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.

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.


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.


What #Timesup means for Stage Managers

With the allegations of more sexual misconduct within the Australian live performance industry, there’s a new conversation to be had. In my response to #MeToo, I discussed the existing culture that we’ve all witnessed in our industry, but now we need to turn our focus to have a look at how we deal with it as Stage Managers.

In the 7:30 report on Monday, Chloe Dallimore and Amy Maiden both highlighted the need to create a space to have real and difficult conversations, and both raised the point that people initially turn to Stage Management and Company Management when a problem arises. On the Stage Management Network of Australia facebook group there has been a lot of discussion about how Stage Managers can support cast and crew members when they come to us with issues of harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault. How do we best deal with it when it comes up?

Many years ago, before the #metoo and the #timesup movements, a female cast member I was working with was a victim of bullying, harassment and misogyny. As the SM, she came to me and I felt completely powerless to do anything about the source of the problem. I knew that if we took it to upper management, nothing would be done – the perpetrator was highly valued by the company and there was a culture of this sort of behaviour. I discussed the issue with my production manager and the company manager, but they didn’t want to take it further either. It was a complex situation with many layers, but ultimately my strategy to help the cast member was to provide an environment to support her through it, rather than make the perpetrator accountable for his actions. This was by no means an isolated incident in my career. However, looking back now within the current context, I wonder if I could have done more, if I could have fought harder for that female cast member. I know it is still something that troubles her to this day, and to her, I’m sorry.

Moving forward, I want to deal with these issues better. I want to support the victims in a way that makes them know they are being seen and heard. Thankfully I now feel that there’s a climate where we can have these discussions, but I call on producers and management to support Stage Managers and Company Managers who are the gatekeepers for these issues.

Freelance Stage Managers don’t want to risk their own careers by taking these allegations to producers who don’t care. One of the reasons SMs exist is to deal with problems at a grass roots level so upper management can concentrate on other things. Many SMs feel like bringing these sorts of issues to producers makes the SM look incompetent at dealing with issues.

So what do SMs need from upper management?

Stage Managers need to feel like they are supported. If we file an incident report with claims of bullying, harassment or inappropriate behaviour, we need to feel like it will be followed up, not shut down. SMs are mostly happy to have tough conversations (we’re a tough lot), but we’re usually only wiling to go there if we feel supported.

We need more training. We need training in Mental Health First Aid. We need training in how to respond to bullying and harassment. We need to be relying on more than our instincts.

And what do SMs need to do?

We need to recognise when the rehearsal room or the theatre no longer feels safe for someone. Contrary to the article by Neil Pigot and Julian Meyrick, I disagree with their assertion that “The theatre is a place of profound vulnerability, a place where overstepping the lines of normal behaviour is unavoidable, and sometimes encouraged.” I’ve worked in plenty of rehearsal rooms where vulnerability is achieved without overstepping any lines. All it takes is a culture of trust and respect. It is up to us to notice when trust and respect is being corroded.

We need to keep ourselves accountable. We need to keep appropriate documentation about what has been reported and when. We need to file an incident report in a discreet manner. We need to share the documentation with the victim. That way they can see that something is being done, and there is concrete evidence that can be referred to down the track.

We need to keep listening. To our casts, our crews and our instincts. Pay attention to the jokes that have a hint of truth. Pay attention to the relationships within the casts. We need to address issues early, rather than letting them smoulder.

We need to look after our own mental health and we need to look out for each other. We need to keep the conversation going. Most of all we need to work together towards an industry where every individual feels safe, validated, trusted and respected.


Grab your notebook

As a young ASM on my first gig, I remember thinking note-taking was a complete waste of time. I had (and still have) a very good memory, so I was confident I could manage without the time-wasting practice of writing everything down. Even though I believed I could manage without a notebook, I still carried one around. Everyone else did, and people told me you had to, and I didn’t want to look out of place. My SM used to say, ‘grab your notebook and come with me’. So I carried around my blank notebook, sometimes wrote something cursory in it so it wasn’t quite so blank, and pretended that I couldn’t live without it.

Then came my second gig – at Opera Australia as an ASM. Simultaneously working on three shows in rep, making a million rookie mistakes and not being able to remember everything all the time, I started to see the value of a notebook. Not only was it for remembering important tasks, but it was also a way to keep myself accountable, and remember specific details so I could refer to them later. My notebook became the lifeline that everyone told me it would.

Fast forward 15 years, I tried going entirely digital for a year: calendar, task list, ideas, rehearsal report notes, setting notes etc. I enjoyed having access to all my notes on a number of devices without needing to carry around a notebook, but there were so many things I missed about having a physical notebook. I missed the ability to flick back a few pages and remember something from a week ago. I missed drawing something in the corner while on the phone. I missed being able to scribble a note quickly, and then still having that scribble a few weeks down the track. So after giving it a red-hot digital go, I returned to a tactile notebook. Nowadays my love affair with my notebook is stronger than ever.

If you’re keeping a notebook, you are in company with some of the world’s most historically notable people. Beatrix Potter, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Nick Cave, Charles Darwin and George Lucas (to name a few of my favourites) all famously kept notebooks with ideas, sketches, drawings, conversations, lists and quotes. Journals of History and Six Famous Notebook Users both give a sneak peek into some of these notebooks and show to those of us with an SM-like OCD that they don’t need to be neat or perfect. There’s also a insightful article (unfortunately about men only) of The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men that describes different uses of notebooks by men in various fields.

As with the notebooks by the aforementioned luminaries, I’ve seen so many styles and methods of keeping a notebook for Stage Managers. One SM I worked with had an incredibly comprehensive table with all the show times for the production she was working on. It proved invaluable on one show where a cast member liked to compare and rate all of the running times at the end of each performance – ‘Well today’s was much better than the 1:42 on Tuesday, but the Saturday matinee last week at 1:40 felt too rushed.’ I’ve worked with SMs that have one tiny pocket sized notebook per production with miniature pencil writing that they keep in their pocket. I’ve worked with people who write down nearly everything that is said to them so they can remember it later.

Over the years the way I use my notebook has evolved. I now use a method which is modified from the Bullet Journal. If you image search for ‘Bullet Journal’, you’ll see a million results for the most complicated layouts, page types and trackers. I find all of that too time-consuming and not very useful, and instead use a system more like the original that you can find in the link above.

These days I have a few tried and true rules to keeping a notebook in a way that makes my life simpler and less complicated:

Choose a sturdy notebook that you really like

I use a Leuchtturm1917 because I like the size and the way it feels. It also has an index page and two ribbons that you can use as bookmarks. It is thread bound so lies flat when you write in it, and has some perforated sheets at the back when you need to hand a note to someone else.

Make a new list every day

At the end of each day, I go over my to-do list. I put the three most important things I didn’t get done today onto a new list for tomorrow, then I prioritise what is left and add that. It’s always nice to see tomorrow’s list laid out with the most important tasks first, but also that tomorrow’s list is (usually) shorter than you ended up with today!

Make a ‘later’ list

I have a separate list for things that don’t need doing in the next few days. This way my list doesn’t end up being too long, and I can focus on the things that are immediately important. I check this ‘later’ list daily so I can add things that now need to be added to my tomorrow list.

Write everything down

Even if it seems like something easy to remember I like to write it down. That way I know I can’t forget anything when life gets very busy.

Read through it every now and then

Looking back through previous entries in my notebook allows me to see what I was busy with, what is important to me, and what I need to make more time for in my life. It’s a snapshot of what was going on at any particular stage, and that can teach me a lot about whether I’m achieving what I want to achieve and what obstacles are continually standing in my way.

Notebooks can help us keep track of things in the crazy world that is Stage Management. In my opinion, they are the best tool in my toolbox to remain organised and maintain some order over the chaos. These days I’m a notebook ambassador and it is me who is now saying ‘grab your notebook and come with me’.