Show artwork for Stage Manager
Stage Manager Whitney McNamara at the prompt corner backstage. PHOTO: Nick Tranter
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Backstage with the

Stage Manager

Explore the busy backstage schedule of a Stage Manager before, during and after a Friday night performance at Southbank Theatre.

By Nick Tranter

The Stage Manager is part of a backstage crew operating behind-the-scenes to make magic happen on stage. Because theatre is live, and things happen at different times each night, Stage Managers are essential to keep everything in sync.

Stage Managers know a show back-to-front. They’ve been working on the production before the actors stepped into the rehearsal room, and throughout the development process they've observed and recorded every decision made about the show. Their prompt copy – a marked-up script with notes about cues, blocking, and technical elements – is a second script of sorts, which the Stage Manager reads from every performance to ‘call the show’. Like Santa Claus, they’re making lists and checking them twice to ensure that everything is in its place ahead of the curtain rising. They also write ‘plots’ for other crew members – mechanists, fly crew, automation, lighting operators, dressers, wigs – so everybody is on the same page and working together to get the show on stage eight times a week.

 

‘Some shows are quite busy backstage right before the show starts. With a large cast, some are still getting into wigs and mics. Some shows might have food that needs to be set as close as possible to the start time so it stays warm.’ – Stage Manager Whitney McNamara

 

Whitney McNamara has been a Stage Manager at MTC for 12 years, working on a wide variety of productions including Storm BoyMacbeth, A View from the Bridge, Twelfth Night, Wild, Vivid White, Jasper Jones and many more. Below is a typical Stage Manager’s schedule for a Friday night performance at Southbank Theatre, with some notes and memories from McNamara.

 

MTC_STORM_BOY_photo_Jeff_Busby_595.jpgDrew Weston, Emily Burton, Conor Lowe & Tony Briggs in Storm Boy. PHOTO: Jeff Busby

Friday night at Southbank Theatre

5.30pm | Arrival

The Stage Manager arrives at the theatre, checks their emails and makes sure items from the previous show report have been followed up on. There’s also consistent paperwork to complete, including timesheets, setting up reports and updating their prompt copy (a marked-up script that they use to call the show) with any necessary changes.

6.00pm | Crew arrive

The crew arrive soon after and start turning things on and doing their checks. If everything is going well, it’s dinner time! McNamara likes to leave an optional meal break in her pre-show timing as sometimes things don’t go exactly to plan. ‘I can choose to work through this extra 30 minutes and still possibly be ready and prepared for the show once the issue is fixed,’ she says, ‘rather than being completely behind because I didn’t have any extra time up my sleeve.’

6.30pm | Cue to cue

The Stage Manager will run a Qlab (a sound, video and lighting control program) cue to cue (for Storm Boy, McNamara notes this also involved checking that audio-visual cues projected on the cyclorama were working properly). ‘It can be a little bit lengthy to run the scene change cues to the correct timing,’ she says, ‘but I try to have the cue to cue completed by the hour.’

 

Storm_Boy_backstage_-_MTC_2019_-_Credit-_Lachlan_Woods-4.jpgPuppeteer Drew Weston prepares for Storm Boy. PHOTO: Lachlan Woods

7.00pm | Cast arrive

Cast will begin to arrive about an hour before the show begins, and the Stage Manager gives them their one-hour call (the first of several countdowns leading up to the start of the show). The actors’ arrival time will vary depending on the requirements of the show – e.g. wigs, specialty make-up or needing to run fight choreography. The Stage Manager gives the cast any relevant updates (such as a reminder about a Forum Night), and lets them know when the stage is clear so they can warm up. ‘I’ll also check in with my ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) and crew to see if they need any assistance,’ says McNamara. At this point, the ASM will pre-set costume and prop items onstage and on tables backstage. Everybody in the crew has detailed plots and checklists to follow for every performance.

7.25pm | Half-hour call

Cast are getting into costume now, so the Stage Manager gives them a half-hour call over the microphone that relays to the dressing rooms, while the mechs will do a final static mop of the stage. ‘At this point before Storm Boy, the lighting operator would do a blackout check,’ recalls McNamara, ‘and then we brought in the smother, which separates the stage from the auditorium.’

7.35pm | Pre-set

The Stage Manager confirms with the ASM that costume and prop items have been pre-set, then they transition the venue to ‘pre-set’, which includes the lighting state that will greet the audience as they enter the auditorium.

 

StormBoypreshow.jpgAssistant Stage Manager Ben Cooper and the crew pre-set the stage for Storm Boy. PHOTO: Nick Tranter

7.40pm | Open house

The Stage Manager calls the front-of-house (FOH) manager to let them know that the team backstage are ready to open the house to the audience, then the SM gives the cast their 15-minute call.

7.52pm | 5-minute call

It’s almost showtime! The Stage Manager gives the cast their 5-minute call. Backstage is quiet now, and the cast and crew can hear the audience arriving. The hum of conversation grows gradually and there’s anticipation in the air.

7.57pm |  Beginners call

When the Stage Manager gives the beginners call, the cast make their way to the prompt corner for radio mic checks. ‘We usually give them a word or theme of the day and they sing a song that has that word of theme,’ says McNamara. ‘Some cast members have rituals that they do pre-show every day, that just happen as the season goes along. For example, on Macbeth, all the men started with imitation weapons, which were on a rack behind my desk. I would check that they all came to collect their props after their mic check, and all of them decided they’d high-five me as they collected theirs. Some actors like to tell you a joke at the beginners call every day.’

Beginners call looks different for every production. ‘Some shows are quite busy backstage right before the show starts,’ says McNamara. ‘With a large cast, some are still getting into wigs and mics. Some shows might have food that needs to be set as close as possible to the start time so it stays warm.’ For some shows, the crew will be getting an actor into a harness in the final moments so they’re not suspended for too long before their entrance.

 

Storm_Boy_Schools_High_Res_JPEGs_Photo_by_James_Henry_33.jpgAudience take their seats in the Sumner. PHOTO: James Henry

7.59pm | Clearance

Once the audience have taken their seats, the FOH manager calls to give ‘clearance’ and hands the house back to the Stage Manager to start the show.

8.00pm | Calling the show

A Stage Manager’s ‘show call’ is the running of the performance. ‘The theatre can be a dangerous place,’ says McNamara. ‘If the lights go out at the wrong time or a piece of scenery flies in when there is something or someone underneath, or a trap opens at the wrong time, then someone can get seriously injured.’ All the crew communicate via headsets. ‘I have all of the lighting, sound, AV, mech, fly, automation, dome (aka follow spot) and any other show-specific cues written into the prompt copy with notes of what is happening at that time and notes of the things to be aware of.’

For example, a crew member may need to give a verbal ‘clear’ before a cue is called, a crew member may be spotting (watching) scenery move near a cast member, or the Stage Manager may need to watch a cast member move into position on the low-light camera in a blackout. ‘I give the crew ‘stand by’ cues they have coming up, the crew acknowledge that they’ve received the stand by, and nobody except the Stage Manager speaks over the comms during this time (unless there is an emergency and a cue needs to be stopped or if a clear is being given).’

The cues are then called by the Stage Manager in a very specific order so that the show runs smoothly and looks good. The crew do not go on their cues until they are told ‘GO’ by the Stage Manager (even if they think it was supposed to go already, as they Stage Manager may be holding a cue late on purpose for safety reasons). The Stage Manager also does backstage pages to call the cast to stage when it’s getting close to them going on stage, so they can travel from their dressing room to the stage.

STORMBOYPromptCopyPage4.jpgExcerpt from Stage Manager Whitney McNamara's prompt copy for Storm Boy, 2019.

Interval | Re-set and check-in

For a play that has an interval, the crew will be resetting the set or props for Act 2, and sometimes cleaning up (fake) blood from Act 1. ‘I’ll check in with the cast to make sure they’re ok,’ says McNamara, ‘make sure there are no wardrobe malfunctions, injuries or issues. As before Act 1, I’ll give the cast 10-minute, 5-minute and beginners calls up until Act 2 commences.

Act 2 | Calling the show

The second act of a performance usually includes a climactic scene, which can be quite busy for the backstage team too. ‘Particularly where there is a lot of automation, as you need to be careful that cast and crew don’t get injured by any moving set items as well as usually calling cues in time with the scene-change music,’ says McNamara. ‘They’re usually tough during previews, but once you’ve rehearsed them a few times, they start running like clockwork.’

At the end of the show, there are curtain calls (or bows), which the Stage Manager usually has to judge by the audience, whether or not the cast go back for an extra call.

promptcopyphoto.jpgStage Manager Whitney McNamara calls a performance of Storm Boy using her prompt copy. PHOTO: Nick Tranter

Post-show duties | Clean-up and report

‘Depending on the show, the crew and I will need to clean up fake blood, food, paint,’ says McNamara. ‘A show like Storm Boy was relatively straightforward, but Macbeth had lots of blood and debris by the end of the show. Stage Managers also write a report after each show, which goes to everybody at MTC. Depending on how much there is to report (any technical issues, any wardrobe maintenance, any puppet or automation maintenance), it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to write.’

Finish

That’s it! An hour or so after the audience has gone home, the Stage Manager leaves the theatre — ready to return on Saturday to do it all again, twice!

Published on 10 June 2020

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