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SM Test Kitchen: CallQ

David J. McGraw • Stage Manager’s Kit • March 4, 2020

What better timing than the Year of the Stage Manager to bring back an old feature of this blog: the SM Test Kitchen! We are seeing a new wave of tools and technologies for stage managers—sometimes co-opted from other fields—so let’s run them through some tests and see which types of stage managers are best served by them.

The most visible part of our job is calling cues. And for people looking to become stage managers, it can be an extremely stressful skill to develop. Other artists can learn lines, practice their instruments, and create designs in private and at their own pace, but stage managers are forced to learn their art in front of a large group of other people who are pressed for time. Enter CallQ, training software created by British stage manager Gail Pallin (www.callq.uk.com). CallQ uses simulations of real shows to help improve “quality, confidence, and consistency” in calling cues.

CallQ actually offers two packages: CallQ Trainer for schools and CallQ Studio for production companies to import their own shows to train new staff and covers (even a planned substitution of stage managers rarely gets a put-in rehearsal). The Trainer module currently has 17-18 minute extracts of As You Like It and The Mikado, plus a short play produced for training purposes. Once you print the provided calling script, you can familiarize yourself with the show, including how all of the cues should look. When you are ready to start calling, your screen includes a view from the booth, a clock and a stopwatch, and double-row of cuelights in the British format: the top red cue light is to signal a standby and a bottom green cue light triggers the ‘Go’ on the cue. CallQ also provides a keyboard overlay for the cue lights. The software measures the accuracy of your call based on a timecode and, if you make a mistake, it will pause to explain the mistake and then take you back to the previous cue so that you can have another run at the problem spot.

In full disclosure, I also spent several years (2010-2015) developing training software called the Stage Manager Simulator (some of you may have even tested the demo at USITT). I ultimately shelved the project when I could not bring the cost down to be affordable for students given the licensing agreements. Pallin conceived the idea for CallQ well before me (she first wrote about the potential for this software in 2000) and the cue light trigger system keeps the price tag below $200 (£150). CallQ offers significant savings for one-year licenses for schools: 5 one-year licenses for $260 (£200). It also offers a generous 2-week free trial of the training module to make sure the software will work for you.

I was impressed by the ease of the installation process and the user interface; the design has all the structure and organization you would expect from an accomplished stage manager. The software is very intuitive and includes a thorough manual with screenshots. I was running the first simulation within ten minutes of installation.

CallQ delivers exactly what it promises: people new to calling cues can work at their own pace reading the script, watching a run, analyzing the blocking and cue placements, and trying their hand at cueing sequences. One of the challenges of teaching cueing is reducing the complexities of a production so that new stage managers can focus on learning to call cues. CallQ eliminates the variables of a live production to make a very straightforward path for the learner. This simplicity makes it an excellent training tool, but it also limits its use. The learner only uses keys to set standby and go cues, so there is no way to practice verbal cueing. The simulation stops at each error to allow the user to make a correction, so there is no way to develop the stamina of calling a full show unless you can call the cues perfectly. When I train new stage managers, a tough lesson to learn is recovering from one mistake before calling another sequence of cues. And, is the case with all but the most complicated of simulations, the actors on the video will always say the lines the same way and cross at the same moments.

CallQ is excellent for a Stage Management 101 course at either the college or advanced high school level. It is ideal for the large class where it is impossible to run a live simulation in the classroom for more than a couple of minutes per student. CallQ will give students an appreciation for the difficulty of calling cues. An added bonus is that the provided scripts include blocking notations that can be included in other lessons.

Experienced stage managers will likely become frustrated by the lack of verbal cueing, the stopped action when cues are off, and the use of student productions in the videos. But CallQ Trainer is not designed for experienced stage managers. And if you work somewhere that uses CallQ Studio, you will have a definitive test to demonstrate that you understand cue placement.

As for the price of this software, theatre technology only increases in cost and the training tools required to stay up-to-speed will match this growth. But I am worried that our entire field will be limited to only those with the financial resources to receive training. Now, having noted this disparity, CallQ is well priced: it is not marked up in any way. The cost challenge is that there are so few stage managers, any software is very expensive to purchase because we cannot rely on economy of scale. We can buy a terrific game for our phones for less than five bucks because there are hundreds of thousands of users. For training stage managers, there might be only a few hundred users each year, which also removes the option of ad-supported pricing.

I applaud Gallin for bringing a solid stage management training tool to market. I look forward to seeing the evolution of CallQ and I encourage other stage managers to develop their own training tools and to create a better appreciation for the work that we do.

Further information from CallQ: www.callq.uk.com

 

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