and I discovered that I had already had experience in a lot of the BFA Stage Management requirements, and the rest is history.”
Along with the core Theatre curriculum, BFA Stage Management students complete three stage management courses and three courses in theatrical design. According to Newhauser, this component of the degree is crucial.
“I tell every student, ‘you cannot manage what you don’t know.’ You need a really holistic understanding of the profession because it’s a collaborative art form and stage managers are in the hub of that. A good stage manager has an understanding of how actors think, how designers think, and how technicians think because it enables them to more concisely disseminate information to the entire team.”
BFA Stage Management students also may be offered opportunities to work off campus, gaining valuable experience at various “business theatre” events. According to Newhauser, people are often surprised by the variety of industry opportunities that fit a stage manager’s skillset and abilities. “Corporations will pull people together in a room to present a new marketing plan, a product launch, or an investor meeting and they want to do it in a really theatrical way. All of that requires a stage management team and it’s an avenue most students coming out of high school don’t even know exist.”
Because of this, Eppich will be graduating with an impressive resume of work experience.
“I have been Tina’s corporate event shadow for the last couple of years,” she said. “My first experience in New York City got me hooked and now I’ve worked as a stage manager, deck manager, or production assistant for KBO Group, Blue Water Technologies, and First Agency to name a few.”
There is no defined path to graduation. There are so many options, so many classes, so many areas of expertise. You never stop discovering new opportunities to learn.Troy Gährs, BFA Stage Management 2020
The Department of Theatre also enjoys a professional partnership with Williamston Theatre, an Equity company in mid-Michigan. BFA Stage Management students that find themselves working there have the option to join the Actors’ Equity Association Equity Membership Candidacy Program.
“A major benefit to having Tina running this program is that she still does the work,” said Gährs. “She has all these amazing connections and opportunities for us to learn that we wouldn’t otherwise have and that’s one of the best things about Michigan State. There is no defined path to graduation. There are so many options, so many classes, so many areas of expertise. You never stop discovering new opportunities to learn.”
Eppich says she agrees with Gährs on that point. “One of the biggest things you hear when you tour the Department of Theatre is that it’s a ‘School of Choice.’ They want to support you, to do what you feel is best for your career arc. I have an interest in children’s theatre, so I was able to tailor my specific degree to emphasize that. If you want a create-your-own path college experience, you should definitely come to Michigan State.”
To learn more about the Department of Theatre Bachelor in Fine Arts Stage Management, please visit the website.
Listen to an episode of the In the Aud podcast featuring Newhauser, Eppich, and Gährs on their love of stage management and their experience at Michigan State University.