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?

Calling!

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.

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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 Callboard.co

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.

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Glossary 

A glossary of theatre terms used in articles on Prompt-side. All definitions are commonly used in Australia except where otherwise indicated. This list will be added to regularly. Please comment below if you want to add something.

Apron (n) – The area downstage of the proscenium arch.

Auditorium (n) – Where the audience sits. Also referred to as ‘the house’.

Bar (n)– A long piece of steel (preferably cylindrical – but sometimes not!) to hang things on.

Boom (n)– An upright, or vertical, bar usually for lighting but sometimes to support scenery.

Borders (n)  – Rectangular pieces of black cloth (usually velvet or wool) that create a ‘border’ across the top of the stage picture. They are there to mask the other items in the grid.

Braille (v) – To tie a bar to another bar or to the fly floor to get it in exactly the right position.

Bump in (n) – The period of time when everything moves into the theatre.

Bump in (v) – To move everything into the theatre.

Centre stage (n) – The middle of the stage when looking from the auditorium.

Cradle (n) – Holds the weights for the flying system

Cyclorama (or cyc) (n) – a large screen (usually white) that is used to put coloured lights on to change its colour. Sometimes this is built-in, sometimes it is curved and sometimes it is hanging on a fly line. Most theatres will ‘grid the cyc’ so that it stays hanging and doesn’t get creases or dirty while not used on a show.

Deads (n) – The point at which the fly line has to stop to be at a certain point. Often marked with coloured tape on a hemp system.

Downstage (n) – The area closest to the auditorium. This term comes from when stages were usually raked. To go ‘down the rake’ was to go towards the audience.

Downstage (v) – To go towards the auditorium.

Drift (adj) – The distance between the bar at its highest point and its lowest point.

Fly floor (n) – The place where the fly lines are operated, usually higher than stage level. It can either be on prompt-side or opposite-prompt.

Fly (v) – To move a line in or out.

Fly line (n) – The line of a bar that can fly in and out.

Front of House (n) – The area that the public sees. This includes the foyer, toilets, bar and auditorium.

Grid (n)  – A steel ‘grid’ or series of channels that can be used to rig onto. They vary depending on whether you are in a proscenium arch theatre, or in a studio type setting.

Grid (v) – To fly something out so high that it can’t be seen by the audience.

In (adj)– Towards the ground, or down.

Legs (n) – Long black cloths (usually velvet or wool) that hang down the sides of stage. They are there to mask the wings.

Mask (v) – To hide something.

Masking (n) – Cloths used to hide something.

On (adj) – Towards centre stage.

Out (adj) – Away from the ground, or up.

Prompt side (n)  – Also known as ‘stage left’. The left hand side of the stage when standing on the stage facing the auditorium. This is usually where the calling Stage Manager is located. When the Stage Manager needs to be located on the other side(or stage right) because of tight wing space or the set, that side becomes ‘Bastard Prompt’. 

Rake (n) – A sloped stage or auditorium.

Raked (a)  – To be sloped.

Vomitory (n) – An entrance through the auditorium, usually under the seating. Also shortened to the ‘vom’.

Wings (n) – The area hidden from the audience on each side of stage.

 

#MeToo

In addition to personal experience, I have witnessed sexual harassment happen at work, in the streets, on public transport and many more places. I’ve seen it happen to straight women and people from the LGBTQI community. I’ve also seen people’s careers decided on their willingness to go along with it.

Until now I have never felt brave enough to speak up, especially about what I’ve witnessed in the theatre industry, because I know that it can have dire consequences for people’s lives and careers. These are difficult conversations to have, but we’ll have to have them if anything is going to change.

Many young ASMs (myself included) have experienced actors who have joked to them something along the lines of, ‘I’d be able to prepare for my scene better if you took all your clothes off’. Even with the joking tone, it is too much.

I’ve once had an internationally famous singer tell me that all the women on side of stage needed to come onstage and dance naked in the rain. I’ve been told by my superior that my career could be boosted by going on a date with him. I’ve seen highly unqualified people given highly qualified technical work because of their not-so-secret relationship with the person hiring them. All of these scenarios are not okay. We joke and gossip about it, but what can we really do to stop it?

Many times I have felt too uncomfortable to come forward as the person at fault has more power than me. In an industry that relies on reputation as a way of getting the next gig, how can you tarnish your reputation by being a whistleblower? Every time I chose silence as a method of career self-preservation. I wasn’t willing to risk my livelihood over it. And, in a way, to risk my career over it felt like giving in to it.

The power in these relationships is the main element that is difficult to extract. If someone has your career in your hand, speaking up is near-impossible, as you have no power and they have it all.

In the past I’ve always dealt with these situations by laughing it off, making a joke, or standing up for myself and walking away. But maybe that isn’t enough.

How can we support people to speak out when they are so vulnerable? Or even better, how can we prevent it from happening to them in the first place?

Stage Management Resources

There are a lot of Stage Management books out there to teach us about our craft, but sometimes it is hard to find the best ones. I haven’t read every one of them (obviously), but of those I have read, I have some favourites.

Here is my list of top 5 Theatre and Stage Management books:

This book has been essential throughout my career. I was introduced to it by a teacher and her copy was so worn, I could tell I needed to get a copy; I am forever grateful for being introduced to it. It is full of diagrams and technical names for everything we use in the theatre from stage layouts to fixings, lashing flats to types of drapes. Nothing is really left out.

(Note: UK terminology is used, which doesn’t apply everywhere. Keep your eye out for some ‘dad-jokes’ in there too.)

An oldie but a goodie. This is a very good entry level book for Stage Management. If you have some experience in Stage Management, this will be too basic for you but if you are someone who is just starting out it gives a very accessible introduction into how to do general stage management tasks. Excellent for high-school drama departments to keep on the shelf.

This book is full of very useful information for anyone practicing stage management, either professional, student or amateur. Again very UK oriented, but can apply anywhere. It has a lot of practical information too as it includes useful templates and checklists.

From a US perspective this book has more modern references than the others. There is sometimes a resistance amongst some people to move with the times, but times change and I believe that Stage Management should evolve too. It is used as a text book in some training organisations and is evident that it is written from people with a lot of experience.

This one is a bit of an odd inclusion, but Stage Managers often feel like they are managing chaos. If you want to get an insight into what Stage Managers sometimes have to deal with, this is the book for you. I’ve had to deal with a number of similar occurrences, but never all on the one production! It’s a fun look at what wrangling creativity can look like.

 

I’d love to hear of some of your favourite Stage Management books. Leave a comment below with any reading suggestions.

Prompting – Once, loud and enough

Anyone who has sat in a rehearsal room understands that there is a fine art to prompting. The best advice I ever had was from a teacher, Australian theatre legend Terence Clarke.

 ‘Once, loud and enough’

This is what he would say to Stage Management students struggling with prompting.
That advice has stuck with me over the last 17 years, and I hear his voice saying it inside my head whenever I prompt.

What is prompting?

Essentially it is giving someone a line when it has been forgotten or the wrong line has been said. Usually prompting is required in rehearsals when actors are still learning lines, however on some occasions I have needed to prompt during performances.

Why do we prompt?

When a scene is flowing, lines are easily forgotten. There’s a lot going on for actors to think about in rehearsals and a forgotten line can break the momentum of the scene. A quick prompt allows the scene to continue without losing the flow and without the actor dropping character.

Who prompts?

This depends on the composition of your Stage Management team. Teams vary in different organisations but prompting should be the responsibility of only one person (usually the SM or the DSM). The prompter should always sit in the same chair so the actors know where their line will becoming from. One of my pet-peeves is when unschooled assistant directors try to prompt over the top of me. I am sure to talk to them immediately about the reasons it doesn’t work.

In a large opera, there is a prompter (who is a member of the music staff) who prompts the spoken and sung parts, and in a musical, sometimes the conductor or other music staff will take over some of the prompting.

When do we prompt?

Most seasoned actors know how to ask for a line. They will call out ‘line’, or ‘yes’, or sometimes they will look at you. In the case where they look at you, you need to not have your eyes glued to the script so you can notice when it happens. Some actors have other methods. I once witnessed a director chastising a cast member for clicking his fingers at me (although I didn’t mind).

Sometimes an actor will dry and just pause. In this case you need to be able to read what is going on. Sometimes they genuinely need a line, and you can give it, but take care not to prompt unnecessarily. There have been times when I’ve prompted in a pause and the actor has replied ‘it was intentional!’ Fair enough. It’s sometimes tricky to judge but it’s not the end of the world, just let the scene carry on.

In a performance, I generally don’t prompt unless an actor specifically asks for it. With the adrenaline that comes with an audience, most actors will find a way out of it, sometimes with the help of the other actors in the scene. I have mostly prompted during performances when an actor has lost their train of thought in a Shakespearean soliloquy.

How do we prompt?

As I said earlier, Terence Clarke’s rule of three ‘once, loud and enough’ is the key.

Once

Say the line once. If you have to say it again, the actor can start to feel exasperated. And the director.

Loud

The actor needs to be able to hear it, otherwise you will have to say it twice, which breaks the first rule. Being timid can mean that the scene comes to a grinding halt. Sometimes in a scene with a lot of tension or a loud sound track you may need to almost shout. Paying attention during the actor’s voice sessions can give you some good tips on voice projection.

Also, there are many actors with hearing impairments. Being loud is very important in these cases. People with hearing impairments find it particularly difficult to distinguish your voice over any underscore that may be playing so ensure you can get your voice over whatever is coming from live instruments or the PA.

Enough

This is the toughest one to master, but it is the difference between good prompting and poor prompting. An actor often doesn’t need the entire line. Usually they only need a key word, or the first few words. Knowing exactly how much they need to jog their memory allows the scene to continue more smoothly.

For example in Hamlet, the actor might not need the entire line ‘He would drown the stage with tears/ And cleave the general ear with horrid speech.’

Instead, enough might be ‘He would drown…’

The actor would usually be able to pick it up from there. However, if you were to say ‘He would’, it might not be enough to trigger the memory, and then again you would need to break the first rule and say it twice. The key word here is ‘drown’; it is an image that the actor is likely to be using in their mind and it is a word that is not used in the rest of the soliloquy.

Some more prompting tips

Stay focussed – have everything you need nearby, because that one moment when you need to lean over to reach your eraser is the moment you’ll be asked for a line. Some Stage Managers use their finger or a ruler to keep track of where they are in the script.

Learn the pauses – if you need to, mark them in your script so you don’t find yourself prompting and ruining those juicy pauses.

Keep your eyes up – often you’ll be notating blocking as well as prompting, so keeping your eyes up is needed anyway, but during a run, it is equally important. You often need eye contact with an actor to know if they really need a prompt.

Stay on the script in the theatre – once you leave the rehearsal room, it is equally important to stay following the script. As the technical elements and spacing are being sorted out, some well known lines may momentarily be lost. You need to be ready to prompt lines you have never needed to prompt before.

It can happen anytime – I’ve seen reliable actors dry in a soliloquy four weeks into the season. It can happen at any moment to anyone. Let them have a chance to find their way out of it, but be prepared to prompt if they ask.

Relax – prompting doesn’t need to be stressful. Just calmly stay on top of it. I’ve seen people tense up as they overthink it and worry they’ll get it wrong. If you get it wrong, it’s rehearsals and everyone makes mistakes in rehearsals. Just because you’re a Stage Manager with a perfectionist streak (most of us are), doesn’t make you a failure for making a mistake.

Finally a cautionary theatre tale

In my very early career, Stage Managing a co-operative theatre project, the script had a section that was repeated a couple of times within the play. One evening performance after a matinee (two show days are prime targets for forgetfulness), the actors skipped nearly seventy pages of script when they accidentally went from one of the repeated sections to a different one. They couldn’t find a way back, and I was inexperienced and was scared of prompting over the top of them to get them back on track.

That night the show was 20 minutes shorter than usual and the paying audience would have not understood the narrative at all. Looking back, I should have prompted or called a stop show to sort it out. In a commercial company, a producer would not have stood for such a mistake and the Stage Manager would have to explain why they did nothing about it.

The take away – don’t be shy or timid. Get out there and prompt with confidence; once, loudly and enough.