SM Switchboards

by David McGraw
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Bell System Switchboard; Photo: US Navy
Bell System Switchboard; Photo: US Navy

If the stage manager is the communication hub of a production, do we need our own switchboard operator?

I have five different e-mail accounts that I manage on a daily basis and each one has folders and filters.  Yet I still spend more time that I would like hunting down old e-mail trails and trying to track whether texted information made into more official communications.  Even with tags and smart searches, it can be difficult to separate information for individual shows, particularly if you are working with the same collaborators on different projects.  I’ve tested a number of project management tools for scheduling, particular Virtual Callboard and Propared (see Smarter than a Spreadsheet for more information on these and other databases).  But lately I have been testing a communication tool called Slack.

Slack allows you to set up channels so that, if you are working at a theatre for a full season, you can separate your communications not only by show but even by area or individual topics.  Many times the stage manager discovers a challenge and alerts the team, who begin discussing possible solutions.  But sometimes that conversation will drift off or be tabled and it can be very hard to pick up the pieces a week later and determine which ideas are still viable and which were discarded.  Slack lets you start new conversations very easily (rather than See Rehearsal Report #7, Note #103) and has a pretty robust search function.  It also allows drag and drop file sharing.

The best feature I have found, however, is being able to add new team members to existing conversations.  A new assistant or the run crew can instantly be added to a channel and can track back through the conversations.  Ultimately, Slack is the middle ground between formal e-mails and informal texts.  The biggest challenge is getting your full team on board.  Slack was built as an enterprise tool: companies make a top-down decision to adopt it.  But many theatre collaborations are comprised of individuals who join a team for a few weeks or months and often work with more than one producer simultaneously.  So you might eventually  get your production staff to all use the same calendar environment but can you get your freelance designers and guest directors to adopt a tool like Slack?

Fortunately for stage managers, there are a lot of tools coming on the market to help teams stay on top of tasks.  Slack has gained a lot of popularity and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.  It has a free unlimited evaluation – perhaps your summer show will be a good opportunity to try it out.  Any of our readers currently using Slack or similar tools?