Teaching Stage Management

As someone who has no formal education in stage management, the invitations I receive to guest lecture on the subject usually lead to a moment of panic. What will I say? How will I fit all of stage management into 2.5 hours? Do these students really want to hear my ridiculous stories? If this is all the stage management instruction these students will get, what do they need to know?

As I approached my most recent guest lecture I thought long and hard about the fact that I learned stage management by doing stage management.  Was there a way I could translate that into the classroom? Could I come up with a way to give  these students hands on instruction and opportunities?

Yes.

I approached the class this time by dividing it into two (or really three) parts: lecture, hands-on, and Q&A. The students had been assigned a reading on stage management in advance of my class so I knew they were coming in with  at least a little bit of information.

When I was introduced to the class, it was quickly pointed out that there is a lot more work for stage managers than actors and a lot fewer people vying for those jobs.  It was also suggested that many of them would end up stage managing at least once in their careers, but I knew that this particular class was not full of people who wanted to actually be stage managers, so I started the class by asking them their career goals.  In a class of 13 there were a handful of actors, a few who didn’t know, a couple of teachers, 2 directors, 2 communications majors looking at PR,  and 1 nurse.  With that in mind I quickly re-organized my lecture portion to talk about the things that I thought would be of most use to them if they were going to stage manage a single fringe show, teach theatre at a high school level, or as a director have to work with a stage manager.

The lecture portion of my class looked through the lens of the production process. I started at pre-production and we worked our way through to strike talking about everything from the types of paperwork a stage manager might make to  what kinds of safety hazards to watch out for to assembling a prompt binder to how to write blocking to how to call a show to how to give notes to actors to the importance of communicating with designers to maintaining the spirits of a company to what goes in an SM kit.  The amount of time spent on each subject was short.  Too short. You cannot teach someone how to write blocking in 7 minutes. You cannot discuss the nuances of note giving in 5 minutes. However, it was an overview and I had a few of my old prompt scripts with me to use as visual aids.

After a brief break we re-gathered and I handed everyone a 1 page scene. “Now,” I announced, “we are going to stage manage this scene.”

As a group we started on the scene with pre-production.  We made a props list for our scene and then found possible rehearsal props from within the class room.  We looked at who was in the scene for if we had to make a scene breakdown.

When we moved into the “rehearsal” portion of our scene, I handed out some blocking sheets that I had done up with lines and mini-groundplans and then I pulled out a video of the scene being done. As I played the video for the class, they wrote down the blocking.  When the video ended, I asked them how they did with writing out their blocking.  Some were amazed at how fast they had to write.  Others had written stuff down, but now couldn’t figure out where that movement was supposed to happen. We looked at some solutions for those problems, and then I played the video for them a second time to allow them to catch any blocking they missed the first time around.  I read out a made up direction for the scene and asked them what sort of notes would need to be given to the different departments based on that note.  “Tell costumes that the guy needs a pocket.”  “Tell props the phone can’t be cordless.” “Tell set the bench has to be sturdy enough to be stood on.”  Those types of notes.

To simulate paper tech, I handed out a sheet with four lighting cues and three sound cues for the scene.  The actual cues that were on the video.  They were a mix of visual cues and cues taken off words. I gave everyone some time to write the cues into their script. “Did you write in your standbys?” No one had. After five more minutes I asked how they had divided up their standbys.  Some had two, others three, others four, and others yet had five. Who was right? Potentially each of them.  I explained again that stage management is as much an artform as a science.  There is no perfect measure for when a standby should be.  The trick is that it needs to be early enough that the operator can stop doing something else and focus on what you are about to ask them to do. And then I asked the group, “So.  Who wants to try calling this scene to the video?”  They were pretty quiet.  A bit scared.  One of the boys said he’d give it a try, so I cued up the video and he gave it a go. He called a pair of cues early and the rest of the class started to snicker. “What do you do if the stage manager calls a cue early?” I asked them. “Panic,” one of them replied. I chuckled for a moment and then explained that when the stage manager said go – regardless of if you as the operator thought that it was the right time – you pushed the button. I went on to explain that time spent arguing about where the cue SHOULD go might mean missing other cues.  Or, I suggested, perhaps the director or designer asked the SM to move the cue and just didn’t tell you about it. There were a couple of mouths that dropped open. I asked for another volunteer and one of the gals in the class who had previously stage managed one of their shows gave it a try. She came really close to getting all the cues but when she was finished she said that it was a really nervewracking thing.  “The most terrifying moment,” I said, “is between the time I give places and the time the first cue goes.  During that time I imagine every single thing that could possibly go wrong.  I still get nervous. I still worry that I’m doing it all wrong. But once things start going, the show has its own momentum, and I know to trust myself and the show.”

I wrapped up by opening the floor for questions and using them as an excuse to tell some of my favourite stories: power outages, emergency understudy rehearsals/putting AD’s on as understudies, 423 cues in Re:Union, the bathtub in Refuge of Lies, cancelling opening nights due to wind, sets falling apart on stage, leading crazy talkbacks, and the way I scale problems by what type of baking it will take to solve them. I also took questions about joining Equity, getting jobs and cheap ways to see shows in Vancouver.

Overall, I was really happy with how the class went, but I think next time I would make the hands on the focus the whole time and explain the elements they need just before each exercise and then find a way to work safety into the hands on part.

 

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About Lois

I am a Vancouver-based Stage Manager and frequent theatre goer. After graduating from Trinity Western University I spent two seasons as the resident stage manager at Pacific Theatre. Now I am working as a freelancer with various companies in Vancouver.

4 Comments

  1. This a fantastic, human and maybe terrifying account of a day in the life of a Stage Manager.

    Well done Lois Dawson!

    Cheers!

    Susan

  2. You’re a superstar, Lois!

  3. This was exactly what I was looking for! Not only have I read practically all of your blog posts (just found your blog a week ago) but I’ve “favorites” practically any post where you talk about how to do something(calling the show, prompt books, sm kit construction). I’ve been asm’ing and sm’ing for 6 years now and always feel like I have more to learn and would love to get your perspective and any tips or tricks you have! If you could email me: kelly(dot)brazeau(at)hot mail(dot)com or if there’s a way I can reach you, that would be amazing!!

    Thanks so much!

  4. Hey Kelly,

    So glad you’re enjoying the blog! The best way to reach me is lois@loisbackstage.com. I’m working on three shows at the moment (rehearsals for one, pre-propduction/prep for two) so it might take me a bit to reply, but I do eventually respond to all the emails I get.

    Lois

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