Smarter than a Spreadsheet

by David J. McGraw

A screenshot from The Performer Bank, a custom database that helps track actors during auditions at the University of Iowa. You have to love paperwork to be a stage manager—but that doesn’t mean you still can’t find ways to reduce it 

Looking to professionalize your production paperwork process? Or are you seeking a way to not waste so much time inputting the same information over and over? It’s time to move beyond word processing templates and spreadsheets to a full-fledged database. Databases are perfect for helping you organize your data so you can quickly pull back for the big picture or zoom in to run concentrated searches—or even find a specific group of people or objects. But they can be laborious to set up, and the time sink to make one of your own may not seem worth it if you’re working gig to gig, or if you’re unsure if you can get buy-in from your team. 

Which can leave stage managers searching for an off-the-shelf solution. But while there are many different database programs for project, object, location and personnel management out there, there are relatively few that combine them all in a way that’s useful for the world of theatre and production. Some options are aimed squarely at our field though, and they keep improving. Here’s two database solutions that might work for you, and two more DIY ideas that might just push you to make the leap. Trust me, the benefits are worth it. 

Commercially Available

The month calendar view of Virtual CallboardOur first stop will be the VirtualCallboard by EmptySpace Technology, LLC. Prior to VirtualCallboard, you could buy project management software, but you would need to spend hours customizing it to work on a production. Sam Anderson and Jason McDaniel came from theatre and built VirtualCallboard from the ground up for the live entertainment community.  VirtualCallboard does everything you might post on a physical bulletin board, but no communication can get lost in the avalanche of paperwork we publish on a daily basis. Your cast and creative team create individual accounts, which they can update as their contact information changes. So when that older member of your team finally switches from AOL, you don’t have to change every contact sheet and e-mail group. Does your boss miss information because her inbox is stuffed every morning? Each user can visit the VirtualCallboard website to choose how they want to see your source information. You can build a rehearsal call, but each performer and technician can choose to view it as a list, or as a daily/weekly/monthly calendar. Do design discussions dissipate because the designer asked the director three questions, but only two were answered in the last e-mail exchange? Now you have a location to have these design sidebars with multiple conversations. The new StageStock software by EmptySpace even allows you to track whatever happened to those great chairs you had in The Dining Room and have they been reupholstered?

All of these features are great—but you could create a Google Doc, a Dropbox file, or even a wiki to replicate this on your own, right? Maybe. And then have fun searching and restoring things once non-tech-savvy users start deleting things. VirtualCallboard lets you set permissions by job title to allow who can see and/or edit each document. And, even better, the Virtual Callboard can help you with daily jigsaw puzzle of scheduling fittings and secondary calls. Users can input their general schedule, the costume shop can input their requests for tomorrow, and the manager can find the common availability. In terms of support EmptySpace Technologies is entering their second decade and I can personally vouch for the integrity and friendly customer service of the company. Try getting Google to respond to you when someone’s moved or deleted that all-important doc. 

Propared’s calendar capabilities and task delegation functionality pack some serious power. ​One of the newer players in the live production database market is Propared. This database shares several features with VirtualCallboard, but the main distinction is who enters and arranges the information. Propared puts more control in the hands of the manager, albeit with some additional work at the data entry level. VirtualCallboard allows cast members to input their availability; Propared requires the manager to input this information. This centralizing of the task allows the manager to approve any absences, and the centralization is baked into the heart of the program. Propared is geared towards production managers or other administrators who assign staff to work a range of events. It is also designed for the manager rather than the company: you can access files from multiple producers. It is built for speed, utilizing a minimalist design to focus on just the data itself. Many of the latest advances allow the user to scale up operations: once you create an electrics call, for example, it is very easy to clone that event and plug it into an entire calendar year. 

If you have a large team, multiple spaces, and a nearly endless number of events to manage, Propared has the muscle to support your operations. Does your master calendar undergo daily updates? You can publish versions periodically while also allowing your team to track updates between official posts. This way you can change a one-day event in April without having to publish your entire calendar again, but if I wanted to see the latest April schedule, I can go right to the most current calendar.   And now that Propared has added features to import external calendars and clone old events with new dates, transferring your old production calendar into their system has gotten much easier.

While it offers a great deal of flexibility, this flexibility requires to you spend time learning the system rather than opening a template that mirrors a real-world document. One reason I like Propared is that it is not just a product but a full company. They sponsor workshops and maintain an active blog with tips on everything from event management to public speaking; Propared is a mindset as much as it is a product. The public release of Propared just celebrated its first anniversary, but it’s already up to version 4.2; look for even more growth in the coming year.

DIY

Both VirtualCallboard and Propared are 100% web-based; there is no software to install and you can access your work from anywhere. However, both services charge a subscription fee, whether for the company or for the individual user, and you may be looking for options that don’t require ongoing costs. In my opinion, the subscriptions offer a lot of support, including storage and great new features like being able to send schedules via text. But I also work for a university, where repeated fees are often questioned by those not working in my department. I suspect many of you are familiar with this battle. So how can you build your own database?

University of Iowa MFA student Amanda Harwood and our PSM, Melissa L. F. Turner, built a new database from scratch using FileMaker in order to reduce the number of times a stage manager had to enter the same information on multiple documents. Their database allows the stage manager to enter rehearsal notes about new props and costume pieces—and then feeds the item and the notes to the props list, costume requests, backstage inventory checklists and even the shift plot. While this homegrown database lacks some of the advanced features of the commercial products, it can be used for countless shows at no additional cost. It also allows local (as opposed to cloud-based) management  of contact information, a privacy concern for many institutions. Amanda and Melissa are now working on ways of using a database to manage line notes.

Necessity was truly the mother of invention for the last database example. When I joined the University of Iowa, I inherited a beastly audition process. We typically audition 12-18 shows in a single four-to-five day period. Actors would fill out paper availability forms and staple them to their headshots. Inevitably the forms would be out of sequence within an hour and occasionally someone’s form would go missing. (It was a favorite pastime to suspect foul play for a popular actor’s missing form.) Inefficient, costly, prone to data loss, and far from environmentally-friendly. 

Enter The Performer Bank. On the surface, this FileMaker-based database duplicates the old paperwork: performers entered the same information only now it is stored online so they wouldn’t need to write the same details every semester. Plus they could save money by uploading their resume and headshot. New resume? Just upload it. Only your most current is visible; no more worries about outdated information. 

The actors loved the changes, but I needed to convince the directors to give up the tactile comfort of holding information in their hands. The carrot I offered was smart searches: enter a first name and all examples appear. Looking for an African-American female who can sing and play piano? The smart search is instantaneous. We even created a tagging feature where a director could create a short list for a role and look at that subset of performers.

But why go through all the months of building this database? Now when we cast a dozen shows, we just tag each performer with their show and export a spreadsheet with contact information, rehearsal conflicts, and bios. Plus as the administrator, I can check to see if we are meeting our department’s goals of diversity and inclusion. How many freshmen auditioned? The answer is two clicks away. We originally called the database the Actor Bank, but when our dance and opera programs saw what we built… The newly expanded Performer Bank now allows performers to create a single audition profile for all departments.

A database is not worth the construction time for a single project. But if you find yourself rebuilding the same spreadsheets, copying and pasting the same information in multiple documents, and praying that everyone has the most current version of your calendar, then do yourself a favor and look at a database. Work smarter, not harder.