What’s the point of a Page Breakdown?

This is a question I get from nearly every ASM that I work with.

I know a lot of Stage Managers that do perfectly fine without preparing a Page Breakdown, but once you’ve used one and found all the benefits, it’s something that you soon can’t live without.

So what is a Page Breakdown?

Page Breakdowns and Scene Breakdowns are similar documents (I usually prepare both) that provide a quick snapshot of which characters are on stage at any particular point in a script. During rehearsals, I look at the Scene Breakdown daily, and the Page Breakdown often. Let me show you an example:

Stage Management Page Breakdown

Page 2 of a Page Breakdown for a production of Othello

What information can we learn from this?

Quick changes

In this example, you can see that Actor 1 has one page (p.47) to do a quick change from the character of Emilia into Bianca.

Page Breakdowns are always more useful in a situation where actors are playing multiple roles. It gives you a clear, early indication about how long they will have to change, and that information can be passed on to the costume makers to assist with built-in quick change features. It also forms a very good basis for a Quick Change Plot.

Scheduling

When scheduling, Page Breakdowns can give you an easy place to pick up rehearsals. Using the above example, if a director wants to spend an entire day rehearsing scene 4.1, you can easily see that there isn’t much point in calling Actors 1, 2 & 3 until a little later in the day. Actors sitting around with nothing to do ALWAYS make more work for a Stage Manager, so if you can call them a little later, you should.

Travel times

Lets’s say on Tuesday, the director blocks Cassio to exit downstage prompt side on p.30. Then on Wednesday, she directs him to enter through the auditorium on p. 32. You can look back and see that he only has one page (or two-three minutes) to get there, which isn’t enough time. Sometimes you can pick that up during blocking without a Page Breakdown, but sometimes it can help to quickly look at it on a document like this.

I’ll often have a director ask, ‘if he goes off that way, how long until he re-enters?’ You can get that answer very quickly with a Page Breakdown.

So how does it differ from a Scene Breakdown?

Scene Breakdowns give you the option quickly refer to a scene number and who is in that scene. I usually distribute this to the actors and creatives while making sure it is pinned up on the noticeboard – everyone involved finds it useful.

Sometimes it can also be beneficial to include a column that gives a nickname to the scene, or the location. It then becomes a useful document to put up backstage in production week so everyone knows where we’re up to.

The letters after the scene numbers in the breakdown below can be referred to as ‘units’. For this production of Othello, the director preferred to have them described this way, but sometimes I’d separate those out into a separate column.

Stage Management Scene Breakdown

Scene Breakdown of the same section of the Othello production

Are they necessary?

When ASMs ask me about Page Breakdowns, I think what they’re really asking is:

It seems like a lot of work. Is it really necessary?

While it may seem like a lot of work, there’s usually plenty of time in pre-production to complete. I often do it while I read the script for the first time as it’s an engaged way of reading.

On smaller shows (like a two-hander) it may not be as necessary if the actors are only playing one role, but you’ll find on productions with larger casts (theatre, opera, musicals etc) they become invaluable and save you a lot of time further down the road.

How do I start?

Well to make it easy, you can download a template here: Page Breakdown Template

Let us know how you use Page Breakdowns in the comments below.

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.