FOR MANY STAGE MANAGERS, opening night feels like a finish line. All the months of preparation, weeks of work, rehearsals, tech, and previews culminate in one night of celebration, in one (hopefully) amazing performance. There’s much rejoicing, many congratulations, and more than a few fond farewells as the director, designers, and artistic team head off to their next projects.

Then the next day dawns, and the next, and the next. The stage manager, cast, and crew are still there, still working to keep the show as fresh, taut, and exciting as it was on opening night. So, how do you maintain such a feat? You continue the routine communication, conscientious delegation, and good-natured adaptability you’ve achieved throughout the rest of the process.


Whether it’s a one-person play where the only prop is a fortune cookie or a huge musical with four followspots, hundreds of costumes, and 35 cast members, the most direct means of setting up each performance for success is thorough, daily preparation by the backstage team.

Although it now falls to the props crew to physically set props, the stage manager is responsible for ensuring that everything is in place, checked, and ready for the cast and performance. Use a copy of the props preset you provided to the crew and updated during tech to physically “lay eyes” on each prop and check it off your list. If there are items you cannot see without undoing a preset (a complicated bundle, something hidden inside a set piece, a blanket with a precise accordion fold, etc.) build a list of questions for the props crew head. As soon as you finish your physical check, ask them if those tasks are complete. Ninety-five percent of the time, you’ll be met with a simple “yes.” But, occasionally, you’re the perfect reminder that the treasure map didn’t get fastened inside the trunk lining.

You should also check with each department during your preshow duties. Have batteries been changed? Is wardrobe set? Are the instruments tuned for music call? Are mics placed on dressing room tables? Have weapons been assembled for fight call?

Use your questions to create a stage manager’s checklist. This document should also include any jobs for the stage management team to complete preshow, such as checking backstage lights, sweeping travel paths, vacuuming quick change booths, restocking water tables, completing a sign-in sheet, verifying theatre exit lights are lit, replacing missing spike or glow tape, and the plethora of other tasks covering both the standard needs of any show and those required by the specific show on which you’re working.

A sample stage management checklist for an eight-show performance week courtesy of Andrea L. Shell.

Two other areas that fall under preshow duties are the opening of the house and the running of half hour. At most theatres, these two occur at the same time. If 25 to 30 minutes is adequate time to seat the audience, the routine I like to use is to call half hour in the dressing rooms and backstage and check the sign-in sheet to ensure the entire cast has arrived. If folks are missing, delegate the making of phone calls to an assistant stage manager as you head to the stage to open the house. 

Take a last look onstage, do a blackout check with your light board operator (no one wants to see people sneaking onstage in the dark at the top of the show mistakenly illuminated by a missed clip light in the grid), ensure lights are then put into the correct preset cue and any preshow sound is rolling, and do one final check with the house staff. If all is ready, hand the space over to the house manager and head back to the dressing rooms.

Check in with your assistant stage manager to confirm the missing actors have been called and are now present or en route. If so, then you’re ready for standard calls. I typically use “15” for 15 minutes to places and collecting valuables from actors; “5” for five minutes to places, crew to headsets, stage manager to the booth/console, and notification of an on-time start for front-of-house personnel; and “places” for two minutes until curtain, necessary cast to top-of-show positions, and final checks for house staff.


Once you have checked with crew on headsets, been alerted that actors have arrived at places, and have been given an all-clear from the house manager, you’re set to begin the show. This is where your focus, specificity, and artistry need to be keenest.

In an article in the December 2012 issue of Equity News, former Steppenwolf Theatre Company Production Manager Al Franklin compares a stage manager calling a show to “a conductor conducting an orchestra. They both listen intently and use their experience and intuition to feel the moment when the show will benefit the greatest by calling the next cue.” You’ve long since determined “where” cues should be placed, you understand the purpose each serves, and you know how they flow to create the director’s vision. That was established during tech. It was honed during previews. And, it’s been replicated in every performance since the show opened. But, calling a show is anything but routine.

The stage manager must maintain the same focus and precision as any actor onstage. If tempo is quicker on the second number, you are responsible for anticipating cues so they complete at the correct time. If lines are dropped during a fight sequence, you’re responsible for notifying the run crew that the quick changes for that section just lost 45 seconds of precious time. If a special that is the only light source for a scene flickers out, it falls to you to ensure the light board operator brings up the followspots on a submaster so the actors can continue. And, if something happens that can’t be circumnavigated, you have the ultimate responsibility of calling a confident, clear, and concise “hold please” over the God mic. More than any other single individual, it is the stage manager’s job to understand all the components of the show (both human and technical) and how they impact each other and the performance.

A large part of that understanding comes from planning for “standard emergencies” which could arise during the run: actor illness, crew replacement, mechanical failure, etc. The stage management team is responsible for the creation, communication, and implementation of show-related backup plans.

Sometimes it’s as easy as running an understudy rehearsal so everyone knows their lines and blocking or articulating that if the water in the rain effect fails, the moment will be covered by the lighting effect already running. But, sometimes, it’s a far more complex scenario of internal understudy coverage where one absence triggers the use of one understudy to cover the original role and three others to cover the ensemble track vacated by the understudy. Or, it’s the recognition that not all the furniture pieces can make it to the stage if the lifts aren’t working because they don’t fit through any other opening or are too heavy to carry.

These are the backup plans that merit forethought. No one wants to scramble figuring things out in the moment with an entire audience waiting in their seats and a company looking to you for answers. Don’t get me wrong — it’s doable. You take a breath, you rely on your knowledge and your team, and you figure it out. But it’s certainly not preferred. So, take the time beforehand — time when you have access to your full team for brainstorming, when you’re all calm, when you have time to ask your director about their priorities, when all eyes are not on you — to determine the best course of action. Then, document it, communicate it, and post it in the necessary areas.

With any luck, you’ll never need it. But, trust me, as someone who’s had to call “hold please” more times than I care to count, having plans already in place will make life easier on everyone involved.


Regardless of what kind of performance you had, your final act of the day is to document it. As was the case during rehearsals, it’s the stage manager’s responsibility to relay information from the day’s work to the artistic, production, and administrative staff in one comprehensive report. The performance report should include sections for show timings, audience response, technical notes, actor notes, and anything else desired by the producer.

Traditionally, notes for cast, run crew, or the rest of the stage management team are given verbally by the stage manager with the necessary individuals at either the end of the night or the start of the next call. Both are valid options. The only caveat is that, if you’re working under certain professional contracts, those notes cannot be given during half hour, so you’ll need to adjust your timeline accordingly. Notes can cover anything from burnt-out lamps and flubbed lines to noticeable shifts in acting intention and mugging for laughs. There will always be growth in a production that runs any length of time. But, if actions or choices divert the show from the original direction, it’s your job to get things back on track.

As you navigate shifting audience responses, evolving acting choices, and an excess of potential technical snafus, embrace the areas of performance that are routine. Rather than lull you into complacency, let that daily flow enhance your ability to identify the anomaly, however slight. Continue to challenge yourself to communicate efficiently, maintain positivity, and lead with awareness. Then, when an emergency arises, you’ll be amazed at how effectively you can troubleshoot that complex situation while still calling a flawless sequence for a delightfully unaware crowd. Here’s to a great run!

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