Calling the Show: 3 C’s to Conquer!

Cartoon (c) Gordon Oxley, taken from Stage Managing the Arts in Canada

I once heard another stage manager refer to calling the show as the “sexy” part of the job.  And its true.  It is certainly the part of the job that is easiest to explain to other people (“I tell people when to push the buttons so that the lights, sound, video, flying scenery/curtains, scene changes, & entrances happen at the right time.”) and is the part of the job that others can see the effects of.  It requires you to understand the rhythms of the show in the same way any other performer does – knowing each pause & gesture, responding on the fly to changes, etc – which means all that time in rehearsals that was spent paying attention to the flow of the piece is about to pay off.  By the point the show reaches Q2Q chances are good that the stage manager knows the show better than anyone (including the director) because their fingers have been on the pulse of rehearsals as well as the design elements and all the little details.  But all of this responsibility can make calling a show, especially the first time, a stressful & frightening thing.  I know a number of actors, directors & designers who have, for various reasons, ended up stage managing shows and while they generally enjoyed themselves and felt that it was a positive experience, that first day calling the show was a scary time for them.

In an effort to keep the job as stress-free and effective as possible, here are my three C’s of show calling:

1. Be CALM

A calm, even vocal tone will make it easier for everyone to relax.  It’s okay to be nervous or worried. I know that I still get the jitters the first couple dress rehearsals/previews.  But the trick is not to let that come across in your voice.  For example, if you are stressed out about a particular call, it is very easy to end up saying “Cue107go” all strung together as if it was one word. This can cause confusion and panic. If you are feeling uncertain, cues often end up sounding like questions, like “cue 107 Go?”  This questioning tone makes it sound as if you don’t know what you are doing and at times will cause operators to wonder if you intended for them to go at that point or not.  This uncertainty will sometimes cause them to ask “Are you sure?” rather than hitting that GO button right away.

Unnamed Headset Duckie enjoys calling the show

If you jump a cue (an actor skips some lines, an operator doesn’t hear your “GO”, you forget to call something – or any of the other myriad of reasons that cues are sometimes missed) don’t freak out! If it was a lighting cue, have the operator go to the correct lighting state. If it was a sound cue, have the operator skip load the next cue in sequence or skip the CD ahead and then make a note. Figure out what went wrong (if you don’t already know) after the show and get your focus back on where you currently are in the script. Panicking & getting upset with your operators won’t get you anywhere – in fact it will probably cause you to miss additional cues.

2. Be CLEAR

If no one can understand you they can’t do what you say. Don’t mumble. Speak loud enough to be heard (and if people still can’t hear you, make sure their headsets are turned up!) Also, be clear about what you are calling. If you make a mistake (accidentally ask for sound to standby instead of lights or whatever the case may be), own it and then clarify.

One things that can cause great confusion is the use of gestures in calling shows.  A lot of stage managers like to use gestures (often pointing) instead of “GOs”, especially in situations where the cues are really tight.  If you want to do this make sure you talk to your operators about it first so they aren’t waiting for an auditory cue, and then be consistent about it.  It is confusing to have a mixture of auditory and visual cues, especially if they contradict each other.  I was talking about this subject with a friend who is a lighting operatore and she told me a story about an SM who used a combination of gestures and called cues, but during musical numbers the stage manager’s gestures got ahead of the verbal calls making it really unclear when cues were supposed to occur.

3. Be CONCISE

The less syllables you have to say, the easier your job is going to be – especially in a cue heavy show. When I first began stage managing (in high school) I was taught to call “LX 103 (one hundred and three) GO” but have since learned that calling “Lights 103 (one-oh-three) GO” saves precious time. Try it: say each version out loud. You can feel the difference in what you are saying. Similarly, SQ 4 becomes Sound 4. Projection 26 becomes Slide 26 (though that is not an universal equivalent – it depends on the type of projections. You can also use “Video” but I am still looking for an ideal one-syllable word for projections.) Follow spot can become Spot – though calling spot cues certainly require more information than just a Standby & GO. It requires that you tell the operator WHO they are picking up, WHERE on the stage they are picking up and WHAT colour, frame, etc they need to use. On the show I’m currently working on “Line set 4&5 in” become “Confetti drop” because I physically could not get any more syllables into the gap in action.

Standbys as written into my Death of a Clown prompt Script

HINT: Sometimes you will have to just call “Lights GO” or “Sound GO” and not include the cue number. If you are going to do this, just make sure you let your operators know ahead of time so they aren’t looking for numbers.

In an attempt to maintain the conciseness of my calls, I write out my standby cues and put them on post-its in my script.

REMEMBER: Your operators are, for the most part, much smarter than a trained monkey. They usually know their systems inside and out so if you are running into a problem, talk to your operators. There are times when having one of them take a visual cue on their own might be the right decision.

Calling a show can be a very fun & creative part of the stage manager’s job.  If you have any questions about how to call a show, please go ahead and leave them in the comments or e-mail me at lois@loisbackstage.com.

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Comments (9)

  1. Pingback: Resources for Stage Managers – Lois Backstage

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  3. Jennie

    This is really helpful. I am calling my first show in a couple of weeks and I hope it goes well. Thank you

  4. Lois (Post author)

    Good luck!

  5. Lucia Corak

    For calling projections, I use ‘Tab.’ The origins of the phrase are in somewhat archaic technology, but it’s concise, and doesn’t sound like anything else I say on headset. Though I only just discovered on my last show, that in PowerPoint the tab key still advances you to the next slide, in addition to the arrows.

  6. Lois (Post author)

    I like it! I’ll have to remember that for the next show that has video (Oct-Dec).

  7. Mere

    Wow. I’m beginning my first stage management job in January and I’m kind of nervous about calling a show. How in the world do you know all the cues (when do you get them written down)? And how do you have multiple cues at one time? My goodness, this is gonna be a big task! Lol. I’m gonna need help just learning how to use the headset! There will be much praying before every show!! (:

  8. Lois (Post author)

    I’m sure you’ll do great, Mere! Typically you’d get a cue sheet from the various designers the week before tech. As for multiple cues at the same time – that ones pretty simple: “Lights 35, Sound 17 and Video 3 Go.” Just add them all on. Best of luck!

  9. Mere

    That makes sense. Thanks for the help! Currently I’m working backstage for another show with the same community theater group, and I’m going to shadow the stage manager for a couple of shows, that should be helpful too. (:

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