If one thinks of a theatrical production as a tree, then the seed from which it grows is the producer—the individual that initializes the project and secures funding and support for it—and the general manager is the tree trunk: the sturdy and reliable basis for everything that comes afterwards. The first person hired on any production, the general manager devises, oversees, and enforces the production's budget and timeline. He or she also hires the show's director, production manager, company manager, and—with copious input from the director—everyone else on the core creative team.
Because their job involves budgeting for and scheduling every aspect of the theatrical staging process—from hiring and casting to construction and rehearsal—general managers must have a broad base of experience in the theater world.
Shortly after being hired by the producer, the general manager begins the process of creating a thorough and detailed cost estimate for the show. This estimate must take into account show-specific details like cast size, typical set designs, costuming, props, effects, the presence of musical components, local union rates, space rental, and marketing, and balance all of it against the available resources. As progress on the production moves along and the core team is hired, the general manager transitions these estimates into a more detailed departmental budget which will guide every aspect of the rest of the production, including casting decisions, design and material choices, and the timeline to opening night.
Intimately related to the budget is the schedule, which general managers also oversee. It's the general manager's job not only to set major production deadlines but to ensure they're on track to be met by checking in with members of the production crew, avoiding costly and potentially devastating delays. It's a massive task, but fortunately the general manager has the assistance of many delegates and enforcers, including the show's company manager, production manager, technical director, stage managers, and director, as well as the designers and technical department heads.
General Manager (Theater) at a Glance
General managers are pretty much running the show when it comes to a theatrical production's logistical and financial planning, and as such must have abundant experience and education in theater. Most have master's degrees, but beyond that there's a lot of flexibility: degrees might be either MFA or MBA, and in fields as diverse as general theater arts, performing arts management, arts administration, project management, and accounting.
Because their job involves budgeting for and scheduling every aspect of the theatrical staging process—from hiring and casting to construction and rehearsal—general managers must have a broad base of experience in the theater world. Many start as stage managers before progressing over the course of many years to become company managers, production managers, or business managers. Along the way, they may gain experience in theatrical design, technical theater construction, acting, casting, and even directing. The most successful general managers are freelancers who stage smash hits on Broadway and the West End, although many prefer the consistency and opportunity afforded by a long-term position with a particular theater company.
General managers work in two capacities: as highly ranked long-term employees at established theater companies, or as one-time contractors, hired by producers to get shows off the ground in strong markets like Broadway or the West End. They generally rely on copious industry experience to do their jobs, and hard-won connections to find work.
- Timeline creation
- Personnel management
- Script-based cost analysis
- Contract negotiation
- Industry-specific knowledge (unions, going rates, rental prices, etc.)
For general managers, who translate some of the vaguer ideas of producers and directors into solid schedules and budgets, both listening and communication skills are essential. They certainly can't shy away from making hard decisions, communicating bad news, or pressuring their colleagues to stay on track, as—in many regards—their job on the production is to tell others "no" and help find inventive budget and timetable solutions. Finally, exceptional organizational skills, laser focus, and detail-oriented thinking are essential to managing the general manager's enormous task.
General managers generally work out of a backstage or nearby office, making frequent trips in to the theater or rehearsal space to check in with progress towards various goals. Their work hours are usually divided between solo work, frequent departmental meetings, and more dynamic tasks like assisting in rehearsal or problem-solving to meet the needs of designers.
While looking for work is a frequent task for freelance company managers—who usually work in and around large markets like New York City's Broadway and London's West End—it's worth noting that even a freelance engagement can last for years, if the show is successful enough.