How to Manage a Stage

February 10, 2011

By Harry Watermeier, >illness Arden Professional Apprentice

Okay, listen, I don’t actually know how to manage a stage—it’s only day one. But, I’ve learned a few basic things about stage management, and I’ve been prepping for my Assistant Stage Management gig for about a week. My fellow apprentices have already written some pretty nifty blogs about Assistant Stage Managing (check them out!), and now it’s my turn to give you my initial impressions of this exciting process.

Predictably, I’m a little worried about my A.S.M. gig. My worries come from…well, the chemical imbalance in my brain, and the fact that “stage management” doesn’t really come naturally to me. It seems that a good stage manager possesses skills that are a little foreign to me like: organization, multitasking, a rich understanding of literary text, general responsibility, and basic motor skills. But! I’m doing my very best, and I’m thrilled to be so intimately involved with the rehearsal and production of an Arden show.

Already, after only one day of rehearsal, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of respect for stage managers. Before this gig, I’ve only stepped on stage as an actor, director, or playwright. I’ve never been involved with (or concerned with, really) with the nuts, bolts, gears, and other machine metaphors of a production. I’ve always approached plays artistically, and worked with broad stokes that focused on ideas, feelings, meanings, and atmospheres. Things like prop placement and lighting cues have always been taken care of for me—by (I now realize) remarkable stage managers.

To me, it seems that while actors, directors, technical designers, etc. must be concerned with the microcosms of their respective departments, a stage manager must always keep the macrocosm of a production in mind. From rehearsal schedules to blocking notes, a stage manager must organize, track, record, and communicate a tremendous amount of information for multiple departments to ensure a smooth rehearsal process and production.

I’ll be assistant stage managing Arden’s next main-stage production, Superior Donuts—a complex, subtle character study that is often viciously funny, and always casually profound. I adore this play and I’m a huge admirer of its author: Tracy Letts. I feel like I’ve won the lottery with this assignment. I can’t imagine another play with which I’d like to spend more time.

To prepare for assistant stage managing (…actually, you should know that in the official Superior Donuts contact sheet, I’m listed as “Assistant to the Stage Manager.” Also, someone’s been putting my office supplies in Jell-O.) I’ve completed two major projects. I’ve made a prompt book and taped out the floor. Okay, that sentence sounds pretty nonsensical, but I’m going to explain everything.

What’s a prompt book? I’m glad you asked! A prompt book is a

Clearly made by someone who knows what he's doing.

tool with which I will keep track of all props—their placement, their movements—for the show. A prompt book contains a copy of the play’s text set opposite a diagram of the set. I will mark where and how props move on the diagram, and mark the same movements on the corresponding lines of dialogue or stage directions on the text. This allows me to have both a visual/spatial note as to where and how props move, set alongside a verbal cue. I’ll make these notes during rehearsal—this requires tremendous focus because prop movements change constantly. Props tracking will be one of my main responsibilities with Superior Donuts which, judging by the play’s title is pretty sweet news. Sweet. Get it. ‘Cause of the donuts. It’s a joke because donuts are sweet. I’m going to eat a bunch of donuts backstage that’s all I’m saying.

I’ve also helped “tape out” the rehearsal hall floor.

This is the rehearsal set--complete with furniture, set dressings, and props that simulate the real set.

Essentially, the Stage Manager and A.S.M. create a simulation of the borders of the stage using multi-colored rolls of tape. The image “taped out” is based on an architectural schematic of the set. These taped borders give the actors and director an idea of their blocking choices and limitations when the actual set for the show is not yet available.

So, prep week and Day One of Assistant Stage Managing went well. Today I kept my brow furrowed for about six hours, took copious notes, and paid really close attention to everything. I just have to keep that up for like two months. I think I’m off to a pretty solid start. I absolutely love the show; I’ll be working with a terrific Stage Manager, and I’ll gain knowledge and skills that will be invaluable to me in my future as a theatre practitioner.

Here a little snippet of Superior Donuts:

Arthur: It’s easy to underrate that now, but there’s nothing wrong with comfort, you know? You’re lying in a bed in the city of Chicago and you have your arms wrapped around a person who’s made the decision to move through the world with you. That may be comfort and not much more, but it may be love, too…

Isn’t that something?

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