The Joys and Tribulations of Being a Stage Manager


By Terry Townsend

A scientist may take on the role of a Stage Manager, but Stage Managing is not a science. You may find manuals or articles about the art of stage managing, but there are no fixed rules as art does not flourish under the constraints of rules and theatre is definitely an art form. Although an Impossible Mission to describe all of the nuances of being a stage manager, I will endeavor to describe for you my own personal experience.
I was fortunate to take on my first role as a Stage Manager (It’s A Wonderful Life – Dec. 2011) with a fabulous director, Jaret Preston. Jaret made my job easy. Be warned, if you don’t feel comfortable with your director, you are in deep trouble, because your first and foremost duty is to the director. As much as I could be, I endeavored to be Jaret’s right-hand, his buffer, his sounding board, his eyes and ears on occasion, and his facilitator during the performances. My second and equally important duty was to the cast and crew. As Stage Manager, I was surrounded by cast, crew, the production team, and the people running the facility who needed their concerns addressed and their questions answered. I am a product of a large family and am accustomed to having many people pulling at me at the same time and can still smile as I am being pulled. I suggest that if you aren’t a people person, don’t take on this role; you’d hate it. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the cast, the crew, our director, and the production team. Everyone pulled together as a team to give their best and it showed where it counted, for our audiences.

Pre-Rehearsal Responsibilities

Before I came on board and before the auditions began, Jaret had already done a lot of work behind-the-scenes in creating his concept of the show and in acquiring a production team. I created contact lists with email addresses and phone numbers of the production team, then later expanded that list to create the cast’s contact information; sharing that information with everyone connected with the show. In order to efficiently email everyone, I created an email group contact list for the show (emails were our routine form of communication and with 26 cast and 15 crew members, this tool was essential). I used both emails and Facebook to communicate with the cast and crew from the beginning to the end (John and Jaret formed a Facebook group and made me an Administrator – it turned out to be a great tool for our needs).

Prior to the auditions, Jaret asked me to prepare some reading material for auditioning the children; he already had what he needed for the adult actors. Once at auditions, I kept everything organized for Jaret by keeping tabs on the audition forms; separating out the children from the adults, the men from the women; ensuring that everyone received an audition; and making notes. Jaret, an IT specialist, kept his own notes on his computer. Jaret and I discussed the candidates for the parts and he decided on those to be called back. I prepared yet another contact list for those actors who were called back for ease of communication. After the callbacks, I gave Jaret my ear and my thoughts about casting and he used the information on my contact list to contact each cast member with the good news that he or she had been cast and the role that he or she would be portraying.

Once Jaret selected the cast and determined the rehearsal schedule, it was my job to communicate that schedule to not only the cast, but also to the crew so that they knew where and when to find us (we rehearsed in several different rooms at the Cary Art Center and one rehearsal was held at Jaret’s home). Jaret obviously did not require all 26 cast members at the same time during the early rehearsals when he was blocking each scene. I created a rehearsal schedule that identified those members who were in the actual scene being rehearsed both for the ease of communication and to highlight for Jaret and me who to expect at rehearsal and who to call if they did not appear at the scheduled hour. As rehearsals progressed, I kept everyone apprised of any changes to the schedule and to any extraneous events that may occur during a rehearsal (such as when the cast would be photographed for their head shots and when the cast needed to begin wearing their rehearsal clothes).

Rehearsal Responsibilities

First Rehearsal

Prior to the first rehearsal, I prepared the actors’ contracts which every actor must sign before a production (this is often done by the producer, but I volunteered for the task as I had access to the template). I brought those contracts, as well as the scripts, to the first rehearsal. I explained the contracts, had each cast member read and sign his or her form, and then return them to me. As I received each signed contract back, I distributed a script, a contact list, and a rehearsal schedule to that person. I later handed those signed contracts to a Board Member for their files. I also asked each cast member to review the contact list to ensure that the information was correct and to advise me of any revisions.
During introductions, I explained my role in the rehearsal process. I informed the cast that I would keep everyone abreast of the schedule and that anyone who could not make a scheduled rehearsal or was running late should contact me as soon as they were aware of the problem. In addition, I advised the cast that I was the go-to person for any questions or concerns that might occur.
At that first rehearsal, as was true of every rehearsal thereafter, I brought my handy backpack of essentials: pencils, pens, tape, cough drops, aspirin, band aids, hydrocortisone, safety pins, bobby pins, and whatever else that I could think of that someone might need in a pinch. I had been forewarned that a Stage Manager should be prepared for all emergencies and I endeavored to be a good Eagle Scout. Note: the pencils always go first!!

The Rehearsal Phase

During rehearsals, I always arrived first (at least 15 minutes earlier than the cast) and left last to ensure that the room was ready for rehearsal and before leaving, that the room and everything used during rehearsal was returned to its proper place. I arranged the room for the scene to be performed and collected any prop, costume, or other item that might be needed for that particular rehearsal. Approximately five minutes prior to when the time for the rehearsal was to begin; I determined whether everyone was there who was scheduled to be there. If not, I would call the missing person and determine whether or when he or she would be arriving for rehearsal. At the end of rehearsal, I arranged the room back to its original condition and returned all of the props and other items from whence they came.
I kept notes of each actor’s blocking, and if a cast member was unavailable, I would read that actor’s lines or actually go on stage with the other actors so that the director could focus on the other actors and the blocking for the scene. I was also responsible for calling the time (i.e. when the rehearsal would begin and when it would end after a nod from the director that he was ready to begin) and for changing the set between scenes (often calling on some of the cast to assist). When the actors were “off book,” I followed the script line-by-line and read a line when an actor requested it. I also prepared a chart of the scene sequences and posted them for easy viewing so the actors knew when they would be needed on stage. At the end of rehearsal, I would remind everyone where and when the next rehearsal would occur.

Tech Week and Beyond

As we began rehearsing runs and moved into tech week (the week immediately prior to the show, a/k/a “hell week”), I more clearly defined the cast calls by setting up specific times for fight calls, for pre-show music warm ups, for preshow music, for the house opening, and for the cast and crew preshow gathering. After the set had been loaded-in, I always swept the stage and checked to ensure that there was nothing that would detract from the set or that would injure a cast or crew member, as well as ensuring that the set was prepared and ready to go for the first scene of the performance itself. The longer rehearsals and the performances often dovetailed with the closing time of the facility. I worked with the facility personnel to ensure that everything was where it should be, that the lights were off, the ghost light back in place, the doors locked, and that everyone had vacated the premises.

Technical Duties

Although Jaret conducted many meetings with his set, costume, sound and light designers when I was unavailable, the production team would all come together for weekly meetings to discuss everyone’s progress and needs. The production team is comprised of a multitude of talents: the director, the musical director, the technical director, the set designer, the lighting designer and his crew, the sound designer and her crew, the costume designer, the props master, the producer, the assistant stage manager, and me, the stage manager.

Tech week began with the loading-in of the set on a Monday afternoon into late evening. My duties were to assist wherever I could and to help keep things organized and people busy doing what was needed. I had those same duties for the strike after the final performance on a Monday night, although I also tasked to specific people the responsibility for cleaning the green room and the dressing rooms, as well as people to assist the costume designer and the props person with collecting and storing the props and the costumes. I then followed behind and ensured that everything was in its original pristine condition prior to the show being performed.

As tech week approached, Jaret and I met with the assistant stage manager, the lighting designer and the sound designer for a “paper tech”. During the paper tech, we went through each line of the script and noted each and every cue for the actual performance for the backstage crew, the lighting crew, and the sound crew. We numbered the cues, beginning with “.5” for preshow checks; “1” for preshow music 30 minutes before curtain; “5” for fading out the music, 5 minutes before curtain and the announcement of places for the cast by the assistant stage manager backstage; “10” for houselights to half and the spotlight on the curtain speaker; “15” for opening the house; “20” for a cue for sound or lights or something that the backstage crew needed to do, etc.

With this type of cuing system, the sound and lighting designers were able to preprogram the tech boards to the specific cue number, allowing a quick response time to my (the Stage Manager’s) cue of that cue number. I noted each of those cues in the Stage Manager’s Book, noting when to give the yellow light (“ready”) and when to give the green light (“go”). Once performances began, the Book remained at the theatre in case I got hit by a bus because the show must go on, with or without me. I prepared the Book with the thought in mind that someone else may need to call the show if I was unavailable, thus I clearly marked the cues and made them easy to find and follow.

During tech week, we began using those cues, testing the timing and ability to perform each cue that had been noted. For example, we were going to use a bell for the entrance of anyone coming into the credit union for It’s A Wonderful Life, but decided during tech week that there were too many variables and it was difficult to be consistent; so we cut that cue prior to the performance dates. During that week, we continued to add and delete cues and I adjusted the Stage Manager’s Book accordingly.

Calling The Show

During tech week and during the performances, as Stage Manager, I became the facilitator or substitute director for Jaret. I sat in the booth at the back of the auditorium, with a headset on, watching and listening to the performance and “cueing” the backstage, lighting and sound crews based on the cue system that we had developed. The actual words I used (based on the advice of those that had been there, done that) were “Ready Cue 20,” and then at the exact moment when a cue was needed, I would say: “Cue 20 – Go!” – at which point, the lights might change from afternoon to evening, a scene might change, there might be a black out, a curtain might come down, a telephone might ring, or another actor might enter – all based on lots of advance planning and practice. Before the opening of the house and during intermission, either the house or the facility manager would keep me advised as to whether there were any latecomers or long lines to consider in determining when to open or re-open the curtain to start the performance. Based on that information, it was my responsibility, as the Stage Manager, to determine when to turn down the lights and let the action commence.

ENCORE, ENCORE!!!!

I am very glad that Stage Managing is not a science. The theatre is an art form that allows creativity to be king and what fun it was to be a member of the court that brought our production of It’s A Wonderful Life to our audiences!

Stipend:

  • Cary Players pays a stipend to the Stage Manager based on the complexity of the show.
  • Some Stage Managers offer their services as a volunteer and do not accept a stipend. 
  • Stipends are reported to the IRS on form 1099 based on reporting rules.

Interested in serving as a stage manager, or finding out more about how you can help? Contact us!