March 5, 2011

The Calling Couch

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:52 pm

I have several dreams in life. I’d like to be a Broadway PSM. I’d like to have an apartment with laundry machines in the unit. I’d like Hal Prince to see me call Phantom. Other than that, my dream was to call a show while sitting (or ideally, lying) on a couch. Preferably multiple times, but just once would be good.

Picture it: Phoenix, 2009

Our story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, in the spring of 2009. We were playing the Herberger, and I was assigned the orchestra-level booth to call from. At the time, it looked like this:

The couch was inspiring, but as you can see it’s way too low to see out the window. More than anything, I was frustrated and perplexed. All it needed was to be put on a 4×8 platform about 3ft high and it would be the most amazing thing ever. Why had it not been done? This haunted me for years.

This fall, we went back to the Herberger, where sadly, no further work had been done on the couch. In fact the sound console was on that table, blocking the view even more, and making the booth feel a little cramped.

Enter Fairfield, CT

A few weeks ago, we played a day in Fairfield, CT (just outside Bridgeport). Often when I scout my calling position I judge the booth based on how it looks from the stage at first. Does it look like there’s a crapload of stairs? Will I have to fight my way through the audience? Does it look nice and spacious inside? Is there a calling position backstage? Most importantly, is there a camera? If not, I generally won’t call from backstage unless there is literally no front-of-house position.

On this particular day it was a nice venue, and they probably had a backstage calling position, but I was predisposed to want to call from the house because our big bosses, Margot and Ian, were coming up from New York to see the show, so I wanted to be seeing the show as they were seeing it.

I spied a spot booth at center, which I always love for two reasons:
1. it’s generally unused, because our show doesn’t have followspots
2. the low window affords a nice view, and sometimes even a sill which can serve as a footrest.

So I declared that I preferred to call from the spot booth. It was many hours before I ever went up there. When I finally did, I was astounded to find…

It was not so much a calling couch as a couch for the spot ops to recline on when not doing cues. The couch was against the back wall of the booth, where it didn’t afford a full view of the stage, but dragging it a few feet toward the window provided a perfect view. I took a nearby wooden step as a footrest, and set myself up with a music stand off to the side. With my computer sitting on the couch next to me, I had a perfect setup.

During the first act, my board op, Alex, who was sitting in the adjacent lighting booth, was very much amused by my love of the calling couch. At one point I commented that the only improvement I would make if I was sitting down for a long run would be an end table with a bowl of snacks on it. Of course when I came back from intermission there was an end table (he couldn’t find any snacks), and a pillow so that I could sit up more comfortably (the couch had a very far-leaning back which made it hard to relax and see the stage). It might have been the greatest three hours of my career.

Here’s a very rough picture of my view:

January 21, 2011

Back to Verona

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:45 pm

Tonight was our first performance of Romeo and Juliet since finishing our fall tour in mid-November, and beginning rehearsals for The Comedy of Errors. After five weeks of rehearsing and teching Comedy and two weeks of performing it, R&J came in like a one-nighter on the road: we finished Comedy yesterday afternoon and the crew had basically one day to prepare for tonight’s show (there was even a completely unrelated event scheduled in our theatre last night, which cut short the changeover!!).

We came in today, and most people had the reaction I did: coming onto the stage and stepping through the masking and exclaiming “ACK!” to see the R&J set standing there. It looks great, though. Although the logistics of its run here are very tour-like, the fact remains that of all the dozens of theatres this show has played in the last year, it was this very stage that it was designed for, and it looks fantastic, as it did then.

We had several R&J rehearsals since Comedy opened, which made the transition gradual. Still, despite our easy afternoon checking spacing and practicing quickchanges with the local wardrobe crew, there was a lot of nervous energy around the theatre. The fact that everything had gone smoothly and we weren’t rushing almost made the suspense worse!

For my part, I was glad I got to call the fireworks (which is the only really challenging part of calling the show). Actually I SCREAMED the fireworks, to my board ops who were in their respective booths and listening over the monitors. That was a new experience. And I did surprisingly well, so that made me feel better. Actually calling the show was relaxing, because of the 102 performances I’ve called before, more of them were here than anywhere else, and when I picture the show, I still picture the view from this booth, where I learned it. I also have my same two board ops, which is fun.

Meaghan had extra responsibility today, since none of our backstage touring crew is here. It was her and the Guthrie prop/carp and wardrobe crew, some of whom ran the show before, but not necessarily in the same tracks — and it was, after all, a year ago. So she was the sole person backstage from the show crew, without a rehearsal. Everyone did a great job — all the changes were made quickly, and the show looked very polished. It was good practice for getting back into the touring mentality!

January 18, 2011

Student Audience Psychology

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:44 pm

Today I learned something new.

We had our first student matinee of Comedy of Errors. Now I’ve certainly done enough student matinees in my career, and have learned a bit about how student audiences react to shows. But we have an interesting start to our show that makes it different.

I think this show has the most badass opening of any show I’ve done in my career for one reason: it has no preshow announcement. Not only that, but the opening sequence has no music or anything else to provide a segue before the text starts.

House to half
House out
Curtain rises
Actor begins speaking

It’s without a doubt my favorite 15 seconds of my day.

I recall the days when Broadway shows didn’t have preshow announcements, though I never really got to stage manage in that era. I’ve probably done a couple shows without announcements, but they would have been small off-off-Broadway shows, which feel much different in a 99-seat theatre. I’m not particularly opposed to announcements, I actually enjoy doing them a little, but I think it’s fabulously old-school to dim the house lights and jump right into a show.

So anyway, this is what I have to work with when we start the show. The timing of the whole thing is at my discretion — when the audience has settled enough to go to black, and when they have fully settled before taking the curtain out. Here’s where 11 performances for adult audiences have led me astray: I have become accustomed to waiting until the moment the house is completely silent before bringing the curtain up.

There is a well-known characteristic of student audiences: they really like blackouts. More often than not, when the lights fade to black they will scream. They will scream for the duration of the blackout. I’ve had many discussions trying to figure out exactly why this is, without much success, but it is so.

So I made the fatal mistake, when there was still a little bit of settling and rustling as the lights hit black, of holding and waiting for it to stop, as I would do for an evening performance. Well of course it didn’t stop. It transitioned from rustling of programs to laughing and screaming, and well, I put a stop to that by taking the curtain out while it was just a few kids before it could spread to all 461 of them.

So, stage managers, life lesson: if your instructions are to hold in a blackout until the house is quiet, do NOT do this at a student performance. Get the hell out of the blackout as soon as you can, it will only get worse the longer you sit in it. I should have known this before, but was just going through my usual show and forgot about the dreaded blackout scream. Let my folly be a lesson to you.

November 13, 2010


I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:55 pm

Tonight is our 100th performance of Romeo and Juliet. We did 3 previews and 77 regular performances of the tour last year, and this will be our 20th performance of this tour.

In addition to me, the others celebrating their 100th performance are:
Ray Chapman (Friar Laurence)
Jason McDowell-Green (Montague)
Jamie Smithson (Paris)
Elizabeth Stahlmann (Nurse)

I was planning to do a little something to make some acknowledgement of it, but Ray was in my office a few days ago asking me to look up some other stat from last year, when he said, “We’re coming up on 100 performances, aren’t we?” I said, “yes, we’re very close,” but up till that point I hadn’t actually bothered to figure out which performance it would be. Fittingly, it’s a Saturday night. Upon hearing this, word spread through the company and everyone is quite excited. I have heard there are plans to go out and celebrate after the show. Not that we need an excuse to go out after a show.

The joke among the crew is that after 100 performances of the balcony scene I will hit Shakespeare overflow and just start spitting out cues one after the other:
“Electrics 50, go. Electrics 51, go. Electrics 53, go. Sound 107, go. Electrics 54 and Sound 110, go, Electrics 56, go…”
And Meaghan will be running around backstage trying to figure out how to turn me off.

It’s actually been kind of nice to be with a show for so long. I’ve also done three other shows in between the two tours, which is good because I think I’d probably have gone insane by now if I didn’t have a few musicals with 600 cues thrown in to make things interesting.

I remember being in tech for Into the Woods and saying to the crew, “If in October I’m bitching about how easy my show is to call, I want you to slap me and remind me how stressed I am right now!” So it’s nice to take it easy again, and with a show that I already knew how to call.

There’s still plenty that I’m working on, though, mostly related to learning to anticipate the moves of the new actors. Meaghan is also learning the show, so that keeps me honest and makes me have to articulate my choices. There was one sound cue where I said, “Honestly, I’m calling it where Sonny used to pick up the basket,” which of course is totally not helpful to anyone but me, and while that was the easiest way for me to feel it out, that’s not why I continued to call it there. I continued to call it that way because it was still working, so I left it at that. Over the few days after that conversation with Meaghan, I continued calling it where Sonny used to pick up the basket, but watched and listened for what was really happening that made that cue work, and decided that it works because it happens at the same time the Friar speaks. I still use “where Sonny used to pick up the basket” as my way of anticipating when the Friar speaks, but now I’m more aware of what else is happening. Meaghan will have to develop her own method, which might be something like “when Alejandro reaches for his jacket,” but at least she has a more concrete goal to achieve.

For most of us, this will be the most performances of a single show we’ve done. I’ve done more performances of Phantom, but when last I checked I think I’ve only called it about 80 times. So I’m pretty happy. I’m also glad it comes so close to the end of the fall leg of the tour. The achievement kind of caps off this part of the tour and gets us ready to tackle something new in a few weeks, when we begin rehearsing The Comedy of Errors.

April 26, 2010

Stage Management Survey

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:35 pm

A while back I took a stage management survey that I saw advertised in an issue of Equity News (which is a monthly newspaper for Equity members). It was organized by a stage management class at the University of Iowa.

There was recently another note in the Equity News that the results are now available at smsurvey.info. Based on their numbers, they got approximately 15% of all Equity stage managers to respond, which is really cool. It’s only a few hundred people, but in such a small profession, that’s a good turnout. The survey was open to students and non-Equity professionals as well, but it’s much harder to know how many of them are out there.

It was a very extensive survey, and the analysis of the results is quite detailed. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look, I’m not going to quote all of it here.

I will paraphrase some parts of interest:

  • Stage managers have no personal lives
  • Female stage managers especially have no personal lives
  • More people (12%) have called a show from a computer than I would have imagined, and not just young people. I very much want to do this, but I have not settled on the software that would work best (during a very boring load-in recently I wrote the first two pages of my R&J calling script in HTML/CSS. It was fun, but time-consuming and way more complicated to get proper margins than just doing it in Word.) They mentioned InDesign for making calling scripts (not necessarily to call on screen), which has kind of blown my mind, and must be thought upon.
  • Young people like calling from booths, old people like calling from backstage. I don’t even remember what I responded. If the options are both equally viable, that question generally will shut down all my brain function for several minutes. I probably said backstage, though. I like both for different reasons, and on tour, being in a different theatre almost every day, sometimes I mix it up just for the sake of mixing it up.

The statistic of particular interest to me is that 11% of responding stage managers call light cues as “electrics.” This has been a frequent topic of debate on the tour because I say “electrics,” and it’s unusual, and especially unusual for someone of my age. Indeed the survey found that the percentage was more than twice as high among older stage managers.

Devon (our lighting director) had a little informal survey of his own that he would do in every venue: He would always be in the booth at the start of our first show, and would watch the reaction of the board op to the first cue, and would note if they were a) completely clueless that “Electrics 2” was them, b) a little bit thrown off for a second, or c) reacted like it was totally normal. We didn’t keep records of the results or anything, and we also played a variety from IATSE houses to high schools, so the experience of the board op varied quite a bit. But on the whole I would say that the majority of the reaction to it leaned toward the belief that it was at least a little bit weird.

And now, a little bit about why I say “electrics:”

It has been a consistency in my entire Equity career that at any given time I need to be ready to call two shows: the show I am currently employed on, and Phantom. Phantom (being from the dawn of time) uses “electrics,” thus by calling my other show the same way, I am less likely to screw up by saying the wrong word. Especially earlier in my career when I was doing short runs of showcases and stuff, it was very common for me to be calling a couple performances of Phantom and a couple performances of something else in the same week.

I also think that “electrics” is a better idea because there are so many syllables that the chances of the board op not hearing it, or mistaking it for another word, is almost impossible. It’s a little more work for me to speak it all, but I think that’s worth it to increase the chances of the cue coming out right. I have done a few shows where certain sequences were so fast that I had to switch to “lights” (just for those parts) because there really wasn’t time for three syllables.

The program intends to conduct another survey in 2011, so be on the lookout for it!

April 21, 2010

Musings on Musicals

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:53 am

In relation to my last post about the IRNE Awards, as well as various Facebook posts among friends about it, I put on a couple cast albums of last year’s shows, and a few minutes into the opening number of Mame was reminded of something very special.

It was the feeling of calling a first preview of a show with about 600 cues (maybe a third of which can hurt somebody), having maybe run it once before, if you’re lucky. While the relative relaxation of premiering a show you’re sort of comfortable with is nice, there is a thrill in doing the former which is probably the stage management equivalent of skydiving. I don’t understand why anybody would want to risk jumping out of a plane just because it’s fun, and I know there are people who would never want to stage manage a musical, but I find that after I’ve been terrified out of my mind and survived, it’s really fun. Maybe the being terrified is what makes it fun later.

I should also mention that I am always nervous before a first preview, no matter how easy or well-teched the show. On R&J our stage management intern, Ashley, was in the booth with me for first preview, partially to observe the call, and partially to take a final round of scene timings on my computer. I was probably as comfortable in my knowledge of the show as I’ve ever been in my career. Just before we started, I turned to her and said, “Just so you know, I’m really nervous right now,” and she said, “That’s good to know that it’s not bad that I feel that way when I do a show.” I said, “That’s why I’m telling you!”

As we come to the end of this year’s R&J tour, I presumably have to get my head in gear to call some more big musicals (not to mention the biggest musical of all time, which I need to be call-able on five days from now). I’ve been very addicted to Pandora Radio and other popular music for a while now. think I need to listen to more showtunes.

February 15, 2010

Fairfax, VA

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:29 pm

Yesterday we did a performance in Fairfax, VA. This is the first venue on the tour (besides the Guthrie) where we also performed last year. I could picture the loading dock and some of the backstage hallways and dressing rooms, but didn’t remember much of the stage area. I had forgotten it was so big! Of course everyone on the crew wanted to know what it was like, and my memories of the two days we spent there (doing Henry one night, and The Spy the other) were kind of foggy. I remember it being very warm, and all of us hanging out on the loading dock in tee shirts, watching the sun set, sitting on the Spy columns, which were in storage there while Henry was up. It was such a nice moment, I took a picture of it:

It most certainly was not warm yesterday, especially when we started load-in at 5AM (we had a 4PM show)! Here’s the view of our loading dock. Now remember, we’ve spent the entire tour in Minneapolis, Fargo, etc. and now we’re in Virginia, and it’s supposed to be frickin’ warmer!!

I remembered the path to get to the campus food court very well, but was thwarted when two frickin’ feet of snow blocked the path I knew! And today we’re in West Virginia, and it’s snowing again! People are asking for refunds, the cast is going to arrive late, and apparently our trip to Ohio tomorrow is going to be right in the path of the storm. Lovely!

Anyway, back to Fairfax. The set went up very fast, helped by the fact that the venue had three Genie lifts, so carpentry and lighting could work independently without needing to worry about avoiding doing tasks that require a Genie at the same time. For instance today we’re loading in with one Genie, and it’s a lot slower. We travel with our own Genie, but it’s not the kind you’re probably thinking of with the bucket that goes up and down automatically. It has arms like a forklift, and it’s hand-cranked. We need it to lift the balcony and landing up in the air so they can be bolted to the wall and the legs can get under them, and that’s about all it’s useful for.

I called from backstage, from a rather fancy calling desk that I unfortunately forgot to get a picture of. It had cameras that could be zoomed and panned, which I thought was absolutely amazing, except that I then found out the tilt didn’t work, and whatever I did would affect the front-of-house TVs for the lobby, so basically I couldn’t play with it at all. I was all excited about having infrared, until the blackout at the top of the show, when I realized I couldn’t see anything. I think the camera worked, but the two small screens on the desk were suffering from low brightness or something. I ended up using the larger TV that was mounted over my head.

It was a busy day backstage, as Nick had to take a few days off for personal reasons, and Bobby, our TD, had to learn his track (which is really easy, but it was just a little sudden). Nick left early in the second act, so we had Bobby do the whole show, with Nick watching him as long as he could. This has made my desire to call from backstage more necessary, although I think we’d have been fine even if I couldn’t. Bobby did a great job. He’s a little bummed that he has to work during the show like the rest of us now!

Tonight’s venue doesn’t have a great spot to call from backstage, and no camera, but we’re all going to be on the house wireless comm for the night, so I decided that I could deal with any little table, and if I have to get up and walk to a different wing to call a cue, it will be no problem. It would actually be kind of fun to be able to roam around. I put on one of our wireless towards the end of the show last night so that I could be one of the “candle ninjas” that turn off the remote-controled candles in the final blackout. The calling desk was a good 25 feet from the edge of the proscenium, so I had to be moving toward the stage while calling the last couple cues to get there in time. There wasn’t any technical reason that it had to be me doing it, it’s usually Nick cueing one of the local guys to push the button, but since being backstage, I’ve been determined to get to do it myself because I think it’s awesome.

February 13, 2010

Adventures in Calling

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:48 pm

So far on this tour, since we left the Guthrie, every single performance has offered some new challenge to me in calling the show. I haven’t minded it, it’s kept a very simple show interesting. After running at the Guthrie, the one thing I’m most comfortable about is my ability to call the show, so I’m more than happy to make that harder for myself if it makes somebody else’s job easier.

In reverse chronological order (newest first), I will keep this post updated as I have more adventures.

Morgantown, WV

Again, due to Nick being gone, I’m more inclined to call from backstage even under somewhat less than ideal circumstances. There’s not a calling desk here, or a camera, and the view through the masking is a little chopped up, but in completely unrelated developments, we’re all using the house wireless comm, and so I decided that being on wireless, I can stand up and move around if I can’t see something from where I sit.

Fairfax, VA

I called from backstage again, but this time with a worse view of the stage, but with cameras. So it worked out just fine, but it was the first time I’ve had to really rely on a camera to see what I needed to see (aside from tech and the early part of the run at the Guthrie, when I was using the infrared). The real challenge, however, was that Nick had to go home for a few days, and needed to leave during the second act. He trained Bobby on his track before the show, and then watched as much as he could before he left, but really Bobby had to do the show for the first time on his own. The track is really easy, but it does require a certain extra bit of attentiveness on my part as well, because I have to be really paying attention to make sure I’m giving all the warnings at the right time, and thinking ahead to each sequence to see if there’s anything that should be explained ahead of time that might be disorienting to someone who had never heard it before.

Pittsfield, MA

This was a really big challenge. We didn’t do the show with our own light plot. We used the venue’s rep plot and focus, with our color in it, and a few specials, as well as our set-mounted lights, which are pretty numerous. Basically the entire lighting design had to be recreated from scratch using whatever we had at our disposal. Corey, the staff director, asked Devon and I to create six different looks which could be used to roughly cover the whole show. I took out my backup calling script and on the drive to Pittsfield, scratched out the internal cues we wouldn’t need.

Due to the ease of load-in for the set, we had time to be more ambitious. We created the six basic looks first, and then started at the beginning of the show, modifying each one to better adjust to the needs of the scene and the feel of the original cue. After four hours, we had almost 50 cues (the show only goes up to 135 to begin with).

I marked up my backup script for calling this particular performance, which is a lot easier than modifying the main calling script and then removing the changes. This way if something like this should have to happen later in the tour, we will still have a script to base it on. I took the time to hole punch it, but then decided I didn’t need to bother to put it in a binder.

In a way it was an easy show because I had less cues to call, but I had to be very alert to which cues were in, and in a few cases made decisions on the fly to move cues where we replaced a multi-cue transition with a single cue. The show looked really good — when we saw it, we were actually amazed at how close it looked to the real thing.

New London, CT

This wasn’t so much a problem, as an opportunity. There wasn’t really a decent front-of-house position for me to call from, and there was a really nice calling desk stage right. Every venue has slightly differently-spaced masking based on where the available linesets are, and this one seemed to have a pretty clear view to the deck from where the calling desk was. I decided early in the day, based just on the lines drawn on the marley and where the legs were in the air, that I could call from backstage, despite the fact that there was no camera.

Indeed that’s what I ended up doing and it was awesome. I generally love calling from backstage most of the time, and it was great to be able to see the actors close up and watch the show from another angle. I also like to be back with everybody and feel like part of the backstage world. I took over the stage right cues that Nick does with hand signals, and I would have gotten to use the remote to turn off one of the remote-controlled candles, but the local guy who was supposed to do it had already been told about it, and I didn’t feel it was right to take away the one somewhat interesting thing he gets to do in the whole show. Someday. Someday.

Now that I know how easy it was to see all my cues, I can be a little more liberal with deciding if I can call from backstage in a given venue. Unlike Henry V, in which the whole set was a wraparound semi-circle, this one can definitely be called without a camera if the masking is in the right place, so that increases my options.

This is the calling desk during load in. That big binder isn’t mine, that’s the lighting book. None of that crap is mine. During the show, I had my script and my computer on the desk.

St. Cloud, MN

Everything was actually fine here, but the calling position was literally right behind the back row — at a table, not behind a booth wall or anything. So calling clearly enough to be understood by a crew unfamiliar with the show, but quietly enough not to disturb the people three feet in front of me was a challenge.

Appleton, WI

The house wired comm was having trouble talking to our wireless system, so I called the show wearing two headsets — thankfully they were both lightweight, and to be honest, it wasn’t as uncomfortable as you might imagine. Making sure both booms were near my mouth was the most difficult part.

I prefer to call the whole show on all channels so everyone hears what’s going on, but in this case I told them I would be calling only to the channel involved in most cases. I was just afraid of fumbling with both talk buttons and screwing something up if I was always trying to activate both.

Grand Rapids, MN

Monitors so quiet that I couldn’t hear the show beyond mumbles. Once you know a show well enough, it’s pretty easy to know what the actors are saying just by their inflection, but the downside is you have to follow where they are in the text very carefully so you don’t get lost.

Moorhead, MN

We had a bad headset cable, which caused me to lose comm twice within the first few minutes of the show. I was across the booth from the light board and the sound console was right outside the open booth window, so I was able to keep things going until we got it fixed.

January 30, 2010

Eating and Calling

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:57 pm

Attention stage managers:

I have decided this weekend it’s not advisable to eat Animal Crackers while calling a show. They seem to have some kind of throat-coating qualities that make me have to clear my throat a lot. So beware.

My favorite thing to snack on while calling a show is Smarties candies — because if you want to savor them, you can suck on them, but if you suddenly have a cue coming up you can easily chew them and have them gone quickly. It’s also interesting to eat them if your light is very dim or gelled blue, because it can be hard to see what color you’re putting in your mouth, so it’s always a surprise.

January 16, 2010

The Booth Window

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:46 pm

This is my view from the booth window at the Guthrie. It’s pretty comfy. Tonight I moved our printer up here, and now I can do all of our end-of-night paperwork and phone hotline recording from here, instead of having to office-hop all over the building at the end of the night.

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