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Stage manager Katie Jackson: Every movement counts when making a visual cue

Photo: Oleksandr Nagaiets/Shutterstock
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As a deputy stage manager – the person who calls the technical aspects of a performance – I have noticed an increase in performers using visual movements to prompt a cue. This varies from the more traditional way of calling a show, in which the cues are based off lines that are spoken by the actors.

An example of a visual cue is this: a phone starts ringing and a performer goes over and answers it. It would then make sense, for the phone to stop ringing, so the DSM calls the sound cue that stops the phone ring when the actor picks it up. This is the most basic example of a visual cue.

However, visual cues can be used to create more intricate effects, especially with lighting. If a lighting designer wishes to create a world in which performers move between pools of light, but the pools of light disappear once the performer leaves them, the DSM will have to call a lot of the show using visual cues.

Depending on whether or not the performer is working with music, and the precision the fade time requires, the DSM will have to be very careful with how they call the cue.

I was working on a musical a few years ago, which required a moving light to follow a performer exactly as he walked across the stage. It is usually the kind of effect that would be achieved with a followspot but it was a small fringe performance in a space that didn’t have room to accommodate the equipment. As a result, the lighting designer was required to reproduce the effect in a different way.

The cooperation of the actor, who had to walk exactly the same route at exactly the same speed he had moved at during the technical rehearsal, was vital. If he were to walk faster or slower than the speed at which the light was programmed to move, he would either leave it behind or it would move ahead of him. As the DSM, I was also required to be consistent; call the cue too early or late and we would have the same problem.

There’s a very subtle movement that happens in people’s bodies when they are about to go from standing still to moving. As a DSM, you are constantly looking for this tiny shift in weight, the moment when, just before a performer is about to take a first step on to their right foot, they pre-emptively and fractionally rock on to their left.

When going from sitting to standing, the performer will actually slightly lean back into the chair just before they do, as they will need to increase their forward momentum to get up on to their feet.

It sounds fractional but it can be the difference between a lighting or sound change achieving what the designer envisioned and not.

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