What is a Stage Manager?

The stage was shrouded in darkness and only a faint blue light lit the actors’ way in the black as they got set in position. I peered through the glass separating the booth from the audience, looking out to see the stage, watching for their movement in the dark, knowing that if they took too long and the light cue was not on time we would miss the proper start of the show. As soon as the actors were set, I tapped the “GO” button on my light board to bring the stage to life under the lights. I glanced at my light board computer to ensure the cue was still correct and working properly, and that the next cue lined up after it. I looked at my prompt book to double-check the cues I already knew by heart, and back to watching the stage to track the lead actress’ movement which would be my next cue. I took it as she crossed to center stage, and again at the change in the music, and again at another change in music and movement. The lights followed the movement on stage, and then revealed more of the set. I hit the button on my radio, my connection to my crew backstage, “Stand-by for scene change. Stand-by for scene change.” I said in a hushed voice.  “Standing” I heard in reply from my assistant stage manager. They are ready. The song came to its final chord and as I hit the button for the blackout, I called: “Scene-change GO”.

In every theatre in every corner of the world, there is a person tucked away in a tiny booth controlling and managing the lights, sound, projections, set changes, and just about everything that happens on stage. A good theatre production relies on a good stage manager. A director is able to focus on their job with a good stage manager at their side. The crew and cast is kept happy and well-run by a good stage manager. When a show is good and everything appears like magic, thank a stage manager. While a less glamorous job than acting or directing, everyone in theatre knows that when they work with a good stage manager, they will be protected, safe, and able to worry less in order to focus on their craft.

As I came to love theatre as an actress and singer first, my focus as a stage manager is always for the safety and benefit of my cast to allow them to focus on their creative process. I advocate for my cast as much as possible to make their experience the best it can be.

So, what exactly does a stage manager do?

Master stage-sweeper. Provider of pencils and band-aids. Keeper of gaff and spike tape. Controller of lights and sound. Herder of actors. Peace-keeper of cast and crew. Protector of her flock.

The main function of a stage manager is to organize rehearsals, take notes and blocking, communicate between the crew, designers, director, and cast for production updates and plans, and to run the show during performances. I think of it as a spoke on a wheel, being the main source of communication across departments. The stage manager is with the production the longest, from the first production meeting to the closing night.  

Rehearsals

During rehearsals, I arrive early to set up the space for what we need, sweep, and organize any props. I write down notes for the production or requests the director has for the design team. I also use shorthand to write down the blocking of the scenes, which is the movements, entrances, exits, and actions of the actors on stage. Sure, the actors write it down too, but my prompt book keeps a log of everyone’s blocking so we can reference it during rehearsals (or correct an actor if someone forgets what side of the stage they enter from). Here’s a peek at one page of blocking I wrote for Red which I stage managed last year at The Vintage Theatre in Aurora, CO.

Take a look:

When I take blocking, I really like to have my script printed single-sided, with the text on the left and a blank page on the right so it is easier to take notes. I got a little fancy with Red and printed the blank sides with lines for the blocking, and used numbers to line it up on the text side. Dork moment but I LOVE IT!

During rehearsals it is also my responsibility for managing rehearsal props, set pieces, and any other essential items for the actors to work with for familiarity. I spike* the stage for our set pieces or furniture (*spike: marking set pieces or important areas on stage using spike tape. Hint: to make a stage manager happy, get them a bouquet of tapes!) I keep a box of essentials I call my stage manager kit such as spike tape, gaff tape, first-aid kit, sewing kit, a hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, pencils, post-its, Shout wipes, and a variety of other things. That way, I am prepared even if the theatre has run out of something. I always keep this kit with me but I do not leave it in the theatre until the show opens.

When the actors have memorized their lines (and thus have gone “off-book” as we call it) I stay “on-book” and am ready to call out their lines if they forget them. It’s very important to me that NO ONE else reads the lines if an actor calls “line” unless I have given them permission to. This way the actors know exactly who they should be listening to if they forget. Also, I expect actors to adhere to theatre protocol and say “line” clearly if they forget what they need to say. Long pauses or “erms” and “uhs” can often turn into an actor suddenly remembering their next words. Preemptively shouting out a line before it is asked for can hinder their memorization process and flow.

Hell Week and Performances

Tech week is universally known in the theatre community as Hell week. It’s the week of technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals leading up to opening night. It’s long, arduous, and the most exhausting week for everyone. A technical rehearsal is a run of the show with the technical elements of lighting and sound and whatever else mixed in. A dress rehearsal means you add costumes, and it should be as close to a real performance as possible. It’s a time to make mistakes so they can be corrected, so that the performances are as perfect as possible. I always feel better if I falter and mess up a cue during the first or second tech rehearsal because then I don’t do it during the performances!

Prior to the first technical rehearsal, I like to have a cue-to-cue with the lighting designer and with the sound designer. The lighting and sound designers at this point have already completed (or very nearly) their designs and have programmed them into the sound computer and lighting board. During the cue-to-cue, I put all the sound and lighting cues into my prompt book (a brand-new single sided script, as I hate having cues and blocking mixed together) and I like to go through each cue with the designers so I understand how they are to look or sound. I like to do this with only the light and sound designers in the space as it helps us focus and it’s really for me to get the feel of the cues in my bones.

Here is a sample of my cue script from Red, to show you the difference from my blocking script:

On opening night, the show should be considered set unless something drastic needs to be changed. At that point, the director is reliant on me and the cast to continue their vision. I literally run the show at that point! During the performances, I arrive 30 minutes before the actors are called to set up the space and run through my cues to ensure everything works. I give notes if needed to maintain the safety and smoothness of the run and am everyone’s go-to person with any concerns or notes to relay to the designers if something needs to be fixed during the run of the show. I set the call times, oversee fight calls, coordinate with the front of the house for the start and intermission, review actor warm-ups if needed, and continue to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone involved.

To me, being a stage manager has been the most demanding and rewarding job I’ve ever done. It can often be a thankless job full of high-stress risk mitigation and scrambling madly to get things done, even when it isn’t technically your responsibility. But it can also be full of satisfaction when everything goes just RIGHT, and you get to witness magic happen that you helped create.

Love from a tiny booth, Connie

Glossary

Blocking: The pre-planned movements of actors on stage. Comprising of entrances, exits, directions of crossing, and any important gestures or actions (such as sitting, standing, kissing, slapping, etc)

Spike tape: Brightly colored fabric-backed tape used for marking furniture, big props, and set pieces.

Gaff tape: Strong fabric-backed tape. Typically comes in black but also in white. Strong but does not leave residue like duct tape. It holds our universe together.

Prompt book: Magical binder filled with blocking script, cue script, contact sheet, ground plan of the set, and a variety of other important items.

Off-book: The actors should have their lines memorized and no longer carry their scripts on stage with them.

On-book: Stage manager or appointed person reads along with the scene and calls out forgotten lines if an actor calls for it.

Technical Rehearsal: A run of the show with the technical elements of lighting, sound, props, and set pieces.

Dress Rehearsal: See technical rehearsal, add costumes and makeup.

Run: A rehearsal in which we practice the show through from start to finish. No technical elements.

Run of Show: The complete time the show is performing, in terms of weeks or weekends.

Fight Call: Running through the moment in a play of risky action, such as falls, slaps, lifts, sword fighting, etc. We do this at slow speed, then medium speed, then at performance speed. I usually call actors for a fight call 15 minutes before the house opens.

5 thoughts on “What is a Stage Manager?

  1. Connie, I loved this so much! I had chills throughout the entire introduction. I loved being able to learn about the things being a stage manager entails – And I know this wasn’t even all of what you are responsible for! You form the very important cornerstone of the pyramid that is theatre. I love your passion and cannot wait to see one of “your” shows in person someday!

    Like

  2. Connie, I LOVED this inside look at what you do and what all goes into the finished product. I had no idea! I love your passion for this and look forward to hearing more!

    Liked by 1 person

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