THE SAWDUST HAS SETTLED. The lights have been focused. The props are preset. You call half-hour, instructing the cast to get into costumes, mics, and wigs; grab your water, stopwatch, legal pad, and promptbook; and head to your tech table. As you hike, you check in with run crew, assistant stage managers, designers, production staff, and the director. It’s time. You take a breath, look over the space, maybe even smile … tech has begun.

To me, tech is the most exciting time in a production’s rehearsal process. All the parts and players come together in the same place at the same time to make the show. The stage manager is the heart of it all. Sometimes that heart is calm, cool, and collected — you move through the show at a steady clip, tackling unforeseen problems with the confidence of a superhero. Other times, tech can feel like the eye of a raging storm with chaos spreading on all sides, refusing to be tamed, refusing to cooperate — refusing to get through the opening number. Although both are valid experiences (and I’ve had plenty of both), we’d all likely prefer the first scenario.

So, what can stage managers do to facilitate an efficient and productive tech? Simply continue what you’ve been doing in rehearsals: communicate, delegate, and execute.

COMMUNICATION AND DELEGATION

One key to a successful tech is communication that is efficient, accurate, and thorough. But direct communication can be daunting when the majority of your day is spent at a table, in the dark, with one ear covered by a headset while many people talk to you at once through multiple communication channels … especially when you’re trying to listen to the director and keep up with the actors onstage.

Good news: You’re not a team of one. You cannot physically be everywhere at once (especially since you’re chained to a table). Implement a divide-and-conquer strategy. Rely on your assistant stage managers and run crew. Empower them to handle issues at deck level as you focus on getting cues and information from designers. Trust that they will ask for help if they need you. Strive to be OK with not knowing everything that’s happening in the moment.

Remember, you all have the shared goal of facilitating the creation of the show. Whether it’s a heads-up that a costume change is running long or a warning that the director is adjusting the blocking of a scene for the fourth time, your team will make sure you know anything that directly impacts you, the designers, or your work cueing the show.

Theatre student wearing headset
Efficient, accurate, and thorough communication is essential to a productive tech rehearsal. Photo from the 2019 International Thespian Festival by John Nollendorfs.

COMMUNICATION AND EXECUTION

With any luck, you were provided with cue lists from the designers that allowed you to write cue sequences into your promptbook before the beginning of tech. If that’s the case, then you’re ready to try things out. But, is everyone else ready? Are the cues built? What if you weren’t given cue lists? What if you’ve never called a show before and you have no idea what I’m talking about?

Let’s start with the basics. A cue is comprised of three parts: the preface, the action, and the trigger. The preface is the element that is changing in the show and its corresponding number (for example, Lights 59 or Projection 243). The action is the word “go,” which directs a board operator or crew member to execute the change. And the trigger is the word of dialogue, note of music, or actor movement that drives you to make the call. Often multiple cues will be tied to the same trigger and called together on the same “go.”

When entering cues in your book, specificity and precision are crucial. It’s impossible to call a cue on the word “hippopotamus.” You can call it on the “hip,” the “mus,” after the word, or in anticipation of the word, but not on the entire word. Although that seems like a tiny distinction, those differences are enough to throw off the timing of a well-crafted light shift or affect the impact of musical underscoring. It’s important to understand the goal of the cue and how to honor the artistic choices made.

I refer to the formatting method I use as a “clean lines” method. I give myself a wide righthand margin in my promptbook for writing. Each cue preface is abbreviated on a different horizontal line, which is connected to the corresponding trigger. If it’s a syllable of dialogue, I box it in. If it’s a visual trigger, I write it above the line I’ve drawn. If more than one cue is happening on the same action, those horizontal lines are connected vertically to indicate the need to call the cues together. I also use the caret symbol (^) in the text to pinpoint exactly where I begin speaking the setup for the cues to follow. And I include an asterisk (*) in the text to indicate where a standby should happen.

The written standby is listed in the same righthand margin as my cues. You need to include standbys for all cues, and they should happen roughly 30 seconds before the cue needs to be called. That allows operators to respond that they are standing by and gives you a few seconds in the clear before you need to say your preface. Sometimes, a standby will be for a single cue. Other times, it will be for a sequence that covers 10 pages. If that’s the case, simply note those spans for your operators (for example, Electrics 10-24, Sound 1-6, Video A). For consistency and clarity, say prefaces in the same order in both standby and cue lists.

If cue sheets weren’t provided in advance, check with the design team and your director to see how they want to provide cues to you during tech. For example, will you run through a section of the show, pause at a predetermined point for designers to build the needed cues, then go back and run that section with notes scribbled in your book? Alternately, you might work through the scene slowly, calling a hold each time a member of the artistic team needs to write or tweak a cue, then back up just far enough to try that sequence. Is the team able to sketch cues in as the cast runs an entire scene? Is it a combination of these methods?

Any option can work if everyone is on the same page. Clearly communicate with the director and cast about how the team plans to proceed through tech. Prioritize safety, allowing anyone to call a hold if they see someone in danger. Then call places, begin at the top of the show, and work your way through everything together.

Some sequences will work on the first try, and you’ll press on. Others will take seemingly endless finessing. Be aware of the clock. If you’re holding for sound, let other designers know they can work ahead or go back to adjust. Let the cast know they can relax or run lines on a tricky section. Alert your director to the opportunity to give actor notes. Keep everyone engaged and productive. When it’s time to try a sequence again, announce to the cast where you will pick up the action. Give your crew their standby while the cast moves into position so they can all be ready to go at the same time. When everyone is reset, you can announce “proceed” and relaunch the show.

TIPS, TRICKS, AND REMINDERS

As Laurie Kincman writes in The Stage Manger’s Toolkit, “Information is not a commodity. Keeping it to yourself will only slow down the process.” This is especially true during tech. Below are a few of my favorite tips, tricks, and reminders for an efficient and productive tech.

  • Don’t be afraid to exercise your role as timekeeper. A friendly reminder about upcoming breaks or the impending end of a session can coax an artistic team to move forward or try something for the last time. I like to say, “As your friendly neighborhood clock watcher, I want to let you know that we are X minutes from a break.” I’m not nagging; it’s my job.

  • I also find it helpful to set goals with the director and designers at the start of each day for where we would like to be by the dinner break and by the end of the night. Again, it keeps everyone on the same page and provides accountability.

  • Quick changes are an often-overlooked aspect of tech. They can fall under the unseen/unaddressed umbrella. Indicate in your promptbook where all quick changes occur. When it’s time for an actor to exit for a quick change, announce, “Please make your exit and talk through the change with the dressers. We will build the cues through your re-entrance, and once we’re set to try it with tech, we will take it back to your exit and try it together.” As you proceed, let everyone know the sequence must continue until that actor completes their quick change and re-enters to see if they can make it. Unless there’s a safety issue, keep going. If a designer calls a hold, overrule it. Costume changes are part of tech and need to be worked as well.

  • Another small but appreciated habit is to make all announcements in the theatre, over the headsets, and over whatever “God mic” will allow you to be heard in the dressing spaces and backstage. There’s nothing worse than being the person who desperately needs to run to the restroom but didn’t know you were on break.

  • Stage managers are sensitive to making others wait. So, it can be difficult to ask to try a cue sequence again — even if you know you need to, even if you know it’s a complex call. Let me empower you to ask to try it again. Just like those times you provided lines when actors called for them, you yelled “hold” for a lighting designer whose cue wasn’t timed correctly, or you reset a scene for a director who wanted to adjust blocking, your needs are valid. You’re a valued member of the team. Give yourself permission to ask for another shot.

Once you’ve teched the entire show, success comes from repetition and discovery. You won’t really know how things work — if things work — until you do a full run. Stay flexible as cues shift over the next few days, take copious notes, and keep checking in with your team. Just when everyone starts to get comfortable, it will be time to add the final element: the audience.

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