• Randy Thompson

Stage Managing People, Pets, & Online Platforms

Stage managing is all about coordinating communication between the producer, director, designers, cast, and crew; being the clearinghouse of information on all aspects of the production. There is the occasional purchasing and distribution of bribery candy, a sometimes necessary joy to maintain energy levels (or so we are led to believe). This position has a unique purpose because it serves the dual function of assistant to the director and production staff during the rehearsal period, and then becomes the person in charge of the production during the actual performance.

In a custom-written show such as Branching Out, produced specifically for an online platform, certain considerations are woven into the fabric of the story, utilizing what comes naturally to the home environments of the cast members. Though there are a few exceptions (mail a bulb here, send an extension cord there, order a tchotchke…), the show comes with a “minimal assembly required” label. Also, there is great variation in what is considered “…natural to the home environments…” among cast and crew members. “How much did you pay for that painting behind you?”

During an in-house show, the Stage Manager (SM), among other things, is expected to know the placement of all props and set pieces, both on and off stage, as well as what, if anything, is moved during intermission. There are dreadful and unspeakable consequences for unauthorized fiddling of props, and we shall not delve into the details here for fear of scaring the reader away from attending theatre in the future. This particular responsibility, however, is greatly reduced for a show produced online, as the cast members are solely in charge of what happens in their own homes, as guided by the input from any designer requirements (lights, props, costumes, etc.).

While there are far fewer animal intrusions during an in-house rehearsal, the occasional barking dog or the sudden appearance of a cat tail on-screen does seem to be a hazard of online rehearsals, though not entirely unwelcome at times. Certain precautions are taken (feed the cat sooner, close the door on the dog), but as the fictional Dr. Ian Malcolm once said, “Life finds a way.” When an animal intrusion occurs, especially during a performance, the scene just rolls on with the addition of the non-human cast member, and the show keeps going, sometimes with an unexpected purring audible just underneath the lines.

The communication aspect of the SM’s job remains as detail-oriented as it ever was, and the coordination of scheduling and the juggling of calendar dates can be just as challenging. Branching Out provides an interesting and engaging opportunity to expand technical skills, as it necessitates new avenues of production and communication, as well as consideration of new avenues of thought and improvisation. An example of this is talking with a director on-screen, while simultaneously typing in the chat window with a designer, while also texting an actor on the phone. A multi-tasking SM is a joyful SM.

Well, a functional SM, at least.

Please stop reading here for a moment as there is a cat on the kkkkiybordd. Kiybrd////. KEYBOARD. SORRY. KITTY STEPPED ON THe CaPS loCK. Argggh. Now, There we go.

Where were we?

Ah.

As the cast of an in-house production reaches what is termed “off book”, wherein they are no longer allowed to have their scripts in hand or call out for a forgotten line, there is a visceral sense of ‘sink or swim” during any given scene, as cast member must now rely solely on themselves or their scene partners to keep the show moving in the event of misdelivered or forgotten lines. This pressure is somewhat lessened online as the cast has, in effect, a teleprompter handily sitting in front of their faces (excluding the occasional aforementioned cat tail). Being off-book for an online platform means that in addition to watching the show for any technical issues, the SM is now glancing up and down, left and right in the Zoom “Brady Squares” for any wayward eye movements from cast members searching for the minimized script-on-the-screen. It’s a strong temptation to have the script handy, but actors know the process and want to provide the best experience available for the audience.

Another notable difference between the in-house production and that of an online platform, is the Head-Banging Stage Manager Syndrome (HBSMS). This completely fabricated diagnosis is not found in any medical text, nor is it a recognized condition in any theatre company’s health plan, but it exists, nonetheless. In an in-house rehearsal, when the cast is off-book, but may still call for a forgotten line, the SM is not only reading along in the script but repeatedly glancing up and down at the stage to monitor blocking (the whens and wheres of character movement in any given scene). This cervical workout is practically non-existent online, as the words and movements may be monitored by glancing left on the screen, glancing right on the screen, glancing left on the screen, glancing right on the screen, glancing left on the screen, glancing right on the screen, glancing left on the screen, glancing right on the screen…one gets the idea. Throughout the rehearsal and production process, and on the average, 4,800 - 9,600 fewer milligrams of ibuprofen are used in an online production. Please do not attempt to research this number.

Audience members who tune in to Branching Out will find themselves adjusting to new modes of viewing, as the mantra of “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show” offers greater latitude in the viewing public’s homes. Attendees will find themselves lost in the drama much the same as they might in the actual theatre, with one of the notable exceptions of being able to chat about the show without disturbing their neighbor. Branching Out is written with the proverbial “fourth wall” in mind, and viewers will understand themselves to be a part of the Cameron family’s interactions, though with video stopped and audio muted, a la Zoom. There is no intermission, so the audience member is reminded to set out the preferred beverages and snacks prior to the curtain speech. Curtain speech? Screen speech. No, that doesn’t sound right, either. Curscreen speech? No, “curscreen” sounds like a euphemism for foul language. Let’s just call in the curtain speech. Please consider holding a black cloth over your screen, and dramatically lifting it when you hear, “Hello! Welcome to Flying Anvil Theatre’s production of Branching Out!”

Or not. It’s your home. Enjoy as you please. :)

{{{ SM note: suggest black cloth for next online show }}}

In many qualitative ways, this show provides the standard SM regimen one might find in an in-house production, though with a dash of film set salt thrown in for taste. Additional considerations include camera framing, audio checks (versus merely projecting one’s voice on stage), and certain minimal technical skills necessary to keep so many virtual plates spinning in the cloud. Entrances and exits are now “start video” and “stop video”, and being offstage for the cast now means keeping near the chat window to look for typed cues from the SM, instead of shouted blatherings from the back rows of the theatre.

At the end of the long rehearsal day, Branching Out, while a unique hybrid of live and recorded entertainment, still accomplishes what all good theatre is about: the art of storytelling and allowing the audience, if only for a little while, to lose themselves in another world.

Now…

If you don't already have one, then make sure you buy a nice black curtain-cloth before the show.

Aaaaaaaaaand…SCENE.

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