This is the third post in a series of five about my experience at the SMArts conference in Vancouver. I’ve essentially taken my notes and turned them into these posts. You can find my previous posts on the CTA agreement & the conference in general by clicking on those links.
Calling a show is one of the most public parts of the job of a stage manager and it is also one of the most creative parts of the job. Of course, for many people, it is the most terrifying part, too. It requires a steady voice, a well put together prompt script, & a plan for tech time to make sure you have all the time you need to learn the show.
When it comes to prompt scripts, one thing to remember is that every stage manager has their own way of keeping their prompt script and then important thing is to find one that works for you and then be ready to adapt. Each show has its own needs and sometimes the way you’ve “always done things” just won’t work. Here are a few ideas of things that can help keep a prompt script organized.
- highlight character names & then use a different colour to highlight stage directions (this way you can ignore them while prompting)
- track props & quick changes on the side of the page
- create a space to track entrances and exits
- use maps with the groundplan for the show (anywhere from 1-3 or more depending on what works for you)
- write notes about specific character things from the director on the back of the script page (between the script page and the blocking page)
- use post-it tabs to mark dance numbers or fight scenes on the top of the page
- Tab the musical numbers & scenes down the side
- use tear-away pages for original blocking with new copies for each version that you keep until opening when you can write out the finalized blocking
In a perfect, beautiful world the process of tech would look something like this:
1. Paper Tech with designers, director & SM
- An opportunity to begin putting the cues into the SM’s book but also to talk through sequences, especially the beginning and end of the show and make sure that everyone is on the same page
- It may seem like common sense, but it is very important that the director be a part of this meeting. This ensures that the vision the designers are sharing with the SM are the same vision the director has for the show.
2. Lighting level session with Lighting Designer, Director, & SM
- The rule of thumb in this situation is that if the director is there, the SM should be too. If they say they are just going to check out some looks, then make sure that they mean that (and in that case the SM does not need to attend), but if they are going to set cues, the stage manager should be there. No matter how well the director thinks they know the show, there is always going to be that time when the director says, “So the scene plays out entirely in this small area” and you look at the blocking in your script and say “What about the actor you blocked to be on the opposite side of the stage?” The designer has probably only seen one run and chances are good that things have changed since then. Having the stage manager present for the setting of lighting levels & cues is just going to save time when you reach Cue to Cue.
- If things are all going smoothly during the level session, this is a good time to confirm the calling points from the paper tech and to begin writing in standby cues. Here are some general rules for standby cues:
- If you trust your operators, you can give them standbys as short as 6-7 lines ahead of the cue.
- If the operator is really busy with cues (or say your sound operator has multiple CD players, a minidisc player & a laptop) they are going to need a longer standby.
- Fly cues get a warning about two minutes ahead, then a standby & go
- If you’re working with a new crew, ask them how they like their standbys
- Always give your standbys in the same order: lights, sound, flys, extras, actors
- Write out exact standby information – this is your script & ensures that you say exactly what you mean.
3. Hold a spacing rehearsal in the theatre under work lights
- This is a time for the cast to get used to the set & the stage before they worry about being plunged into darkness & to discover any safety issues.
- If you don’t have time to do a full run this way, give the actors 30 minutes to just step through their blocking.
4. Hold a Quick Change rehearsal
- Cue to cue should not be the first time you tackle a quick change. Spend time on it in rehearsal making sure you have got it down to an art form and as tight as possible.
- There are two primary ways to approach Q2Q
1. Start at the top and jump from cue to cue (this is the traditional way & works really well for a straight play where cues are just at the top &
bottom of a scene)
2. Stumble through the show. Of course you are still going to start & stop to fix things, but for a show with a lot of cues (that are all pre-built) this
is going to be the most time-efficient approach to tech.
- Make sure you include quick changes during Q2Q but it should never be the first time
- First make sure the tech for the transition works, then go back and actually do the quick change with the tech.
- As you start to figure out the calls for the show, try to get each department down to one syllable (Lights as opposed to LX). This gives you an economy of speech in your calling.
- Remember that there are some cues you SHOULDN’T call. Light switch cues or sound cues that are timed to actors pushing buttons on fake stereos should be taken visually by the operators. You should still be giving the standbys, but they should take it.
- When you are deciding where to start tell the ASMs first so they can start pre-setting the stage, then inform the cast and politely ask them to wait until you are ready for them, and finally speak with your crew and make sure they are good with what you are running.
- Don’t worry if the first page of the script takes an hour or more to work through. The top of the show is the first thing the audience is going to see and at the beginning of the day everyone’s a little on edge. If you can’t solve the opening sequence, move on and go back to it later when everyone has relaxed a little and settled into the way the day is working.
- Remember that even though tech day is really about the stage manager, it is very important to keep morale up with the cast and one simple way to do this is with politeness. Make sure you continue to use your “please” “thank you” and “Ladies & Gentlemen”.
- Be prepared. Simple things like having spike & glow tape pre-cut will make a huge difference over the course of the day.
6. Tech Runs
- Now you are getting to practice calling your show & finding the rhythm of it. This is when you want to be shifting your standbys to make sure they are working best for everyone.
- Limit the distribution of headsets to only those who need them. At this point your designers are still going to be on headset making changes to the looks of some of their cues with the operators. This is a good thing, but be up front with them about your headset protocol. A good place to start is the no one talks between the a standby and its go unless there is a fire, flood or blood.
7. Dress Rehearsal
- Now you should be calling the show from your actually calling position and seeing the show as you will during the run.
8. Open the Show
Of course, that’s in a beautiful, perfect world and we don’t usually get that in theatre. But it is something to aspire to and gives a run down of things you need to cover in whatever time you do have.
A few notes on calling follow spots:
- Each spot is given a number or letter (Spot 1, Spot A, etc)
- Give a warning substantially ahead of time and give them a lot of information
- Tell them who they are picking up
- Tell them where they are picking that person up
- Tell them what frame (color) they are using
- A follow spots version of left/right is their own left or right hand. They still do up & down, but when you call a spot Down Right they hit DSL.
- Before you start using spots, make sure you inform your spot ops:
- try to keep spots of the soft goods & set pieces
- douse down/douse up (get softer/brighter)
- size of shot (waist up, full body, full full body)
Calling a show is something that most apprentices & assistants don’t really get a chance to practice. It is a skill that enables one to be the stage manager of a show and yet it is the one area that there is the least opportunity to train in. Whenever you have a chance to sit in the booth and observe a stage manager calling a show you should take it, even if you aren’t working on that show. One way you can practice calling a show that you aren’t working on is off of an old prompt script & an archival video. Because prompt books are the property of the theatre company when the show closes and because many companies take an archival video of the show, its a chance to see the book that was used to call that particular show. Another option is to watch a movie version of a musical (a good example of this is Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which is very theatrical in its presentation) and figure out where you would have to call the cues to have them turn out as they do.
Note: this post does not necessarily reflect the personal opinion of the writer. It is a summary of the SMArts session.
For more on how to build your own prompt script, check out this post: The Show Bible.