Picture a chef, getting ready for dinner service. Before a rush of diners crowd into the restaurant, he or she carefully plans the menu for the night. Even if it is a menu that’s been served a thousand times. Check inventory, prioritize food preparation, instruct the team on the particulars of service, and so on. The work is a vital component to executing a successful evening. This is a chef’s pre-production. Can you imagine what might happen if even the most basic of these steps were not taken?
Stage management and event production are no different. How can you expect to start a show with no plans, no research, and no road map? It doesn’t matter whether pre-production is part of your contract or you simply need to find holes in your own schedule to do a little prep work. What you do before Rehearsal #1 will have a profound impact on your work efficiency down the road. Pre-production needs to be treated as part of the show. Period. Not something that may or may not happen. It must be a full part of your creative process. Though you may find your own rituals over time, here are some best practices of great stage managers.
1. Create and Evolve Specific To-Do Lists
This is always a great place to start. Why? Because every production you work on will be unique. Some tasks will already be known while others are still in flux. For example, you might already know available times for costume fittings but not have received the scene breakdowns in order to schedule cast rehearsal calls. Collect everything you have, then build your first to-do list out of what you still need to figure out. Keep this master list with big picture goals and break them down into specific, daily checklists. As things change, update your lists. Using “Notes” or “Reminders” apps on your phone or tablet is incredibly helpful. It’s easier to track what’s completed and what’s not. Plus, when you wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, remembering something you need to do tomorrow, you can easily jot it down and return to slumber.
2. Master Your Show and Your People
Before rehearsals commence, any competent stage manager will receive the script (or schedule of events, etc.) and begin to break it down. He or she will make a table list of props or gear, scene changes, costume changes, lighting and sound cues, and any other technical information that can be drawn from the source material. This is the BARE minimum. The best stage managers will go further. They understand that as managers, they are actively engaged with the technical and creative teams simultaneously. This means knowing more than the material. It means knowing the people working on it. Who is the playwright? The director? When was the production written? Learn what you can about the people and their working styles. I’ve even contacted fellow stage managers who have worked with my team previously to get their thoughts and experiences. The more you know going in, the easier it will be to adapt to the unknown along the way.
3. You + Director
One of the most important things you can do during pre-production is schedule a meeting with your director. Invite him or her to lunch or coffee. This may seem like common sense but there is so much you can achieve in this first meeting, before rehearsals begin. Rough out as best you can the early part of the schedule. Chat about his or her vision for the show so that you can begin building an understanding of how to support it technically. Address any early logistical questions that have come up. You may not have answers but at least you’ll get another perspective. And don’t be afraid to ask specific and sometimes pointed questions.
- “How do you prefer the room to be run during rehearsals?”
- “Do you like to track when breaks are or would you like to be informed?”
The director is you greatest collaborator in the rehearsal room. It is in your best interest to learn his or her style, preferences, and preferred working methods to ensure a smooth production process.
4. To-Dos Become Schedules
Don’t wait until everything is in place to begin building out your master production calendar. Remember that a lot of pieces need to fall in to place during a show. A lot will change and a lot will be discovered as the process goes. If you wait till you “have everything you need,” it’ll be too late. Start with the basics of what you know. When do you open, when are previews, when do rehearsal begin, etc. Any piece of information can help you get this beast off the ground.
5. Create a Shortcut
There are some laborious and time-consuming parts of a stage manager’s job. Paperwork, for example. If you want to make future-you happy, set up some shortcuts ahead of time, to speed up your reporting and communication processes. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Export your contact sheet to your phone. Update your email signature or create a free email account specific to the show. Set up a file-sharing system and organize it to your preferences. For example, create paperwork or folders just for for cast or technical. When you need to get them information, you don’t need to manually sort and send each time. If you have the time and the resources, there are some fantastic software tools for stage managers that automate many of these tasks.
Pre-production is really all about getting as many of your ducks in a row as you can. You’re preparing yourself for the inevitable onslaught of questions and concerns and hopefully preventing less headache and work down the road. By following some of these best practices and developing your own methods, you’ll be well on your way to serving a beautiful meal.
Stage Managers – what are some of your pre-production steps? Share them with us in the comments below.
By: Kirk Laing