As a deputy stage manager, my primary responsibility during the running of a show is calling all the technical elements. So, in a world where technical theatre is becoming more dominated by show-control software (such as MIDI, OSC and Time Code), the parameters of a DSM’s job are changing.
The theory behind show-control software is a simple one: eliminate human error. In theatre, we are always striving for consistency. We want the audience in our venue tonight to see the show that last night’s audience saw. For this purpose, show control is perfect. If a lighting cue needs to happen 5.35 seconds into a scene change, that can be achieved more precisely and consistently than any human being could ever hope to recreate. I won’t get into the finer detail of the technology behind all these different systems, but some people have built an entire career on understanding everything about only one of them.
I worked on a show two years ago in which chunks of the play were controlled exclusively by one press of a button. I hit ‘go’ on the music for the scene changes and the entire sequence would fire itself through: all lighting, video and sound together. It was smooth and flawless.
Show-control software has other benefits. Sequences that a human being could never hope to call due to their complexity are suddenly made possible. If the DSM has to call only half of what happens, then twice as much can be achieved. This opens up a new world of what technical theatre can provide to a show, unlocking more of what the software and kit we have at our disposal can be used for.
Theatre should, above all, be a human experience
However, human error is a part of human nature. And theatre should, above all, be a human experience. Making everything automated takes a vital element of a show away. Scene changes don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes an actor drops a prop or trips over something and that knocks on to the rest of their movements in the transition. Having a human being responding to those actions as the cue for lighting to change or sound to be heard means that, regardless of anything going wrong, the sequence can still appear seamless.
More importantly, when things go wrong, the DSM has to be the person to step in. If the timecode fails or if the elements in the computer systems stop talking to each other, the show must continue regardless. At this point, the DSM has to know the show as if they have always been calling every aspect. This is a big ask.
Usually, in a show that depends so heavily on show-control software, the priority in the technical rehearsal is making sure the programming of the software is correct. There is often no time for the DSM to learn the show as they would in a conventional setting. Therefore, the DSM must take it upon themselves to learn the programming retrospectively.
At times, show-control software can leave a DSM feeling surplus to requirements. However, we will always be there to save the day.