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.


Profile of a Stage Manager: Will Lewis

This will be the first in a series of Stage Manager Profiles. Please follow Prompt-Side for future profiles of excellent stage managers around the world.

Will Lewis is an Australian Stage Manager who has been touring the world with circus, musicals and theatre. His professional productions include Amaluna and Dralion for Cirque du Soleil, and major musicals include Wicked, Cats, Dusty, Hair, The Producers and many more. He is currently following the yellow brick road with The Wizard of Oz in Australia. In between performances of the Brisbane season, Will took some time to answer some questions about all things Stage Management.

How do you describe what a Stage Manager does?

Stage Management is a lot of different jobs all rolled into one. The best way to describe it is that the Stage Manager is the central point of communication for the show, as well as the person that, along with the Technical Director and Resident Director/Creative team, maintains the artistic and technical integrity set by the Director.

Kind of like air traffic control.

What was it about Stage Management that attracted you initially?

Well, initially I wanted to be a lighting designer. I loved bringing the stage to life with light. But, when I was at NIDA, I discovered Stage Management. It was more up my alley, but the organisation and calling aspect attracted me. Again, it fell in line with bringing the director’s vision to life, and assisting that process in such detail.

In your opinion, what characteristics do great Stage Managers have?

A lot of patience. Terrific organisational skills. Patience. Smiles. Be like a duck and let the water roll off your back.

What is it about Stage Management that you currently enjoy the most?


amaluna bows

Will calling the Amaluna bows. Photo courtesy of Will Lewis © Cirque du Soleil

What are the greatest challenges that Stage Managers have to deal with?

The myriad different personalities that come together to do a show, and dealing with different levels of experience in both cast and crew.

What challenges are there in running the crew and managing the cast?

Again, I would say the differing personalities. Getting the crew on your side will be the best thing that you can do, and do it early on in the process. Be nice, be human, don’t be domineering. The worst thing you can do for yourself as a Stage Manager is getting your crew offside.

As with the crew, lots of cast members come from different walks of life, and performing experiences. You have to be patient, and sometimes come back to square one and teach the processes as you go.

I know that no day is the same as any other as a Stage Manager, but do you have any particular routines or ways to stay organised while working on a show?

Consistency. I write myself a little weekly list of tasks that I must achieve.

Be neat and tidy with your desk and prompt corner.

Be proud of your paperwork.

Demonstrate to the company your work ethic and demonstrate via example, and people will see this and follow. Go in with a positive attitude. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Trust me, this takes practise. Enjoy it – we’re not saving the world here!

You’ve worked for Cirque Du Soleil, what is different about stage managing these types of shows?

Wow. This is a big question.

Cirque du Soleil works very differently to theatre, and musical theatre.

The way the shows are constructed from creation to performance is completely different.

The day-to-day management of a show is again a massively different beast. Cirque has a policy of continued evolution, which is why the shows last and stay fresh. This means you need to be super organised and be on top of everything. One good example, is that at one point on Amaluna, I had 134 different show versions we could perform at any one time. That’s a lot of information to track, and manage. Let alone keeping your calling script functional!

Essentially you have to take your bag of tricks that you have, and adapt to what Cirque requires. It involves being very open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Cirque won’t bend to your will, but will adopt new ideas and ways. Flexibility and adaptability is the key here.

amaluna RAH

Amaluna at the Royal Albert Hall.Photo courtesy of Will Lewis. © Cirque du Soleil

You’re currently working on Wizard of Oz, are there any particular challenges, or intricacies in this production?

We are flying people, which comes with its own challenges. Having said this, absolute consistency is required when it comes to calling the show. As with every show, the best way to think of calling is that every cue you call has the potential to hurt someone. So don’t be flippant, follow what has been set by the director, don’t change things because you think you can. You can not.


From the production desk of Wizard of Oz. Photo courtesy of Will Lewis

How do you cope with the demands of touring, do you have any specific practices to make it easier?

Have a hobby outside of theatre. This is a big one. For most of us, theatre is our hobby turned into our job. Find another outlet. I do a few things – I go to the gym a lot (it’s also a great stress relief), I run, I have a couple of other creative outlets too. It’s really important to find that balance. When I tour in Australia, I usually drive to the destination, so i can still have freedom when I’m there.

I also take my favourite kitchen items (oils, pans, knives, coffee grinder and plunger). You just never know when you get to company accommodation what’s there. It’s the small things from home that make a great difference!

Stay in touch with your friends and family. Gone, is certainly not forgotten.

How do you balance your personal life with the hours worked as a Stage Manager?

You have to find a way. I don’t have a massive personal life, but I think it’s important to keep the balance. I recently took a couple of months’ break. It was completely refreshing to go and do something new and recalibrate myself. Again, find an outlet outside of work, otherwise you burn out and won’t be able do the job for the long haul.

I know that keeping fit is a priority for you, how is staying healthy important for your work?

It helps me keep my stress levels in check, and is just something I do for me, and no one else. Eating properly also ties directly into being fit. Always make time to cook your food; good, healthy food and food preparation (particularly in tech week). That way you can be the best you can be and fire on all cylinders when you are at work. It keeps you balanced, and along with regular sleeping patterns, you will feel more human!

Do you have any tips for staying healthy within the demands of the job?

Eat well, keep the drinking to a minimum. Choose good foods that will sustain you.

One of the best things I have discovered is 24 hour gyms. Sign up! You  will be amazed what a workout after work, late at night, can do for you!

Find whatever works for you. Whether it is half an hour a day to go for a walk, run, workout, Pilates – whatever it is – make time to do it. Get up early, enjoy the day! Don’t turn your workday into sleep late, get up, go straight to work, drink, repeat.

What are some common errors you see young Stage Managers or Assistant Stage Managers (ASMs) making?

Rising through the ranks too fast and not taking the time to learn on their way up.

For ASMs, you should only be asked once to do something. Not two, not three, not five times. A great ASM will anticipate, and get stuff done before it’s even requested.

Be efficient. Don’t be lazy. This is a big one.  Get tasks done when asked, not when it suits you. There is always a bigger picture at play. Don’t be lazy or complacent. One of the best phrases that was taught to me was “You’re only as good as your last job”. Keep this in mind as you go through and you will have a lasting career.

If you could teach all young Stage Managers one thing, what would it be?

Enjoy the journey. Don’t rise up the ranks too fast. Learn from everyone. Ask questions.

If you could say one thing to yourself before you finished studying to be a Stage Manager, what would it be?

Don’t stress – you will be hired. You will get the jobs you want.

What do you look for in a great ASM?

A great fit for the team. Eager to learn. Not cocky, or know-it-all. Someone with growth potential. Someone that gets on and does the job; a self-starter, self motivator.

What are your most used SM apps?

I don’t really have one at the moment. One that I do love is

Do you read music or do you count beats?

I can read music to play, but I have to step away from reading a score that closely. Knowing how to read music does help if you get lost in the score. However, all you need to identify are time signatures, what a bar (measure) is and repeats. Also, how to read your conductor.

What tool or item in your kit is the most important to you?

My Mac and my Dropbox account. Also my favourite pencil and ruler.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Have fun! Enjoy. It’s hard work, but the payoffs are wonderful.

Here’s a clip of Will at the SMD from Wicked in 2009

If you are interested in positions with Cirque du Soleil, they regularly advertise for a number of technical positions here.

Wizard of Oz is produced in Australia by the Gordon Frost Organisation.