A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.
BY ELIZABETH MALIGRANDA
I t’s the second day of Tech Week, and the director is stressed. The show is not reflecting his vision. He’s stopped at least 30 times since the rehearsal began, adjusting every last detail until perfection is achieved. You’ve only gotten through the first five minutes of the first scene, and the technical director is in the audience, calling light cue changes to the light board operator who frantically presses the buttons with each command. “Give me channel 7 at 50! No, at 30! 25! Update!” Click. Click. Click.
The actors onstage are confused and tired. The lead is in the costume shop, having a nervous breakdown. Everyone’s overwhelmed. As are you, the stage manager, as you sit up in the booth and watch the production unravel. You sit, calling the shots. “Sound and lights… go.” Hoping that the board operators are focused, you call the cues as directed. The entire production relies on you.
And you rely on your stage crew. They are your eyes and ears on everything that is happening behind the curtains— with the actors, the props, the costumes. Without them, you would truly be lost.
An under-appreciated but vital part of the production team, the backstage crew can make or break a show. Here are some tips for making the most of them:
1. Identify the problems and use the stage crew to solve them.
Many elements of a show require the help of another set of hands. Stage managers place a significant amount of trust in the crew to accomplish actions backstage in the most efficient way. The stagehands are the people running around behind the curtains—sorting out the prop issues, and helping the actors with their 15-second quick changes—all while keeping absolutely silent so that the audience is completely unaware of their existence. This is what makes theater so seamless and magical.
Crewmembers are to be assigned to a specific position by the stage manager. A crew should neither be too large, nor too small. Jeff Bird, technical director at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., says that for stage managers to know the necessary size of a crew, he or she must “know the scope of that show and plan for that scope.” Bird suggests making a list of specialized jobs needed in the production throughout the rehearsal process. That way, the stage manager will be able to train crewmembers for one specific job, such as a dresser for quick changes. A crew should be small enough that each member is busy throughout the running time of the show. Many hands make light work, but too many hands make for an unfocused crew.
Once the stage manager has the perfectly sized crew, he or she must be sure to take note of each moment that a crewmember is needed. For the show to run well, make sure you require the backstage crew be present during every tech week rehearsal to perfect their responsibilities. This is the time to be completely certain that every problem concerning technical elements is addressed. Stage managers are in charge of ensuring that the director’s vision is executed correctly. Everything will run smoothly once all of the issues are attended to.
2. Communication is key.
The stage manager is like Hedwig, Harry Potter’s owl, whose job entails delivering important messages. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have shown that a theatrical production depends heavily upon written reports. Stage managers are the ones who must complete the paperwork and communicate the information to all involved in production.
Stage managers are also the owls who send important messages to the designers. The costume, set, and lighting designers do not attend each rehearsal. The director may notice that a slight change is required on the set because the actors are not able to move about freely. The set designer must acquire this knowledge as soon as possible—and that’s where the stage manager comes in. Bird says that the stage manager “helps marry the technical part of theatre to the artistic part.” Stage managers must be copious note-takers, prepared for every rehearsal so that the designers are always aware of the director’s vision.
During rehearsals, stage managers also must keep the actors concentrated on the tasks so that the director can work without disturbances. Bird describes the stage managers as “a hybrid between a babysitter and a friend,” for it is their job to keep the actors focused, but to also be someone the actors respect and trust. According to a study from the National Training Laboratories Institute, those involved in theater build interpersonal skills that create a sense of harmony in collaboration.
While stage managers are authority figures, they must also act as a friend towards the crewmembers. Bird advises stage managers to “start a system early and to stick to that system.” They must communicate with professionalism as both leader and comrade, finding the happy medium.
3. A confident stage manager makes for a confident crew.
While being a stage manager may be overwhelming, it is important for stage managers to remain levelheaded, even when a problem arises during a performance. In interactions between a stage manager and the crew, the stage manager should always sound assured and confident in the production.
Stage managers must call every cue knowing that if something goes wrong, the quick-thinking crewmembers will cover the error. Crewmembers in turn feed off the stage manager’s energy. “If a stage manager cannot keep their wits about them, that’s when really bad things happen,” says Robert Graham, technical director and assistant professor at Salve Regina University. When the stage manager is composed under pressure, then the crew will be, too.
Stage managers should not get stressed about unattainable perfection. Instead, Graham advises stage managers to “be willing to admit that you cannot do it all.” Rehearsals will assure stage managers that all is well, once everything is prepared.
So take a deep breath, stage managers. The crew is trustworthy; all is under control. Tech Week may be daunting, but the stress of those long nights will soon be worth your while. All your hard work will pay off come opening night with the uplifting round of applause. Break a leg, stage managers.