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:

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.

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.

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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.
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Saying Yes

I’m currently working on a show with a great group of people. Positive people, people who know each other intimately and can have a good time whilst being intensely creative.

Sounds perfect.

In the room – yes it is.

However outside the room, we’re constantly being blocked by a thick wall of ‘no’. In these cases, the reasons given for not doing something could be easily solved. We’ve all heard it before.

‘It would take too many people to lift an item that big’ – when there’s plenty of people on call to lift it.

‘We can’t afford that item’ – when the director or designer is happy to do without something else.

These are just excuses to not do things that are difficult, time consuming, or require effort.

Sometimes a request from a director or designer feels so difficult that it is easier to say ‘no, it can’t be done’. Over the years, I’ve watched what happens when people are constantly told ‘no’. The more you say no, the more people push for unreasonable requests. Saying ‘yes’ demonstrates your commitment to trying ideas that initially appear crazy – but may turn out to be the highlight of a show. As a tutor once said to me once ‘Say ‘yes’ for as long as you can, so when you have to say ’no’, people know that you mean it.’

Consider this: some of the most creative and highly regarded theatre, music and art only exist because people said ‘yes’. Imagine if someone told Wagner that he couldn’t write such a long opera because the crew would need a break. Imagine if someone told Matthew Warchus (Director of Matilda the Musical) that he couldn’t have kids on swings because of the WHS risk. Imagine if someone told Shakespeare he couldn’t have a ghost in Hamlet because it wasn’t possible to make someone or something look like a ghost.

Come to think of it, I’m sure those people heard plenty of ‘no’s throughout their careers. But their ideas only got across the line because enough people were willing to give it a try.

Directors and their creative teams want to know that you’re going to try everything you can to make their idea work. Blocking ideas too early loses respect (rightfully so) and creates a culture of having to push against each other.

I’m not saying we need to ignore constraints. It’s important to stick to budget and make sure you have the resources to make things happen. What is important is exploring all options in a positive way before we turn and say ‘it can’t be done’.

Creativity often pushes boundaries. It should push boundaries. And that might push the boundaries of what we believe to be possible. We need to be ready to go on that journey by saying ‘yes’.

In rehearsals – The Lost and Found Orchestra

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in rehearsals for Adelaide Festival’s presentation of The Lost & Found Orchestra. My role is ‘Show Caller’ and I’m part of a stage management team of eight – two from The Lost and Found Orchestra and six from Adelaide Festival. Together we are managing this unique version, which introduces some new elements to the existing show.

For twelve years, the Lost & Found Orchestra have been performing this energetic musical piece, making incredible music with found objects (including garbage bags, tubs of water and even a tricycle). Their Technical and Stage Management Team are slick and know all the minutiae of the show intimately. The difference this time, is that the orchestra are being joined by a volunteer cast of 300 people to play an outdoor event in the centre of Adelaide. These volunteers have been coming in on weekends to learn their parts and they play some unexpected ‘instruments’ – balloons, water pistols, umbrellas, saws and many more.

Our job as the Adelaide Stage Management Team is to coordinate these 300 people and integrate them into the existing show as seamlessly as possible, under the direction of our Joint Artistic Directors on the project – Luke Cresswell (Director of The Lost & Found Orchestra) and Nigel Jamieson from the Adelaide Festival.

The Adelaide cast has been divided into sections and ensembles, and includes a large choir. They are playing their ‘instruments’ in and around the park, on stage and on the towers. Logistically, there is a lot involved in moving 300 people in their groups around the park – into the correct positions at the right time, with the right props and in the right order.

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Managing props in rehearsals

Lost & Found have brought their own operators for lighting and sound, so don’t need a calling stage manager – my role is to call the movements of the sections, ensembles and choir around the park and backstage area. I’ll be communicating with our Stage Manager, who will be on side-stage, and our five Assistant Stage Managers, who will be keeping the sections and ensembles moving to the right place at the right time.

Rehearsals have been exciting, with everyone working together in a big warehouse. There is a large team of people making sure that everyone gets to rehearsals at the right place at the right time and it has been working just as we needed. They are then handed over to the directors and stage management for the day to work through the show musically and physically. The stage management team have been busy notating and keeping track. Any small change can have a large knock-on effect and we need to be thinking ahead to how each movement will work, what the traffic backstage will be like, and where the instruments will need to be set.

On an event like this, the neatness of your paperwork means nothing, but its accuracy means everything. There’s no time to be typing up amazing running sheets and drawing beautiful maps, but you need to know that you can look back at your notes, and know exactly what is going on at any given moment in the show – especially when you are being asked a large number of questions by the cast at any given time.

Getting prepared for these rehearsals has also involved meticulous planning and preparation, with a team of people creating, purchasing and organising the prop-instruments. We’ve needed to be organised in the rehearsal room too, keeping a close eye on which props need to be where, and how to get them there. Setting them up in a place that (hopefully!) won’t get in the way for another movement that we haven’t rehearsed yet. It’s all about thinking ahead and constantly considering the implications of each action.

As we start rehearsing in the park this week, the event as a whole is coming together and we’re starting to really see how it all works. We’re able to start looking at the bigger picture and organise it accordingly. It’s easy to get bogged down in the small details on a show of this scale, but watching all the elements come together as one is where you can see everyone’s tireless work pay off. The true magic will emerge in performance, when the sun is setting behind the stage, and the music is filling the park with the audience immersed in the experience under the stars.

Lost and Found Orchestra is playing in Adelaide, Australia on Saturday and Sunday 3-4 March, 2018 in Elder Park. You can find more information about the event on the Adelaide Festival website.

This post has been published with the permission of the Adelaide Festival, however the opinions are all mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the Adelaide Festival.

No Harm in Asking

I’ve just finished reading The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer and for me, this book has been a series of life-changing light-bulb moments. Asking is something I find difficult.  Just the idea of asking for help makes me sweaty and nervous. I’ve always felt like asking someone to help me personally was a demonstration of inability, incapacity or failure. I’m happy to be the one who is asked, I love giving, but I have always perceived the act of asking as a negative reflection on me. I’m less worried about a negative response than the idea that someone might think I couldn’t do something myself. I’ve carried this into my stage management, and I’ve seen it in other stage managers too.

The opening of the Palmer’s book describes the practice of giving of a tampon to someone in need:

The unspoken universal understanding is, ‘today it is my turn to take the tampon, tomorrow it shall be yours’. There’s a constant comic tampon circle. It also exists, I’ve found, with Kleenex, cigarettes and ballpoint pens. I’ve often wondered, are there women who are just too embarrassed to ask, women who would rather just roll up a huge wad of toilet paper into their underwear rather than dare to ask a room full of strangers for a favour?

-Amanda Palmer

I’m the person who has always made sure I had plenty of tampons, tissues and ballpoint pens at the ready. That way I’ve got enough to give everyone else (so I can enjoy the giving), but never have to ask (and I can avoid the fear that comes with asking). Stage managers often like to be the go-to person. The one who has the tools, the stationary, the answers, the ability to make things happen, the sensitivity, the up-to-date paperwork. But how often do we ask for help when we really need it?

After reading this book, I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t often enough. People have always told me I should ask for help more often, but I just dismiss them, ‘I don’t need help, I can do it myself!’. This has caused me problems both major and minor. I’ve severely injured my back by not asking someone to help me lift a giant prop as a young 20 year old student and I’ve missed opportunities by not putting my hand up and asking, when someone else did.

I can see my hypocrisy. I’m always telling my kids to ask for something when they need it. And I’ve spent many hours on the telephone asking companies to donate goods as props for a show in exchange for tickets, but to ask for something specifically because I need it, personally, is something I don’t do. I’d rather suffer by going the long way around. It’s like I don’t believe I’m worthy of the gift if I have to ask for it.

Regardless of the fact Palmer’s book is a spirited education about creative artists and their struggles and sacrifices (essential reading for SMs on this front), it expresses how asking has enriched her life both as a performer and in her personal life. She’s asked for meals in exchange for show tickets, slept on people’s couches in exchange for her music, and held one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns, raising over a million dollars to record an album.

So how does this relate to stage management?

When she was little, my daughter asked me if I had done some good hiding at work that day. ‘What do you mean?’, I asked. Her reply, ‘Because you’re a stage manager and your job is to hide from the audience’. Although this was a cute response to my explanation earlier that week about why I wear black, it reminds me that often as stage managers, we try to not be seen – an old adage is that stage management is at its best when you don’t notice it. However I’m a firm believer that being unnoticeable isn’t a reason to avoid offering opinions, ideas and ask for something when we need it.

There are so many instances where a stage manager can ask for something that might make things better for them. Ask for a higher stool – it might stop your neck from hurting. Ask for a headset with the left ear covered – then you can hear the stage better from prompt corner. Ask for the director to explain a decision to you – you will be better able to understand why the decision is important and help them achieve their vision. Ask for extra crew – it might make the show seamless. Ask a cast member to return their props to the props table instead of leaving them on the floor – you might have more time to enjoy a drink with them after the show. Ask for help if you are swamped or overwhelmed – there are plenty of people who can take some of the load, you only need to ask.

As Amanda Palmer reflects throughout her book – if you ask with respect, vulnerability, trust and the understanding that the gift keeps moving, people are more than willing to give, leaving you more time to give also. It is something I’m working on, at home and at work, and I know it’s going to continue to be a work-in-progress. I’m good at asking for others, I need to practice asking for me.

So since there is no harm in asking, I want to ask something of you. This week, I ask you to notice when you could have asked for help. Just notice. And see how many times you could have given someone the chance to help you or to give you something. Also notice the joy it gives people when they have the chance to provide what someone has asked for. Then if you notice something interesting, please come back here and leave a comment. I am very grateful for everyone who reads and engages with this blog. Creating a conversation about stage management is what I’m really interested in, and by leaving a comment below we can keep the conversation flowing.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad review

Bad reviews can be really damaging to a show. They can completely derail weeks of performances. I’ve seen actors fall to pieces over a comment by a reviewer. I’ve seen whole dynamics shift amongst the cast when a review praises one while criticising another. I’ve seen people who were performing well start to second guess all decisions made in the rehearsal room under the careful guidance of the director. Anything can happen as the result of a bad review. As Stage Managers, we are usually the first to notice the changes to performance. And the ASMs are usually the first to notice the changes to the atmosphere amongst the cast. We can’t take completely prevent these situations, but we can take measures to mitigate the damage to the show. Over the years I’ve followed some basic rules to pre-empt the damage a bad review can have.

1. Don’t talk about the reviews

Good or bad – don’t mention reviews at all. I usually ask cast and crew to respect this rule too. It is everyone’s personal choice whether to read reviews or not, and it’s very difficult to avoid them with social media constantly shoving them in our faces. However, we don’t need to discuss them amongst ourselves. A casual mention can make someone go looking for a review when they wouldn’t usually read them. That can start a chain reaction that leads to it impacting the show. It’s not worth it. By not talking about either the good or bad reviews, we are not giving them any airtime, and we can be left with doing the business of putting on a great show. Also, I always make the crew aware that it is not acceptable to talk about reviews anywhere in the building. A number of times I’ve witnessed a crew member talk about a bad review for it to be heard by the entire cast over stage-sound.

2. Read every review

By knowing exactly what every reviewer has said, you can prepare for whatever may come as a result. It gives you a running start. If you have a vulnerable actor who is slammed in a review, and you read it as soon as it comes out, you can watch for any signs of anxiety or depression and be ready to support the actor. I always make it my business to read every review and I encourage all SMs to do the same.

3. Tackle them head on

If you discover an actor has read a review, talk to them about it right away. Even if it hasn’t affected their performance yet. Find somewhere private (so you can respect rule 1) and ask them how they feel about it. Usually talking about it makes people realise that it isn’t as important as it once seemed. A review is just one person’s opinion and it isn’t necessarily the opinion of all those dedicated, paying theatregoers who are really getting something out of the show. Facing the problem means that you are able to get in the way before an actor’s thoughts start spiralling down into a festering bubble of self-evaluation.

4. Be available

Sometimes all actors need is to discuss how they are feeling after reading a review. If they know they can trust you and come to you at any time, they’ll seek you out when they read a bad review. I’m more than happy for someone to call me during the day and discuss a review they have read. Many of the actors I work with regularly know that I read all the reviews but never discuss them in the theatre. These actors will call me and tell me how they are feeling. Sometimes all they need is some encouragement that the decisions made in the rehearsal room are good ones. Sometimes they just need to you say that the reviewer in question never writes good reviews for anyone (which is true of some cheeky reviewers). Sometimes they just need to talk through their thoughts out aloud. I don’t mind. I would rather they did that than start making changes in their performance that will flow-on to disrupt everyone else.

5. Deal with the fallout

Once a bad review has started to influence the performance, it is much harder to rein it in, but must be dealt with immediately. I usually warn the Director or Assistant Director with a phone call, and tell them how I intend to deal with it. Some directors are happy for me to deal with it, but some directors like to come soon after bad reviews to give the actors a fresh set of notes and keep them on the right path. Start by talking to the actor about how their changed performance is affecting the show and the other cast members. If it is having wider implications for the whole cast, talk to them as a whole group (I know this seems to break rule 1, but you can actually do this without talking about the review itself). Sometimes having the whole cast together can diffuse the problem.

Over the years, these five rules have enabled me to mitigate the negative impacts of a bad review on a show. If you are clear with cast and crew about what your expectations regarding reviews, and how you intend to deal with them, everyone can work together to minimise the fallout.

If you have any other suggestions for dealing with bad reviews, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.