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.


 

Advertisements

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.

The Sistine Chapel of Stage Management

I had a designer ask me once, ‘What is your Sistine Chapel?’ We had been talking about some of the shows we worked on, and why they were special to us, and he wanted to find out which show for me had been my pièce de résistance. I had never thought about it before, and it got me thinking. Some shows are just so special that whenever you think about them, you start to glow. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of these, but what is it about them that makes them hold a piece of your heart?

For a long time I’ve been trying to work it out, and for me, I think it comes down to these key ingredients:

Quality
Some of the hardest shows I have worked on have been the most magical because they have something important to say. They have taken every ounce of my (and everyone else’s) energy, but they are meaningful pieces of work that touch audience’s hearts. Often they are the premiere of a new script and there are a multitude of problems that need to be solved along the way, but they bring you together to create something exciting. They are the kind of show that people ring you about three weeks later saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about that play’. When the Rain Stops Falling was one of these for me. An intensely beautiful script, transcendent music, detailed direction, and an evocative set supported the powerful and profound performances by the cast. From the start we knew that there was something special in this brand new work, and being a part of it was like having a constant tingle in your fingertips. For me this is the biggest contributing factor to a Sistine Chapel show; knowing that you are involved in creating a work that makes people think or feel something new is one of the main reasons I love theatre.

Good people
Sometimes a group of people come together and they just click. It can be a company of two or a company of 20, or even a smaller group within a bigger cast and crew. Most people in theatre know that feeling when a show company becomes your family.  As with all families, there are confrontations and differences, however sometimes the most diverse groups are the most cohesive. But when you have a group of people who can manage those differences in a way that brings them closer together, it can feel incredible. They know you better than anyone else, and they understand when you want to chat and when you need time alone. They know how to make you laugh, they know your deepest fears. The ultimate is when you have a group like that on tour. You really feel like a travelling circus family. It’s difficult to describe, but it is a very deep connection that I’ve not found elsewhere.

There is, however, a shadow side to having such a tight-knit theatre family. When closing night arrives, saying goodbye can be tough. Over the years it has become easier, but there is a period of mourning afterwards. After spending every day with the same people, who feel like a part of you, all of a sudden you’re not seeing them every day. Everyone returns to their home cities and your theatre family disappears from your life. For some it can bring a real period of sadness and melancholy and learning to deal with this is important. I’ve found keeping in contact with people over the coming days with just a text message, or a funny email can help slow down the abrupt break in contact.

A busy show
The 39 Steps was so busy, but it was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever called from prompt corner. It is by no means a thought-provoking, meaningful production, but it is a fun romp that is even more fun backstage. It was an endless series of major scene changes with only a small crew. One in particular was so difficult that the crew only just managed to set the scenery and props before I needed to call out the cloth each night. At one point during early dress rehearsals, I looked into the upstage wing and found that the entire crew was standing doubled over, puffing and laughing. It was the first time they had made the scene change in time, and it gave us an enormous sense of achievement. The adrenaline ride that the show took us on each night was addictive, and I looked forward to going in to call it each night.

On the flip side, when cast and crew get bored, it can put a dampener on everything. You can tell people aren’t happy – they start mucking up, and then there’s discipline required from Stage Management. There are ways to prevent it though. Five years ago I worked on a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, where the entire crew had no cue for over an hour. By the end of the first week everyone was getting very bored, and started using the time to rate the nightly performances (bad idea – see A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette). So we decided to do something together to pass the time. We decided to knit. Those who didn’t know how to knit learned, and those who did know helped the others. Knitting was good because we could still pay attention to the show and it was easy to put down if something went wrong. It seems like a silly thing now, but that ended up being a great season in the end, and it’s all because we found our way through what was, from a backstage perspective, a very quiet show.

So, how to choose my Sistine Chapel? I don’t know if I can. Each show means something different to me. One show is where I made some of my most lasting friendships, one show is where I laughed the most, one show is the one that took hold of my heart and still hasn’t let go, one show had me addicted to the adrenaline, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second child, one show where we danced the hokey-pokey every night at the beginner’s call, one show where we toured for so long I forgot which venue we were in, one show where it was just four of us and we drank two fingers of top-shelf whiskey after every show in the dressing room talking about the world.

So my Sistine Chapel is not just one production. Instead, it is the accumulation of memories, intangible moments and feelings; layers of brushstrokes that together form the complete work.

The Art of Stage Management

When asked what makes a good Stage Manager, many people would first say organised, calm, confident. Very few would say ‘creative’. But despite what people may believe,  creativity is one of the key characteristics of a good Stage Manager.

Before I started Stage Managing, I didn’t consider myself creative, but I loved being surrounded by creativity, which is why the theatre was a perfect fit for me. However, the more shows I worked on, the more I called shows, the more I ran a team backstage, the more I realised that Stage Management is a creative art form in itself.

In a 2007 article by Gail Pallin and Pauline Miller Judd (see full article here), the authors explore the role of creativity in Stage Management and how to incorporate it into training courses. They write:

Traditionally, the stage management roles in theatre have been viewed as supportive, without the opportunity to make an obvious creative contribution to the output. This contribution was inherent, but not necessarily recognised or encouraged…a stage manager is constantly engaged in problem solving and seeking new ways to achieve the goals of the production team.

In my experience, creativity is certainly inherent in Stage Management, although I disagree that there is a need for recognition or encouragement. Stage Managers don’t become Stage Managers for recognition. If they do, they do not last long, as it is not a job where recognition is in ample supply (nor do I believe it should be, but I’ll save that for another discussion).

I do, however believe it is vital for Stage Managers themselves to recognise that they are creative and have creative input into the show. And in my experience, good directors, designers and particularly lighting designers understand this and take full advantage.

So how does this creativity affect the show, and how is it manifest?


Calling

Anyone who has seen a badly called show will tell you that timing is everything. In some circumstances consistency is key, whereas in others you need to ‘feel the moment’ to call a cue just at the right point.

At the end of a production of Hedda Gabler by State Theatre Company SA I needed to call a blackout that was after an uncomfortably long silence where the stunned characters were held on stage each reacting to what had happened (I’m not going to spoil it for those of you that don’t know the play). There was little movement on stage, and the director gave me a rough point at which to call it based on a movement of an actor. Some nights the audience would sit so silently still that we could hold it a bit longer than other nights, the idea was to hold it until the point the audience was really uncomfortable.

By understanding the creative vision, feeling the audience and being in-tune with the cast on stage, this moment was different every night. The cast and I would often discuss it after a performance, and by the end of the season, we were all working as one, and we were absolutely nailing the moment. At times like these creativity really comes into play and it only worked because we were all feeling the moment, not by counting beats, or giving secret signals.

Achieving something like this takes a lot of courage from the director. Having a good relationship with the director, where the know they can trust you to make those calls, is key.

Problem Solving

Stage Managers solve problems, sometimes within a matter of seconds.

For example, a piece of scenery is stuck in the middle of an opera. Stage Management need to quickly assess the situation. Is everyone safe? Do we need to stop the show? What is it going to affect? Who is available to assist? All those questions and more need to be answered without delay. Yes, sometimes the show has to stop, but often, you can work around it. At this point you need to know what purpose that piece of scenery serves the show creatively (another time when understanding the director’s vision is vital). You might be able to do without it, you might have to stop other pieces of scenery coming on, you might be able to get it on another way. Everything depends on the circumstances, but I bet you that the option you choose is a creative one. A solution that has required some quick out-of-the-box thinking.

Props

The best people at sourcing and making props in my experience have been those who really understand the intent of the director and designers and run with it in their own creative way.

In a 1950s house-drama, a creative person will come back from a charity shop with the items on the props list, but maybe also a 1950s yellow glass ashtray for set dressing, or a crocheted throw for the couch. Researching and understanding the setting can allow the person sourcing props some freedom in choosing items that the designer may not have thought of yet, and sometimes this creative input can make or break the authenticity of a production.

Maintenance

Long after opening night when the cast are getting bored and start mucking up, changing things or playing cheeky games during the show, the Stage Manager is responsible for maintaining the creative integrity of the show. The Stage Manager needs to be creative enough to keep the show within the parameters of the Director’s vision, but not so creative that they start putting their own touches on it. This is by far the most difficult of all the creative pursuits of a Stage Manager. Inexperienced actors often hate getting notes from a Stage Manager, as do those with giant egos. The remaining majority are appreciative and grateful for any notes they may get to keep them on track. But those ten per cent that don’t like getting notes make it very difficult.

I’ve always found understanding how the director approaches notes during rehearsals helpful. After four to six rehearsal weeks of observing how notes are given, which ones are taken on board, what angle is best for each note, and what notes the director prioritises, a Stage Manager can get a good handle on how to do it best. But I am always prepared for backlash or arguments when giving notes to some people. It’s just how it is.


It is evident that Stage Managers are indeed practicing creativity on a daily basis, but I know that many Stage Managers don’t believe themselves to be creative. So how do we cultivate creativity in ourselves?

According to an article by Linda Naiman (see full article here), creativity can be learned through practice over time. She writes:

You can learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination and synthesising information. Learning to be creative is akin to learning a new sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles, and a supportive environment in which to flourish.

In my mind, creativity in Stage Management can be fostered by practicing the following:

  • Observing others. Ask someone if you can watch them call a show, or shadow them doing their daily activities. This is the best way to learn how other people handle situations that require creativity. If you are an ASM, this is the best opportunity to watch the other people in your Stage Management team. What do they do? How do they get in tune with the show.? What research do they do?
  • Breathe. In my experience you can only be creative when you are thinking calmly. Panic and anger are unhelpful in any situation, but especially when trying to be creative. Adrenaline, on the other hand, can be useful. Some of the most creative problem solving I have done was when I was feeling the full force of an adrenaline rush, but at least I was breathing and calm enough to be rational.
  • Explore options and their consequences. What would happen if we do this? What would happen if we did the opposite? What would happen if we didn’t do anything at all? How would this affect all the other elements?
  • Listen. To everything you can. By listening to everything said by the director, actors, designers and the crew, you can really understand the show to a point that it is in your bones, and then you can find your creativity within it.
  • Do something unusual. Often. A 1968 study by George Land (see his TED talk here) found that generally speaking, creativity (or innovation and imagination) diminishes by age. He concluded that ‘non-creative behaviour is learned’, and suggests ‘turning on your 5 year old self’. So doing what you always do, or what everyone has always done stifles creativity. The more often you do something unusual the easier this becomes. It is a way to unleash creativity. I highly recommend it.

So, next time someone asks you what makes a good Stage Manager, you can include ‘creative’ in your list of attributes. Because we are creative, and we need to remember that.

I’d love to hear of how you see creativity in Stage Management. Please leave a comment below.

Why Stage Managers should eat more

Recently I came across an article written by Peter Crawley from the Irish Times, Calling the shots: A life in the day of a stage manager who had followed a Stage Manager for a day to find out what Stage Management entails.
As the day progressed, the journalist honed in on the fact that the Stage Manager he was following hardly ate anything. She was busy during lunchtime, grabbed a quick (unhealthy) snack and worked long hours. Towards the end of the article he stated,

‘Stage managers do not eat.’

Most of us in the theatre world know that Stage Managers work long hours and often work during breaks (rehearsal breaks are a valuable time to talk to other departments, catch up on missed phone calls and emails and paperwork). And I too have been guilty of working long days eating very little.

About four years ago, I decided to change that. I made a conscious decision to sit down to eat my lunch, and try to have a healthy snack at every break.

For the first while it was difficult. I was worried I would have to stay later to catch up on all the things I used to do during breaks, or I would miss or forget something important. I also had a feeling of guilt for sitting down when actually I was very busy and didn’t feel like I had the time for such luxury.

In fact, the opposite was true. The production didn’t come to a grinding halt because I sat down to eat my lunch. In fact, I was calmer and clearer after taking the break that my whole outlook was better.

Here’s what I have found after taking breaks and nourishing myself for four years, and why I believe Stage Managers should eat more:

  • I am healthier. Well this is a bit of a no-brainer. Running on no food is like trying to run a car with no fuel. I do have to be a bit more organised to bring lunch and snacks with me. That way I can sit down and eat for half an hour (rather than going out to find food), and then go and catch up on work for the other half an hour while the actors are still on break. Win/win!
  • My rapport with the company was better. Having time to actually sit down and chat while eating is a lovely way to get to know everyone better, especially during the rehearsal period. Although your company become your family quite quickly in theatre, I found relationships were better from an early stage because I actually had the time to really get to know people from the start. This paid off in spades further down the track.
  • My mind is fresher. After eating, if I go and do some paperwork, I am more efficient, as I am full of fuel. I can often get the same amount done as I would have otherwise.
  • I prioritise better. Because I have less time in the break, I have to focus on the important issues first. I don’t get caught up in the things that might end up solving themselves.

Some tricks and tips for making time for breaks and eating more:

  • Bring fruit. Something like an apple is easy to eat on a tea break while walking to costume to catch up about a fitting. This way you are refuelling while still getting a lot done.
  • Bring a healthy lunch. There are many ways to do this, and it seems easier than it is, especially during production week. Sometimes I prepare something big for the week on a Sunday, sometimes I bring some ingredients and some wraps and make lunch at work each day, or sometimes I pack it in the morning. It depends on the week, and where we are at.
  • During weeks where I’m working three-call days (like in Production Week), I make a giant salad on Sunday that is one for each day, then I might go and buy something different for the other meal so I’m getting outside for at least a bit of the day, and have some variety in what I’m eating.
  • Organise a shared lunch day. This is something that State Theatre SA do as a whole company and staff and I think it’s a great idea. Everyone brings something to share (usually there’s a theme), and it is a fantastic way to bring everyone together for a meal. Sometimes the best creative ideas come out of getting everyone together talking!
  • Bring some healthy snacks for the production desks. The lollies on a production desk are a real problem for me (see this post). If I eat them, I end up having a massive sugar low about an hour after and then get really tired, the best way to keep my energy up is to have some trail mix at the production desk.

The big thing to remember is that you don’t want to be a martyr (which I’ve seen a lot of Stage Managers do). Not eating because you are busy is not a badge of honour. It is the fastest way to burning out, running out energy and being less productive.