After one of our recent productions, someone asked
our club's well-experienced stage manager, 'What, exactly, does a
stage manager do?'
Here is his reply:
Details vary from company to company but essentially the
stage manager (SM) is responsible for everything that takes place,
actually on the stage, connected with a particular play or show. He
or she could even stop the show, if necessary for reasons of safety
(of artistes or audience), or if one of the cast was taken ill.
Happily, it doesn't often happen.
In Princess Theatre Club (PTC) productions, our SM attends rehearsals and produces all the sound effects required. As performance dates loom, he liaises with the director to ensure that scenery is erected correctly by the construction team and that it works properly: e.g. doors must open the right way, and not stick. At technical rehearsal he supervises the lighting (is it meant to be daytime or evening?) and runs through the various effects with the theatre technician.
During performances the SM sits in a corner backstage — at the Princess Theatre this is to the right of the stage as viewed from the auditorium — from where he ‘runs the corner’, ensuring that curtains, lighting and sound effects all work on cue. The audience may not even be aware of his presence, unless something goes wrong!
As the audience arrives, the lighting is on ‘preset’. The SM takes his place in his corner, making sure the actors are all ready too. He contacts the theatre technician, up in the box, via an intercom headset, and everyone awaits ‘clearance’ from front of house. When the audience are all seated safely and the auditorium doors close, we’re ready to go. The SM cues the technician, who dims the house lights. Since we don’t often use the front of house curtains (main tabs) for our plays, if actors have to be on stage when the play begins we go to blackout and then a very dim blue light, by which the actors get on stage. Once they are in position we go to ‘lights up’ on stage (known as the ‘main state’) and the action begins.
During the play, lighting cues may be
needed to effect an alteration to the main state, or perhaps a
sudden flash of light (as when car headlights shone through a window
in Something to Hide). It’s essential that the SM keeps a
close eye on the script, where all lighting (LX) and sound (SFX)
cues are marked, all numbered in sequence. The spoken cue to the
technician might be ‘standby LX4’ and then ‘go LX4’. If there’s a
dramatic end to a scene, the cue for ‘blackout’ will be given,
followed by ‘go blue light’ to allow the actors to get off-stage —
and the props people to clear or place props as necessary (they wear
black so they don’t stand out).
Sound effects (SFX) are also called by the SM. These days, clumsy tape recorders, using razor blades to splice cut ends, have given way to digital technology — most sounds can be obtained from specialist CDs or the internet, and edited on computer before being relayed by the theatre’s sound system. Something to Hide called for twenty-three SFX ranging from phones to door bells and including a car crash.
A complex sound effect used in 'Cash on Delivery', our 2007 Spring production, was a ‘rampant washing machine’, created by recording a washing machine at normal speed, then playing it at double speed mixed with a variety of bangs, crashes and splashes – a total of six different SFX. In Something to Hide we needed a gun-shot and, rather than using a recording, our director called for a real shot to be fired. It was our SM’s job to ensure this was carried out safely. Because the shot from the real gun was considered too loud, the actress was given a replica gun to fire. The real gun was fired in the wings (using a blank cartridge, of course!). This called for split second timing from the actress, the SM giving the cue, and a member of theatre staff firing the gun — plus making sure that all backstage staff wore ear protection and both guns were safely stowed away after each performance!
Remember the hard-working folk behind the scenes the next time you attend an am-dram production.