Stage Management Resources

There are a lot of Stage Management books out there to teach us about our craft, but sometimes it is hard to find the best ones. I haven’t read every one of them (obviously), but of those I have read, I have some favourites.

Here is my list of top 5 Theatre and Stage Management books:

(These links are paid links, and help support the maintenance of the blog)

This book has been essential throughout my career. I was introduced to it by a teacher and her copy was so worn, I could tell I needed to get a copy; I am forever grateful for being introduced to it. It is full of diagrams and technical names for everything we use in the theatre from stage layouts to fixings, lashing flats to types of drapes. Nothing is really left out.

(Note: UK terminology is used, which doesn’t apply everywhere. Keep your eye out for some ‘dad-jokes’ in there too.)

An oldie but a goodie. This is a very good entry level book for Stage Management. If you have some experience in Stage Management, this will be too basic for you but if you are someone who is just starting out it gives a very accessible introduction into how to do general stage management tasks. Excellent for high-school drama departments to keep on the shelf.

This book is full of very useful information for anyone practicing stage management, either professional, student or amateur. Again very UK oriented, but can apply anywhere. It has a lot of practical information too as it includes useful templates and checklists.

From a US perspective this book has more modern references than the others. There is sometimes a resistance amongst some people to move with the times, but times change and I believe that Stage Management should evolve too. It is used as a text book in some training organisations and is evident that it is written from people with a lot of experience.

This one is a bit of an odd inclusion, but Stage Managers often feel like they are managing chaos. If you want to get an insight into what Stage Managers sometimes have to deal with, this is the book for you. I’ve had to deal with a number of similar occurrences, but never all on the one production! It’s a fun look at what wrangling creativity can look like.

I’d love to hear of some of your favourite Stage Management books. Leave a comment below with any reading suggestions.

Black Lives Matter in the Theatre Too

Working in the theatre is like having another family. You become inextricably connected as you share each other’s laughter and joy but also their pain. As an only child, being part of the theatre surrounded me with a chosen family, a big group of rambunctious brothers and sisters I had always craved. Finding these people was like coming home.

Twenty years ago, as a junior member of a theatre company, I was working with the most talented people I had ever met. I was in awe of them. The actors were household names, most of them on television, but we all instantly clicked, and became a big happy, dysfunctional family.

One of the actors was an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory of Australia. We’ll call him Will for anonymity’s sake. He appeared tall and strong on television, but in real life he was a six foot version of a 10 year old boy. Mischievous, witty and the big brother I never had. He had been cast in a role traditionally been played by a white actor. We were preparing ourselves for pushback from traditionalists who wouldn’t like an Aboriginal perspective to the role and how it would change some long-held assumptions within the play.

After a long day of rehearsals had ended three weeks before opening night, Will received some devastating news. One of his family had passed away. Young. Too young. Will was heartbroken. And we, his theatre family, were ready to rally around him to share his pain.

Taking time off from rehearsals is a hard thing. Four weeks is never enough, it’s intensive and not being there would make him feel less prepared, but Will knew he needed to be with his family. He rang the director, who granted him permission to take some time off without question, and told him to take all the time he needed to grieve and mourn a life lost too soon.

He left the next day, we didn’t see him before he left. In rehearsals the next day we shared his pain from afar, and were comforted knowing he was with his real family. We wondered if he was okay, knowing he was uncontactable, out of phone range, until he returned.

The day after he left, I arrived at rehearsals early. The morning newspapers had been delivered to Stage Door there was a headline that caught my eye.

‘Will abandons rehearsals for walkabout’

My stomach churned. I left the paper there, too afraid of what the article would say. I didn’t want anyone else to see it, but how could I hide it? The morning tea break chatter always revolved around the morning’s news.

How did they know he wasn’t here? Why did they think he ‘abandoned’ rehearsals’? The mistrust in the headline was evident.

I changed my mind. Maybe the article wasn’t as bad in my mind as I had made it out. Nope. Reading the article was worse. The words ‘just didn’t turn up’ and ‘without permission’ felt like arrows. The tone was clear. Between the lines they were saying you can’t trust Aboriginal people.

Glad Will was out of range and wouldn’t see the article until he returned, I went to see the publicist who assured me she would sent a retraction request to the newspaper editor.

The theatre family were furious. But I felt powerless. How could I make any difference? Knowing the publicist had sent an email made me feel like something was being done. The theme of conversation in our breaks that day – How could they write something like that about him?

Will returned to rehearsals the next week. Still obviously grieving but ready to let out his usual chuckles. We didn’t mention the article. Did he know if it existed? It felt better to not tell him. It would only hurt him.

Rehearsals returned to normal. We never talked about the article again. But for me something didn’t sit right. How can he be my brother if I don’t stick up for him? How can we be a family if we sit by while they say these things? None of the others said any more about it, so how could I as the youngest member of our family?

Over the last 20 years this story re-awakens every time I witness the same. Taxis coming to pick up Aboriginal actors leaving the theatre after the show refuse to take them. Shopping with an Aboriginal actor who has her credit card checked. Why don’t they check mine?

I’ve seen more of the world now. I’m one of the more senior people in the room. It’s time for me to speak up in honour of my theatre family.

I’d always rather regret the things that I have done, rather than those I haven’t. And this is a big ‘haven’t’ that has lived with me all this time. Shame of my inaction has prevented me from telling this story until now. But surely my shame is nothing compared to the daily hate and prejudice that others are subjected to.

Telling this story is hard. It forces me to face that shame and hurt head on. But Will’s constant pain is greater than my shame and for that reason, I stand with him, lending my voice to him and the hurt he receives.

What’s the point of a Page Breakdown?

This is a question I get from nearly every ASM that I work with.

I know a lot of Stage Managers that do perfectly fine without preparing a Page Breakdown, but once you’ve used one and found all the benefits, it’s something that you soon can’t live without.

So what is a Page Breakdown?

Page Breakdowns and Scene Breakdowns are similar documents (I usually prepare both) that provide a quick snapshot of which characters are on stage at any particular point in a script. During rehearsals, I look at the Scene Breakdown daily, and the Page Breakdown often. Let me show you an example:

Stage Management Page Breakdown

Page 2 of a Page Breakdown for a production of Othello

What information can we learn from this?

Quick changes

In this example, you can see that Actor 1 has one page (p.47) to do a quick change from the character of Emilia into Bianca.

Page Breakdowns are always more useful in a situation where actors are playing multiple roles. It gives you a clear, early indication about how long they will have to change, and that information can be passed on to the costume makers to assist with built-in quick change features. It also forms a very good basis for a Quick Change Plot.

Scheduling

When scheduling, Page Breakdowns can give you an easy place to pick up rehearsals. Using the above example, if a director wants to spend an entire day rehearsing scene 4.1, you can easily see that there isn’t much point in calling Actors 1, 2 & 3 until a little later in the day. Actors sitting around with nothing to do ALWAYS make more work for a Stage Manager, so if you can call them a little later, you should.

Travel times

Lets’s say on Tuesday, the director blocks Cassio to exit downstage prompt side on p.30. Then on Wednesday, she directs him to enter through the auditorium on p. 32. You can look back and see that he only has one page (or two-three minutes) to get there, which isn’t enough time. Sometimes you can pick that up during blocking without a Page Breakdown, but sometimes it can help to quickly look at it on a document like this.

I’ll often have a director ask, ‘if he goes off that way, how long until he re-enters?’ You can get that answer very quickly with a Page Breakdown.

So how does it differ from a Scene Breakdown?

Scene Breakdowns give you the option quickly refer to a scene number and who is in that scene. I usually distribute this to the actors and creatives while making sure it is pinned up on the noticeboard – everyone involved finds it useful.

Sometimes it can also be beneficial to include a column that gives a nickname to the scene, or the location. It then becomes a useful document to put up backstage in production week so everyone knows where we’re up to.

The letters after the scene numbers in the breakdown below can be referred to as ‘units’. For this production of Othello, the director preferred to have them described this way, but sometimes I’d separate those out into a separate column.

Stage Management Scene Breakdown

Scene Breakdown of the same section of the Othello production

Are they necessary?

When ASMs ask me about Page Breakdowns, I think what they’re really asking is:

It seems like a lot of work. Is it really necessary?

While it may seem like a lot of work, there’s usually plenty of time in pre-production to complete. I often do it while I read the script for the first time as it’s an engaged way of reading.

On smaller shows (like a two-hander) it may not be as necessary if the actors are only playing one role, but you’ll find on productions with larger casts (theatre, opera, musicals etc) they become invaluable and save you a lot of time further down the road.

How do I start?

Well to make it easy, you can download a template here: Page Breakdown Template

Let us know how you use Page Breakdowns in the comments below.

CallQ – Stage Management Training Software

Calling a busy show can be difficult. Learning to call can be even tougher.
Your brain needs to be doing a number of things simultaneously; listening to what’s happening on stage, watching the stage or monitor, listening to your operators and reading the prompt book. This doesn’t even include being interrupted side-stage by an actor who has lost their handkerchief.

Recently, I took over 1984 mid-tour, a technically tough show. I spent weeks at home practicing the call and cue lights. I made myself a paper cue light panel and sat with the archival and prompt book calling the cues. Sure, it worked, but what if you could learn the show, or learn how to call, using software that is a calling simulator? Thanks to CallQ, you now can.

Gail Pallin,  stage management teacher and author of Stage Management: The Essential Handbook, together with partner and software developer Iain, have created CallQ – simulation software that teaches the user how to call a show. Prompt-side recently got in contact with Gail to find out more about CallQ and what it can do for Stage Managers.

image003
Gail and Iain demonstrating the software in Glasgow

Calling a show for the first time can be scary. ‘I can still feel the fear and anxiety of hoping I would get it right,’ Gail recalled of her first call in college. ‘Not disadvantaging the performers and maintaining the integrity of the piece was incredibly stressful.’

Also, training institutions are limited in the number of productions they can produce in a year, meaning that only a few students get the opportunity to learn to call. Gail says CallQ can provide ‘an opportunity that offers every student one equal cueing experience, which can be assessed and ensures parity across the year group.’

CallQ has two versions – CallQ Trainer allows the learner to learn calling on a pre-recorded show, while CallQ Studio allows you to record your own show then run it through the software, meaning you can train someone new to call the show, or for use in remounts.

Gail explains that the software is more beneficial than traditional calling practice (such as me using the archival at home), because you can ‘practice cueing without expensive show conditions. Students can cue over and over in their own time until they feel confident with their technique.’

So, how does CallQ work?

Using a PC or Mac, the program gives instructions on what to do, then gives the caller FOH clearance. ‘Once they have accepted clearance its up to them to start the show by standing by the operators,’ She says. ‘The software plays a film of the show (as a backstage monitor) and reacts to the cue light instructions. The operators acknowledge the standbys via the cue lights and verbally. The play begins and you cue the show according to the prompt copy.

‘If you cue incorrectly (miss a cue, too early, too late) the program will stop, explain your mistake, set you back to the previous stand-by and you can try that sequence again. Once you reach the end of the show successfully, it prints out a show report which details miscues etc.’

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.57.44 pm
CallQ Trainer screenshot

‘Over 50 professionals and 30 students have trialled this and they all felt nervous when the film begins and plays the audience murmur and shows the tabs and tab warmers (which proves how realistic an experience it is)!’ says Gail.

And where does she see CallQ going in the future? ‘I would love to see every drama school and college using [CallQ] in addition to the standard cueing exercises and production opportunities already offered. It would also be useful for interviewing show callers and would hope that producing companies would give to young graduates joining that company one of their own shows to cue to help build confidence before their first professional show.’

CallQ is now available here.


After training many Stage Managers over the years, I also asked Gail a few questions about learning Stage Management in general, you can find a profile of Gail here.

Gail and Iain are looking for a few more shows to film to add to the software, if you know of any professional production that would be happy to be involved, please contact gail@callq.uk.com

Prompt-side has no affiliations with CallQ other than professional interest.


Profile of a Stage Manager – Gail Pallin

This is part of a series of Stage Manager Profiles. Please follow Prompt-Side for future profiles of excellent stage managers around the world.


Gail Pallin is a Scottish Stage Management Lecturer at Fife College. She has been in and around Stage Management for over forty years and is author of  Stage Management: The Essential Handbook which is now in its’ third edition. Gail is also the co-founder of CallQ,  calling simulation software, which Prompt-side wrote about here.


As a teacher of Stage Management, what do you find the hardest thing to teach students?

I work with such a variety of students, who all have their own challenges, so the most work will go into finding out what each individual needs to succeed and to support that. As our Diploma Course trains multi skilled practitioners, I am sometimes working with technicians who are not really interested in stage management, even though they need to understand all departments from a hands on point of view to be an effective theatre practitioner. So that’s quite hard – if the student doesn’t want to learn or thinks they know it all already. For some the challenges will be communication, organisation and social skills, for others it could be listening and using initiative and some find the making, sourcing and altering props more challenging. The less confident members of the group maybe don’t have the confidence to run a rehearsal room effectively – how do you teach that instinctive ability to hear 3 conversations at once, spot that the actor in the far corner has a problem with their prop, keep an eye on the director who may need support at a moments notice, prompt and block all at the same time. Rehearsal room effectiveness – that’s the hardest, and good prompting techniques!

What major changes have you seen in Stage Management over the time of your career?

In 40 years (how scary is that!) its amazing that many of our essential skills and techniques really haven’t changed at all – i.e.

  • The production process for a play/musical/etc follows much the same pattern
  • The paperwork we use to communicate production information hasn’t changed much –  albeit most is now processed electronically.
  • A friend, the first person to get a PHD in the field of Stage Management provided fantastic evidence to show that many of our techniques and processes haven’t changed much in 500 years

However, the main changes I’ve noticed are:

  • There is a much greater variety of jobs Stage Management can now apply their skills to, ranging from reps to festivals, gigs to cruise ships, events to art installations, site specific to film and loads of other exciting opportunities in between.
  • DSM’s or show callers are more commonly operating either LX, Sound or AV as well as cueing operators, actors, scenery etc and sometimes it’s the technician that takes over cueing and operating the show from a tablet triggering LX, Sound and AV via midi.
  • The use of technology is being adopted by more and more SMs, although when I did a bit of research for the new ICT  chapter in my book (eBook version only at the moment) the majority of SM’s I asked still preferred the paper copy of the prompt copy!
What do you think students find the hardest when learning to call?

It really depends on the student and their learning style. Those whose strengths are Visual, Aural & Physical seem to fare very well, as they can connect the prompt copy instructions to their vocal (headsets) and manual (cue lights) instructions effectively. Those who learn better using logical & verbal styles take longer to settle into the technique but once they have mastered it seem to be more consistent. The skills required when cueing suit both social and solitary learners!

Once all learners have mastered it (most do, and very few will never get it) the challenge then is developing stamina and focus to cope with a long quiet show.

Do you use any other apps or software to help train Stage Management students?

The most effective tool I use is our online teaching environment where I have designed lots of different exercises to support and enhance understanding in space management, time management, professional development, presentations skills, ICT skills and soft skills where the students work both independently or in groups. I have also collated a huge amount of online resources which I share, and the students can dip into at any point of their course when needed. The need to know something is the best incentive to learning!

What sort of skills, characteristics or attributes do you want to see in Stage Management students before they start their formal studies?
  • Motivation and real passion for learning.
  • Interest in production skills, some experience so they know it’s the right choice.
  • Good communication and ability to listen and reflect back accurately.
  • A willingness to take risks with problem solving.
  • Organisation and a desire to communicate well on paper or online essential.
  • A cheerful disposition.

To find out more about the software Gail is developing, CallQ, see our article here.


 

Blocking Notation – Quickly!

During rehearsals one of main tasks of the Stage Manager is taking down the blocking (for a definition see Glossary).

Why do we write it down in rehearsals?

For a number of reasons:

  1. People can easily forget what happened in a rehearsal – there’s a lot of information to take in, and there needs to be a record of what was decided.
  2. If/when you need to replace a performer, you have accurate, up to date blocking to teach them.
  3. Lighting will often ask you questions about where someone is standing at a certain moment.

Why don’t we video all the rehearsals instead?

These days videoing rehearsals is more convenient that it used to be, and the video record is very useful. There are limitations though. If a director changes something in a notes session, the video will have a previous version, not the most recent. It is much easier to write it directly into the prompt copy.

Sometimes detail is hard to see on a wide-angle video – such as when an actor needs to look in a particular direction, or a teaspoon needs to be put on a certain side of a saucer. And what if a performer has actually done the opposite of what the director asked them to do? The prompt copy should reflect the show as it is supposed to be, not as a performer did it one time.

So how do we do it?

Anyone who has sat in a rehearsal with a very experienced director and a large cast knows that taking blocking can be very difficult. They move through the show fast, and you have to be able to keep up. In theatre, you also need to be able to prompt at the same time.  It takes practice, but there are tricks to make it easier.

img_3859

1. Have some good short-hand

The best way to be fast is to use a type of short-hand. The symbols and abbreviations vary from person to person, and show to show. Some shows will have something you’ll end up writing so many times you’ll need a symbol or abbreviation. Here are a few examples of some I find useful (you can see more in the example blocking key below):

Character names

The first letter of the character’s name with an underline or a box around it. If there are a lot of characters that start with the same first letter (this often happens in Shakespeare), you can use the first two letters such as Do in the photo above.

Locations

Abbreviation Meaning
US upstage
DS downstage
PS promptside
OP opposite prompt
MS midstage
C centre
@ at

(these can be combined to make MSC and other similar positions)

Moves

Abbreviation Meaning
x cross
to
b/h behind
i/f in front of
p/u pick up
up
down
then
ent enter
ex exit

2. Write a key

Keep a key of all your abbreviations at the front of your prompt copy. That way someone else can understand your blocking when the show is re-mounted or if something happens to you.

Blocking Key

Download an example Blocking Key here

3. Use character names where possible

If someone takes over a role from someone else, you don’t want to have to go through and update your prompt copy. Use character names so that it is interchangeable for performers.

4.  Use a numbering system to show where the move happens

You can use a circled number to put it in the script which corresponds to the circled number in the blocking column. Each page should start with a number 1. If you find that you need to add something between 1 and 2, you can start using 1a, 1b and so on.

5. Have a mud map at the top of the page

If you have a small map of the stage at the top of your page, you can mark moves in quickly using an arrow across the page. This can often be a much quicker way to notate. In some difficult instances or notating dance you can use a number of maps down the blocking column instead of written notation.

6. Include props

It’s really important that props are in your blocking. Often you’ll need to go back through your blocking to find out where a prop ended up, or if someone needs to place it somewhere specific for the next time it is used. Sometimes you’ll need to include wardrobe items too, especially hats, gloves and coats.

Other things to remember:

  • Have a good pencil (and plenty of spare leads or spare pencils) – I prefer 2B as it is easier to rub out when things change (and they do).
  • Don’t worry about how neat it is when you are first taking it down – it’s likely to change anyway, and you can always neaten it up later. Accuracy is much more important than neatness at the initial stages.
  • Be careful that you are only taking moves and not actors’ intentions or motivations.
  • Don’t be shy to ask the director if you missed something important. The director understands the importance of an accurate book, so they’re usually happy to fill you in on anything you may have missed.
  • A lot of musical notation can help if you know it. I use the pause symbol often in my blocking and some others can come in handy too.
  • Feel free to make up a symbol or abbreviation – every show is different. Just make sure you add it to your key at the front.