To say a stage manager is not a collaborative theatre artist because he/she is told what to do is akin to saying an actor isn’t an artist because they’re given their lines by the playwright and told by the director where and how to move.
It’s true that stage managers have to make use of certain technical skills to do their job. But that’s no different than the technical skills required by a designer. Virtually all theatre artists need certain technical skills, and virtually all theatre artists are given specific direction. But to name the direction given to a designer as “collaboration” while naming the direction given to a stage manager as something else is just semantics. I disagree with anyone who doesn’t recognize their stage manager as a fellow artistic collaborator.
A stage manager starts out setting the tone in the rehearsal room. They are involved intimately with every person throughout the rehearsal period. In the tech process they begin to take over the reins, assuming the role of leadership. Within the confines of the writer’s script, time available and the performance space, they incorporate the desires of the director, the actors, the producers, each of the designers, the choreographer, the musical director, and all the other collaborators. Additionally, they are managing the specific actions of the board operators and everyone running the show as well as maintaining communications with the front of house staff.
Once the show opens, the stage manager runs the show as the director’s representative. They keep the actors on track by giving performance notes and make sure the technical elements are maintained. I’d compare a stage manager running a show to a conductor conducting an orchestra. They both listen intently and use their experience and intuition to feel the moment when the show will benefit the greatest by calling the next cue. It’s a subtle art and not simply a mechanical process of saying the word “go” when the actor utters a specific word. Then, when the show closes, it’s the stage manager who compiles the records so that anyone can follow the map they’ve left behind to remount the same production.
Stage Managers use the knowledge and understanding of a director’s vision to develop a strong sense of the show and how it flows from scene to scene. Directors and designers who collaborate with the stage manager to develop the best show possible are the ones who benefit the most. The stage manager must have, more than any other member of the team, a full understanding of the show, each actor, each set piece, each lighting and sound cue and how each component individually and collectively moves through its individual moment. The stage manager’s artistic ability and integrity are what, ultimately, transform the show from its pieces into that magical whole.