January 24, 2012

SM Survey Results Are In, Tech Questions Answered

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:25 pm

Well don’t I have egg on my face. The results of the 2011 Stage Manager Survey conducted by the University of Iowa have been released. Of course I wanted to blog about it so you would know what the results of the survey were. As the first step of making my post, I wanted to provide the link to the post in which I told you there was a survey going on. So I typed in “survey” in the handy search bar over there on the right, and the newest result was from 2010 (when the results of the 2009 survey were announced). Seriously? I didn’t blog about it? And here I thought I was doing my part to raise participation. Thanks to @ThngsUrSMthinks, one of several hilarious anonymous Twitter stage managers, for pointing out that the results are available.

So… anyway, these folks at the University of Iowa do a stage management survey every two years. It’s advertised in the Equity News, and by the SMA, and on some other websites, but apparently not HeadsetChatter.com this time. Sorry about that. I definitely put it on Google+, where it was probably seen by about five people, and it sparked a lively discussion on the quality of the questions with one or two.

This year they got 614 participants, including 332 Equity members, which is about 15% of all Equity stage managers. The survey has taken on different themes each time it’s been given, and this year’s theme was technology, which of course is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Reactions to the Survey

My favorite question asked what electronics are provided by the producer vs. what a stage manager is expected to provide for themselves (result: you’re pretty much expected to invest in expensive electronics). The one problem I had with those questions (and said so on the feedback) is that when you sometimes work for very established companies with an office and infrastructure, and other times work by the seat of your pants, what you’re provided with can vary greatly, and the question addressed the issue as if you just have one job that never changes, there was no “sometimes” or “usually” in this section. I don’t assume I’ll have internet access in rehearsal, so I invest in the ability to bring my own, but when I’m working at the Guthrie, or New 42nd Street Studios, of course that’s part of the expected services in the rehearsal facilities (New 42 makes you pay extra for it, but any producer who refused to do so would be an idiot).

Calling from a Computer

I was a bit surprised at how many people had called a show from a computer (13%). It may shock you to know that I have not. Of course I find the subject fascinating, but I haven’t come up with a method that I feel comfortable with, that offers me a better alternative to paper. If it’s basically a script on a screen, with the added bonus of being able to crash in the middle of a scene change, or skip 50 pages at the accidental press of a button, then what’s the point? Also, you know I’m still gonna have a paper script next to me for emergencies, so I’m still doing all the work of maintaining the paper copy. Not to mention, I continue to mark up my script right up to the final performance, no matter how long a show runs (often I actually make calling notes during the final performance, and then realize I’m an idiot). Because of this, I often have the pencil in my hand the entire show — partially because I have a really nice pencil and I find fondling it to be relaxing, but also because I very often have just enough time to mark a dot or an arrow next to something before I have to move on and keep calling. There is no word processor on which I feel I could make notes so quickly and safely.

I did have ideas for an interactive script that would actually do something productive as you called it, like generating data in my database. I had this idea that I could streamline my recording of performance times and gather much more data on scene timings. For instance, I could click on a certain cue when I called it, which would then record the timing for that scene. I will occasionally divide a scene into 2 or 3 parts if they’re very distinctive, but having this in the script itself would greatly increase the number of individual timings you could have, for instance every time an actor enters or exits. Having scene timings from current performances would be very helpful. I can calculate how long is left in the act based on recent performance data, but I don’t have the focus to do scene timings once we leave the rehearsal room, meaning any calculation of how much time there is between Thing A and Thing B is an educated guess, but not nearly as foolproof as the above method. Also, it would be great for when the director asks why the first act was five minutes longer than last night: you could see easily if it happened in specific scenes, or if the pacing was different in general.

One day when I was bored on tour, I was mulling this over and considered a couple options, including building the script right into my database, and formatting the script in HTML which would then interface with a database. I gave up quickly on both, which is not to say they’re not possible, but they didn’t make me say “wow, that’s totally better than what I have now and it wouldn’t be a pain in the ass to implement.”

The survey did mention that one of the more popular methods of calling from a computer was using Pages to create scripts for the iPad. This made my ears perk up a little. I recall that the day I sat in the greenroom hopelessly typing out this:

was the same week the iPad was released, because I was calling every Apple Store we passed trying to get one for my dad. So I haven’t really revisited this concept since the iPad came out. I still don’t have one, but I’m teetering on the fence of it being a significant improvement to my workflow (if they release one with a retina display, I think that will push me over). The mention of Pages also made me go “huh!” because while I gave up using Pages for most things because the world runs on Word, the one thing Pages is awesome at is making it easy to create whatever layout you want. You will never be able to view that document in Word easily, but if you don’t ever need to, it doesn’t matter. I doubt the kind of interactive features I’m looking for would be do-able with a Pages/iPad solution, but it’s the first proposal of a computer calling script where I’ve been able to picture myself using it without the computer feeling like an obstacle between me and the script. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be as easy to hand off a script like that to another stage manager (right now, I presume, somebody is using my Comedy of Errors script or a document derived from being able to read it).

And finally, if you have read this far, you deserve a reward. I leave you with the somewhat embarrassing story of the closest I’ve ever come to calling a show off the computer:

I was just about to start a performance of Romeo and Juliet somewhere in Florida. It was a 2,000-something-seat theatre, and I was calling from the balcony. The path from the calling position to backstage was loooong. I had already done my check-in. I was plugging my computer in when we had some last-minute headset problems that we spent time trouble-shooting. Once those were resolved, it was just a few minutes before curtain time, and I reached for my script.

I had left my script in my workbox, which was in the green room, which might as well have been on the moon. I had been on my way to get it, and at the entrance to the green room was stopped by the company manager, and by the time we finished talking I forgot why I had been heading to the green room in the first place, and was focused on getting upstairs because it was getting late.

Sadly, none of our people backstage had needed to learn the confusing path to the booth to meet me halfway. I looked at my computer. I may have even opened the script in Word. I thought about the fact that I had called the show over a hundred times and was very comfortable with it. I considered whether I was crazy enough to call the first act from a Word document. I decided I wasn’t. I ran my ass all the way down to the green room and back, hopped into the booth (it literally involved a Dukes of Hazzard-style hop over a wall), threw my script down on the table, put my headset on and, being told we had just gotten the house, called the first three cues before even opening my script.

Bonus: I also forgot my Little-Lite, and called the first act using a glorified bite-light.

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