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.
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The Final Push – the last few days of rehearsals

It’s the last week of rehearsals and we’re making a final push to finish the production elements before we bump into the theatre on Monday.

In the rehearsal room, the Director is layering detail into the scenes while the cast continues to make discoveries about their characters.

I’m making sure the prompt copy is accurate and up to date so we’ll have all the information we need in the theatre next week. I’m also starting to insert the cues as the design team provide me with synopses, so we can save time in the plots.

A key task at this stage is creation of running plots for the show crew. These detail all the cues they have during the show, including any relevant information that might help them. Ideally, a crew plot is succinct enough to not be overwhelming, but contains enough information that someone could pick it up and do the show with minimal explanation (but more about that in a future post).

We are also having a lot of conversations about how we can make best use of the brief period we have in the theatre before opening night. We bump in on Monday, with our first audience on Friday, so finding creative solutions to maximise this time benefits everyone.

This is made particularly complex by the fact that there are so many competing variables in the theatre. The sound team need a certain amount of quiet time; the lighting team need some dark time; the cast members need some time with the set, sound and lights; and workshop need some time where they can have the set to themselves, make noise and have light. It’s a juggling act and each show comes with its own demands. Thankfully, Tartuffe is not technically difficult, so we may be able to afford the cast some more time onstage, without stealing time from any of the other departments.

As we make the final efforts to be as prepared as possible for bump in, the important thing to remember is that we are all making something together. Although we all have different priorities to make sure we each deliver our elements on time, if we don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re all working towards the same outcome, we will get there.

Playing

It’s the end of week 2, rehearsals are now well underway and the production of Tartuffe is slowly accruing the attributes that will, at some point, coalesce and take on a life of its own.

The actors are immersed in the exploration of their characters, while the Director is constructing the world they inhabit. Alongside this, the set and costumes are being made, and all the while I’m busy keeping things on track – recording the blocking and props notes, scheduling the production and liaising with the Company’s other departments (Workshop, Sound, Lighting, Wardrobe, Publicity, Administration) about the show’s requirements.

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Back in the rehearsal room, at this stage everything that happens is an experiment. Damis needs to overhear a conversation between Tartuffe and Elmire. Will he hide in a cupboard, will he hide in plain sight or will he hide in somewhere in the architecture of the theatre?

While this debate takes place, I’m making sure that the cast members and Director have everything they need to keep experimenting and, at the same time, I’m keeping the production departments up to date as the show evolves. It’s a balancing act between keeping things outside the room moving forward, in terms of sourcing props and building the set, but not moving too far in case the parameters shift when an idea doesn’t take hold. It’s about finding the fulcrum that allows creative expression within a finite deadline.

At this point in the production, it’s important for Stage Management to remain flexible, because things are always being added, changed or cut at short notice. We have to allow the Creative team to play. However, it’s also critical that we have everything finished by opening night. Balancing the competing interests is not always easy, however if you are clear on exactly how long things will take, and know the latest point at which you really need a decision made, you can work out when the experimentation needs to move into something more solid.

For now, it doesn’t matter where Damis hides, but I know exactly when we need to start pushing for a decision. So until that crucial moment, I’ll give them the opportunity to play.