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The Hand Off

David J. McGraw • Stage Manager’s Kit • December 21, 2019

Today I wrap up a one-week gig where I took over the SM position due to schedule conflicts for the original stage manager.  I joined the company on Tuesday and the original SM departed Thursday night.  I used my experiences as both a sub and as the SM receiving a co-production to plan for this transition.  Here are a few tips if you find yourself in a similar situation:

First, see the first show from the audience.  This will be your only chance to enjoy the magic of the show.  It also will be your only chance to see and hear the show as the audience experiences it.  During Tech, you are in the house, so you can get a true sense of the cues.  But whether you call from backstage or a booth, you will get a limited view and a reduced sense of the audio.  For instance, there are several sound cues in this particular show that build from quiet starts; I would be double-guessing whether the sound cue played if I didn’t know that the cue sneaks in under the scene.

Copy the original calling script into your method and style.  I cannot stress this step enough.  Yes, it was a 4+ hour labor of love to copy the cues from the original promptbook into mine, but not only are the cues formatted in the way that I can read quickly but the act of writing them (or typing for digital promptbooks) gives you a chance to consider each cue and jot down your questions.  When I did meet with the original SM, we had a much more efficient meeting as 95% of the cues made perfect sense (text, music, or actor crosses) but I was unsure of the cue triggers for the rest.  Then I watched her call the show and I fine-tuned my cues, including adding notes about what some cues did or when there are quick transitions.

Next comes your Student Driver moment: calling the show while the original SM notes your mistakes (and, in the case of a near collision, take the wheel in this metaphor).  Having another SM critique you while you are still learning the rhythm of the show is never fun, but remember that they probably didn’t like you noting everything they did the previous night.  Here’s a tip: focus on the cueing first and then pick up the rest of the job.  I observed the original SM still do all of the pre-show and post-show routines on my second day so that I could get a second look while I called the show.  Cues are so much easier than pre- or post-show duties as we have the instructions sitting right in front of us.  Afterwards, if all goes well, you can manage the entire show with support from the original SM before they depart.  Then the fun really begins!

You are simultaneously the new kid and the new team leader. Hang out in the Green Room, even though you may not be part of any of the casual conversations.  Go out for drinks after the show – imbibing is your choice, but joining the group will reveal a lot about the history of this collaboration.  Set realistic expectations: it takes time for people to feel at ease.  Don’t rush the comradery; others might see it as false or a sign of favoritism towards some team members over others.

Do not immediately try to fix anything unless it is truly broken (i.e., a toxic environment or a dysfunctional show).  The cast and crew is primarily looking for continuity.  Try to align with the calling style of the original stage manager.  Plus, you never know if a process/cue has more than one use.  I wanted to delay turning on the show audio feed to the booth and dressing rooms, but then I realized that crew members were using it as the signal to move to headsets prior to the five-minute call.

Trust your team.  You are the least experienced team member today.  Give them permission to give you notes – provided they are in the right format and at the right time.  Acknowledge when you make a mistake; show that you have the confidence to learn from it and move on.  The team will follow your commands because of your job title but it will take some time for them to trust your decisions.

Now all you have to do is everything else you normally do as a stage manager!  Demonstrate to the producer that you can manage the project while showing the cast and crew that you have their backs.

P.S.  I had some rare availability, so I attended the Meet-and-Greet on the first day of rehearsal to get a sense of the cast personalities and group dynamics.  I also caught a couple of hours of tech for the same purpose with the crew.  If you have the luxury of time, I highly recommend these quick visits before all of the attention is on you.

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