Why Stage Managers should eat more

Recently I came across an article written by Peter Crawley from the Irish Times, Calling the shots: A life in the day of a stage manager who had followed a Stage Manager for a day to find out what Stage Management entails.
As the day progressed, the journalist honed in on the fact that the Stage Manager he was following hardly ate anything. She was busy during lunchtime, grabbed a quick (unhealthy) snack and worked long hours. Towards the end of the article he stated,

‘Stage managers do not eat.’

Most of us in the theatre world know that Stage Managers work long hours and often work during breaks (rehearsal breaks are a valuable time to talk to other departments, catch up on missed phone calls and emails and paperwork). And I too have been guilty of working long days eating very little.

About four years ago, I decided to change that. I made a conscious decision to sit down to eat my lunch, and try to have a healthy snack at every break.

For the first while it was difficult. I was worried I would have to stay later to catch up on all the things I used to do during breaks, or I would miss or forget something important. I also had a feeling of guilt for sitting down when actually I was very busy and didn’t feel like I had the time for such luxury.

In fact, the opposite was true. The production didn’t come to a grinding halt because I sat down to eat my lunch. In fact, I was calmer and clearer after taking the break that my whole outlook was better.

Here’s what I have found after taking breaks and nourishing myself for four years, and why I believe Stage Managers should eat more:

  • I am healthier. Well this is a bit of a no-brainer. Running on no food is like trying to run a car with no fuel. I do have to be a bit more organised to bring lunch and snacks with me. That way I can sit down and eat for half an hour (rather than going out to find food), and then go and catch up on work for the other half an hour while the actors are still on break. Win/win!
  • My rapport with the company was better. Having time to actually sit down and chat while eating is a lovely way to get to know everyone better, especially during the rehearsal period. Although your company become your family quite quickly in theatre, I found relationships were better from an early stage because I actually had the time to really get to know people from the start. This paid off in spades further down the track.
  • My mind is fresher. After eating, if I go and do some paperwork, I am more efficient, as I am full of fuel. I can often get the same amount done as I would have otherwise.
  • I prioritise better. Because I have less time in the break, I have to focus on the important issues first. I don’t get caught up in the things that might end up solving themselves.

Some tricks and tips for making time for breaks and eating more:

  • Bring fruit. Something like an apple is easy to eat on a tea break while walking to costume to catch up about a fitting. This way you are refuelling while still getting a lot done.
  • Bring a healthy lunch. There are many ways to do this, and it seems easier than it is, especially during production week. Sometimes I prepare something big for the week on a Sunday, sometimes I bring some ingredients and some wraps and make lunch at work each day, or sometimes I pack it in the morning. It depends on the week, and where we are at.
  • During weeks where I’m working three-call days (like in Production Week), I make a giant salad on Sunday that is one for each day, then I might go and buy something different for the other meal so I’m getting outside for at least a bit of the day, and have some variety in what I’m eating.
  • Organise a shared lunch day. This is something that State Theatre SA do as a whole company and staff and I think it’s a great idea. Everyone brings something to share (usually there’s a theme), and it is a fantastic way to bring everyone together for a meal. Sometimes the best creative ideas come out of getting everyone together talking!
  • Bring some healthy snacks for the production desks. The lollies on a production desk are a real problem for me (see this post). If I eat them, I end up having a massive sugar low about an hour after and then get really tired, the best way to keep my energy up is to have some trail mix at the production desk.

The big thing to remember is that you don’t want to be a martyr (which I’ve seen a lot of Stage Managers do). Not eating because you are busy is not a badge of honour. It is the fastest way to burning out, running out energy and being less productive.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette

On a big show, there’s nothing worse for operators and Stage Managers when someone on cans isn’t adhering to standard etiquette. Not only does it hamper everyone’s ability to do their job properly, but it makes for a cranky Stage Manager (SM). And a cranky SM is akin to the Fun Police. At a basic level, most people in theatre are here because it’s fun. But if the Fun Police are out in force, it becomes just another job. And it should (always) be more than that.

For the uninitiated amongst you, ‘cans’ is a common name for communication devices used backstage in theatre, which consist of a pack (sometimes radio and sometimes wired) and a headset. If you are calling, it may consist of a headset and a panel in your SMD. The term ‘cans’ comes from the old system of two cans on a piece of string.

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Cans are also sometimes referred to as ‘comms’ or ‘headsets’.

In Australia, it’s usually the sound department’s responsibility to maintain the cans system, and they should be your first port of call if your cans are not working properly.

So, how to use your cans without bringing the cranky fun police knocking on your door?

What you need to say

When putting your headset on: (your name) on cans. 
It’s important to know at all times who is on cans with you.

When taking your headset off: (your name) off cans
Again something I insist on, as the SM needs to know if one of their operators or crew isn’t contactable for a time.

When an SM says “Standing by LXQ8”: Standing by or LX
For all cues, this should be your response. The general rule of thumb is that if the SM is only standing one operator by, you can say ‘Standing By’. If the SM is calling multiple operators, you should respond with what you are operating. For example, the dialogue should run like this:
SM: Standby LXQ21, SDQ35, Door to open and FLY Q3.
LX operator: LX
Sound operator: Sound
Mechanist: Door
Flys: Flys
This enables the SM to know exactly who is standing by. It’s tricky for an SM to know who is standing by if a couple of people say ‘standing by’. I always smile when people respond in the same order as the call (because it satisfies my obsessive compulsive personality), but it’s probably too much to expect that it should always happen.

Can I Talk?
This is a great question. If you need to say anything that isn’t urgent (even if it’s show related), it’s great to check with the SM if it is a good time to talk. You will notice that this is a question used a lot by people who are used to working on big shows, or have been around a while. Take note, they have learnt over the years the value of this question. Learn from their wisdom.

What you shouldn’t say

Go.

No-one should say GO except the Stage Manager. Try to avoid saying it in conversation, or when describing something that happened. Good operators have excellent reflexes when they hear the word Go and it can end in a mis-timed cue. Yes, it happens.

Anything other than your response between the ‘standby’ and the ‘go’.
I have seen this cause so many problems on shows where someone has tried to crack a joke between the standby and the go, and one of the operators has pressed ‘go’ in response to something in the joke. Just don’t talk while everyone is on standby. It’s a simple rule that gets broken all the time. It’s not okay (unless in an emergency).

Any type of gossip.
You never know in a venue where people can hear you. In a lot of the major theatre centres, you can turn on the cans feed from various theatres in the management offices. Other offices have _squawk boxes_ that play the cans feed through a speaker so anyone popping into the office can hear it, or sometimes even walking by. It’s equally important not to talk about actors or performers on stage. On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed the crew talking about how awful an actor is while the actor was sitting in the lighting office and they heard everything.

Anything when the SM says ‘Quiet Please’
Calling is hard sometimes. It involves a lot of listening. If the SM needs some quiet to hear the dialogue, or just to concentrate for a moment, they will say ‘Quiet Please’ and this is everyone’s cue to shut up immediately. If you need to say something, go back to the ‘Can I talk?’ question.

When to be on cans:

The SM will often do a cans check before the show to make sure everyone is at their post. If you are an operator, you should be on cans from the five minute call for each act. If you are an ASM, you should be on cans before the house is open.

Other things to know:

  • When talking to someone who isn’t on cans, don’t take your headset off. I’ve been known to say someone’s name repeatedly to get their attention, to find out that they are chatting to someone else and have taken their cans off to hear better. This is also not okay. If you’re on a quiet show, ask the sound department for single ear headsets. This way you can turn your free ear to the person talking and you don’t have to take off your headset ever.
  • Technical rehearsals are very busy for everyone involved, best to not chat at all during these times.
  • SMs have different preferences. I quite like a bit of cans chat when the time is appropriate. It can keep a tired crew engaged when they are starting to flag. Other SMs prefer silence. Respect the wishes of the SM. They are responsible for keeping the whole show together, so if they ask for silence, give them silence.
  • Warn people before unplugging your cans. It can make a deafening pop.
  • Some venues run a few loops. On big shows, the SM will not listen to some loops. Be aware of who you are trying to talk to and which loop they are listening to.
  • Turn off your mic if you need to cough or yell. It is also deafening.
  • Don’t leave your mic open if you are not saying anything. People don’t like to hear you heavy breathing or rustling around backstage. I’ve also experienced the full soundscape of someone using the toilet. It isn’t nice.

Do you use any other cans etiquette on your shows? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.

The Ultimate Stage Management Kit

Being prepared is one of the best characteristics of a Stage Manager. When an actor runs offstage with a costume malfunction (ahem!), having a safety pin at the ready can be the difference between a quick re-entrance or a show stop.

One simple way to be prepared is to have a kit with all the things you often find yourself needing. With a set of standard items, you too can be as resourceful as MacGyver.

It’s a balance between having enough items to be able to cover most situations, but not so many that it becomes unwieldy and difficult to rummage through. When I’m calling, I keep it under the prompt desk and often end up with actors poking through it under my feet to find some much needed item.

I’ve just been tidying out my kit (a good job to do at the end of a year) and here’s my list for the Ultimate Stage Management Kit. I keep it in a toolbox, but have also used plastic tubs or roadcases. This one is my old trusty favourite. I’ve had it since my first ASM gig many moons ago. I always make sure I have my little guy (who doesn’t have a name – see if you can spot him) given to me by a friend when I got my first professional job.

The Ultimate Stage Management Kit:

You don’t need a large quantity of any of these things, mostly a couple of each will do. They are only there to grab in hurry, you can re-stock at a time when you aren’t so pushed.

Stationary:

  • Scissors
  • Post-it notes
  • Document flags
  • Blu-tak
  • Permanent markers
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Safety pins
  • Erasers
  • Rubber bands
  • Paper clips
  • USB drive
  • Stapler
  • Staples
  • Hole punch
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Spare leads for mechanical pencils
  • Erasers
  • Highlighters (note: blue is not good backstage under blue light.)
  • White out tape
  • Batteries (I usually have AA and AAA)
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Pegs (surprisingly handy for a lot of problems)
  • Scale ruler
  • Ruler
  • Velcro dots
  • Headphones

Personal Items:

  • Tampons
  • Business cards
  • Coins – for pay phones, parking, drink machines (trust me, I’ve needed this more than you’d expect, especially on tour.)
  • Toothpicks

First aid:

  • Band aids
  • Conforming bandage
  • Hypo-allergenic medical tape (especially on shows with radio mics)
  • Sunscreen
  • Throat lozenges
  • Paracetamol (This is controversial in Australia. But I keep some anyway.)
  • Lip balm
  • Blister pads

(always keep a fully stocked first aid kit nearby, these items are just things that get used very regularly)

Theatre gear:

  • Torch
  • Chalk
  • Prop keys (small and easy props to lose, useful to have some spares.)
  • Prop money (as above)
  • Multi-tool (or screwdrivers and a knife) – this qualifies you as a true MacGyver.
  • Tape measure (at least 8m.)
  • Cable ties

Wardrobe:

  • Bobby pins
  • Hair ties
  • Needle & thread (I usually have black and white as they can be used in most situations.)
  • Noticeboard pins
  • Glue
  • Spare buttons
  • Cloth tape measure
  • Shoe laces (these can be used for more than just shoes)
  • Clear nail polish (Good for a quick fix of ladders in stockings)

Happiness items (or morale boosters):

  • Birthday candles
  • Spoon
  • Knife
  • Fork
  • Ball (Tennis ball or hacky sack – more about this in a future post.)
  • Bottle opener
  • Phone chargers

Tape:

  • Glow tape
  • Mark up tape (If you can only fit one colour, choose white.)
  • Double sided tape
  • Electrical tape
  • Gaff (of course!)

 

 

If you’re on a tight budget, you can find some good tips to stocking it cheaply here.

I’d love to hear what you have in your SM kit, especially if it isn’t on this list. Please comment with your items below.

A week in the life of a Stage Manager- Production Week

Production Week is one of the busiest weeks for Stage Management. Here is a diary of what I’ve done this week. This production of Tartuffe is not technically complicated so this is a fairly relaxed sample of what a production week would usually look like.

Monday – Bump In

7:00 am – Pack lunch. And dinner. And snacks.

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Food = Fuel

For 6 days. I’ve found the best way to make sure I get time to eat, is to bring as much of it with me as possible. This way I also eat healthier food which helps with my energy levels for the week.

 

 

9:00 am – Check in at theatre.
Answer any questions that may have come up at the initial stages of bump in. There was no time for a pre-rig, so not too many questions here this morning, as they’re swinging bars and rigging lamps.

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Start of bump-in. A blank canvas.

 

9:15 am – Check in with Scenic Artist: sort out which props can she take from rehearsals for art finishing. Check in with Wardrobe: discuss new information and see if there’s anything we can use in rehearsals.

9:30 am – Set up rehearsals, set props for the day’s scene work.

10:00 am – Rehearsalsimg_3919

11:30 am – While the actors are on break, check in at theatre. Answer questions that have come up. There’s some complicated rigging going on, so it’s interesting to see how that’s progressing. catch up on paperwork, emails, messages and missed phone calls that have come in while I’ve been in rehearsals.

11:45 am – Back in rehearsals

1:00 pm – Eat. It’s important to make time for this.

1:30 pm – Catch up on more correspondence. Play a little hackey-sack with the cast.

2:00 pm – Rehearsals

5:45 pm – Send rehearsal report (which contains information that each department needs that has arisen in rehearsals today). Check in at theatre, see if they are ready for the Subscriber Briefing.

6pm – Subscriber briefing – A chance for State Theatre Company subscribers to ask questions of the cast and creative team before they see the show. Tonight there was some interesting discussion on the adaptation by Phillip Kavanagh.

7pm – Measure mark up: this involves measuring the marks for all the props and furniture on the stage. This needs to be done before the lighting focus, so the Lighting Designer can focus to the correct position. I will transfer the marks to the stage once the floor has been laid.

7:30 pm – Go home

9pm – Update tomorrow’s schedule with some extra publicity calls that have just been added. Catch up on pressing emails, the non-urgent ones can wait until tomorrow (or the next day).

Tuesday

11:00 am  – Check in at theatre and answer any questions.

11:15 am – Check in with our Wiggy and make sure that the actors calls give them sufficient time, making sure to avoid as much overtime as possible.

11:30 am – Check in with props to discuss some changes that need to be made.

1:00 pm – Eat

2:00 pm – Rehearsals – This is our last session in the rehearsal room. We are working on some scenes that need a little more detail. I’m making sure that my blocking stays up to date with any changes, and keeping notes if any changes are likely to affect what the creative team may have already done in the theatre.

6:00 pm – Send rehearsal report. Check in with production manager. Find out which things still need some work, what has come up that we weren’t expecting. What hazards do I need to be aware of?

6:30 pm – Eat

7:00 pm – Get theatre ready for cast.

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Getting ready for the plot

7:15 pm – Induct cast. This involves safety procedures, evacuation procedures, incident procedures. Make them aware of any hazards that exist. Chat about how the sessions are going to run.

7:30 pm – LX plot (with actors onstage). Often there will be no actors onstage during a lighting plot, we would use ‘walkers’ instead so the cast can have an extra session in the rehearsal room. For Tartuffe, the lighting is not too complicated, so we have decided to use the time on stage for the actors to work with the director, while I sit with our Lighting Designer to plot the lighting. As it is still a lighting session, we are not focussing on any technical moments, we are working separately from the cast. Meanwhile, the Assistant Stage Manager is starting to set props, set up the backstage areas, and make sure everything is safe. She is also putting some white tape on obstacles backstage so the actors can see them easily in the dark.

11:00 pm – Check in with the Designer about any notes that have come up, things that need to be fixed or finished.

11:15 pm – Send out updated schedule to everyone with tomorrow’s changes.

Wednesday 

9:00 am  – Respond to emails that came up yesterday, and answer some phone calls from the office.

11:00 am – Check in at theatre. Some new masking is about to go in that will affect actor traffic backstage as well where the Stage Manager’s Desk (SMD) can go. We tried to come up with some solutions that will solve both the sightline issues and also the traffic issues. It’s still a work in progress.

12:00 pm – We are trying to solve some furniture storage issues, as we have a 4 metre long table. This show doesn’t have any legs or masking upstage of the proscenium, so we’re trying to find some solutions for where to store such a massive table during the show when it is not needed.

1:25 pm – Half hour call.

2:00 pm – Technical rehearsal – The first time we put all the elements together, sound, lighting, costumes, actors, consumable props, final props. We step through the show slowly, making sure that we work sequences until we get them right.

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The view from prompt-side at the start of the tech.

6:00 pm – Eat.

7:00 pm – Continue technical rehearsal.

11:00 pm – Go home.

Thursday

11:00 am – Check in with Production Manager and have a look at some new masking that has been put in.

12:00 pm – Check in with all the departments about how things are going.

12:30 pm – Eat.

1:00 pm – Preset and do pre-tech checks.

1:25 pm – Half hour call.

2:00 pm – Continue technical rehearsal.

5:30 pm – Eat

6:00 pm – Preset for dress rehearsal

6:30 pm – Pre-show checks. We have blown a lamp over the marble. The lighting department change the bulb. This is why we do pre-show lamp checks early enough in the evening.

7:15 pm – Half hour call.

7:40 pm – Dress Rehearsal. It goes really well. Still work to do to tighten things up, but a very good foundation to work from.

10:45 pm – Notes in the green room with cast, creatives and Director.

12:30 am – Send some emails about tomorrow, and send running times to relevant people.

12:45 am – Go home.

Friday

11:00 am -Respond to emails and phone calls. There’s a lot of these as I haven’t had time to do any of this since Wednesday morning. Mostly they are questions from the office.

12:30 pm – Eat .

12:55 pm – Half hour call.

1:30 pm – Rehearsals onstage with a photographer in attendance to take production photos.

6:00 pm – Eat.

6:30 pm – Preset for the show & do pre-show checks.

7:25 pm – Half hour call.

8:00 pm – Preview # 1.

10:45 pm – Check on the marble floor. We found two cracked tiles before the show, and needed to tape them over for bare feet. We now have four cracked tiles. Workshop are coming in to replace them tomorrow.

11:00 pm – Check in with one of the producers and our Sound Technician about some sound issues that we are having. Come up with a couple of solutions and order in which to try them.

11:30 pm – Join notes with cast, creatives and Director.

12:30 am – Send show report.

12:45 am – Go home.

Saturday

1:00 pm – Print off script changes for cast & update the prompt copy with all script changes.

2:00 pm – Rehearsals. At this stage we are working through a list of things that need attention from last night’s preview, including working through the script changes, acting notes and tightening up transitions.

5:30 pm – Finalise schedule for next week & distribute

6:00 pm – Transfer blocking to pages that have had to be replaced in prompt copy because of script changes.

6:30 pm – Eat.

7:00 pm – Preset & run through pre-show checks.

7:25 pm – Half hour call.

8:00 pm – Preview #2.

10:45 pm – Notes with cast, creatives and director.

12:30 am – Send show report then go home.

The Final Push – the last few days of rehearsals

It’s the last week of rehearsals and we’re making a final push to finish the production elements before we bump into the theatre on Monday.

In the rehearsal room, the Director is layering detail into the scenes while the cast continues to make discoveries about their characters.

I’m making sure the prompt copy is accurate and up to date so we’ll have all the information we need in the theatre next week. I’m also starting to insert the cues as the design team provide me with synopses, so we can save time in the plots.

A key task at this stage is creation of running plots for the show crew. These detail all the cues they have during the show, including any relevant information that might help them. Ideally, a crew plot is succinct enough to not be overwhelming, but contains enough information that someone could pick it up and do the show with minimal explanation (but more about that in a future post).

We are also having a lot of conversations about how we can make best use of the brief period we have in the theatre before opening night. We bump in on Monday, with our first audience on Friday, so finding creative solutions to maximise this time benefits everyone.

This is made particularly complex by the fact that there are so many competing variables in the theatre. The sound team need a certain amount of quiet time; the lighting team need some dark time; the cast members need some time with the set, sound and lights; and workshop need some time where they can have the set to themselves, make noise and have light. It’s a juggling act and each show comes with its own demands. Thankfully, Tartuffe is not technically difficult, so we may be able to afford the cast some more time onstage, without stealing time from any of the other departments.

As we make the final efforts to be as prepared as possible for bump in, the important thing to remember is that we are all making something together. Although we all have different priorities to make sure we each deliver our elements on time, if we don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re all working towards the same outcome, we will get there.

Playing

It’s the end of week 2, rehearsals are now well underway and the production of Tartuffe is slowly accruing the attributes that will, at some point, coalesce and take on a life of its own.

The actors are immersed in the exploration of their characters, while the Director is constructing the world they inhabit. Alongside this, the set and costumes are being made, and all the while I’m busy keeping things on track – recording the blocking and props notes, scheduling the production and liaising with the Company’s other departments (Workshop, Sound, Lighting, Wardrobe, Publicity, Administration) about the show’s requirements.

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Back in the rehearsal room, at this stage everything that happens is an experiment. Damis needs to overhear a conversation between Tartuffe and Elmire. Will he hide in a cupboard, will he hide in plain sight or will he hide in somewhere in the architecture of the theatre?

While this debate takes place, I’m making sure that the cast members and Director have everything they need to keep experimenting and, at the same time, I’m keeping the production departments up to date as the show evolves. It’s a balancing act between keeping things outside the room moving forward, in terms of sourcing props and building the set, but not moving too far in case the parameters shift when an idea doesn’t take hold. It’s about finding the fulcrum that allows creative expression within a finite deadline.

At this point in the production, it’s important for Stage Management to remain flexible, because things are always being added, changed or cut at short notice. We have to allow the Creative team to play. However, it’s also critical that we have everything finished by opening night. Balancing the competing interests is not always easy, however if you are clear on exactly how long things will take, and know the latest point at which you really need a decision made, you can work out when the experimentation needs to move into something more solid.

For now, it doesn’t matter where Damis hides, but I know exactly when we need to start pushing for a decision. So until that crucial moment, I’ll give them the opportunity to play.