A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette

On a big show, there’s nothing worse for operators and Stage Managers when someone on cans isn’t adhering to standard etiquette. Not only does it hamper everyone’s ability to do their job properly, but it makes for a cranky Stage Manager (SM). And a cranky SM is akin to the Fun Police. At a basic level, most people in theatre are here because it’s fun. But if the Fun Police are out in force, it becomes just another job. And it should (always) be more than that.

For the uninitiated amongst you, ‘cans’ is a common name for communication devices used backstage in theatre, which consist of a pack (sometimes radio and sometimes wired) and a headset. If you are calling, it may consist of a headset and a panel in your SMD. The term ‘cans’ comes from the old system of two cans on a piece of string.

cans-on-string

Cans are also sometimes referred to as ‘comms’ or ‘headsets’.

In Australia, it’s usually the sound department’s responsibility to maintain the cans system, and they should be your first port of call if your cans are not working properly.

So, how to use your cans without bringing the cranky fun police knocking on your door?

What you need to say

When putting your headset on: (your name) on cans. 
It’s important to know at all times who is on cans with you.

When taking your headset off: (your name) off cans
Again something I insist on, as the SM needs to know if one of their operators or crew isn’t contactable for a time.

When an SM says “Standing by LXQ8”: Standing by or LX
For all cues, this should be your response. The general rule of thumb is that if the SM is only standing one operator by, you can say ‘Standing By’. If the SM is calling multiple operators, you should respond with what you are operating. For example, the dialogue should run like this:
SM: Standby LXQ21, SDQ35, Door to open and FLY Q3.
LX operator: LX
Sound operator: Sound
Mechanist: Door
Flys: Flys
This enables the SM to know exactly who is standing by. It’s tricky for an SM to know who is standing by if a couple of people say ‘standing by’. I always smile when people respond in the same order as the call (because it satisfies my obsessive compulsive personality), but it’s probably too much to expect that it should always happen.

Can I Talk?
This is a great question. If you need to say anything that isn’t urgent (even if it’s show related), it’s great to check with the SM if it is a good time to talk. You will notice that this is a question used a lot by people who are used to working on big shows, or have been around a while. Take note, they have learnt over the years the value of this question. Learn from their wisdom.

What you shouldn’t say

Go.

No-one should say GO except the Stage Manager. Try to avoid saying it in conversation, or when describing something that happened. Good operators have excellent reflexes when they hear the word Go and it can end in a mis-timed cue. Yes, it happens.

Anything other than your response between the ‘standby’ and the ‘go’.
I have seen this cause so many problems on shows where someone has tried to crack a joke between the standby and the go, and one of the operators has pressed ‘go’ in response to something in the joke. Just don’t talk while everyone is on standby. It’s a simple rule that gets broken all the time. It’s not okay (unless in an emergency).

Any type of gossip.
You never know in a venue where people can hear you. In a lot of the major theatre centres, you can turn on the cans feed from various theatres in the management offices. Other offices have _squawk boxes_ that play the cans feed through a speaker so anyone popping into the office can hear it, or sometimes even walking by. It’s equally important not to talk about actors or performers on stage. On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed the crew talking about how awful an actor is while the actor was sitting in the lighting office and they heard everything.

Anything when the SM says ‘Quiet Please’
Calling is hard sometimes. It involves a lot of listening. If the SM needs some quiet to hear the dialogue, or just to concentrate for a moment, they will say ‘Quiet Please’ and this is everyone’s cue to shut up immediately. If you need to say something, go back to the ‘Can I talk?’ question.

When to be on cans:

The SM will often do a cans check before the show to make sure everyone is at their post. If you are an operator, you should be on cans from the five minute call for each act. If you are an ASM, you should be on cans before the house is open.

Other things to know:

  • When talking to someone who isn’t on cans, don’t take your headset off. I’ve been known to say someone’s name repeatedly to get their attention, to find out that they are chatting to someone else and have taken their cans off to hear better. This is also not okay. If you’re on a quiet show, ask the sound department for single ear headsets. This way you can turn your free ear to the person talking and you don’t have to take off your headset ever.
  • Technical rehearsals are very busy for everyone involved, best to not chat at all during these times.
  • SMs have different preferences. I quite like a bit of cans chat when the time is appropriate. It can keep a tired crew engaged when they are starting to flag. Other SMs prefer silence. Respect the wishes of the SM. They are responsible for keeping the whole show together, so if they ask for silence, give them silence.
  • Warn people before unplugging your cans. It can make a deafening pop.
  • Some venues run a few loops. On big shows, the SM will not listen to some loops. Be aware of who you are trying to talk to and which loop they are listening to.
  • Turn off your mic if you need to cough or yell. It is also deafening.
  • Don’t leave your mic open if you are not saying anything. People don’t like to hear you heavy breathing or rustling around backstage. I’ve also experienced the full soundscape of someone using the toilet. It isn’t nice.

Do you use any other cans etiquette on your shows? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.

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