How to Stage Manage a Show
Stage management can be divided roughly into two parts: preparation before the show goes up, and backstage management during the show. Before the show goes up a stage manager is responsible for gathering props, dealing with costumes, building the set, and in general doing anything that is not covered by the producer, technician or director. In some theatres this may include organising rehearsal space, contacting actors about changes and other administrative duties. Depending on the size of the production, there can be people who work with the stage manager to do these pre-show jobs. One might have a props mistress (or master), a costumer, a team for set design/building, etc. Obviously this changes show to show- a realistic modern drama will have very little need for costume as the actors can wear their own clothes, for example. The important thing to remember is that the stage manager is in charge of the crew and as such needs to make sure the jobs are done, everything is on time and under budget, and all who are helping understand their tasks and conditions.
Having a crew is lovely and a luxury, but at the end of the day the SM is responsible for making sure things are done. Therefore, it is important for a stage manager to be competent at all aspects of backstage work. Part of stage managing, especially at a student theatre, is learning, so don't worry if you've never used a drill in your life or have no idea where one would go to find a box of tonic waters. The important thing isn't that you know how to do it, but that you're willing to make sure it gets done by asking for help, learning through experience and knowing your own limitations. You'll soon build up a support network of people- people who are good at painting, building set, sewing, decoration, carpentry, plumbing- whatever you might possibly need! and can ask for their advice and help.
A director "runs" a show, but his or her job effectively stops when the show begins. A director should never be backstage during a show- once he has warmed up his cast and given last-minute notes, the stage manager takes over. During the show, the SM is responsible for everything that happens backstage- if needed, cueing actors to go on, keeping track of props and costume, doing any scene changes or set moving, and most importantly dealing with any emergency that might occur. This part of the job can be very simple. If all of the actors know and can hear their cues, props are minimal and set changing can be done easily during the interval, all the SM need do is sit backstage and relax.
Or perhaps, not so simple. Imagine a worst case scenario: actors don't know their cues and have to be told when to go on stage every few minutes by the SM, someone gets a rip in her costume and needs to be onstage in thirty seconds, someone else has lost his very essential prop somewhere in the dressing room, the set needs to be completely turned around in the ten-minute interval and one of the flats has come loose at the brace and is leaning dangerously, an actress misses a line and bursts into tears backstage, an actor has cut his leg on a piece of set and is bleeding in the wings, and meanwhile six people in the ten-person ensemble cast have exactly forty-five seconds to completely change their costumes in the dressing room. It's at this point that a stage manager has to be level-headed, rational and quick-thinking - able to hand out plasters and comfort crying actresses while simultaneously sewing a seam in a dress, drilling a flat back into place, making or repairing a prop that can't be found, directing stagehands to move set and helping the cast get into costume and on stage for their lines.
It's (hopefully) unlikely that all of these emergencies will occur during your show, but you must be prepared for the possibilities. It's (hopefully) unlikely that you'll have to do all of the before-show preparation by yourself, but you must be prepared for that possibility. Stage managing a show is a lot of work and a LOT of fun- everything you do pays off tenfold in the end. It's a great chance to do a bit of absolutely everything and learn about many aspects of theatre, and the satisfaction that comes from running a perfect show with no mistakes is amazing.
Stage Managing at the Bedlam
So you've gone on a form as stage manager, and don't know what on earth this entails. Well, here's a checklist of what needs to be done before the show:
- 1. Have a preliminary meeting with your director before the GM to ask what the set is going to be like, and if there are any concerns that need to be addressed or which will probably come up during the meeting. During the GM you will probably have to say a few things about what your set is and how you plan to achieve any particularly difficult aspects (pyrotechnics, moving set pieces, etc). You don't have to know everything or have read the play just yet, but it's good to be prepared for any questions members of the company might ask.
- 2. Stand up with your team at the GM and say what you plan to do and how you plan to do it. This can range from "It's a box set with a table and two chairs," to "We're going to build a working kitchen on stage." Keep your speech short and to the point during the actual proposal (which is only a few minutes long), answer all questions you are asked in detail, and generally appear to be a competent person. If your team goes through on production merit, all shows will be put to a preference vote and it is this that will decide the week in which you go on and things like preference for actors.
- 3. If your show goes through, it's time for a longer meeting with the director. Some directors are happy to let you design the set with little or no input, whereas others have specific requests down to the very last detail. At this point you should arrange to get a copy of the script- read through it and mark down all mentions of props and scene changes. Then come up with a design that you and your director both agree on.
- 4. Fill out the theatre manager's questionnaire, which is sent to the SMs of all the shows that go through. This is a simple form which covers safety issues such as whether anyone will be smoking on stage, for example.
- 5. In the next few weeks, start gathering your props and/or costumes. Most of this can be found at the theatre or borrowed from members of the cast. Lunchtimes have a small budget to cover anything you need to buy. Mainterms have a larger budget, but you'll probably need to spend this mostly on your set build.
- 6. Build your set! You will be scheduled time on the stage for this. Send out an e-mail to all of your friends and fellow SMs to come along and help you build if you think you'll need it- depending on the complexity of the set, builds can last until the wee hours of the morning, so bring snacks and music to keep everyone cheerful. You should find things like flats and braces up in the balconies- ask your theatre manager if you need anything in particular. A build is a scheduled time specifically to build set. A get-in is a scheduled time (usually the weekend before the show) to actually install anything you've built. These are normally compressed into one time for lunchtimes, and just called the get-in. During your get-in, your tech manager will want to be rigging lights and focusing them around your set. You can also ask your director and actors to come along, although normally they aren't good for very much more than painting ;)
- 7. Go to some rehearsals- how many depends on your preference and the size of the show. For a mainterm you might want to go along to most of the rehearsals the cast has on stage and make note of blocking, etc. For a lunchtime, go to the tech and dress runs. Watch from the audience (unless you need to do scene changes during the dress run) and make notes of everything that goes wrong or needs to be done. This is also a good chance to see a full run of the play since you will probably be backstage for most of it.
- 8. During the show itself, sit backstage and take care of anything that goes wrong. If you need help moving set, enlist a couple of friends to sit there with you and help. Depending on the show, you could be in the dressing room, in the stage cupboard, or just behind the flats. The only exception to this is a show where no one is ever backstage (the only one I can think of is the Improverts, who still have a stage manager, but they never have to sit backstage).
- 9. After the show, you'll have get-out time (this is generally directly after the last performance). This is simple: do what you did at your get-in, but backwards. Dismantle the set, put everything away, give back all the props. Everyone (actors and director included) should help with this if they can. Your tech manager will derig all of the lights.
- 10. GO TO THE PUB.
If you need Help
- Theatre manager. The theatre manager is in charge of everything that goes on in the building and should be your first stop for any problems or questions you have about your set.
- Wardrobe manager. You need to talk to this person about what costumes and props are in the theatre and can be used for your show. The costume cupboard is locked and the wardrobe manager will be able to schedule a time to let you in and show you what we have.
- Business manager. If you spend any money on props, get a VAT receipt, write your name on it, and hand it in to the business manager, who will make sure you get a cheque with that money back. This is also the person to talk to if you need to place a big order somewhere and want to invoice Bedlam for it.
- Secretary. This is the person to talk to if you need to schedule more time to build than you have been allotted.
Working with a Mainterm/Lunchtime
If you are doing a lunchtime show, you may need to share set with a mainterm going on in the same week. Speak to their stage manager well in advance to find out what their set is like. Although mainterms always get preference over lunchtimes, most mainterms SMs will be very helpful and willing to work with you to come up with a solution you both like. It can also be really fun to have a mainterm set to play with, as they get to spend a LOT more money than you do!
If you are doing a mainterm show and have a lunchtime on in your week then try to keep the lunchtime crew up to speed. Be helpful and try not to allow your vision to spoil their show.