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So You’re A Community Deputy Stage Manager

This is continuing my theme of hopeful-advice for anyone dabbling in community theatre.  For the pre-amble, please see this post.

Today, let’s talk about the Deputy Stage Manager, or DSM.

In professional theatre, the DSM does the following:

Attends rehearsals every day, and takes notes on all that happens.  This includes blocking (where actors stand), and any props, set or general notes that comes from the rehearsal process.  A DSM will produce lists containing all the props, and where they’re set, and when they’re bought on, as well as furniture and anything extraneous like flying or stage management cues.  These will be discussed with the appropriate team members so that all departments know what’s going on in the rehearsal room, without actually needing to be there every hour God sends.

A DSM also keeps an eye on actor’s welfare, to a degree, as they know them better than most of the team by the end of the rehearsal process.  It’s not really part of their job per se, but it usually crops up.

Finally – and crucially – a DSM is the one who, in the show itself, calls every cue.  The DSM tells the lighting op (LX Op) when to press go, the flyman when to fly, the sound op when to run sound etc..  That’s not to say that the DSM decides where these cues go – that’s decided by the relevant designer in tandem with the director and rest of the creative team.  But once a show is up and running, the DSM is the person who every night, courtesy of having seen the show evolve and learnt its rhythms, will call these cues.

On a small show, there might be a few dozen.  On a large show, there can be many hundreds of cues from half a dozen different departments.  A good DSM, therefore, needs to be calm, organised and able to respond to a change on the stage – such as actors jumping lines – quickly and calmly.

Now.  In community productions it’s unusual to have someone who’s express role is a DSM – most of the time there’s one stage manager trying to do everything, including propping and builds.  This is… unfortunate… and if you’re in this position then you must make some fairly quick and firm decisions about what aspects of your work are the highest priority, and who’s going to help you.  For example – rehearsal notes.  It’s hugely helpful to have someone in rehearsals compiling lists of props as they’re needed and any details of costume that might be required i.e. a big pocket for one character, a certain hat for another.  If you, as DSM, cannot be there all the time then it should really fall on the director or a willing member of cast.  Either way, it’s well worth doing.

Then there’s calling the show.  Let’s say you’ve only got two departments to handle – lighting and sound.  You want to know where in the script their cues are.  You have a script in front of you.  You circle the word on which a cue – say a roll of thunder – goes.  You write next to this circle ‘SFX2’ and that tells you that it’s a sound cue, and it’s number 2.  Then to give instruction to the sound op, you would say “SFX 2 Go.”  It’s important that ‘go’ is the last word.  Ops are waiting to hit the button on the word ‘go’ which means if you say ‘Go SFX2’ there’s a not insignificant danger that the LX op will also hit their ‘go’ button at the moment, hearing only the word ‘go’ and not the department.  Thus a busy cueing sequence could sound like this:

“Standby Sound cues 2-8,” (the standby should be given a minute before the cue, give or take, so that the op knows to be alert for what’s coming, rather than being surprised) “standby LX cues 3-10.  Sound 2 Go… LX 3 go… sound 3 and LX 4 go… Sound go… LX 5 go… sound and LX go…” etc..  In this way the cues will always fall on the same place, at the same time, in the same order, on every single show, and there will be much rejoicing.

Now.  In a busy cueing sequence, as may happen at the end of a scene, legibility is going to be a big deal.  You need to be able to follow what’s going on stage, which means there’s going to be times when you have to look up from the script which, by the way, you are following line-by-line.  When you look back down at the script, you don’t want to be squinting, peering, struggling to find your place.  Getting a proper-sized script, properly printed out and legible, is important.  Ideally you want an A4 single-sided script which you can put in a ringbinder.  This means at any moment you’re looking at play text and a blank page next to it.

When you write in cues, yes, you can write them next to the word they’re going to be called on, but it’s also worth writing out clearly, and legibly, the cues and their sequence on the blank page next to your text.  Then draw a clear, rulered line between the word or action you’re triggering the cue off, and the cue itself.  You may also want to write a few notes on what they cue is doing, but again, legibility is key.  Take some time to research what a DSM’s book looks like.  A few minutes on google will give you decent examples.  Again, this is so you can easily find your place.

Don’t write cues in ink straight away.  Designers are famously fickle and may change their mind.  You only want to ink things in if you’re certain – if not, keep everything light and ready to be changed.

Finally, stay calm, stay focused, learn to watch the stage for the consequences of the cue, as well as follow the script.  And trust what you’ve got in the book.  If your book says ‘flys 4 go’ then call it, even if you can’t quite now remember what the cue does.

DSMing is fun!  You are at the steering wheel of a show… enjoy it!