Time and the stage manager

British theatre is notable for its efficiency of practice, and none more notable its practitioners than its technicians, schooled as they are in the art of keeping the playhouse dark for the shortest time possible. Among these practitioners, the stage and production managers who are responsible for the maintenance of schedules have developed the skill of time management to the level of high art. Productions always go up on time: so much so that if, for example, a complex and technologically innovative show like Miss Saigon opens a week late it makes national headlines. Francis Reid comments: “In theatre, there is no such thing as late delivery of the finished product. The customers (audience) have contracts (tickets) and, at the appointed hour, they come to collect the product (performance) in person.”[1] The Arts Council for England, in its recent Fitness for Purpose report into training, has identified that stage managers: “….. are seen to have very transferable skills, notably in project management (especially the people skills that this requires) and in the management of creativity”[2]. British practice, because of limited public subsidy, is to maximise the use of the theatre: “A theatre without performances (known as a dark theatre) is a very expensive place; but a theatre to which no-one comes because the performances are bad is even more expensive……This indicates the compromise: open as soon as possible without prejudicing the quality of the production”[3] The time aspect of project management is one of the key skills which can contribute to, or destroy, all of the valuable work that the actors have done in the rehearsal room. Many directors value their stage managers, and like the much more feted partnerships with designers, will opt to work with a consistent team of stage managers who they feel will be sympathetic to their methodology. These stage managers will put in place a supportive structure to allow them freedom of exploration. An analysis of the time frames that the stage manager maintains demonstrates a particular complexity, particularly as the production gets to the technical rehearsal. This complexity can be complicated by the play itself, of which more later. The time frames may be typified, in rough order of complexity, as:

1 ‘Natural’ or body time – concern for actors’ and technician’s well being, feeding, and concentration. With recent changes in Health and Safety legislation, attention must be given to safe working practice too.

2 Contractual time. Depending on contract, this may involve the division of working-time into four-hour (Actors’ Equity) or three-hour (Musicians Union) segments. This aspect can often be complex, if, for example, actors are working in repertoire.

3 Clock time. Fitting the segments into the hours of the day, and measuring time elapsed. British technicians are schooled to take up the show at the appointed hour, in stark contrast to a more relaxed Latin approach – a colleague asked a (southern) French technical manager what time the performance was due. “When the audience are all here” he answered with a Gallic shrug.[4]

4 Running time – how long does the play take to perform? Shaw’s ironic dictum that no commercial play should last more that two hours[5] is honoured in the breach more than the observance. The importance of this measure is crucial enough for a stage manager’s report on a performance to contain detailed act and interval timings, as a measure of pace in performance. Detailed timings are taken at all stages of rehearsal, even estimated at first reading of the script – two minutes for an average page of script. As we will see later, stage managers regard the prompt copy itself as a time-continuum, expressing in the progression of lines down the page a linear frame of performance. In the same way, a conventional orchestral score represents a horizontal linear sequence, controlled by time signatures and tempo markings. Running time is also used to measure progress through the performance in course of development, when frequently compared to:

5 Elapsed time. How long is it taking to rehearse this element? And projecting out from this, how much longer will be needed to complete the rehearsal? Will this fit into contractual and clock time? One director claimed with pride in an interview never to take more than twice the running time to tech. a play. A factor of three for a straightforward play is deemed realistic. In other countries different standards apply – a Czech director guesting over here, soon after the velvet revolution, listen and nod with polite interest while I explained our proposed schedule, with nine hours allocated to the Tech. How long would you normally have in Prague, I asked. “About three weeks” came the laconic reply[6].

6 The chronology of the play. What time of day is being represented? Euripides’ Trojan Women starts at dawn, and closes at nightfall, as the women are lead from burning Troy to the Greek ships. The aristotelian unity here is simple and straightforward: problems arise from plays like JB Priestley’s time plays. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, seen though the eyes of a character with early dementia – it opens with a recursive time cycle of three alternative memories of the same event, with much of the dialogue the same. When a leading actor in performance once cut one of the cycles, a high degree of confusion reigned backstage, to which the stage manager had to respond very fast. Twelfth Night is only one Shakespeare text where scenes can be played in alternate order without alteration to narrative sense – the play opening with a storm, or with Orsino’s musical musings? There may be, then, multiple chronologies to deal with.

7 Narrative time Umberto Eco[7] makes observations of the multiplicity of narratives inherent in the novel. He cites the example of the flashback device used in Gerard de Nerval’s Sylvie, operating at multiple levels. Eco also distinguishes between what he calls story time and discourse time – the time taken to describe events “If the text says ‘A thousand years pass,’ the story time is a thousand years. But at the level of linguistic expression, which is the level of fictional discourse, the time to read (and write) the utterance is very short”[8] This is no less true of the drama: this usage is familiar to practitioners as ‘pace’.

8 Timings of internal sequences within the play, most notably the timings of sound and lighting fades, and the related placing of cue points within the opening sequence, which establish audience concentration, and the pace of the subsequent performance. The art of the technician is in the ‘feeling’ of the pace of performance, responding to actors’ pacing, and to the level of audience concentration, rather than a literal application of timed fades. Crucial to the stage manager’s reading of design is their understanding of the time that an audience will allow for a scene change, and how it should be paced. One of the problems of episodic drama structure on the stage is the fracturing of timescale that scene-changing can impose on a poorly-written or -designed play, unlike the potential for instant cross-cutting in mechanical media.

9 Contingency time. As the title suggests, this is for dealing with unforeseen problems, and is a crucial element in successful scheduling. OED defines contingency as “Uncertainty of occurrence; chance occurrence; things which may happen at a later time,”[9] which neatly describes the way theatre as a creative act demands a flexible but structured approach. The best contingencies are always hidden, otherwise they develop a life of their own and fly away. (The concept of contingency is also elaborated into a significant management theory, but this is not immediately relevant to the current argument)[JT1] .

There may be a point, therefore, where the stage manager will have nine or more time-frames in their mind, all at the same time, while trying to arrive at a solution to a particular problem during the conduct of the technical rehearsal. They are time frames rather than time scales in that the measurement of ‘pace’ – of which only one example was given above – as a central concern of the stage manager/time manager, is a constant interaction between objective time measurements, such as the clock and contractual obligation, and those which are mutable and within the realm of local judgement and decision.

If it were to be articulated, the stage manager’s decision scenario might express itself thus: “How long will it take to talk out this problem with the director about the scene-change sequence, can we afford the time for the discussion, or will it take longer not to sort it out? If we do that, will we reach the scene change in time for the actors’ meal break, and if that is the case, would it be better to rehearse the scene change without the actors, using the crew? Should the crew take their break before or after the scene change rehearsal, because if that over-runs, will the actors be kept hanging around beyond their extended meal-break? Can I ask the crew to rehearse before their break, knowing that they are getting hungry and their concentration is not at its best, because maybe if there is an over-run we can squeeze the meal break, using it as contingency time?” This internal discourse – again only partially presented – is a scene of complex assessment and judgement, subject to a multiplicity of competing pressures, only the surface of which will ever show to those not party to the extent of the problem. Even other creative participants such as the director and designer – who will have a set of conflicting pressures of their own, many of them shared with the stage manager – in practical terms are dealing with fewer than the stage manager, whose structural position is such that they are there to shield the ‘artistic team’ from managerial pressures. And in the end, the director can walk away with their reputation intact, enhanced, or in tatters: but they are unlikely to be there, every performance, to manage the results of their decisions. It is the stage manager’s responsibility to guide the audience for their nightly walk in the woods, and to support and maintain the actors, whether the show is good or bad. A familiar phenomenon experienced by theatre workers is that of temporal dislocation resulting from dealing with these complex time frames – the experience of walking out from the theatre to be met with unexpected darkness, or sunshine; of waking at 7.30 and being unable to register am or pm. This is not always attributable to tiredness. Indeed, many audience members experience the same, having been thoroughly engaged in the drama.

The actor Harriet Walter describes the effect of coping with alternate timescales while playing Chekhov. She knows that from 9:30 to 10:05 she, the actor, would be experiencing certain events in the life of the character, which at the same time she, as the character, must not know because they have not yet ‘happened’.[10] While she is describing the paradox of acting process, Ms Walter’s experience describes well the same paradox of time as experienced by the stage manager. This may suggest that at least some aspects of stage management knowledge of time management is linked with the paradoxes of acting. The special knowledge that results from working in the theatre , is related to the content of that activity. For example, Stanislavski’s ‘magic if’ bears comparison with the management technique of running a what-if scenario, but also takes into account the personality of protagonists: “If I am such and such a character, what is the true nature of my feelings and what are the correct physical movements for me now[JT2] ?”[11].

Another link is suggested by the theories of Claus Moeller, of the founder of the company Time Manager International. He suggests that “If a manager is not in control of their own time, then he or she is not in control of his organisation.” He goes on to suggest that one of the priorities of management is to make time to be genuinely concerned for the well being of the personnel for whom they are responsible.[12] The link with the stage manager’s attention to the actor is fitting, is echoed by Francis Reid: “Stage management is, in essentials, about controlling people rather than things”[13]. Further attention could usefully be given to the [JT3] . If we can accept, therefore, that time management is a complex activity which remains one special expertise of the stage manager, the question arises as to how they handle the complexity of the exercise. Certainly, the internal discourse is not linguistic in form, although it can to some extent be articulated, it would take too long and in any case is pointless. As with so much stage management work, it is the outcome that matters[JT4] . The answer, we would suggest, lies in a process of visualisation – or more precisely, conceptualization, which tends to the visual in its form. We all are used to visual analogues of time. The analogue clock face is one, and one that ‘works’ differently from the digital time read-out. Adding a quarter of an hour (analogue) or 15 minutes (digital) to 8:49 in digital form is not obvious arithmetic:

Fig. 1

· Figure 1 -digital time while using the graphical representation of the circular face makes the job geometric: · Figure 2 – analogue timeThis task is performed by the DSM on every show with a fifteen minute interval; complete with calculations of when to give the audience three, two and one – minute calls, and the actors their five-minute beginners’ call. In our example here, the DSM will aim the next act to start at 9:04, and start the calls sequence at 8:59. Secondly, the text itself can act as a time analogy. The stage manager is aware, as are script editors and directors, that there is an approximate relationship between the number of pages and the length (that is, the time-length) of the play. All things being equal, the play has a tendency to progress at a steady rate: as a rule of thumb, six pages to the quarter-hour or some such baseline is often used, with variations depending on the publication format. Working at a detail level, the stage manager takes this principle further. A thirty-second cue standby would be accorded just over half a page of normal text, while an actor’s backstage paging call (depending on the distance to the dressing room) would be given a page and a half. Cueing sequences are judged by eye for complexity, by the number of marks opposite the text. [14] · Figure 3 cueing scriptOur third example is that of the production schedule. Schedules have a tendency to be written as a script, and part of the elegance of a good schedule is to match a script for regularity of timing. As with the example of the prompt copy, the layout of the text is as significant as the content – the words on the page operate as more than a series of instructions. The shape of the text indicates the passage of time:


Monday 24th May

9.00am Rig onstage

1.30pm Getin Fitup

9.30pm Touch up paint

Tuesday 25th May

9.00am Focus

4.00pm Lighting rehearsal

9.00pm Tech

Wednesday 26th May

9.00am Tech to continue

12.30pm Lunch

2.00pm Tech to continue

5.30pm Tech finish – corrections

7.30pm Dress 1

Thursday 27th May

9.00am Work as needed

2.00pm Dress 2, notes to follow

7.30pm Performance 1

· Figure 4 -simplified production schedule

With the advent of the Gantt chart, whether in the form of a Sasco chart, or as a computer printout, schedules are becoming regularly graphical in form, with components regarded as building blocks of time. Use of critical path analysis (CPA) methods of project management, showing interrelationships of components, develops this display of time to a certain beauty. Figure 5 – graphical layout of scheduleThe question arising from these examples is whether the ability of stage managers to cope with the complex knowledge of time management is a function of their visualisation process? We must be careful here to distinguish between three different, non-linguistic approaches. We have seen above forms of presentation that are graphical in form, if it is understood that the text is perceived not just as a word sequence, but also a shape on a white field. We might say that the graphics are a visual metaphor for chronologies, or that the metaphor expresses complex relationships as a spatial arrangement[JT5] . The next hypothesis to be developed therefore concerns the stage manager’s understandings of, and ability to manipulate, space.

At this point it is worth returning to the example of Critical Path Analysis as illustrated in Figure 5, for the insights into time management it affords. Time is viewed as a linear continuum stretching from right to left, while the tasks into which the project may be divided run down the page. A task is a time-based activity separated by two events: start and finish. Starting from the beginning or the end, tasks are analysed as to their logical consecutive order; they are also analysed to see which tasks may happen concurrently. When linked together as a series of dependencies, this process provides an initial sequence of events; when planned from the beginning, an Earliest Possible Completion time; when from the end, a Latest Possible Start: always assuming that time estimates have been accurate. Usual planning practice is to go about halfway from each end, and then deal with the mismatch in the middle of the schedule – in practice, somewhere around the lighting rehearsal time (see fig 4). Since theatre practice in the UK is to work to a scheduled opening, and the theatre’s time availability is known as a constant from the outset, time management often becomes an exercise in rationing a scarce resource, just as if it were money or materials. Experienced project managers therefore are placed in a situation where it is imperative to fit the production concept to the available time-resource; and also to include contingencies in some form, even if that is lost meal breaks. In the example in Fig 4, the major contingency is in the Thursday morning session. So far, so good. What has been described is a logical process of linear reasoning, even if the argument is worked from both ends to the middle. Based on learned experience, which provides the data upon which to predict time usage, the scheduler will be able to make logical deductions, which are determinate. A such, the scheduling process is far removed from the ‘creative’ actions of the rehearsal room, where the process of creation is a circular, recurrent iteration of the play[JT6] .

Rehearsal is typified by non-logical processes such as emotional memory, and lateral searches for metaphor and allusion. What becomes apparent on further inspection, however, is that scheduling is, in fact, circular and recursive; furthermore, relies on a high level of subjective judgement of factors which may impinge on the outcome. At any stage in the list of complex tasks involved in drawing the production together, human errors and unforeseen problems may arise; fragile personalities may collide under the pressure of maintaining reputation or status; shortcomings in material areas may show as poor quality components are less robust than needed or hoped for. Above all, theatre is in industrial terms a research and development activity, where even a well-known text is being re-worked, with different actors and under different circumstances from predecessor productions. In many cases, the number of variables can rise because the show is designed for touring to different venues, with widely differing audiences and without even a consistency of stage shape. The production is fashioned from within the psyches of individual artists, whose interaction with other production elements will need to be assessed. Similar variables can be seen in the development of cueing sequences.

Everything that appears on the stage is read as a signifier[JT7] . It follows that not only each lighting state, each sound played, and each block of text is read by the audience, but also the way in which the state is arrived at; the start of a sound effect; the actor’s entrance are also read as a sign. In figure 3 we saw a sample cueing script showing a selection of these elements, opening a short narrated story. In many ways, the sequence follows a number of conventions: an ‘overture’ in the form of play-in music heralds the experience and prepares the audience for their engagement with the action. After a time for this to register and affect their emotional condition, the lights in the auditorium are dimmed; set dressing light fades out, their attention having been directed to the stage. The actor enters; suitable light is brought up as the music fades, and is replaced by ambient sound to reinforce a sense of location[JT8] . It may be seen that a similar logic is at work in the cueing sequence to that of CPA – each cue command is an event, which results in an activity, or action: for example, lights fade up over 8 secs. Other actions are dependent on that action: lights fade to blackout, then actor walks on. In the eyes of the stage manager, then, the production is seen as a series of semiotic incidents, each with an inherent value or weight, many of which are interchangeable. Indeed, since stage management are charged with an executive role, usually they will recognise the practicality, and often the value, of a desired moment before the director, and frequently will negotiate alternatives. To achieve the co-ordination of even this simple sequence into an aesthetically pleasing whole requires complex knowledge. The stage manager needs to be aware of the conventions of the theatre, of the intention of the following scene; of the pace that is intended to set, and a ‘feel’ for the musical phrasing that sets the tempo. In addition, the DSM who will be calling this sequence may have to contend with variable audience responses. These will be perceived by the relative attention of the audience, measured in rustling of sweet wrappers and programmes, and the level of auditorium noise before the sequence begins. It is not unusual to vary one’s cueing for, say, a schools’ matinee; an audience predominated by senior citizens; or for a performance on a wet Tuesday to a thin house. Cueing in these circumstances can never be mechanical, or run completely to the stop-watch. The communication pattern of the process of constructing these sequences is particularly interesting. While the director and lighting designer are indicating a number of preferences, the DSM is translating these into a formalised command language which they will record as above. These cues will be spoken at the same time as action is continuing, often backed by a series of red and green indicator lights. While they are in full accord, the rehearsal progresses. If, however, the rehearsal fails to meet an aesthetic standard, a complex negotiation ensues, but expressed in a command mode: assuming the sequence was cued and operated as instructed, is it necessary to change the cue point, the timing of the cue, or the associated action? At its best, a level of trust and intuition is brought to bear, and roles within the creative process are quickly and clearly established. The days of the director screaming at their stage manager, while not unknown, are usually now seen as an anachronism. All of these variable factors, in both the example of the production schedule and the cueing sequence need to be assessed and brought to bear on the logic of fitting a circular creative pattern into the linearity of the time frames. The stage or production manager is therefore placed in a situation of working in both patterns at the same time: the experience is that of surfing upon waves of uncertainty, whence comes the frequent exhilaration of the exercise of their craft. From this we may see some of the explanation of the Arts Council’s identification of stage management ability cited at the top of the article, along with some pointers to other areas of enquiry.

[1] Reid, Francis: The Staging Handbook, 2nd Edn, A&C Black, London 1995 p19

[2]ACE Fitness for purpose report, London 1998, p26

[3] Reid, Francis op cit p19

[4] Hird W.R. in conversation 1995

[5] Shaw George Bernard Introduction to St Joan

[6] Palouš Petr in conversation 1991

[7] Eco, Umberto – Six Walks in the Fictional Woods Harvard University Press,1994, 0-674-81051

[8] Ibid p54

[9] The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th Edition,1976, p219

[10] Harriet Walter Other People’s Shoes serialised on BBC Radio 4, Friday 28th May 1999

[11] Magarshack, David Stanislavski on the Art of the Stage, Faber& Faber, 1967, p93

[12] Moeller Claus The Time Manager BBC Training Video, 1989

[13] Reid, Francis op cit p25

[14] Although a scene-change, having no ‘script-length’ equivalent to its timescale, has a tendency to mess around with one’s estimation.



[JT1]Expansion area – contingency planning; contingency theory


[JT2]Effect of drama on management skills and training – role play and simulations; ability to deal with stressful situations

[JT3]Handling of actors by SM – temperament; process of creation

[JT4]Drucker – Management by objectives; Macchiavelli

[JT5]Spatial understanding – links to dyslexia – scene changing and stage setting

[JT6]Concepts of rehearsal

[JT7]Semiotics and prop selection; other scenographic elements

[JT8]CPA representation of sequence?