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’.