Stage Manager 101: Calling Cues

Cristina D'Almeida

What does it actually mean to “call a show?” To me, it’s an art or at least I treat it like one. It’s actually not the easiest thing to explain because of the many different elements that come into play, however, once you get the hang of it, it becomes a rhythm…..that is in most cases. In a nutshell, this is where the stage manager calls the lighting, sound and scene change cues (or whatever else) for a show. The cues control everything you see happening in a technical sense on stage. 

First of all, I think it’s important to differentiate the two main kinds of shows there are and what that means in terms of cues. To start, there are straight plays. Straight plays do not have any music (singing) or choreography (mostly). It’s straight acting which means you won’t have to worry about any musical sequences. It really depends on the show, but you really only have to worry about lighting changes and sound effects when it comes to a play. If there are any major scene changes, sometime it’s helpful for the SM to call those as well. Again, it depends on the show, but you can have a really tech-heavy show or a really light show in terms of cues. It depends on the designer and director’s visions and decisions as well. Stage Managers might have to call all kinds of cues, but for the most part, it’s usually lighting and sound. Then there are musicals which to me are challenging, especially when calling one for the first time. With musicals, you have to worry about music and choreography and the sequences of those things. It becomes a rhythm and there is a certain way to call things in terms of musical numbers and when they start and end.

Backstage at 24 Hour Plays: Caoimhe Regan at her desk. Photograph: Peter Crawley

Backstage at 24 Hour Plays: Caoimhe Regan at her desk. Photograph: Peter Crawley

Going back to basics, lighting and sound designers put together or design where the cues should happen in the show/script. It’s a little more straight forward with sound because you’ll have an idea as to where sound effects should go, but I always believed lighting is much more extensive for designers to create. Once designers put their pieces together, they can hand their cues off to the stage manager who writes the cues into their own script in a way they’re able to easily call them.

Having a cue to cue is always helpful. This is where the stage manager and designers go through each cue of the show, without actors, and go over when and how to call the cue. In musicals, there is a certain way to call cues at the end of a musical number for example. The final beat/pose of a song is called the “button.” The button is called first, then it’s usually helpful to wait two beats, and then you can call the blackout, blue out or whatever the next lighting change is. Blackouts should happen fast. The biggest thing I’ve learned, don’t wait for the audience’s applause to call a cue, especially at the end of musical numbers. Musicals need to keep moving and it’s important to form a rhythm.

After a few dress rehearsals, you should be able to get the hang of calling the cues. It’s all about how you write the cues in your script and also what you see happening on stage. The cues should be written in a way where you should be able to read them off, but also have an understanding of what they mean, where they are happening and the effect they are creating on stage. As you call the cues, always pick your head up. Yes, it’s important to stay on track and on book, but you also need to know everything happening and changing on stage as well. Get into a rhythm of picking your head up.

The best way to actually understand all of this is to do it and experience it and actually learn how sequences work because that’s really what it is, a series of sequences. How you write the cues is only the organizational part of it. You actually have to know what needs to happen next, because the stage manager is in control of these things. For me, regular nerves apply to this stuff but once you become confident in the show and what needs to happen, you should be able to do it every night. If some cues are a beat or two off, don’t beat yourself up over it, just make a mental note for next time and include it in your performance report. No stage manager is perfect. If you can understand what needs to happen and successfully execute it as best you can, that’s all you can do. Remember it is live theatre, and that in itself is a beautiful thing. Just go with it.