Tag Archive: how to call a show

Resources for Stage Managers

I can always tell when it is the beginning of a semester by the number of searches that I see leading to www.LoisBackstage.com that involve the phrases “How to make a prompt book” “color coded prompt books” “how to write blocking” “prompt book examples” and others in the same vein.  Welcome young stage managers! The posts you are most likely looking for here are:

Calling the Show: Three C’s to Conquer – An in depth look at the tool necessary to effectively call a show.

The SM Prompt Book: The Show Bible Part 1 & Part 2 – A look at what goes into a prompt book and how to organize it efficiently

The Vancouver SMArts Conference 2010 – SMArts is a Canadian stage management conference that occurs every year in Toronto and one other major Canadian city.  In 2010 it was in Vancouver and these are my notes from the sessions I took in.

The SM Kit – A look at my SM kit and a list of all the things that have gone into it, along with where to find the items.

Other resources around the internet:

SM Network is a forum for stage managers old and new.  It is full of resources in the form of old posts with questions and the solutions that other stage managers have suggested and has a large base of users that can answer questions you may have.  But before you post, do a search and make sure someone else hasn’t already asked your question.  Better to continue an existing thread than to make a second one.

Trish Causey is a resident blogger at TheatreFace and has written a series on the role of the stage manager.  Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4, Part 5

Stage Managers Do Make Coffee is an article written by Carissa Dollar that is often used as a text book for beginning stage managers and is free online.  It has a good mix of practical advice, anecdotes & questions to ask yourself to help prepare for the job at hand.

There are a number of great books that you can pick up at a local bookstore, read in a library, or order online.  A few of my favourites are:

The Art & Craft of Stage Management by Doris Schneider

The Backstage Guide to Stage Management: Traditional and New Methods for Running a Show from First Rehearsal to Last Performance by Thomas A. Kelly

Stage Managing the Arts in Canada by Winston Morgan

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.


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.


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.