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All the world’s a stage, and we but players on it…

I moonlight as a stage manager for local theatre productions in my town, and most recently I oversaw the production of the “47th Annual Madfest”, a juggling variety show. Acts come in from all over the world to the festival, and in the space of 5 hours in an afternoon it is my job to turn them into an evening’s worth of entertainment for the sold-out 1300 seat theatre. This presents unusual challenges particular to this event: there is no real rehearsal, and often acts are being added or cut from the lineup right up until showtime. It’s a microcosmic perfect storm of pressure, stress and (even worse for a performer like myself) the threat of public humiliation.

Yet every year the show gets better, and attracts bigger crowds. How? As Geoffrey Rush said in Shakespeare in Love, “… a miracle occurs.” The best miracles, though, seem to occur with some advance planning, and I found myself this year reflecting on how some of the strategies that stage managers use to make this kind of magic could be useful on the larger stage of our lives.

1. Stay Calm. The best stage managers never raise their voice. Even when the lighting has failed, the ingenue just broke her ankle backstage and the lemmings have broken out of their cages, it is the steady voice over the headsets that brings the crew together. It’s not even that the stress is just being hidden; it really isn’t there– yet. The skill lies in subsuming the panic until after the crisis. Then you can go hit your head against the wall. Or the lemming. Or whatever. But in the middle of a crisis? Tell yourself you can run in circles, scream and shout–but later.

2. Plan flexibility. Of course, the stage manager has a cue sheet with everything written on it that will occur on the stage, and when, and what should happen next. It’s a very useful document, but as Mark Twain said, “the map ain’t the territory.” It bears only a passing resemblance to what will actually occur on the stage, and the good stage manager is aware of this and has the ability to rearrange cues, change the timing of directions , and sometimes skip or add events based on the needs of the show. Having your GTD plan is all well and good, and I find my schedule immensely useful, but if reality determines that you are snowed in, the flights are cancelled, or the tire is flat and you’re in the middle of the desert, the ability to re-format that schedule and that to-do list can do wonders for your peace of mind and productivity.

3. Anticipate. Any stage direction given during a show consists of at least two parts: a Ready and a Go. For example, the stage manager would see the dancer about to go into a routine on stage left, and would say something like “ready, light cue 9.5 and sound cue 10…that should be track 7, right, Allison?” This would happen about a minute before the event, but it’s that minute that gives Allison time to double check where the CD is cued and respond with a “Track 7, sound cue 10, standing by!” It’s a way for everybody involved to realize that something’s going to happen, and that they are all ready for it. Cultivating this habit would do wonders for my own family. “The play is tonight, Dad, but I know you have your writer’s group later on–I’ll catch a ride home with my friend Allison, ok?” “I’m going to be loading in with the dance company next thursday night, dear, can we make sure we have dinner wednesday together so that I don’t miss you too much?” Merlin Mann and David Allen talk about this in the 43 Folders/GTD podcast about teams, but in the microcosm of the stage this tactic is essential.

4. Communicate. That ready warning would be pretty useless if I wasn’t wearing a headset, connected to the light board operator, the backstage crew, the spot operator, the sound board op, and whoever else is running the mechanics of the theatre. There is no more essential tool to the theatre, in my opinion, than a good ClearCom system backstage connecting people. It seems to me that the matter of “headset etiquette”–not having too much chatter during the show, making sure you don’t cough with your mic on, and above all, never taking off your headset without letting people know–also has some allegorical usefulness. With all the attention paid to “staying connected”, I don’t know many people who will actually take the time to let others know when they need to be away (“I need to write this article for Lifehack, hon, I’ll be off chat for a bit.”) I’m not sure how this would work for the multiple lines of communication–I communicate with one of my adult daughters primarily via phone, and another via email, and two others are still in the nest. Maintaining and keeping these communication lines free and strong is something I’d love to hear suggestions about in the comments.

5. Be aware of the moment. It’s a peculiar kind of multitasking, not only anticipating but also being aware of the state of the theatre during a show–sometimes through video monitors showing the green room, the stage, and the audience, and sometimes simply through asking over the headset “Is the house full?” as you stare at your moleskine full of notes from your tiny desk backstage. Whatever kind of network you use, be aware of your surroundings, and make sure you have reliable information. My own particular area needing improvement is in my finances. Are there areas where you are letting your awareness slip, where you don’t know what’s going on? Anticipation is great, but only if things go where you expect them to.

6. Go. Remember the second part of the “ready” warning? Anticipation, awareness, communication, planning, it’s all great…but if the moment comes, and you don’t give the “Go!”signal, nothing happens in the end. It’s a precarious moment, when you don’t know for sure if that cue will work, if the props will be in their place, when you don’t know if the PowerPoint that you are playing off of your iPod because LifeHack said it would be cool will actually work, or if instead you’re going to show your board members an Invader Zim cartoon. But you have to press that button, start that conversation, to tip that first domino in the chain of events you’ve planned for your life.

And then relax…and let the miracle occur. It’s your life–and it’s the greatest show on earth.

Gray Miller is a performance technologist in Madison, WI who loves playing with expensive toys and figuring out how to make them work in the fine arts. Aside from working with diverse troupes, he also writes at satorimedia.typepad.com about technology and the arts and also snipes at the theatrical world in general at FameorFamine.com. Other than that, he’s just your average juggling former Marine with a dance degree, four daughters, and a lapstalking cat. When he grows up, he wants to be Chris Brogan.

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