Hit by a Bus Rules: The Post-It Note Apocalypse

Alandra Hileman is about to reveal personal secrets that will probably make her unemployable.

The title of this column comes from a sort of unofficial but universally understood rule of stage managers, the concept being this: in the event that, on the way to the theatre, you are hit by a bus and can no longer run the show, your master book and all your paperwork should be in such good order that anyone else with a basic understanding of the backstage side of things could come in, pick up your book, and run the show. Obviously, there is no one standard way to create a call book or issue a rehearsal report, but however you do it specific to your company/show/personality should follow enough of the universal language of stage management that another stage manager could figure it out in a pinch.

I am terrible at this.

When I first really started stage managing in school, I went full out: digitized script (separate from my blocking script) with typed in cues, color coded highlighting (carefully chosen to still be visible and readable under blue booth lights), set-up/take-down checklists typed in triplicate and posted by all the doorways. I really took the spirit of the “hit by a bus” rule to my little type-A anal-retentive heart, and I was determined to be the best of the best and turn myself into an unstoppable force of stage management.

And this is what my call-book for the shows I’m currently running looks like right now:

Messy SM Book copy

I have a somewhat synesthesia-eqsue association between colors and cue types that usually changes on a show-by-show basis. This time around, yellow is lighting, blue is sound, green is naptime, and so on. You’ll notice which color ISN’T featured in the photo above.

Anyway, the Post-It notes were only supposed to be a temporary solution because we were writing cues into my book in little bits and snatches of whatever available time we had (including at 1am in the hotel lobby the night before the sound designer had to catch a 6am flight – 0/10 do not recommend). I kept trying to block off time to write things in properly…and then it was opening night. So, I just started calling the shows from my “temporary” notes.

So at this point, we just finished week 4 of 6, and I’m terrified that my visual-recall memory would be MORE screwed up by trying to write my book out properly now that I’m used to where on the page to look for cues in any given scene. So, I’ve decided to leave it be and just pray that none of my commutes go viciously awry in the vicinity of CDL-only vehicles. To be fair, I have a really good sense of it at this point – I know not only what the color-coding system is, but the exact scenes where it’s wrong (because I ran out of yellow). I’ve moved things as blocking changed (MOVE DOWNSTAGE DAMMIT) and when cues got cut because they were unnecessary, I got to just pop the Post-It off the to the trash. And I pity my crew members every time they ask if they can look something up, because these are the shenanigans they have to deal with.

This decline and fall of my fictional stage managerial empire, in a terribly cliché and slightly forced-sounding way, is pretty much the perfect parallel for the rest of my general life-crises. The incredibly logical and organized life-plan I had all the way back in high school has pretty well devolved into a chaotic mess of events that constantly get rearranged, are frequently unintelligible to anyone but me, and are often bizarrely and specifically color-coded. And, just like my cue book, I’m hoping I can get it in order before someone drops it and it implodes in a flutter of tiny colorful squares and tears.

But at least it would be a colorful apocalypse.

Hit By A Bus Rules: Symmetry and Sleep Deprivation

Hey Everybody! We’re debuting a new regular blogger today! Alandra Hileman will be alternating with Will Leschber and bringing us a much needed theater tech perspective once a month, while giving Will a little more time off to focus on his new family. Let us know what you think!

Alandra Hileman should have typed this introductory blog before working 14-straight days of tech. Oops.

Standby for Awkward 1st-Person Introductory Blog.

Blog GO.

Stage managing is weird. We often call it “herding cats,” a mental picture which is much more hilarious and fluffy than is the reality of trying to answer questions for 13 actors, 5 designers, 6 crew people and 2 frazzled directors at the same time while also setting props, plugging in a fog machine, spiking a giant dinner table, and offering a quick prayer to St. Gensius (patron of thespians, secretaries, and apparently lawyers?) that you’ll actually get to visit the bathroom BEFORE you have to call the start of the show. I once attempted to research the history of stage management, only to find that somebody didn’t do their paperwork, so it’s all pretty theoretical and hazy. (Oh good, the fog machine is working.)

This summer, I am up in the mysterious land of Davis, CA, stage managing the two shows of Davis Shakespeare Festival. During my first week of rehearsals up here, I was also asked if I was interested in joining the SF Theatre Pub blog team and bring in a little of the backstage tech-and-management angle to my column once a month. I thought this was a nice symmetry, since my first “professional” (paid, non-school) theatre job was stage managing one (out of two) shows for a local Shakespeare festival, during which I wrote one guest blog about stage management. So I’m still perpetually exhausted and broke, but at least I’m moving forward in my career.

Speaking of career, it should be noted that I fell into stage management accidentally. (Well, technically, I was pushed, but that’s a story for a layer blog…) I ended up there primarily as the result of combination type-A personality, good organizational skills, general-overview knowledge of every job in theatre, and deciding very quickly that I was not cut out to be an actor. Despite the fact that my heart is much more in writing and directing, I’ve stuck with stage management and other jobs of that ilk because there’s probably more security there than in any other theatrical field. If you are even remotely good at stage managing, you will get work. Or even if you just vaguely don’t suck depending on how desperate a company is, and with the sheer number of theatre companies in the Bay Area, there are a lot of desperate ones. I try to set my personal bar a little higher than that “doesn’t suck,” but I’m also inherently lazy and introverted, so at this point I’ve just managed to land nicely in the middle of “competent and doesn’t make actors cry,” which I can live with.

The trouble for me was that once I started being known as a stage manager, I couldn’t shake the title, even when it was no longer my primary focus. In another fascinating bit of symmetry, in the months since I started my M.F.A. program for Playwriting, I’ve also started getting a massive influx of stage management job offers again, reminiscent of the SM gigs I kept getting offered right after I finished my undergrad with B.A.s in Drama (emphasis in Play Development, i.e. writing) and English (emphasis in Literature, i.e. not even remotely related to running over 500 light, sound, spot, mic, and curtain cues in a musical). So I’m coming to accept that fact that I am going to be forever introduced or thought of as a stage manager first, and a playwright/photographer/director/board operator/anything else second. And I guess for as much as I gripe about it, it really does come down to my unconditional love of and support for theatre – otherwise I wouldn’t be living in a hotel room for the summer just for the opportunity of getting to work in some vague capacity on one of my all time favorite musicals while living off Black Cherry Mountain Dew Kickstarts and sleeping less than 5 hours a night. Right?

Alandra Hileman is a freelance stage manager/writer/photographer/bunch of other things who occasionally updates her website (ajhileman.com) and frequently cries herself to sleep at night thinking of all the shows she’ll never have the budget to do properly.