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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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.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad review

Bad reviews can be really damaging to a show. They can completely derail weeks of performances. I’ve seen actors fall to pieces over a comment by a reviewer. I’ve seen whole dynamics shift amongst the cast when a review praises one while criticising another. I’ve seen people who were performing well start to second guess all decisions made in the rehearsal room under the careful guidance of the director. Anything can happen as the result of a bad review. As Stage Managers, we are usually the first to notice the changes to performance. And the ASMs are usually the first to notice the changes to the atmosphere amongst the cast. We can’t take completely prevent these situations, but we can take measures to mitigate the damage to the show. Over the years I’ve followed some basic rules to pre-empt the damage a bad review can have.

1. Don’t talk about the reviews

Good or bad – don’t mention reviews at all. I usually ask cast and crew to respect this rule too. It is everyone’s personal choice whether to read reviews or not, and it’s very difficult to avoid them with social media constantly shoving them in our faces. However, we don’t need to discuss them amongst ourselves. A casual mention can make someone go looking for a review when they wouldn’t usually read them. That can start a chain reaction that leads to it impacting the show. It’s not worth it. By not talking about either the good or bad reviews, we are not giving them any airtime, and we can be left with doing the business of putting on a great show. Also, I always make the crew aware that it is not acceptable to talk about reviews anywhere in the building. A number of times I’ve witnessed a crew member talk about a bad review for it to be heard by the entire cast over stage-sound.

2. Read every review

By knowing exactly what every reviewer has said, you can prepare for whatever may come as a result. It gives you a running start. If you have a vulnerable actor who is slammed in a review, and you read it as soon as it comes out, you can watch for any signs of anxiety or depression and be ready to support the actor. I always make it my business to read every review and I encourage all SMs to do the same.

3. Tackle them head on

If you discover an actor has read a review, talk to them about it right away. Even if it hasn’t affected their performance yet. Find somewhere private (so you can respect rule 1) and ask them how they feel about it. Usually talking about it makes people realise that it isn’t as important as it once seemed. A review is just one person’s opinion and it isn’t necessarily the opinion of all those dedicated, paying theatregoers who are really getting something out of the show. Facing the problem means that you are able to get in the way before an actor’s thoughts start spiralling down into a festering bubble of self-evaluation.

4. Be available

Sometimes all actors need is to discuss how they are feeling after reading a review. If they know they can trust you and come to you at any time, they’ll seek you out when they read a bad review. I’m more than happy for someone to call me during the day and discuss a review they have read. Many of the actors I work with regularly know that I read all the reviews but never discuss them in the theatre. These actors will call me and tell me how they are feeling. Sometimes all they need is some encouragement that the decisions made in the rehearsal room are good ones. Sometimes they just need to you say that the reviewer in question never writes good reviews for anyone (which is true of some cheeky reviewers). Sometimes they just need to talk through their thoughts out aloud. I don’t mind. I would rather they did that than start making changes in their performance that will flow-on to disrupt everyone else.

5. Deal with the fallout

Once a bad review has started to influence the performance, it is much harder to rein it in, but must be dealt with immediately. I usually warn the Director or Assistant Director with a phone call, and tell them how I intend to deal with it. Some directors are happy for me to deal with it, but some directors like to come soon after bad reviews to give the actors a fresh set of notes and keep them on the right path. Start by talking to the actor about how their changed performance is affecting the show and the other cast members. If it is having wider implications for the whole cast, talk to them as a whole group (I know this seems to break rule 1, but you can actually do this without talking about the review itself). Sometimes having the whole cast together can diffuse the problem.

Over the years, these five rules have enabled me to mitigate the negative impacts of a bad review on a show. If you are clear with cast and crew about what your expectations regarding reviews, and how you intend to deal with them, everyone can work together to minimise the fallout.

If you have any other suggestions for dealing with bad reviews, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Grab your notebook

As a young ASM on my first gig, I remember thinking note-taking was a complete waste of time. I had (and still have) a very good memory, so I was confident I could manage without the time-wasting practice of writing everything down. Even though I believed I could manage without a notebook, I still carried one around. Everyone else did, and people told me you had to, and I didn’t want to look out of place. My SM used to say, ‘grab your notebook and come with me’. So I carried around my blank notebook, sometimes wrote something cursory in it so it wasn’t quite so blank, and pretended that I couldn’t live without it.

Then came my second gig – at Opera Australia as an ASM. Simultaneously working on three shows in rep, making a million rookie mistakes and not being able to remember everything all the time, I started to see the value of a notebook. Not only was it for remembering important tasks, but it was also a way to keep myself accountable, and remember specific details so I could refer to them later. My notebook became the lifeline that everyone told me it would.

Fast forward 15 years, I tried going entirely digital for a year: calendar, task list, ideas, rehearsal report notes, setting notes etc. I enjoyed having access to all my notes on a number of devices without needing to carry around a notebook, but there were so many things I missed about having a physical notebook. I missed the ability to flick back a few pages and remember something from a week ago. I missed drawing something in the corner while on the phone. I missed being able to scribble a note quickly, and then still having that scribble a few weeks down the track. So after giving it a red-hot digital go, I returned to a tactile notebook. Nowadays my love affair with my notebook is stronger than ever.

If you’re keeping a notebook, you are in company with some of the world’s most historically notable people. Beatrix Potter, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Nick Cave, Charles Darwin and George Lucas (to name a few of my favourites) all famously kept notebooks with ideas, sketches, drawings, conversations, lists and quotes. Journals of History and Six Famous Notebook Users both give a sneak peek into some of these notebooks and show to those of us with an SM-like OCD that they don’t need to be neat or perfect. There’s also a insightful article (unfortunately about men only) of The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men that describes different uses of notebooks by men in various fields.

As with the notebooks by the aforementioned luminaries, I’ve seen so many styles and methods of keeping a notebook for Stage Managers. One SM I worked with had an incredibly comprehensive table with all the show times for the production she was working on. It proved invaluable on one show where a cast member liked to compare and rate all of the running times at the end of each performance – ‘Well today’s was much better than the 1:42 on Tuesday, but the Saturday matinee last week at 1:40 felt too rushed.’ I’ve worked with SMs that have one tiny pocket sized notebook per production with miniature pencil writing that they keep in their pocket. I’ve worked with people who write down nearly everything that is said to them so they can remember it later.

Over the years the way I use my notebook has evolved. I now use a method which is modified from the Bullet Journal. If you image search for ‘Bullet Journal’, you’ll see a million results for the most complicated layouts, page types and trackers. I find all of that too time-consuming and not very useful, and instead use a system more like the original that you can find in the link above.

These days I have a few tried and true rules to keeping a notebook in a way that makes my life simpler and less complicated:

Choose a sturdy notebook that you really like

I use a Leuchtturm1917 because I like the size and the way it feels. It also has an index page and two ribbons that you can use as bookmarks. It is thread bound so lies flat when you write in it, and has some perforated sheets at the back when you need to hand a note to someone else.

Make a new list every day

At the end of each day, I go over my to-do list. I put the three most important things I didn’t get done today onto a new list for tomorrow, then I prioritise what is left and add that. It’s always nice to see tomorrow’s list laid out with the most important tasks first, but also that tomorrow’s list is (usually) shorter than you ended up with today!

Make a ‘later’ list

I have a separate list for things that don’t need doing in the next few days. This way my list doesn’t end up being too long, and I can focus on the things that are immediately important. I check this ‘later’ list daily so I can add things that now need to be added to my tomorrow list.

Write everything down

Even if it seems like something easy to remember I like to write it down. That way I know I can’t forget anything when life gets very busy.

Read through it every now and then

Looking back through previous entries in my notebook allows me to see what I was busy with, what is important to me, and what I need to make more time for in my life. It’s a snapshot of what was going on at any particular stage, and that can teach me a lot about whether I’m achieving what I want to achieve and what obstacles are continually standing in my way.


Notebooks can help us keep track of things in the crazy world that is Stage Management. In my opinion, they are the best tool in my toolbox to remain organised and maintain some order over the chaos. These days I’m a notebook ambassador and it is me who is now saying ‘grab your notebook and come with me’.

What makes a great Stage Manager?

This is an abridged version of the full article which originally appeared on TheatreArtLife.


When someone asks what makes a good Stage Manager, our answers are usually along the lines of: organised, hard working, good humoured, tough, good with people.

There are a few skills, though, that are less discussed – generosity, passion, persistence, consistency and care. All the best Stage Managers I have encountered have all of these. They are ‘soft skills’ – difficult to learn at university but can be fostered within oneself.


Generosity

 

Being generous with my time as a Stage Manager was easier when my life was all about  work. After becoming a mother to my two children, priorities shifted and I found it more difficult to be as generous at work. Now, I foster generosity by concentrating on each moment – listening well, being present (as corny as that sounds) and caring for others in each interaction. As Tom Stoppard said,

Obviously, you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbour, your village and beyond.

-Tom Stoppard

There is a shadow side to generosity though, as for some it can mean putting everyone else before yourself – always. That can lead to burn out which doesn’t help anyone. Maybe the hardest thing is to remember to be generous to yourself.

Passion

Being in love with what we do is one of the benefits of working in the live performance industry. Passion comes with the territory. What happens though, when the passion isn’t there? What happens when you work on a show that you hate (yes it happens!)?

Some of the best Stage Managers I have known are still passionate about their work even when the passion for the show isn’t there. They care about Stage Management as an art – their passion lies in being excellent at their craft. That way they can bring enthusiasm, care and love for the job to every show, even if everything else around them is not going so well. They can elevate others with that passion and that is beneficial to all.

Persistence

When something doesn’t work, what do great people do? Try something else. It can be a minor variation or a big one, but the best Stage Managers keep trying everything until they find something that works. They are not the ones who give up, or get cross when something doesn’t go as planned. They work out what is the next logical step is and try that.

Some people are so attached to their ideas of how something will happen, or whether or not it will work, that they become upset when their expectations are not met. We can combat this by being ready to try something new whenever something doesn’t happen as expected, and remaining persistent until it works.

Consistency

As Will Lewis said in his interview with Prompt-Side, consistency is key when calling, but it also translates into anything we do in the live performance world. Sometimes a small deviation from the norm can snowball into something much bigger. And sometimes when one thing goes wrong, being surrounded by consistency can minimise the impact.

Consistency also maintains clear expectations. When everyone knows what to expect of you, they are put at ease. Of course, you can always go above and beyond, but maintaining a level at which everyone can rely on is what makes everyone around you relax. And a relaxed team is always a better team.

Integrity

For me, having integrity is two-fold. It is doing what you believe to be right, and doing what you say you are going to do. It is perhaps the most important characteristic that I demand of people in my life, so it makes sense that I value it in good Stage Managers.

The best Stage Managers always do what they say they will do. It might not be when you expected (they are busy people) but they get to it eventually. Even if it is difficult for them or takes up a lot of their time. For me, forgetting that I said I would do it is what gets in my way, so the best way to practice integrity is to keep a note of it in my notebook. If it is there, I’ll do it. (And then I get the satisfaction of ticking it off my list when I’ve done it).

And as for doing what you believe to be right. Well, if it doesn’t feel like it is the right thing to do, speak up, make your case. And if it still doesn’t feel right, walk away.

Care and Respect

These two characteristics definitely go hand in hand but care can be split equally between care for others and care for the craft of Stage Management.

Care, respect, generosity and passion are all closely linked, but they can be distinct too. Care can take many forms and can be shown in the simplest things. It can be doing someone else’s dishes (or even your own dishes). It can be putting your phone away when someone is talking to you. It can be tidying your desk at the end of the day. It can be sweeping the rehearsal room floor. It is a way of showing respect to all people and all things.

I like to think of it like the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony is a mediation of care and respect. As you drink the tea, you hold the cup in two hands, showing care and respect to the cup, the tea, the people involved in making it. Sometimes you need to hold your work in two hands, sometimes you need to hold your show in two hands, sometimes you need to hold someone’s emotions in two hands. Showing care and respect to our work and the people we work with is a great way to make our day (and everyone else’s) better.


As I look up at what I’ve written above, I realise that these skills can apply to anyone in any field. But for Stage Managers, when the going gets tough, those who have fostered generosity, passion, persistence, consistency and care in themselves will thrive. These are some of the skills that turn good Stage Managers into great ones.