Paperless Process

by Tina Shackleford

 A screen capture of the page from Stage Manager Brooke Marrero’s prompt book for Still Life with Iris
A screen capture of the page from Stage Manager Brooke Marrero’s prompt book for Still Life with Iris
Stage Managers use prodigious amounts of paper to stay organized. What would happen if you took it all away?

It began as a class discussion that went productively off-topic. My Stage Management I class at Carnegie Mellon University was discussing the increased use of computers and technology in doing their shows. The reading assignment for the day was from The Backstage Guide to Stage Management, and the chapter outlined Tom Kelly’s good-natured curmudgeonly attitude toward the modern tools we use to do our theatre. Kelly’s generation had seen many advances in technology in life and work, whereas these students had grown up using computers almost every day. With this mindset, it seemed that stage management could adapt and take advantage of these advances in the same way that other production departments have, and this led to other queries. Paperwork is both a defining aspect of the stage manager’s job and a bane of our collective existence. But if you take it out of the equation, perhaps the job becomes more than the familiar but endless printing of documents, and as a by-product, wastes far less resources. Technology could be a tool to streamline and refocus the process. The discussion became, could you actually stage manage a show completely without paper? Two juniors in the class—David Beller and Brooke Marrero—had shows coming up early in the following semester. I proposed a challenge to them: do their shows without using paper, and see how the job changes.

David’s upcoming show was Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Brooke’s was Still Life With Iris by Steven Dietz. The shows had small-to-medium casts and manageable production challenges and were to be thesis projects for undergraduate senior directors. The production footprints of the shows overlapped in a way that made sense to think of them similarly.

In discussions about the experiment, we set a few guidelines: the stage managers themselves would use no paper in their own internal work, but of course would interact with colleagues who would. The main tool would not be a prompt book, but a laptop computer. Although the organization required paper in two significant, unavoidable ways (posting of rehearsal calls on the callboard and run sheets for the crew), we brainstormed ways to eliminate everything else. In fact there was much discussion about trying to setup a smartboard monitor to serve as a callboard, but it was felt that that move would take us out of the goal of the project; that is, to use “everyday” tools easily owned or acquired.

On the software end, it seemed that using word processing and spreadsheet programs, as well as a Portable Document Formatting tool to retain layout, might be enough. E-readers could be borrowed to hold script copies in rehearsal, and the school owned an iPad. Brooke and David identified technological tools that would help the quest to go paperless, and were awarded a small research grant to purchase a stylus for writing digitally and recording blocking into apps on the iPad.

One major advantage helped Project Paperless from its outset: Carnegie Mellon maintains a production website, which is the primary, indispensible tool of communication for all productions. It holds both general guidelines and policy documentation, and acts as an online source of info for every production. Everything from actor calls to design drawings to meeting minutes to an archive of past seasons’ productions are stored on the website. Because it was already such an accepted part of the production process the idea of using a web page rather than a printed page was less foreign to the general population. Still, the managers worried about the elimination of paper, as Brooke noted, “not because it’s technology vs. paper, but because it’s new.”

Although there was concern about how production colleagues would take to the idea and its restrictions, the collaborators embraced the idea. Designers were enthusiastic and encouraging. Both directors embraced the paperless idea, and one ASM in particular was disappointed that he couldn’t completely join in. While “going green” was mentioned often in relation to the project, it remained a happy by-product, not the main focus. We use so much paper in production as stage managers that, as David realized, “we don’t keep track of it until we are having people reimburse us, and then it is really eye-opening.”

A moment from Still Life with Iris at Carnegie Mellon University
A moment from Still Life with Iris at Carnegie Mellon University

In the Room

 

Since both A Number and Still Life With Iris were relatively uncomplicated technically, the integration of a paperless approach in the rehearsal room was simpler than anticipated. Although the software programs didn’t change—word processing for memos and reports, spreadsheets and databases for plots and other graphic forms—the end result was a file, not a printed page. A Number got the first opportunity to try different ideas and to refine and change where necessary.

In a paper world the stage manager might be locked into a decision about how to layout their recording system early, often before the true nature of the rehearsal room and its needs are discovered. This flexibility was particularly true in the area of script page layout and recording notes on props and blocking. In the end, David found a layout he liked, and captured it in a PDF format. He was able to use the stylus to make notes on it without worry that the original page would change. A more complex show wouldn’t have precluded this approach, but it would have required making decisions more quickly and sticking to them.

Since Brooke’s show came second, she had the added advantage of advice from David’s show and used his suggestions about process, saving even more time. Using the stylus tablet became a necessary tool for both shows in taking blocking, because it made it almost as easy as writing. As both productions went through the inevitable phases of restaging, adding, moving and removing staging notations was extremely easy. (Again, as long as the “page” was in a source that preserved the original file information.) With a little practice, using the stylus on a glass monitor (as opposed to pencil and paper) became second nature. Brooke recalls, “the movements were paper-like, so it felt less like technology and more like a merging of both.” Generating an electronic prompt book greatly helped interactions with designers, such as when blocking pages could be emailed quickly to the lighting designer, or kept on the department’s server for easy access. Having the same source of reference points in discussing cueing would be even more crucial if the team members were in different cities.

 

Screen cap of the digital documents used to capture blocking for A Number
Screen cap of the digital documents used to capture blocking for A Number

The move from rehearsal room to stage is a huge one, but both A Number and Still Life With Iris had a very smooth transition into tech. David found he didn’t need as much time for the usual pre-tech work, such as cleaning up his prompt book. As for making a calling script, cues were laid on the page and typed or written in. Brooke enjoyed using color in ways she hadn’t done before, tagging departments in various shades as well as designed notes in different colors to ensure they stood out on the page in the midst of busy calling. Since this prep time was reduced, the stage managers had time to look ahead to what the tech process would require of them as managers and collaborators. There was time to actually discuss the show with their teams without feeling overstressed. In this way they could enter the tech process better equipped to help facilitate whatever emerged.

 

Once in tech, the moving of cues could be done by drawing on the page and actually moving cues on a break, or in a down moment. However, one issue was much less convenient: the ability to flip pages ahead easily to see when cues or complicated sequences were approaching. Although a script in PDF form does have page numbers and the ability to bookmark, this is a bit more complex than using the traditional script and sticking a thumb in it.

The shows were called using a laptop and an iPad. Both stage managers found the tools’ backlighting and ability to move the script easily a plus. The only unexpected event was one night during Still Life With Iris when the prompt book needed recharging, which was solved by the ASM’s quick trip to the booth with a charger.

Results

 

Stage Manager David Beller called A Number at Carnegie Mellon University
Stage Manager David Beller called A Number at Carnegie Mellon University

Going forward, in the following year Brooke’s shows were Billy the Kid and Les Enfants Terribles, both new adaptations by their respective directors, and David’s was Bus Stop. With no self-imposed restrictions, the two were free to re-integrate traditional methods back into their processes. David recalls very few things he wanted back: “a notebook beside me to take notes, to jot down something without having to think about where to file it.” Brooke agreed, enjoyed having a paper script again.

 

Brooke’s shows would have been much more difficult with a no-paper rule. Dramaturgs were constantly updating and tracking rewrites, and this changing nature meant that blocking would be difficult to maintain even using a stylus. Changes for both shows in script and in cueing were constant up to opening night. The stage management team found having the “old technology” of paper and pencil helped them keep up with the pace of the creative team. It helped that many members of the creative teams had worked together before. A shorthand had already developed, so the form of communication mattered less than the content.

One important part of the later shows was the ability to remove technology when the spirit of the rehearsal room needed it. Although some collaborators might not mind laptops in the rehearsal room for convenience, many directors do. Both Billy the Kid and Bus Stop were set in the past, and a “historical” feeling was important to their development. These tools often changed the feeling of rehearsal, creating a barrier among the company. In Bus Stop in particular, David said “there were times in which it definitely felt like the technology needed to go away.”

Looking back, the experiment also had a lasting change on the managers’ own processes, with or without paper. As David said, “the way I classified and stored notes when taken on paper definitely changed afterward; I saw that across the board. I started to pre-organize regarding sorting and filing information.” Thinking automatically about the department, intent or other classification of a piece of information is a huge step toward getting that information to the most useful place, leading to faster response and less irritation among production colleagues. Since the communication of a note obviously needs a receiver or an audience, the need to first organize can lead to a stronger communication style, more directed notes, or even the discarding of things that aren’t necessary.

David and Brooke are now graduated and working in the profession, where the spread-out nature of theatre production necessitates new ways of communication. David noted “the show I am working on right now does everything with email, no callboard. It’s a small cast so email is sufficient. It’s about how a group is used to functioning.” This last point is important; it’s not often a stage manager gets to go in and make large changes in the way an ongoing organization functions. We adapt to their existing infrastructure and systems, not the other way around.

Brooke summarized in reflection: “Giving up paper for Lent, that’s what we were doing. Obviously in a perfect world you’re going to combine what works for you, technologically and manually.” Stage management is always about the process and the content, and tools of whatever sort exist only to further them. As our devices advance, so does the speed of our communication of information; we can in turn fulfill our potential as managers of both. Perhaps a few weary photocopiers and trees will thank us, too.