January 6, 2020

Stage Management Podcast – Hold Please!

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:55 pm

You guys, I have to blog because my friend Spencer Clouse has just done what I always intended to, but never took the time to pull together: he’s launched a podcast where he interviews stage managers. It’s called “Hold Please!” which is an amazing title, first of all.

Hold Please logo

I’m so honored that he shared his idea with me way back almost a year ago now, and asked me to be his first guest. We recorded two episodes back then, the first of which has just been released conveniently for the beginning of 2020 — the Year of the Stage Manager. I can’t wait to hear how it develops.

In this first episode we talk about general philosophies of stage management, early-career advice, show stops, and more.

You can take a listen and subscribe at the usual places, for which you can find all the links at holdpleasepodcast.com.

June 7, 2016

Discrete Number Line

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:56 pm

If you’ve perused the Templates page before, you may have seen my quick-and-dirty number line PDF. They’re big black numbers on a white background, with guide lines to cut out and little tick marks to show you the exact center of the number. I originally created them for situations where you’re in a rehearsal space that doesn’t have a permanent number line. You can laminate them if you want them to last, or if you show up on the first day (or the first day of choreography) and you’re like, “Oh shit, we forgot to make a number line!” or “Oh shit, the people in the room last night destroyed our number line!” you can pull up this PDF and hit “print” and throw them down in just a few minutes. They may not last more than a day, but it’s great for emergencies. I keep one laminated set and one or two emergency sets in my kit at all times.

However, as I said, they’re big and white and ugly — designed to be readable from anywhere — which is not what you would want if you were actually putting them onstage for performances. For most stages, fancier stickers looks a whole lot better. But what if you can’t get fancy stickers, or someone got you stickers but they’re not fancy enough, and you’re five hours from having an audience?

When I did White Christmas last year we had the double problem of needing a more discrete downstage number line than the stickers we had available, as well as an upstage number line (which is occasionally requested if you’re doing a real dancey-dancey show). The upstage line is even trickier, because while the audience sometimes can’t see the downstage line due to the angle, a slight lip to the stage, or footlights, mics and other gack along the perimeter, the upstage line is unobstructed and especially anyone in the balcony is going to be looking right at the symmetrically-spaced marks every two feet.

We decided we needed more specific control over how the numbers looked, so I altered my original number line to our specifications. First of all we didn’t want the big white box around the numbers. Instead of doing white on black, we did light gray on black to make it a little subtler. We even did medium gray on black, intending to use it for the upstage line, but when we laid both down on the floor for the very scientific “hey can you guys see this?” test, the dancers voted for the lighter gray for both. If you want the numbers to be a little smaller for added subtlety, you can print the PDF at 90% or whatever you prefer.

The finished product is visible enough to be read onstage, but relatively subtle from the audience (or as subtle as having numbers all across your stage can be). This production photo shows the stage right half of the line pretty clearly.

Click here to go to the Templates page to download the PDF!

April 6, 2016

White Christmas Calling Desk

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:50 pm

It’s only April, right? So we’re gonna look at one of my favorite recent calling desks, which took a totally problematic situation and improvised it into an unbelievably comfortable way to call a show. This was at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH, which is also the subject of my Mary Poppins calling desk post. Same desk, very different configuration. We had much different gear to squeeze into it, and the always fantastic crew came up with a really creative way to arrange it that created an even better calling perspective.

So you don’t have to do any work clicking that link, here’s the Poppins desk for reference:
IMG_4899 2

Wow, those photos were dark.

The basic situation at The Music Hall is that the calling position lives inside what has been affectionately called a “jungle gym” or “cage” by actors and crew. It’s a metal platform structure with an integrated ladder, on top of which sits the theatre’s dimmers. This has both good and bad points: it gives the calling SM a solid zone within which scenery, props and actors can’t really come, so you never lose your basic amount of personal space. On the other hand, you’re in a cage. The Poppins configuration actually felt less cage-like in terms of the backstage flow, but didn’t have as comfortable a view of the show.

It’s hard to really show the whole arrangement, so let’s just jump in with the side view, showing the ladder and basic interior of the cage. This is taken from midstage-right, facing DS, with the stage off to the left. I suggest clicking to enlarge these pics, as they’re much easier to read!


And here’s the view from the calling position:

Further back, showing the chair and stairway to the ensemble dressing rooms.

Needs and Challenges

Figuring out where to put all this stuff was a doozy. The tool box so uselessly crammed in behind the ladder (making the drawers near-impossible to open) is not really supposed to be part of the plan. The normal configuration of the desk is closer to what we did on Poppins. There is a desk that faces downstage, a chair that sits at that desk, and a music stand on the left-hand side that faces the stage. So I guess you put your script on the music stand and face the stage, and all your com and stuff is on the big desk to your right. I haaaaate music stands, and haaaaate not having my script laying flat, so the Poppins arrangement was more like a 45-degree angle in which I was neither facing the stage nor the monitor, but could turn my head a little to see either. It ended up being pretty comfortable under the circumstances, although it was a looooong way between the stage and monitor if I couldn’t see what I needed to see in the first place I looked.

The main difference on White Christmas was that we had this HUGE, beautifully-designed, but HUGE com rack (helpfully labeled on the top “The Karen Parlato Rack™”). I have never felt so loved by a sound team. But the footprint of this thing was gigantic, and it was tall enough to block all view of whatever it sat in front of. It barely fit on the desk, and I was never completely sure that the desk wasn’t going to collapse under its weight.

While staring at the impossibility of all this, wondering if we needed to take the rack apart to distribute the contents more like they were on Poppins, we came up with the idea of adding additional desk space to fill in what would normally be the area where the SM sits, and shoving the SM to the narrow back corner of the cage (which, on Poppins was used to store furniture, as I recall).

But where would we get such a desk? Fitting a show like White Christmas or Poppins into The Music Hall pretty much uses up every available inch of space. I always say, finding a surface (to put your computer, or write on a piece of paper) is the hardest thing to do. I often used the kitchen table on the Poppins set, or Sheldrake’s desk for White Christmas, both of which were frustratingly cluttered with props.

Somehow we discovered this tool box (which hinges open — what you see is the open position) was exactly the right height to meet the desk. Despite the huge inconvenience of burying their tool box, the crew offered it up as an extension of the desk. Things started to come together.

Yes, the rack blocked a little bit of view downstage, but it was just a matter of leaning forward when it was important (the pic is taken from a little further back, it really wasn’t a big deal from the desk).

The additional desk space (and the fact that all the com was stacked vertically) freed up actually more desk space than we had on Poppins. We got our printer on the desk! Permanently!! USB cable right there! Re-printing paperwork has never been so convenient (aside from the lack of a decent surface to put your laptop on).

What made this layout so awesome is that you can see absolutely everything by facing the same direction:

  • the stage is straight ahead, with quite a wide view depending on what scenery is in
  • the monitors are all straight ahead, and a very quick glance from the stage
  • the script is dead center, a quick glance up to the stage or monitors
  • the cue lights are directly on top of the script, easy to reach with both hands without crossing over the script
  • the com buttons could have been a little closer, it was a bit of a stretch to get there (and why, why, can you not lock on all channels with one button????) so I found myself with my mic on more than I wanted because it was such a process to turn 4 channels on and off

Adjusting the volume on the audio monitor (which I turned off when the offstage singers were live right next to me) required standing on the rung of my chair and leaning way over, but I only did that 6 times in the show.

Let’s talk for a minute about the offstage singers: Poppins had them in the same position (with a bigger conductor monitor mounted up high on the exterior of the cage), but they sang off their own mics. Offstage singing on White Christmas is a little more serious business, mainly because of the quintet in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Rather than use their mics, it was decided to let their voices blend naturally into a single, fancy-schmancy mic that they would all gather around. There were like spike marks on the floor and stuff, and an A2 who would come over and set everything up and make sure everyone was in the right position. It was pretty cool to get to watch, and they sounded incredible. That mic was stored in the little nook between the onstage edge of the calling desk and the arbors that are positioned there like, “Oops, were you trying to look at the stage through all these ropes and counterweights?” If that mic hadn’t had to store there, I wanted to try pushing the tool box forward a little to get closer to the stage, a better view of the wings, and closer to the com rack, but alas: It needed to be there, as that was a very safe spot.

I turned off my audio monitor whenever they were singing, just in case, and had notes in my script about which cues to call quietly, and when to hold warnings until they were done (helpfully notated with the technical term “STFU”), and one in particular that said “have to do warns” in a spot where one might be inclined to say, “I’ll wait till they’re done singing,” and one would later realize that there wasn’t time elsewhere in the number.

The Cage

The main reason the desk felt more cage-like than Poppins was because I was shoved back into the narrow nook between the stairwell to the basement and the tall prop shelf. I literally had to climb over my chair to get in. Sometimes, no joke, it took me over a minute to get in or out. The prop shelf directly beside me blocked a lot of my view of most people stage right, unless I stood on my chair rung and leaned forward. When leaning, I could see all the way upstage, to the staircase running up to the 2nd-floor (principal) dressing rooms. I assisted with the places head count from my excellent vantage point being able to see most of the principals coming down from those stairs, as well as ensemble members coming up the stairs right next to me.

Anyone who wanted to visit with me basically had two options, both of which required a little more effort than a normal calling desk position: either they leaned over the “Blue Skies” canes and talked to me between the rungs of the ladder (my “ladder window” as I called it), or they came around my back and onto the top step of the basement stairs, where they would be on my right shoulder if I leaned back a little. This position was more comfortable for long or private conversation, but it required both of us to decide, “We’re going to talk now” and get in that position. When Daniel and I really needed to work something out he’d come around there, and that was the spot for more prolonged conversation with actor-friends on the couple occasions where we had significant mutual breaks. The ability to see what the show looked like on the monitors also attracted some visitors over there.

The “ladder window” was more popular for quick chats with people as they picked up their props or waited for entrances, and also was right next to a primary quickchange location, so I could keep tabs on what was going on based on the hurried reports of actors as they changed.

I had a much more open view of backstage on Poppins, the problem was the show was so busy and the scenery so crammed in the wing that nobody was ever nearby to talk to. If the prop shelf wasn’t there, the new setup would have been a lot more open and accessible. Now to find a way to relocate that 3 square feet of space for next year…


I had a plan for the monitors, which our wonderful sound department bothered to implement between the two weeks of our run.

The usual issue is that in order to see “normal” scenes well on the color monitor, the light sensitivity is such that followspots or other super-bright lighting completely washes out whatever they hit (which, you know, is usually whoever or whatever is most important on the stage at the moment). This is not something that can be fixed by adjusting the brightness or other knobs on the monitor. It’s because the camera is sending white-white-white to the display. The only way to get it to display anything other than white is to reduce the light going into the camera.

So I suggested (begged?) that they try adding a neutral-density gel over the camera until it got to the point where someone in a followspot can be seen (at least, like, enough to pick out the shape of a human being), and if that means that other things onstage become too dark to see, hopefully that thing isn’t too washed out on the infrared, and between the two cameras I’ll be able to see everything.

It worked! The dressing room scene makes an excellent illustration of how this works, thus, I took pictures.

So here’s the deal: we have a split-screen thing going on, with the boys SR and the girls SL. When the scene begins we see the boys in their dressing room, rather brightly lit (with practical sconces and mirror lights), and the girls’ room is initially inactive and barely glowing. With the camera filtered, we see the boys very clearly, including the position of their bodies, and even some detail on what articles of clothing they have on (which is helpful in a scene which is all about choreographed dressing).

You may be thinking, “Well, duh, you should be able to see the actors’ bodies!” but this is not how the view was out-of-the-box, with professional gear. One of them could have fallen over and crashed through the dressing table while putting their shoes on, and other than saying “what was that noise?”, I’d have no idea what was happening unless hopefully the board op or one of the followspots was watching the stage and could tell me. It should also be pointed out that in this scene, like the train scene, the set blocked 100% of the view from offstage, so the only way anyone offstage could know what was happening was via the monitors. So like, someone should be able to see what’s happening onstage.

So with our new-and-improved system, in the left-hand picture you see what it looks like when the boys are doing their scene: their room is clearly depicted. The girls’ room, which is in a near-blackout with some spill, is totally invisible. But that’s OK! To look at their room, glance down at the infrared.

When the scene shifts over to the girls, their room is brightly lit, yet very clearly visible on the color monitor. The boys are in half-light, as they continue getting dressed, with the practicals still providing a little light so you can just barely make out their positions from their light-colored sleeves. And down on the infrared, you see the girls totally washed out, as expected, and the boys slightly washed out (probably due to the bare bulbs on the mirror — not the most ideal situation to use the IR camera, but something of a rare case).

This is sort of an extreme case of how the two cameras work together throughout the whole show. Something that is bright can be seen on the color camera, and darker details can be seen on IR. And of course the IR can’t be dulled down too much, or it won’t be able to see in pitch black, which is the whole point. Yes, it requires looking back and forth sometimes. The first night with the new arrangement was a little bit disorienting. I was not, for example, expecting the projections during the overture to be invisible in color. I seriously thought the projections had failed, until I noticed they were clearly visible in IR (except sadly not in color, as some of the cues specifically changed the color of the projections). And by that point halfway through the run I was used to automatically knowing when to look at the stage, when at the color, and when at the IR, and I had to figure out on the fly where I needed to be looking with the new system, and then re-train my muscle memory.

But it all worked out, and nothing could beat being able to pick out actual people during the musical numbers. I found myself actually watching the show more than I had before, not feeling like I was wearing a blindfold, struggling to make sense of the shades of white swirling around on the monitor. I’m so glad I really pressed to get that change made, and eternally grateful to the sound guys who took the time once we were open to futz around with the cameras.

Considering all of this was figured out on the morning of our first-and-final dress, I think we came up with a fantastic calling position out of a difficult situation, and I can’t wait to apply what we learned to this coming year!

March 8, 2016

Calling Off an iPad

I call this: iOS,mac,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:58 am

If there’s one area where I’m a real technophobe, it’s the calling script. I don’t want a script where anything can go wrong with it, short of it catching fire (and aside from one particular performance of Phantom, I’ve never actually felt that was a possibility).

Technology is great, but we make certain tradeoffs in reliability to embrace the latest capabilities. For the same reason we don’t want space ships and airplanes running Windows 10, I don’t want anything more complicated than ink and dead trees determining my access to the calling script during a show.

However, there are a lot of stage managers, some I respect very much, using computers and tablets to call their shows, even on Broadway. I’d like to spend more time shadowing these people on larger shows to see what hardware and software they’re using and study how it works and what the pros and cons are in regular use. But I felt no hurry to try it myself.

My booth on Silence! The Musical was so small and inconvenient that when I started I did experiment with using an iPad very briefly (my ASM had taken another solution, of having the script printed and bound in half-page size, so it fit on one of the few available surfaces). I don’t remember much about the iPad experience except that I didn’t like it and very quickly (like maybe within the same performance) went back to paper. I think in that case, it may have been largely because I was still becoming comfortable with the show and I didn’t like that the page is smaller than paper-sized and thus harder to read (especially since the booth layout meant the script couldn’t be right in front of me). Also, the whole idea of the page turn lagging for even a second was a huge turn-off.

Years went by, and although I’m curious how other people stand it, I’d never cared to try again.

This winter I was the PSM on Broadway and the Bard, a one-man show starring Len Cariou on which I was light board op, sound board op, A2, props, basically everything except (usually) wardrobe. It was pretty much the cleanest possible scenario in which to try something potentially stupid. The show, while beautifully designed with a good number of cues to keep me busy, was very contained, never too crazy. It was a guy on a stage with a stool, a bench, and another guy at a piano. Nothing really moved. They talked. They sang. Most important for the purposes of this experiment, I couldn’t kill anybody. And once we’d been running about a week, I was comfortable enough that I had sections of the show memorized. I started making an effort to test myself, thinking ahead to what all the cues were on the next page, checking, and then running that page without looking, all in preparation so that by the end of week 2 of our 6-week run, I could reasonably expect to be able to continue calling the show if I couldn’t access my script for, say, 30 seconds.

Once I felt confident, I charged my iPad that I never have a use for, and put the already-typed calling script on it. I used GoodReader as my PDF-reading app. I found it worked well enough, so I didn’t bother trying any others. The first time I used it for a show, I had the paper script open and was keeping it on the correct page. After that I put it off to the side closed, but someplace where I could grab it quickly. For reasons I never figured out, the later pages of the PDF got garbled where all the text boxes had rendered in the wrong place, which I didn’t discover until turning to the first of the corrupted pages. So I did get to experience the failure of the script and having to go back to paper, and on this show, it was fine. I also want to point out that the messed up formatting happened in the conversion from Word to PDF, and had nothing to do with the rendering on the iPad. But just so you know, I tried to open the Word doc directly on the iPad in a couple different apps, and as one would expect, it completely sucks at rendering text boxes with the kind of accuracy required here. If you type your cues in-line, you’d probably have better luck.

As I had thoughts about the iPad during various performances, I jotted them in my performance notes:

  • At this point I would never use the iPad on a show where not being able to see the script for a few seconds could get someone hurt. It might be very unlikely to have a problem, but it’s still not worth it. I was lucky on this show to always be able to format the script to avoid bad page turns. Any lag, or an unexpected popup taking focus when trying to turn the page, could cause a problem on a show that requires fast page turns.
  • One of my other big issues in the past is that I like to make pencil marks in my script all the way through a run. I would definitely want to be using a pencil through tech and the early part of a run where I was actively refining the call, but on a show like Bard, it did eventually slow down to the point where changes were few. Also the layout of the booth put my script binder above the light board, which made it harder to doodle in. Using the iPad actually allowed me to have the script closer, and easier to tinker with. I don’t use GoodReader all that much, but the few times I wanted to change placements or mark things I needed to pay attention to, I could, at the next gap between cues (even if it was 30 seconds), add some text or an arrow, and place and color it appropriately in the short time available. It’s actually cool in some ways to be able to have a red arrow or giant red-and-yellow text instead of a pencil mark. But I still think on a more complicated show, where there isn’t going to be time to do more than throw down a very quick pencil mark, it would not be as good. But that’s probably the same kind of show where I can kill people, so it’s moot I guess.
  • If I were spending time to actually format a script with the intention of using it in this way, I could’ve eliminated the margins so the text could be bigger and the white space around the pages wouldn’t be wasted.
  • I think part of the reason I wasn’t bothered by the size of the text or the difficulty in marking the script was that at this point I wasn’t actually reading the script to find out what the cues were. As a board op, I don’t need to say the cue numbers out loud, and as far as placement goes, it’s more of a visual thing. I’m not really reading the text like I’ve never seen it before. I can glance at the cue on the page and the only reason I need to see it is to go, “ah yes, that one.” A quick glance is all that’s needed, so a scaled-down PDF works just fine.
  • I had accidental page turns on occasion when I just brushed or tapped the screen with my finger on the sides. In at least one case I didn’t notice I did it until I looked back at the script and saw I was on the wrong page. On the other hand, the efficiency of motion needed to turn the page was great, especially on a show I was operating with both hands for much of the time. And although this particular booth was pretty isolated sound-wise, in a small house with audience close by, the fact that you can rapidly turn the page silently is a plus.
  • I hate glossy screens, in life in general. I understand why tablets need to be glossy more than laptops. Still. I had to cover some LEDs on the gear in the booth because they were reflecting off the screen.
  • I have an iPad 3. I can’t really comment on the later ones which are a bit thinner, but as a thing of limited usefulness, it’s kind of heavy. Maybe smaller and lighter than a paper script, but here’s the difference: I never bring my script home. Depending on the security of the theatre, I’d be less likely to leave my iPad overnight, which means I’m lugging it around. In this case, I did leave it at the theatre (hidden) because I refused to lug it around. But that’s not exactly smart. If you actually use your iPad for other things, and don’t carry your laptop every night, this probably isn’t a hardship.
  • Battery life was pretty good, especially when in airplane mode. And somehow it made me laugh (and shake my head) when I’d say to myself, “I should charge my script overnight.” Of course if I’d planned this from the start, I’d have the charger run to a position where it could be plugged in at the desk instead of on a table behind me, but as long as I checked the battery life every couple days it was fine. I think I only charged it two or three times in four weeks.

Overall, my opinion was that I quickly came to prefer the iPad on this show. I don’t know how much bigger a show could get before I didn’t want to use it, but I’m willing to figure that out, because it actually was very handy. My next show could be a good candidate for something more complicated but not too complicated. We’ll see.

January 4, 2016

Detailed Prop Presets with Evernote and Skitch

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 9:02 am

You know those prop presets. The ones where a list is simply not going to cut it. You need diagrams. And with the rise of cell phone cameras, you’re probably used to skipping the diagram entirely and just filling your phone with a bunch of pictures of props strewn about. But the pictures probably don’t tell the entire story. You still sort of need the details that you’d get if you hand-drew a diagram.

Enter Evernote, and its now-subsidiary app, Skitch.

I’ve written about Evernote before. It’s a note-taking app that lets you add multimedia stuff and organize your notes into notebooks with tags and categories and stuff. It syncs with your mobile devices. It’s just generally very handy when you need to dump information somewhere.

Skitch used to be a standalone app that annotates pictures. If you’ve seen any of my calling desk blog posts, that’s what I use to label stuff (a new one will be coming soon). You take a picture, and then you can easily add very attractive arrows, text, and other markings to it. A few years back they were purchased by Evernote, and now the Skitch features are available directly in Evernote when you take a picture.

White Christmas use case

You know what I hate about stock? Sure you do: I hate split rehearsals. I hate knowing that there’s one rehearsal the ASM absolutely must be in, and it’s the same rehearsal I absolutely must be in. Or vice-versa, the dance rehearsal I really want to see, but I’m stuck in a blocking rehearsal. But this post is about the first example.

White Christmas, yo. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the show (which, if you know the movie, it’s the same idea) where Bob and Phil are in their dressing room having just finished a performance on the Ed Sullivan show, and while bickering about each others’ love lives, they completely strip down to their underwear and put on a new set of clothes, in a tightly choreographed sequence that suggests they’ve been doing this forever. It’s pretty cool. But in order for it to look that effortless it also has to at some point be taught and rehearsed. And preset.

So there I am, having to be in this rehearsal. Knowing it’s going to be 90% about prop and costume presets. I’m not a huge fan of this happening without the ASM (or, for that matter, the PA) being present. But there I am, and by gum, I’m going to take awesome notes.

From the beginning of our process we knew one thing about this scene: we were never, ever, going to rehearse it without full costume. Which was actually kind of cool, if something of a pain in the ass to transport the costumes every time (always in the rain). The rehearsal schedule evolved in constant coordination with the costume department to ensure fittings for it were given priority, and this scene wasn’t scheduled to be blocked before the four suits needed had arrived, been fitted, and alterations completed.

There aren’t that many times when you start blocking a scene with your actors in full costume, so it was weird and fun to get a preview of the “real thing” so early in the rehearsal room. Normally people get a little thrill to see someone come into a scene wearing actual costume pieces like a coat or skirt. These dudes were in full show costume including underwear and socks, every time.

Let me give you a visual, using some of our lovely production photos courtesy of David J. Murray.

These are the costumes they start out in, for Ed Sullivan. So very, very green. The shoes were green, too, which really ties the whole “green” theme together, but they didn’t arrive (or get painted) till opening night, so they didn’t make the first photo shoot during the dress rehearsal. Sorry. Imagine the shoes are green. Greener than the costumes. I swear.
Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.41.39 AM

But wait, I do have a picture of the shoes!
This is Piggy, our stage management mascot. His exploits (which I promise to blog about soon-ish) culminated in a brazen bid to seize the role of Phil Davis (dramatized in perhaps my favorite film, The Real Pig Davis). This was a teaser photo of him “sniffing out his next role.” You can see part of one of the shoes behind him. Enough to know they were greener than the suits. I told you it was possible.

So anyway, at the top of the dressing room scene, the boys start taking off the green. The street clothes they’re changing into are hung on the coat trees on their respective sides of the dressing table, with the accessories and shoes on the table unit.
Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.43.01 AM

Most of the way there, the green stuff has all been crammed into that suitcase (getting the suitcase to behave while two suits with shoes were packed into it ended up being the most disruptive technical challenge of the entire production).
Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.40.57 AM

There’s not really a picture of the whole finished look, but Joey can model the basic suit-with-coat-and-hat concept:
Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.40.36 AM


So, that’s where we’re going. In the rehearsal room, we had a table (no mirrors, sadly, for the boys) and some chairs, and a coat tree, and an awesome stand-in coat tree that props masters everywhere should take note of. I never got around to getting a picture of it “naked” but that’s a mic stand gaffed upside-down to some kind of wooden… I don’t know. Something that’s not supposed to be a coat tree. It worked great.IMG_5780

Once we had started to settle on where the props needed to be placed, I took pictures in Evernote on my phone, and then immediately synced it to my computer where I could more carefully label things.

These are some of the pictures I provided (there were several revisions, as my ASM and PA didn’t get to see the scene and take their own notes until our stumble-through). The documentation was especially important in this case because it wasn’t just a reminder — it had to explain everything so that people who have never seen the scene, or know that Bob’s suit is the blue one and Phil’s is the gray-and-pink one, could do the preset themselves without assistance. Everyone who received it (the ASM, PA and props master) found it extremely helpful.




The last one has a giant trick question: while everything else is “Bob on this side, Phil on that side,” their ties are intentionally on the wrong side (so they can do a cute little bit where they realize they have the wrong tie and throw them across the table at each other). That particular situation is why the color-coded text for each guy’s clothes was necessary.

The labeling of the photo (as opposed to taking pics and also drawing a diagram) is also super-useful in situations such as this where not all the props are physically there, because you can clearly point out where the “invisible” things are, like the towel and pocket square (which we didn’t realize were needed until we started blocking), and Phil’s shoes (which I believe were being de-tap-i-fied at this time). Yes, that’s a word.

I highly recommend doing this for any preset tricky enough to require good photos as well as descriptive labels. Once you get comfortable with the software it doesn’t take long. And when you’ve got all your photos in your Evernote note, you can quickly save it as a PDF and share it with whoever you need to (or, if you’ve got a shared Evernote notebook with your team, they will automatically have it).

October 2, 2015

Arm the Confetti

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:14 pm

We had a confetti drop at the end of Million Dollar Quartet. The process for activating the confetti had about as many safeguards as launching a nuclear weapon. This post is about how we did it and why.

Conveniently, the primary publicity photo for the show shows the exact moment when I called the cue:

It’s on the button of the show, Jerry Lee hits the floor just as the confetti triggers.

The first rule of confetti (and snow) is you pick a spot in the show to do it where it won’t create a hazard for the rest of the performance. In our show, there was only a split-second where the confetti would be both not-dangerous, and not-too-late-to-be-effective: the moment he lands on the floor. So that was a short discussion at the production meeting.

The second rule of confetti (and snow) is you don’t trigger it when you don’t mean to. Having the drop boxes (or snow machines) as a channel on the light board, it’s pretty easy to do that if you don’t take any precautions. A careless channel check, or bringing up “everything” could stray into the channel number assigned to the drop boxes, and then you have a mess on the floor, and the deck crew is pissed, and the electrics crew is also pissed, because they have to reload. And then the deck crew is pissed at the electricians for complaining about having to reload, when reloading isn’t as annoying as sweeping (or mopping). So you see where this is going.

The other issue of course, is if the confetti somehow gets triggered during a performance, you have a real disaster because there’s now slippery mylar all over the stage for the rest of the show, or until someone can sweep it up.

On Sister Act we had the exact same confetti drop, so when it was added to MDQ I was very familiar with the procedure. But because of the extreme physicality of the end of the show, the 1-second window between when it would be a huge safety hazard, and where the cue goes, and the fact that there’s no real way for the actors to be “careful” about the staging and choreography should the floor and/or piano be slippery, I was concerned more than usual with making sure the drop can’t happen early.

For Sister Act there was a submaster on the light board that inhibited the confetti until two cues prior to the drop (there’s also a way to program the uninhibit right into the cue, but then if you were checking the cues for some reason other than in performance, it would trigger).

Technical Mumbo-Jumbo

The situation on MDQ was complicated by the potential chaos unleashed by the previous cues. Let’s take a look:

Cue What it Does
339 Bump blinding light wall
340 Bump blinding light wall (1 second later)
341 Bump blinding light wall (1 second later)
342 Different pattern on light wall (1 second later)
343 Shit goes crazy
“Arm the confetti”
344 Button, Confetti Drop

Working backwards from the drop (344), the previous cue (343) is about 5 seconds prior, while Nat plays a few glisses on the piano with his foot, like you do. It’s during this time that I’d say “Arm the confetti.”

The real challenge of this situation is in the cues prior to 343. 339 through 342 are on successive words: WHOLE. LOTTA. SHAKIN. GOIN on. While I was feeling comfortable with it by the end of the first week, the odds of coming out of the sequence in the right cue are far lower than normal, and there’s almost no time to correct it.

I was given a lovely gift on Sister Act of a tablet mounted above the calling desk that shows the cue display from the light board. So theoretically I can glance up after 442 and make sure 443 is next, and this was helpful in the first couple days where I struggled with that sequence. But I know from experience that due to wifi issues, VNC issues, “update your Windows software” popup issues, and whatever else, sometimes I lose the ability to see the cues. There’s basically no time between 342 and 343 where it would be comfortable for me and/or the board op to be 1000% sure we’re in the right cue before arming the confetti. So the confetti drop had to have a safety built in for the possibility that we could land in 343, and when I called 343, 344 would be taken instead.

Now the inhibit fader would protect against the confetti triggering if 344 was taken in place of 343. But what happens when we’re sitting in 344, thinking it’s 343, and I say “arm the confetti” and the fader is brought up? The confetti would trigger as soon as the fader goes up, still about 3 seconds early, creating a dangerous situation just as Nat is about to jump. With more time all of this could be carefully verified, but you have to understand that the six cues, plus manually arming the confetti, happen in 10 seconds. So I challenged our programmer to create a method of cueing the confetti that accounted for the fact that we might not be in the right cue, and in the event of an error, would fail safe.

It became something of a group discussion among the lighting-minded, and here’s what we came up with:

1. A submaster inhibits the confetti box channel so it can’t ever be triggered unless the fader is manually put up.

2. The channel that unlocks the confetti boxes is on in cue 344. But only in the first second of 344, and then it’s turned off with a follow.

This means the only way to drop the confetti is if the inhibit sub is up at the moment 344 is taken. If 344 was taken early (in place of 343, or earlier), by the time I said “arm the confetti” and the fader is put up, the 1-second window of opportunity would have passed, and the confetti will never fall.

With this system there is only one small span of time in which human error could cause the confetti to fall early: if between 343 and 344, after the confetti is armed, 344 got taken early. This window is only about 2 or 3 seconds, and the only way it could happen is if I called it early, or the operator had some kind of hand spasm. That kind of human error is unlikely when you know how important the cue is, and at that point no amount of programming can prevent it.

What I did to mitigate it was
(1) I didn’t say “go” with “arm the confetti,” it’s just an instruction that’s taken immediately. This avoids the association in the op’s mind that “go” means push the button.
(2) I said “arm the confetti” at the last possible moment that gave me time to cleanly say “344” before Nat jumps (the “go” for 344 was while he’s in the air, basically right where the photo is taken, assuming he’s on his descent there).

I’m pleased to say we never had an accidental confetti discharge. The drop worked every night, except once when the channel was left captured off from preshow work. But other than that, the show was run by two different board ops, and we never experienced an error related to the programming of the cue, or what the op had to do to activate it. I highly recommend this strategy if you’re ever faced with a momentary cue that you absolutely, positively do not want triggered by accident.

June 11, 2015

The God Mic as Gunshot

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:03 pm

sm58Yesterday’s matinee began like many others — not much going on. With a full and efficient crew, my preshow basically consists of making coffee and pouring myself a cup or two and sipping it from the wings, spending the next hour socializing and watching other people mop, before I do the half-hour stuff (calling half hour, announcements, checking the sign-in sheet, and opening the house), doing pushups and planking at our Crew Workout between 20 and 15, and then generally getting ready to start a show. The purpose of being there for most of that time is that if something goes wrong or anyone arrives with a question, I’m there to handle it.

Not much happened. I got the daily report on which moving light was misbehaving for the day. I don’t really need to know details, but I always joke that if I know the moving lights’ names, it’s a bad sign, so I started learning. Today it was 12, which, of the usual suspects, was the one I knew by name but still couldn’t point to. I recalled it was on the SR box boom somewhere. Since I can’t see it from my calling position in SR2, or on the monitor, its failures are more of a mystery to me. Our AME pointed in its general direction, and shielding my eyes from the other lights on, I found the one mover over there, and now I know who 12 is. In case I had any doubt, it immediately started making an angry mechanical noise.

A group of us had driven up to Maine State Music Theater the night before to see their production of The Full Monty, because it starred two of the actors from Mary Poppins, as well as Kingsley Leggs from the Broadway Sister Act (who had come to visit his former castmates in our show the week before), plus an assortment of other individuals that people in our company knew from other shows. So we got home a little after 1AM, and were kind of tired, and that, along with continued discussion of the show we saw, constituted most of our preshow concerns.

Because we’d had a long weekend, and an outside event in the space over the days off, I started my check-in 4 minutes before curtain time, just to catch any issues a few minutes early, such as unplugged cue lights or broken comm. Our conductor was still booting up his keyboard and computer, which was normal, especially given that I was checking in early. Then something was weird and our A1 (Ashley) suggested rebooting. Which was also within the bounds of normal. Our A2 (Parker) begins the show next to me, ready to hand off the handheld mic to the preshow speaker, and together we watched on the conductor monitor with only mild concern.

When the computer rebooted and still there was no sound, Parker handed me the mic and took off for the pit. Which is also still within the general boundaries of normal. A minute or two of checking cables and whatnot, and maybe we start a few minutes late. I won’t bore you with an account of the next 20 minutes, but eventually Ashley joined him at the pit, and nary a keyboard was to be heard. Except the other one. Which thankfully was Keys 1.

Eventually they had to give up, and Ashley comes offstage to report the situation. We’ll have to do the show without that keyboard. I don’t know all the details of which parts of the orchestration we’ll lose, but I know the other keyboard is the primary one, and I figure they know what they’re doing down there and will make it work. The one thing I know is that Keys 2 has all the special effects. Church bell gongs, and most importantly, gunshots. There are two types of gunshot cues in our show: ones triggered with Qlab at the sound board, which I call, and ones which happen on specific musical beats in the middle of the two chase sequences in the show, which are played on the keyboard. It’s the ones during the chases that we’ll be missing.

Back in the day, we didn’t know for sure if our keyboard would be fancy-shmancy enough to trigger sound effects, so I started learning the gunshots. And I had to yell “bang!” in the rehearsal room, so I’m well acquainted with the chase scores. I still call the first chase off the score because I didn’t know it that well when we teched. It’s only 2 pages. The 2nd chase is very pared down in my book to allow me to spend more time watching the stage and less time flipping pages of the score (it’s loooooong). It’s just got the few lines of dialogue and there are only counts right before cues. The gunshots aren’t indicated at all. But because I’ve been doing this long enough to know better, the full score for the 2nd chase has been sitting at the very back of my calling script the whole time. For what, I had no idea. But it’s always been there ready to be flipped to in the middle of the scene if necessary. And those are the only two things in my book: the calling script itself, and the score for the 2nd chase.

As we’ve gotten more comfortable with the show, and closer to our transfer to Gateway, I’ve started asking myself, “What if something changes and I have to call the gunshots at Gateway?” Last week I put a little pencil bracket around where the three gunshot cues would be called in the first chase. At the last show of the week I tapped my finger on the desk where I would be calling them, with a little up-finger for each rewarn. It’s busy, but I did it, and that made me feel better. I was planning to start thinking about the 2nd chase this week.

Anyway that’s the deal with the gunshots, cut back to yesterday:

It’s now about 23 minutes past curtain time, and we’re about to start the show without our gunshots. I was like, “Um… I could hit the God mic.” Ashley says, “Yeah, we thought about that possibility.” So I shrugged and said, “I’ll try it. What else are we gonna do?” And then we started the show.

I was lucky that I was in a perfect frame of mind for this kind of thing to happen. The show has been running 3 weeks, and I’ve been feeling more and more free to pay attention to things other than my cues and the things I have to watch. Maybe it was getting out to see Full Monty the night before that opened me up to doing something new, but I just so happened to be in the mood that someone could have come up to me and told me to change anything about my performance and I would have welcomed the challenge. If they’d said, “today you have to call all the light cue numbers backwards” (like 321 is 123) I’d have been like, “Oh, fun!” It was just that kind of day, and that was a wonderful thing.

Once we got up and running through the opening number, I used the two pages of dialogue in the first scene to flip ahead to the first chase and put a triangle over the beats with the gunshots (as opposed to the brackets, which are on the beats before, for where I’d be calling the cues).

I assigned our stage right PA, Erin, to guard the mic during that sequence — to keep people away from it, and shush anyone who was talking offstage near it while it was live. I warned our board op that I would be calling the cues in the chase as quietly as possible. When the chase started I flipped the switch on the mic, and on the first gunshot gave the mic a fairly light smack with my hand. It was almost inaudible. For the last two shots I gave it a hard smack, which made a noticeable sound, but over the yelling and music playing, was hardly impressive, or at all suggestive of a gunshot. Somewhat dejected, I turned the mic off. My always droll ASM, Daniel, said it sounded like the gun was farting. I wasn’t looking forward to Act II. I started wondering if Ashley would have time to program more gunshots into Qlab at intermission, or if she even had enough time while mixing to take the cues.

During my slower moments of Act I, I flipped to the back of my script and started studying the 2nd chase. I put two of the gunshots that were near other cues into my regular script pages, but the first one I didn’t know all that well, so I marked up the score very clearly with counts and using a series of post-its, made a giant tab that would allow me to flip from the page I was on, to the relevant starting page in the score, and then back.

At intermission, Ashley came down and said they’d be working on the keyboard and maybe could get it working. By the end of intermission they gave up, having eliminated some troubleshooting steps, but not all the way there. Before heading back to front-of-house, Ashley said, “Just go ahead and really bang the mic on the desk.” I was hoping she had some advice of how to improve the sound, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so violent to her gear. But I was desperate to make these gunshots sound good, and she seemed confident that it would give us the sound we were looking for, so I tried to do exactly as she said and not chicken out. Before we started I adjusted the cable to get enough slack to get the mic comfortably in front of me with room to swing it freely, and away we went.

During the 2nd act I started figuring out where on the desk I was going to bang the mic. Originally I was picturing banging it on the script, since the script takes up the whole desk. But I imagined that, while being kinder on the mic, it would have a very muffled sound. I needed to hit something solid. I also needed to have the mic in my hand, and have my other hand free for cue lights, while still being able to see my script. I thought about the wooden lip that holds the script on the desk, but it was very solid and didn’t seem all that resonant either. The main plywood surface of the desk seemed like it would make the best noise, so I decided on moving my script to my left a little, opening up a narrow strip of the desk on my right-hand side. Quietly and gently, during other scenes, I practiced banging the mic like a drumstick on the desk. When the metal ring around the windscreen hit the desk it made a nice sharp sound. I decided that’s what I was aiming for. I liked having the mic in my hand, since it meant I could turn it on right before the shot and off right after, and be mostly clear to not have to worry about cues or offstage singing/speaking/screaming getting in it.

Proper mic-gunshot striking position:

I spent the whole 2nd act just wanting to get to the chase, not because I was nervous about it, but because I was so excited that the rest of the show just seemed to be in the way of this once-in-a-career opportunity. I was going to get to bang a live mic on a desk to music. In a professional stage production at a highly-respected summer theatre. And I had no idea what it was going to sound like, and I had never even tried to think about the gunshots while calling the show before. The sheer ridiculousness of it made it completely stress-free. There was no better solution, and no time to be more prepared, so whatever happened would be the best we could do under the circumstances.

Just before the chase began I took the mic from its holder and pulled all the slack towards me, and held it in my lap until we got closer. Luckily the first shot happens in a section with no cues nearby. I flipped to the score and followed along towards the shot. Since this was the one I didn’t confidently know, I was a little more nervous. But it went fine, and more than that, it made a sound that, from backstage at least, didn’t sound very much different than the normal gunshots! This might actually work! The mic didn’t break, or squeal, or do anything bad, and I could tell I could hit it a little harder for even better effect.

I flipped back to the regular calling pages, and tore my post-it page-flip contraption apart with my one free hand and threw it somewhere into a dark corner behind the desk. My next gunshot was coming up fast. For this one, I call a cue that lands on the shot, so it was easy: “GO, thwack!” I gave it a hard, confident bang, and it sounded like a gunshot! One of the guys ran by me and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up on his way out to his own gunshot.

The third one happens shortly before a cue, so I was very familiar with it musically because I’m waiting for the little gliss a few counts after it. At this point I was completely enjoying myself and wanted to keep going. But sadly that was my last one. The final shot of the chase, when Curtis comes in, is triggered from the sound board, and I had a cue light lit and waiting for that. I turned the mic off and put it on my lap, and once the chase was over, reluctantly hung it back up on its hook.

I’m hesitant to say this was the most fun I’ve ever had while calling a show, because some crazy stuff has happened in my life, but I can’t actually remember having more fun calling a show right now. It was just the right mix of things being crazy, but not so crazy that we weren’t delivering a high-quality show. I called my usual show and had all the elements I normally have working properly, and on top of that, I got to bang a mic on a desk.

Things were fixed for the evening show, and although we were all exhausted, it was a little bit of a letdown after all that excitement to go back to a normal show. We missed watching our conductor get to conduct, like we were on the Broad way. And I missed the greatest opportunity for permissible audio equipment abuse since Audra dropped the mic on the Tonys.

May 2, 2015

Stage Management Blocking Sheets

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 3:07 pm

Hello, Google visitors!

While finishing up my blocking sheets for Sister Act, I decided to take a stroll through Google’s results for “Stage management blocking sheets” just to see if anybody had an idea I wanted to steal. While some of the results were from this site (which is generally what happens when I search for things, and always leads me to be like, “Hey that one looks like mine!”), none of them were blocking sheets, because I don’t think I’ve ever made a post about it.

So I suppose I should share what mine looks like, at least on this show.
I make different choices for nearly every show, based on how complex the set is, how big the cast is, and how much fine detail needs to be shown based on both those things.

In this case I have a cast of (damn it, I had to look it up) 22, and a stage that is essentially bare, with numerous things coming on and off on tracks. So I went with only four groundplans per sheet (which I know is a lot for some people, but low for me), and kept the stage as clean as possible. All scenic pieces are shown in their offstage positions, so I know where they are and can draw them in where they play, and a couple very significant flying pieces (basically the ones that come down to the deck) are lightly sketched in so I can see the depth and then draw them in darker for scenes where they’re there.

I also included very faint gray lines for writing blocking. I usually leave it as free-form white space so I can squeeze or expand as the situation demands, but in this case I think it might be nice, and I don’t know if I’ve ever done it. I made sure the lines are faint enough to serve as a guide, without getting in the way should I need to ignore them.

I generally try to get away with printing my blocking sheets on the back of the script pages, to reduce the thickness and weight of the script, and then with spare pages and scotch tape, cobble things together when the blocking totally changes, or we get new script pages.

On this show, I’m stealing a page from my very unconventional Mary Poppins process: I want to take blocking on the calling script so I can be looking at my cues every time we run something. Thanks to our very ahead-of-things lighting designer, and the fact that I’ve been trying to teach myself the call since January, I have a digital calling script to start with, and some idea what I’m doing with it.

One thing I noticed on Poppins, which I thought would be a little better on the summer schedule, but isn’t, is that there’s only room for one dress rehearsal. Because I’m not familiar with the backstage calling position, I highly doubt I’ll want to call that one run from the tech table, so I need to use the one chance I get as we go through each moment in tech to get my light cues exactly where I want them. Which means I need to be right on the first try as often as possible. And that means watching every time we do something in the rehearsal room with an eye to where I’m going to call things, and whether I think I would have been right, and keep making adjustments accordingly.

Or I could tech the show in a day-and-a-half, and get another run. Which is definitely something I’d like to try for, but not something I’m going to bet on.

So instead of printing a blank script for blocking, I’m going to print my calling script as it exists the day before first rehearsal. I know it’ll change a lot, and I want the freedom to easily re-print pages as they become significantly different. That means having to have actual separate blocking pages for every page. So fine! I’ll do it the way you’re “supposed to” do it, just this once.

And to answer the other potential question you have about my blocking book, I do blocking on the right-hand side, script on the left. And I forget to reverse-hole-punch my copy before doing all the other scripts about 50% of the time.

Update: here’s a page with some blocking on it.

April 8, 2015

A Reason for Every Rule

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 3:49 pm

Today is “read the COST rulebook” day. As I haven’t read the rulebook cover-to-cover in exactly 10 years, and I’ve spent most of the last 4 years on Off-Broadway and LORT, and will probably spend the rest of this year exclusively on COST, I figured this time, rather than skimming the rehearsal, performance, and rest period rules, I should take the time to at least glance at every word, just for a general refresher on what it says about things I generally don’t need to know anything about. Also, I’m unemployed. If I was doing the show I was supposed to be doing right now, I’d probably be like, “Yeah, whatever. Is the lunch break vote a majority or unanimous?”

In my perusal of the book, I came upon something that made me laugh and sigh. This is the entirety of the “definition of an Actor” section (20(A), if you’re following along at home):

The term “Actor” shall refer to and include persons who are signed to Equity contracts, including Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers and those engaged under Chorus contracts.

The Producer agrees that the definition of the term “Actor” includes Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers, Swings, Dance Captains and Understudies. It is expressly intended that Stage Managers, all Assistant Stage Managers, Swings, Dance Captains, and Understudies employed hereunder are entitled to benefits provided to Actors under a Conversion Rights or other similar clause of any previous Equity Code or Contract. (See Rule 64, UNION SECURITY.)

I’d like to break this down.

On its surface, it seems pretty simple. Actor-with-a-capital-A means anybody signed to an Equity contract. It’s one of the most fundamental rules, but one that does need to be spelled out, since the word “actor” is also used in the vernacular to describe people who get up onstage and perform, and is sometimes broken down further into actors, singers, dancers, dancers-who-sing, singers-who-move, etc. which is not the same as how “Actor” is used in Equity contracts.

The term “Actor” shall refer to and include persons who are signed to Equity contracts, including Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers and those engaged under Chorus contracts.

Right. Stage Managers aren’t on stage talking and singing and dancing, so that needs to be spelled out. That should be no surprise. But here we come to our first example of a rule that must exist for a reason: it’s mildly insulting that it needs to be said that someone on a Chorus contract is an Actor, but that’s just from our modern perspective. Considering that Chorus Equity was a separate thing from Actors Equity until 1955, it’s understandable that it’s in there just in case some old-school producer conveniently forgot. If it seems unnecessary to remind people after 60 years, bear in mind this is also an agreement that in its 2013-2015 revision still has clauses requiring notification via telegram.

Moving on:

The Producer agrees that the definition of the term “Actor” includes Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers, Swings, Dance Captains and Understudies.

Isn’t that exactly what the last sentence said? “Persons who are signed to Equity contracts.” That should cover it, but just in case it also said: “including Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers, and those engaged under Chorus contracts.”

“Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers, Swings, Dance Captains and Understudies” are almost always a subset of “Stage Managers, Assistant Stage Managers, and those engaged under Chorus contracts.” Obviously saying it once wasn’t enough. And I always like the places where contracts say, “The Producer agrees,” like their signature on the general agreement to produce a show under the contract isn’t enough to bind them to acknowledging that particular rule.


It is expressly intended that Stage Managers, all Assistant Stage Managers, Swings, Dance Captains, and Understudies employed hereunder are entitled to benefits provided to Actors under a Conversion Rights or other similar clause of any previous Equity Code or Contract.

What about Chorus members who are not swings, dance captains or understudies? All assistant stage managers? I just figured if I had two, the 2nd one is a slave and just signed the contract to have it like a souvenir, but it doesn’t actually give them the rights and protections of everyone else who signed the contract.

Seriously, folks. The rule book felt the need to say it three times: ACTOR WITH A CAPITAL “A” MEANS EVERYONE.

Also, that last section is not just spelling out “EVERYONE” one more time, it’s specifically clarifying that EVERYONE applies to the rules about conversion rights. So you know someone had a little trouble grasping that the EVERYONE rule also applies to EVERY THING in the contract.

I’d love to be on a negotiating committee just to see the process of how the treat-the-reader-like-they’re-stupid rules come to be written.

If you’d like to melt your brain with Equity legalese, all the contracts are available in Equity’s Document Library, and you don’t have to be a member to access it. If you’re a student or non-Eq stage manager, it’s never too early to get used to the language. Once you get the hang of it, reading subsequent agreements is a lot easier. And especially if you do Showcases, you may very well need to be interpreting some of these rules before you’re Equity.

December 30, 2014

Calling from Backstage

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:15 pm

IMG_4899This is sort of an addendum to my recent post on how I chose my calling position on Mary Poppins. I was going to go into detail about the advantages I experienced calling from backstage, and eventually realized I had so much to say about it that it could really be its own post.

The most basic and practical advantage to calling from backstage is that you don’t have to walk far to get there. First of all, the stairs to the balcony were particularly exhausting in this venue, and the whole path went through the audience, so the travel time could be seriously delayed to get through the crowd. I’ve definitely started shows late because of a crowded front-of-house. Once situated in a booth, there are plenty of things that I might want or need from backstage that I would forego because it would take too long, or too much effort, to go back. And you don’t have to compete with the line at the ladies’ room if you can go backstage. I mean you still have to compete, but there are less potential pee-ers, and they will generally let you go ahead if they see you waiting.

But the most important thing to me about calling from backstage is that I think it’s better for morale because I get to spend quality time with the cast and crew as we work together to make a performance. Often when in a run I feel like I don’t see the cast enough. If they keep to their dressing rooms before the show, and I’m in the booth the entire show (maybe not even coming down at intermission if it would take too long to fight the crowds), then we never really see each other and it can feel a little distant. I always expect the ASM to get closer to the cast than I am, but I also don’t want to be a shadowy figure sitting behind glass who is only accessible by passing messages through someone else. Especially when I have such a fondness for a cast as I did on this show, I wanted to have easy access to them, and for them to feel like I was around if they needed to talk.

The Check-In

I made it a point — before every act, and at the end of the day or show — to set aside at least two minutes to make a pass through the 2nd-floor crossover where all the principals and most of the Equity chorus had their rooms. I usually made it to the ensemble rooms in a dead-end tunnel of the sub-basement, about once a day. I didn’t bother people if their doors were closed (unless I specifically needed to talk to them), but I made sure everyone knew I was passing through if they had anything to say, and our Mary and Bert generally got some kind of direct contact of at least a quick “Everything good?”, “How did your flight feel?” etc.

Sometimes it was nice just to say hi, and participate in the social life of backstage. There was one room in particular that I often stopped in not because I expected the occupants needed anything, but because I knew they’d probably have something interesting to chat about.

During one performance I was having a really frustrating first act dealing with technical issues, and found a gaggle of actors and musicians gathered in the hall, and joined in on their conversation with an “is everybody having a better show than I am?” This was a good opportunity to explain what the hell was going on and that it was fixed, and have a laugh about what the actors were thinking onstage, and totally unexpectedly I got a very good backrub through most of the conversation. I absolutely delayed places because I was getting a backrub and being entertained out of my frustration, so I was glad when I finally got to the calling desk to hear the house was requesting a 20-minute intermission. Seriously, knowing when your stage manager needs a backrub is a special skill, and if you’re calling from the deck there are dozens of people nearby, one of whom might possess that skill. It probably isn’t your light board op.

There was one show in particular that I thought was a fantastic performance but the audience was kind of lackluster, so I went upstairs when we came down, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and the cast felt as good about it as I did. They were glad to hear that I agreed it was their best show, even if the faces out there in the dark weren’t giving them a lot of support.

Artist's rendering of the audience in question.

Artist’s rendering of the audience in question.

I find that my mood can sometimes color my impression of a performance, so I like to have some kind of verification before I say something in the report like “This was the best show ever, and the other 900 people who saw it are wrong.” Being backstage removes a step from that process. A lot of the time I find myself asking the ASM, after everyone has gone, “how did the cast feel about tonight’s show?” and well, that’s kind of a lame way to do it. Also, I went up there selfishly looking for material for my report, but when I got there I saw the real benefit in the faces of the actors, who were genuinely thankful to hear that somebody noticed what a good show it was, and you don’t get that by doing it through a third party.

But when I wasn’t getting backrubs and giving pep-talks, I was doing the real work of keeping the show running: getting things done and fixing the show. Rather than avoid opening the door too wide to any and all complaints and requests, I welcomed it. My attitude was to put myself in everybody’s face as often as possible, in the hopes that they would tell me how I could make their show better.

I should note that this is not my usual M.O. It’s something I think I could work on, so I used this opportunity, and this lovely group of actors, to play with cranking my accessibility up to 11, to see just how helpful I could be. Part of what made this possible was how well-supported I was by management and crew. I had all the time in the world to take care of the cast because everybody else was doing their jobs. And the cool thing is, when you’re not stuck doing things that aren’t your job, and everyone else is able to do their jobs well and without much supervision, the PSM actually doesn’t have a lot to do, except be around to find out what else can be done better.

This was the case even sometimes in the middle of tech. I love when we can take a 10 and I literally have nothing to do for 10 minutes. And because I’m sometimes a bit calculating with how my behavior affects everyone else, rather than just sit at the tech table tweeting for 10 minutes, I often took advantage of the opportunity to show my face around the theatre — in the dressing rooms, on the deck, in the lobby where the producery-types had made their office — specifically for the purpose of being like, “Hey. No, just saying hi. How’s it going for you? Oh, there’s a funny YouTube video of Mary Poppins as a horror movie? Let’s all stand in the middle of the stage and watch it right now, cause your tech is going so well that this is what your PSM is doing.” I know from previous feedback that this kind of thing works wonders in everyone else having an enjoyable tech, so in addition to watching YouTube videos, I began my dressing-room-hallway flybys, just to show that although tech isn’t about the actors, this tech is so under control that it could be about the actors if they needed anything. With this pattern established, I made it a predictable occurrence as we continued into the run, in the hopes that people would think of things to ask me, secure in the knowledge that any problem they had could be taken care of swiftly.

It became something of a game for me, which is actually a very Mary Poppins life lesson, about making things that could be work seem like fun. I challenged myself to make sure that any note I was given was fixed immediately, whatever bad thing was happening never happened again, and any question, if I did not know the answer, I quickly hunted down the right person and came back with an answer. Anything from issues with the heat, to props getting stuck on scenery, to missed mic pickups of lines that aren’t in the script, to broken dressing room chairs, to soap running out in the mens’ room, to escorting backstage guests was something I enjoyed providing prompt and effective service on.

My proudest moment was a team effort, as one night after the show our PA alerted me to a potential problem that I hadn’t heard about. I was flabbergasted — it seemed impossible that this could be a real problem (a safety issue, no less) that had gone unreported with the amount of time I spent hanging around, prodding everyone to think of anything that was on their mind. I suspected one of those situations where something happens in the heat of the performance, and by the time there’s an opportunity to tell someone, it’s three scenes later and long forgotten. And then the next night it happens again, and the cycle continues.

So next intermission I swing around the dressing room door with, “Hey, I don’t know if this is a thing, but is there a scene change in Act II where you could potentially get crushed?”

“Yes! I almost die every night! How did you know?”

Because I am your magical PSM. If you don’t remember to tell me when I make my check-ins (many of which you actually answer with a cheery “I don’t feel like I’m going to die”), my magical minions have eyes everywhere. And now that I know what’s happening from your perspective, we can employ a change right now, ensuring you will never be nearly-squished again. #dropstheheadset No but seriously, I gave our PA most of the credit, cause it takes a village to keep a cast alive.

On the Deck

As I said in my earlier post, I was disappointed how little contact I got with people while the show was going on. The deck was crowded, and as a result everyone instinctively knew that if you were hanging out, you were going to be in the way of actors, crew or scenery who had a need to be where you were standing. So there wasn’t a lot of hanging out, at least not downstage right, and due to large chimneys and houses stage left, I’d imagine people got the hell out of there, too. Or maybe waited on top of chimneys and houses for a while, I don’t know.

When I picture calling from the deck, I think of those moments where you know you’ll see certain people. Maybe you have a little ritual you develop for that moment. And it’s important to learn the times during the show that you have a chance to get a word with people of note, if the need arises — your ASM, your head carp, your leads (especially those who rarely leave the stage), the dance captain. We did eight shows in five days, and I know if we’d run longer things would have relaxed enough to allow for more of that, but the inherent pace and structure of the show still would have limited it.

As it turned out, the moments I had any chance to talk to people were almost nil. The stage right offstage singing position was right behind me, which you’d think, “cool!” Yeah, but I’m still calling cues, and they’re singing, so every time I had the impulse to turn around and wave, I realized I’d be calling a cue right into somebody’s mic. And the moment they were done singing, they were scampering down the stairs to their dressing room to get out of the way and make their next change. So much for that.

The number of times in the show where an actor was standing next to me in a moment of calm for the both of us, for long enough to speak words? One. ONE. It was at the top of “Feed the Birds,” when Mary and the kids arrived for their entrance. The whole time they were there was maybe 20 seconds. In reality, between me finishing calling the scene change, and them moving into position to enter, it was more like 5 or 10 useful seconds of communication. Make eye contact of the “everything good?”/”good” variety, and then maybe a couple extra seconds for pleasantries, like actually saying those words out loud, or perhaps a brief comment on the performance, and off they went. A couple times there was something of actual content to say, like we’re working on the monitor issue. But the good thing was that we had eight deck crew members on headset, plus the A2, so in the event anything important had to be said between me and any actor, they could always find a nearby crew member to tell, and whenever I asked, “Is anybody near so-and-so?” the answer was always yes. So the in-person check-in was really just for socializing, or sharing anything not urgent enough to interrupt anyone, but I was still sad that I barely saw anyone.

Occasionally crew members or ensemble on their way downstairs would spend a moment standing behind me watching the show on the monitor, but the pathway would not be able to be blocked for long. My friend Jimmy, who played Robertson Ay, had a significant amount of time offstage, and would sometimes tuck into my jungle-gym (if you haven’t read the other post, I was under a platform, and the ladder and legs of said platform provided me with a footprint of personal space), to watch for a while. One night we had a prop get stuck on the apron and needed to get it struck, and of course the one time I needed to send him onstage as actor-conveniently-dressed-as-a-butler, he wasn’t there with me (and, I should correct myself, this was the one time when I asked “is anybody near so-and-so?” and nobody was, because his dressing room was in the bowels of the earth).

Word to the wise: make time to find out in advance how audible your paging system is to the audience if used during a performance. I would have paged him to come to the calling desk but I didn’t because I was afraid it might be too loud onstage. So instead we sent out a stagehand-conveniently-dressed-as-a-stagehand during a scene change, which is not quite as slick. Although if you’ve read my other Mary Poppins post, Being Too Clever, you would know that our attempt to solve the problem elegantly would have inevitably resulted in something far worse than an audience seeing a glimpse of a burly black-clad figure in the dark.

After the first few days of controlled chaos, things did calm down enough that the crew was able to wander over to chat once in a while. Our crew chief spent most of his track flying at the arbor right in front of me, so we were usually within sight of each other. Daniel, the ASM, was also able to be around more and more as things settled down. There were a few times when the three of us being able to chat off-headset while the show was going on helped us to better plan our response to unexpected situations.

Other than the fact that the show itself made things so crowded and crazy, calling from backstage was everything I hoped it would be and more. As I had hoped, I had good line of sight to the actors during most of the scenes. Although I never noticed how many of the Mary-snaps-and-something-happens cues were staged with her in my blind spot midstage-right. The ones where I could see her were a lot of fun. The ones where I was going just on knowing her timing and an incredibly blurry and low-contrast figure on a monitor were terrifying. I think I usually got them, but who knows. I have vague memories of getting completely psyched-out once, but I took my rehearsal-hall mock calls very seriously, so it’s possible that feeling of abject humiliation happened not only not in front of an audience, but quite possibly not in front of anyone. Which didn’t make it less terrifying.

The show had an unusually high number of cues that could be taken on acting beats, and that number grew higher the more I saw of the acting. With such performances to hang a cue on, who needs words or blocking to mark the separation between one thing and the next? It was a great advantage to be so close to the stage for all those cues. They were the easiest to call. I guess it also didn’t hurt that in the typical bane of my stock existence, I spent every single rehearsal with the principals. So I could write a paragraph to describe the moment in Christiane’s acting upon which a light shift from the living room to the office will occur, but I couldn’t call the dance break of “Step in Time” without counting it. But honestly, what I found — contrary to my expectations — was that the show is more about that shift from the living room to the office than it is about dancing chimney sweeps. Except Bert dancing on the ceiling. I literally considered my job description to be (1) be able to call the Bert walk correctly, by heart, every time, before we ever set foot in the theatre. (2) Call the rest of the show. (3) Schedules n’ shit.


Whatever, McKayla. If you look far stage right, you can see all the fucks I was giving about pleasing anyone within 20 feet of the ground.

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