July 7, 2011

My Recent Fling with the Calling Desk at the American Airlines

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:55 pm

A couple weeks back I did two gigs at the American Airlines Theatre on consecutive Mondays. Just want to take a minute to show off the very sexy calling desk they had there for The Importance of Being Earnest. It was on a jump deck above downstage left. Nice view of the stage in real life, as well as a really large and clear color video monitor, and infrared (which was pretty useless to me since we didn’t have blackouts, but a nice touch anyway). The audio monitor was conveniently placed under the color monitor, and the comm panel (as well as a fancy programmable cue light panel I didn’t get to play with) are within easy reach. The desktop wraps around to the left side, affording lots of surface space for stuff.

It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but just a great example of a calling position done right.

And with labels highlighting the awesomeness:

Why it’s Awesome

Let’s talk about what actually makes this calling desk work.

Location, Location, Location

The live view of the stage is actually pretty good, as backstage calling desks go. Most of what you can see is the downstage six or seven feet, but depending on the show, that might be a lot of what you want to be looking at. Obviously you can see farther upstage on the far side (stage right) than you can on the near side. The higher elevation provides a less-obstructed view when viewing the show sideways than it would if the desk was on the deck.

One negative is that being located stage left is less convenient in this house. This is on a per-theatre basis, but most theatres have a convenient side and an inconvenient side. At the AA, most useful things (such as the pass door, the lobby, the elevator, and apparently most of the dressing rooms) are stage right. Now, I know some stage managers who might actually prefer being on the inconvenient side, on the theory that it will keep people from bugging them during the show. But for me, I’d rather be accessible, and have the rest of the theatre accessible to me. And on the Earnest set, that also meant a downstairs crossunder to get back and forth from the desk to anywhere else, which, while fairly direct, is still more of a pain than, you know, just walking a couple feet.


The color monitor was bigger and clearer than I expected. It was a CRT, so it took up a lot of room, but there’s something reassuring about keeping things analog. On the road this year I encountered a digital monitor with all sorts of awesome pan and zoom functions. Awesome except for the fact that the output was so far behind real life that all my cues were wrong.

There was also an infrared monitor, which as I said, was useless on the kind of events I was doing with no blackouts, but for a normal show is either necessary, or a very helpful security blanket. I never saw a blackout, so I don’t know what quality it actually was. I’ve also had some infrared monitors that go pretty much black in a blackout. What the point of that is, I’m not sure, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that a Broadway show has infrared that works.

Audio Monitor

The audio monitor is right under the main video monitor which means it doesn’t take up any space, and is also very close to the script, and at hand-height. This one had a post-it on it saying something like “do not adjust volume.” I didn’t get the story on that. That’s a problem if that’s the way it really was. I like to fiddle with my volume. Frankly, I like it off, unless I can’t hear, then I want to be able to make it “just loud enough” for the given moment. But my assessment of the awesomeness of this desk is based on the way it’s set up, not the way it’s used on this specific show, so assuming the volume knob is operable, it was a great place to put it.

Script Area

Enough room for a script, facing the stage. That’s pretty much all I ask. Not slanted, so I don’t have to worry about my pencil rolling. And there was a little bit of excess space here and there to put other stuff.

Two Little-Lites

Sturdy, well-positioned Little-Lites. One over the middle of the script, one off to the left-hand side. Because I had nothing else to do with it, I used the side one as secondary illumination for the script (which is nice because sometimes with one light source you can inadvertently cast shadows over parts of the script with your hand), but it could be used to light things on the side desk as well.

Comm Panel

I got a very quick overview from the sound guy and didn’t bother studying it too much. It had four channels, but we were only using one, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see how convenient it was. There was a master talk switch, in a comfortable place for me to rest my hand over it.

#1 most important thing about the calling stage manager’s talk button: it should be able to be activated with certainty without looking at it! Mushy buttons that may or may not have been pressed successfully, or may not have latched, SUCK, especially when the panel is located somewhere off to the side where you actually have to turn away from the stage to check the indicator light every time you want to speak. This had a tiny toggle switch that was either UP or DOWN. Absolutely no doubt what position it was in, without ever needing to look at it (which is good, because it was so small it would be hard to tell by looking). This allows the SM to quickly turn the mic on and off without thinking about it. Sucky buttons, and/or sucky buttons badly placed, result in either the SM having to look away from the stage and script every time they talk, or leaving the mic on for longer than necessary, which annoys everyone, including the SM.

Cue Light Panel

I didn’t have reason to play with this at all, and having never actually used one of this type, I can’t say whether or not I like it. Frankly, I think it scares me. When throwing cue lights, I’m a big fan of “this switch makes that light go on” and that’s it. I guess by the same token I should think that all lighting instruments should be controlled by piano boards, but I’m willing to take more liberties with computers with a light, or a mic turning on, than I am with, say, whether I’m cueing the rail or a trap.

Anyway, cue lights are a beautiful thing, so that’s worth points.


Obviously, this is a Broadway theatre, it goes without saying that they have the resources to have a nice calling desk, but what I enjoyed about it was that what made it nice had nothing to do with multi-million-dollar budgets. It’s the exact same stuff you’d see in any halfway-decent theatre: an old TV, the standard black & white monitor, the same audio monitor that every show ever uses, some Little-Lites, a decent comm panel, and some cue lights, on a custom-made plywood tabletop. It’s nothing that’s beyond the means of any professional or decent school venue, it’s just set up in a way that’s really logical and comfortable to use. I’ve worked in plenty of places far from 42nd Street, that had fancier equipment, but were a pain in the ass to call from. So I submit this as an example of what makes the difference between a good calling desk and a bad one.

I took the pictures mostly to remind myself what made this desk so nice, so that I can identify better and worse ways to set things up. I really should make a habit of documenting this more often.

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