The Data Crunchers of Theatre

by David J. McGraw
in Feature

LiveScribe pens link an audio recording to notes, letting stage managers find the exact moment in a recording to confirm discussion details.
LiveScribe pens link an audio recording to notes, letting stage managers find the exact moment in a recording to confirm discussion details.
Good stage managers don’t just collect information, they manage it

An organized stage manager … Isn’t that redundant? Organizational skills are a prerequisite to becoming a good stage manager. But why are stage managers known for organization above all other managers?

In a business sense, stage managers are the ultimate transactional leaders, the perfect project managers. They are not asked to transform a company, but they are expected to replicate a project flawlessly, even with substitute team members. Daily. And if you are in rehearsal, the source material for that flawless replication changes hourly. Who else but a stage manager would be expected to know the exact layout of a cluttered desk or a formal dining table as it progresses by the minute?

 

David J. McGraw calling a show
David J. McGraw calling a show

We stage managers were practicing Quality Control long before the term had a name. And that level of exactness and precision can only be achieved if you track every single component of a scene shift or cue sequence. The stage manager needs to see both the forest and the trees.

 

The Trees

Contrary to popular belief, you are not born organized. It is a skill that even the best stage manager can improve through practice. I view organizational skills as crafting a very fine net that allows you to capture all the information you need. You need to be aware of what information you are trying to capture and how to prioritize that information if you cannot get it all on the first pass. Want to improve your attention to detail in recording blocking? Try this exercise:

1. Pick a popular song.

2. Download the lyrics and format them as if they were a song in a musical.

3. Find the music video of the song and record the blocking after watching it just three times.

4. Examine your notes. Did you prioritize the blocking based on entrances/exits? Did you record the blocking that the lighting designer needs most? Where are your memory gaps?

When I teach students to call cues off of music, we first focus on Dance 8s, both for those students who cannot yet read music (a critical skill for every stage manager!) but also for those many, many shows in which the sound designer shows up at a dress rehearsal with a brand new piece of music and no score. The best way to learn Dance 8s is to visually map out what you are hearing. I also find I am much more confident calling music that I already know because I can see the entire map of the audio cue. I am not trying to anticipate a chord as much as I can read all of the sounds that precede it. So listen to a brand new song and try to write out everything that you hear. After just three to four times on repeat, you will hear the music differently as you have added another of your senses to the data recording.

You can also use new technologies to help you improve data collection and analysis of theatre. One of my favorite tools is a smart pen. LiveScribe produces a range of pens that record the audio of a meeting or event not just to a timeline like a regular recorder, but also to the text that you write in your notes. Want to review the discussion about projector lenses from the last production meeting? Just tap on your projector note and the pen’s speaker instantly jumps to that moment of the audio track. Plus you can upload your notes to a server so that your team can also review the audio by timeline or by clicking on your transcribed text. ASMs love this tool as they just need to write the major points of the meeting and then capture the specifics later when there is more time to process the information. And if I need to serve as both meeting moderator and note-taker, the smart pen allows me to just jot down the outline of the meeting while I stay focused on discussion.

There are also new tablet apps such as AudioNote that join the audio of the room to your text.

Since we are the central communications hub for a production, stage managers should constantly be experimenting with new ways to use technology to become even more organized. Ten years ago, I experimented with posting all rehearsal notes on a major production to a password-protected website. We then hyperlinked each note so that I could write “See Note #31” from Day 2 of rehearsals and the reader could instantly jump to that specific note. Today we can bypass those links by easily running “find word” searches within mega-pdf files or using tags to group notes by topic.

 

A screenshot from Virtual Callboard, showing all scheduled calls for a day.
A screenshot from Virtual Callboard, showing all scheduled calls for a day.

There are dozens of project management systems available, but the theatre-specific system that I love most is the VirtualCallboard by EmptySpace Technology, LLC. Your cast and production team can update their phone, e-mail and conflicts so that your contact sheets and schedules always rely on the most current information. It is ideal for theatre companies working on multiple shows simultaneously that don’t want to fill inboxes with repeated messages. And, if you have a passive aggressive streak, you can even check to see who has read your announcements or reports.

 

Probably our greatest competitor in the game of being the most organized theatre position is the Props Master/Mistress. My favorite props management tools is StageBitz. Not only does it tackle the Herculean job of creating a comprehensive and searchable inventory of everything in props storage, but it also allows the creative team to collaborate on the construction and shopping of new props. And who founded this dream come true for props? A stage manager.

The Forest

It is not enough to just collect data, whether those facts are groundplan points or line notes or items for the night’s rehearsal report. To be truly organized you must also analyze all of the data to look for the most critical information or trends to see where the show might be headed.

Giving an actor 95 line notes after the first stumble-through will do more harm than good. But what if you viewed all of the notes for a particular actor and selected the most important ones? Could you choose the top 20 notes to give today and save the rest to check against the next time you worked a scene? We stage managers can be a lot smarter about how we use all of the wonderful information we collect.

The last key to organization for a stage manager is decidedly low-tech: the SM kit. The rows and rows of office supplies must all be hyper-organized and sorted so that it looks more like a futuristic armory than a toolkit. And it is not enough to bring a kit with everything that you need for your job, but you also need to bring everything you might need. The stage manager anticipates needs by thoroughly studying the current situation and imagining all of the variations. I must confess to taking great pleasure in producing just the right object before my director finishes describing it. Meanwhile our casts believe that we carry a theatrical Bag of Holding.

Organization is a skill that is not limited to stage managers, but we adopt this responsibility as part of how we can lead our teams and maintain the quality of our productions. We serve as part reference librarian, part warehouse manager and part efficiency expert. Now please excuse me while I plan my next trip to the Container Store.

David J. McGraw leads the Stage Management program at the University of Iowa. He also owns SM-Sim, LLC, which produces the Stage Manager Simulator and the training film Standby Cue 101: An Introduction to Calling Live Performances.