Getting Stage Managers Off Book

by David J. McGraw

A final page export of Die Fledermaus, stage managed by Briana Maxwell.Stage managers find much to love in Stage Write, but do its benefits justify its cost?

Can a blocking app for the iPad be worth a $199 price tag? The growing interest in the Stage Write app, released in 2012 by Open Jar Productions, prompted the graduate stage management program at the University of Iowa to test it on a variety of productions over the course of 10 weeks. The testing group consisted of Leigh’Ann Andrews, Adriana Fernandez, Kathleen Hains, Alison Kochman, Amber K. Lewandowski, Kelsey Petersen, Rachel Winfield. I moderated the tests and collected the students’ reactions. Here are our conclusions. 

First off, the steep learning curve can be discouraging, especially since stage managers need to work very quickly during blocking rehearsals. One technique that really helped our students was to practice on someone else’s show. Without the pressure of being the active SM, these students mastered the app much more quickly. 

A great time-saver feature is the ability to duplicate the previous stage picture and then adjust any element—like multiple doors or periaktoi. This feature saves you from drawing all of the elements that haven’t changed so you can focus on what has moved. 

The integrated dance number line allows you to be much more exact in noting the position of all performers, which should win you points with your lighting designer. Where a rehearsal report might note “we are staging a scene down right,” Stage Write allows you to easily export any blocking chart as a PDF with the left-right positions of each performer noted. We all agreed that we would include Stage Write charts in our portfolios because they look so clean and professional. This app could be a huge advantage in promoting your work.

An in-progress shot of stage manager Kathleen Hains’ work on Slaughter City.Our students working on musicals and operas were our strongest believers in Stage Write. These productions frequently use tableaus of groups of performers and the app really shines with this type of staging. Plus these shows mitigate two weaknesses of the current version of the app: props and exploratory blocking. Stage Write is great for noting scenery and furniture props, but the view is usually zoomed out too far to show hand props. 

The app also works best with pre-planned blocking. If the director uses Viewpoints or wants the actors to explore small movements within a scene, you will be working harder to take these notes on Stage Write than on paper. You can create A and B versions of blocking for a single scene, but you’ll have to use a few workarounds to keep them organized. 

Additionally, our students working on dance productions found the app less useful as they often needed to notate individual steps in one place rather than changing locations on the ground plan. The app was still useful to share the positions of major movements with the lighting designer, but our stage managers agreed that they would record blocking notes on paper for themselves and then prepare specific charts for the LD.

Partly due to its development process (for Broadway houses) and partly due to its hardware (a rectangular screen) the app has a definite bias favoring proscenium theatres, which became very clear on an arena production of Slaughter City. The round stage quickly became unworkable when zoomed out to see the entire stage. In fact, any large footprint shows will need to constantly zoom in and out to move individual performers on the small screen of an iPad (or the even smaller screen of an iPad mini). Which leads us to our biggest “wish list” item for this app: iPad gesture integration. At present, you need to tap a magnification button on the app rather than use the pinch gesture. We would also like to swipe between charts and to draw arrows with a finger/stylus rather than build them from the library. 

Although Stage Write was designed for directors and choreographers, more than 70% of our students would use it again and several bought the app for themselves. If a grad student is willing to shell out $199, you know it must be good!