No Harm in Asking

I’ve just finished reading The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer and for me, this book has been a series of life-changing light-bulb moments. Asking is something I find difficult.  Just the idea of asking for help makes me sweaty and nervous. I’ve always felt like asking someone to help me personally was a demonstration of inability, incapacity or failure. I’m happy to be the one who is asked, I love giving, but I have always perceived the act of asking as a negative reflection on me. I’m less worried about a negative response than the idea that someone might think I couldn’t do something myself. I’ve carried this into my stage management, and I’ve seen it in other stage managers too.

The opening of the Palmer’s book describes the practice of giving of a tampon to someone in need:

The unspoken universal understanding is, ‘today it is my turn to take the tampon, tomorrow it shall be yours’. There’s a constant comic tampon circle. It also exists, I’ve found, with Kleenex, cigarettes and ballpoint pens. I’ve often wondered, are there women who are just too embarrassed to ask, women who would rather just roll up a huge wad of toilet paper into their underwear rather than dare to ask a room full of strangers for a favour?

-Amanda Palmer

I’m the person who has always made sure I had plenty of tampons, tissues and ballpoint pens at the ready. That way I’ve got enough to give everyone else (so I can enjoy the giving), but never have to ask (and I can avoid the fear that comes with asking). Stage managers often like to be the go-to person. The one who has the tools, the stationary, the answers, the ability to make things happen, the sensitivity, the up-to-date paperwork. But how often do we ask for help when we really need it?

After reading this book, I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t often enough. People have always told me I should ask for help more often, but I just dismiss them, ‘I don’t need help, I can do it myself!’. This has caused me problems both major and minor. I’ve severely injured my back by not asking someone to help me lift a giant prop as a young 20 year old student and I’ve missed opportunities by not putting my hand up and asking, when someone else did.

I can see my hypocrisy. I’m always telling my kids to ask for something when they need it. And I’ve spent many hours on the telephone asking companies to donate goods as props for a show in exchange for tickets, but to ask for something specifically because I need it, personally, is something I don’t do. I’d rather suffer by going the long way around. It’s like I don’t believe I’m worthy of the gift if I have to ask for it.

Regardless of the fact Palmer’s book is a spirited education about creative artists and their struggles and sacrifices (essential reading for SMs on this front), it expresses how asking has enriched her life both as a performer and in her personal life. She’s asked for meals in exchange for show tickets, slept on people’s couches in exchange for her music, and held one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns, raising over a million dollars to record an album.

So how does this relate to stage management?

When she was little, my daughter asked me if I had done some good hiding at work that day. ‘What do you mean?’, I asked. Her reply, ‘Because you’re a stage manager and your job is to hide from the audience’. Although this was a cute response to my explanation earlier that week about why I wear black, it reminds me that often as stage managers, we try to not be seen – an old adage is that stage management is at its best when you don’t notice it. However I’m a firm believer that being unnoticeable isn’t a reason to avoid offering opinions, ideas and ask for something when we need it.

There are so many instances where a stage manager can ask for something that might make things better for them. Ask for a higher stool – it might stop your neck from hurting. Ask for a headset with the left ear covered – then you can hear the stage better from prompt corner. Ask for the director to explain a decision to you – you will be better able to understand why the decision is important and help them achieve their vision. Ask for extra crew – it might make the show seamless. Ask a cast member to return their props to the props table instead of leaving them on the floor – you might have more time to enjoy a drink with them after the show. Ask for help if you are swamped or overwhelmed – there are plenty of people who can take some of the load, you only need to ask.

As Amanda Palmer reflects throughout her book – if you ask with respect, vulnerability, trust and the understanding that the gift keeps moving, people are more than willing to give, leaving you more time to give also. It is something I’m working on, at home and at work, and I know it’s going to continue to be a work-in-progress. I’m good at asking for others, I need to practice asking for me.

So since there is no harm in asking, I want to ask something of you. This week, I ask you to notice when you could have asked for help. Just notice. And see how many times you could have given someone the chance to help you or to give you something. Also notice the joy it gives people when they have the chance to provide what someone has asked for. Then if you notice something interesting, please come back here and leave a comment. I am very grateful for everyone who reads and engages with this blog. Creating a conversation about stage management is what I’m really interested in, and by leaving a comment below we can keep the conversation flowing.

Advertisements

What #Timesup means for Stage Managers

With the allegations of more sexual misconduct within the Australian live performance industry, there’s a new conversation to be had. In my response to #MeToo, I discussed the existing culture that we’ve all witnessed in our industry, but now we need to turn our focus to have a look at how we deal with it as Stage Managers.

In the 7:30 report on Monday, Chloe Dallimore and Amy Maiden both highlighted the need to create a space to have real and difficult conversations, and both raised the point that people initially turn to Stage Management and Company Management when a problem arises. On the Stage Management Network of Australia facebook group there has been a lot of discussion about how Stage Managers can support cast and crew members when they come to us with issues of harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault. How do we best deal with it when it comes up?

Many years ago, before the #metoo and the #timesup movements, a female cast member I was working with was a victim of bullying, harassment and misogyny. As the SM, she came to me and I felt completely powerless to do anything about the source of the problem. I knew that if we took it to upper management, nothing would be done – the perpetrator was highly valued by the company and there was a culture of this sort of behaviour. I discussed the issue with my production manager and the company manager, but they didn’t want to take it further either. It was a complex situation with many layers, but ultimately my strategy to help the cast member was to provide an environment to support her through it, rather than make the perpetrator accountable for his actions. This was by no means an isolated incident in my career. However, looking back now within the current context, I wonder if I could have done more, if I could have fought harder for that female cast member. I know it is still something that troubles her to this day, and to her, I’m sorry.

Moving forward, I want to deal with these issues better. I want to support the victims in a way that makes them know they are being seen and heard. Thankfully I now feel that there’s a climate where we can have these discussions, but I call on producers and management to support Stage Managers and Company Managers who are the gatekeepers for these issues.

Freelance Stage Managers don’t want to risk their own careers by taking these allegations to producers who don’t care. One of the reasons SMs exist is to deal with problems at a grass roots level so upper management can concentrate on other things. Many SMs feel like bringing these sorts of issues to producers makes the SM look incompetent at dealing with issues.

So what do SMs need from upper management?

Stage Managers need to feel like they are supported. If we file an incident report with claims of bullying, harassment or inappropriate behaviour, we need to feel like it will be followed up, not shut down. SMs are mostly happy to have tough conversations (we’re a tough lot), but we’re usually only wiling to go there if we feel supported.

We need more training. We need training in Mental Health First Aid. We need training in how to respond to bullying and harassment. We need to be relying on more than our instincts.

And what do SMs need to do?

We need to recognise when the rehearsal room or the theatre no longer feels safe for someone. Contrary to the article by Neil Pigot and Julian Meyrick, I disagree with their assertion that “The theatre is a place of profound vulnerability, a place where overstepping the lines of normal behaviour is unavoidable, and sometimes encouraged.” I’ve worked in plenty of rehearsal rooms where vulnerability is achieved without overstepping any lines. All it takes is a culture of trust and respect. It is up to us to notice when trust and respect is being corroded.

We need to keep ourselves accountable. We need to keep appropriate documentation about what has been reported and when. We need to file an incident report in a discreet manner. We need to share the documentation with the victim. That way they can see that something is being done, and there is concrete evidence that can be referred to down the track.

We need to keep listening. To our casts, our crews and our instincts. Pay attention to the jokes that have a hint of truth. Pay attention to the relationships within the casts. We need to address issues early, rather than letting them smoulder.

We need to look after our own mental health and we need to look out for each other. We need to keep the conversation going. Most of all we need to work together towards an industry where every individual feels safe, validated, trusted and respected.

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.

Blocking (n) – The actors’ moves as decided in rehearsals.

Blocking notation (n) – The written blocking in the prompt copy.

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 copy (n) – Also known as ‘the book’, this is the definitive notation of everything that happens in the show. It contains all the official script, cues, blocking, schedules, contact information, emergency information and more.

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.

 

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.