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.

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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.’

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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 still in development and not yet available for purchase. Stay tuned, Prompt-side will let you know when it becomes available.


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.


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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.

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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.

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.