Author Topic: Stage Managing for Dance  (Read 10054 times)

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PSMKay

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Stage Managing for Dance
« on: Nov 04, 2006, 06:32 pm »
For almost two years this article sat on the "Dear SMNetwork" page on the old site, but we started to feel like it offered so much information that it should have a page all to itself.  To the author of this article--we lost your contact information, and we hang our heads in shame!  If at any point you would like to claim your byline and copyright, we'll be happy to add your credit to this article.  Many thanks to you!

To summarize my life as a contemporary dance SM:
Unless you get one of the few available jobs in the big and/or well funded companies, the work tends to mostly come from independent choreographers and small poorly funded companies. What this means is:
  • Pay - the pay at best is low end of scale and at worse a token honoraria and a check that bounces. 
  • Equity - Forget about going for your Equity card. . . pretty well the only companies that can afford to hire both an Equity SM and an apprentice are the big companies and since one can only get apprenticeship credits while working under an Equity SM. . .
  • Support Staff - Most of the time, the company also can't afford to hire tech support staff. . .Guess who gets to do all those little jobs. . . I found that having a pool of people who owed me "really big favours" was helpful here. However, I did find myself on occasion doing set up and strike with no assistance.
In other words, in a lot of cases you are hired as SM, but are actually expected to be SM/PM/TD/Carp/Props/Sound and/or Lx operator, and laundry. . . well someone has to wash out the dancers costumes every night and they aren't likely to do it themselves. By the way, collecting those costumes is one of the more disgusting things I have had to do as SM.

Choreographers - And I thought directors could be difficult. Choreographers are a completely different breed. They get to "create" in the rehearsal process. Things change daily, including the order of when things happen, which means it's almost impossible to keep orderly notes. Then there is the, 'you get asked for X, give them, miraculously provide them with X and Y, and they want to know why you didn't come up with Z as well. Choreographers are also notoriously known for impracticality. . . one show I worked on (intended to be a touring show) had as it's set a grove of trees. Real trees. That had been cut down when the set designer was clearing her property. One of which was large enough for the dancers to climb on. Looked beautiful. Hell to set up and rig for stability. And just how does one pack trees and don't forget the 500 lbs of river rocks that are the other part of the set?

Another choreographer wanted (yesterday of course) one down feather to be rigged to drop on cue. . . in a space that required a personnel lift extended fully to reach the pipe but didn't have one - we did get one from our LX designer that allowed me to rig this feather every night.  The space also had four walls of floor to ceiling windows. . . which had to be blacked out.

The same choreographer wanted a live chicken on stage. . . the original concept was that the chicken, on cue, would fly from a perch, where it was expected to sit through most of a performance, land on a table next to an egg, sit there through piece of choreography being performed over and around the chicken and egg, then fly back to the perch on cue and sit there for the rest of the performance. My initial reaction was. . . "you want a chicken to do WHAT? Chickens are the dumbest bird outside of domestic turkeys. You can't expect to train a chicken in four weeks. Not to mention that chickens can't fly." This merely led to the elimination of training the chicken but the chicken was still wanted on stage. "So just who is going to take care of the chicken?" I foolishly asked. The choreographer said that he would. Chicken eventually shows up at rehearsal space (actually it was the "understudy" since chickens being easily stressed, the original chicken had a heart attack on the way to the rehearsal hall). I discover that "choreographer taking care of the chicken" translated to "choreographer showing SM how to take care of chicken" and had to muck out a chicken cage everyday. In addition to all the usual SM duties and having to run sound as well. I will say that the chicken, who came from some chicken processing plant, did manage to win me over when it hopped up on to my forearm one day and puffed out it's chest and extended its wings like a falcon. I decided that the chicken had great delusions and/or ambitions. About halfway through the run. . . "So what's going to happen with the chicken after the show closes? No, I'm not going to take it home with me. I live in the suburbs, keeping livestock is illegal, I want to keep on good terms with my neighbours, and my husband would eat it." Fortunately on closing night, another choreographer who just happened to have bought a small hobby farm and was keeping chickens offered to take the chicken home. The chicken lived for two more years and died of natural causes. What purpose did the chicken serve in the show? Never did figure that one out. It sat on stage in a small basket made out of orange snow fence, one performer would take it out, deliver a monologue about enemas to it, and put it back.

Space - In some cases it really is the final frontier. Since independent choreographers and companies don't always have their own space - rehearsal space and the search for it becomes a major priority. Since cheap space is hard to come by you take it where ever you can find it. . . usually in the worst section of town. . ."but it adds to the artistic ambience. . . thank you, but I prefer not to have to step over bodies when I leave rehearsal at 11pm." Location aside, you have to consider the floor when looking at a space for dance. . . dancers shouldn't work on concrete floors, and irregularities on the surface of any floor or a freshly waxed floor can be deadly. Although washing down the floor with some diluted 7-Up or Sprite (depending on which school of thought you side with) takes care of the latter problem. Once you have a space that is acceptable - if you have access to a dance floor, that has to be put down. Dance floors come in 2 forms. . . long narrow strips on long rolls or one big roll. It is impossible to lay a floor by oneself no matter which form the floor is.

And pray that the choreographer doesn't change their mind about which side they want showing.

My kit contains a large jar of liniment called "Mineral Ice". The jar I have comes from a tack store and is "acceptable for use on racehorses". It works better than the version you can get at the drugstore. I first discovered it when I was dancing and had injured myself on stage. . . I was able to finish the performance. Note that the injury wasn't crippling. . . like all dancers I pushed myself but I wasn't stupid. I figure that if it's good enough to use on racehorses, it's good enough to use on dancers who are treated like racehorses. I also keep several bags of frozen peas/corn/whatever is cheapest, in the freezer if the space I'm in has one. I also keep several lighters in my kit, since a large number of dancers are still smokers. I'm not kidding - I think it has to do with an unconscious rebellion against the striving for physical perfection that dancers subject themselves to. I've thought about using a Polaroid as a means of keeping notes, but I don't like the idea of using a flash while dancers are working. I also keep a record of shoe repair shops that specialize in dance shoes. Dance shoes can be repaired to extend their life. People who do it well are rare. People who properly install taps are also rare. It pays to research this one. I also have a file of cards for physiotherapists and chiropractors who take emergency walk-ins and specialize in dancer injuries. Oh yes, and one economy size bottle of acetaminophen with codeine (generic form of Tylenol one with codeine) for those choreographer sized headaches and a cloth doll and a set of pins..

Learning choreography is easier if you videotape rehearsals and run-throughs. You can watch the video and practice calling cues. Since cues can occur on "when S is at highest point in third barrel roll" working with a video every night after rehearsals cuts the amount of time spent in Q to Q. If you overdub your voice calling cues on the video, it makes the life of another stage manager learning the show easier. This also applies to big musicals where there are a lot of cues during musical or dance interludes.

Working exclusively in the dance community burned me out. I however enjoyed working in it.  Being in on the creation process is great. I loved that energy. Choreographers may be hell to work for (and not all choreographers fall into this category - the good ones have regular SM's who aren't going to give up their good thing easily - and I have the reputation of being able to work with/handle the difficult ones) but they are some of the most driven and passionately creative people I've worked with. That alone is what kept me there.

One final bit of advice: Never own a pick-up truck or van. Doing things yourself to help keep costs down is all very nice, but I trashed my truck hauling things for dance shows. Know how to drive light trucks but drive a small car to work. The tendency for " could you run out and get large item X" is lessened if it won't fit into your vehicle.

Choreographer light bulb joke:
How many. . . Just one, but they keep changing it and changing it and changing. . .
Just one, but can you get it to turn the other way?
None. "Where's my stage manager? She should have known that it was going to burn out today and changed it yesterday."
--from Vancouver, BC

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ChaCha

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Re: Stage Managing for Dance
« Reply #1 on: Jun 04, 2009, 10:55 am »
I haven't delved in these old posts much before, but what a fantastic article. I have recently been spending a lot of time with independent choreographers and all these comments rang so true for me. I feel like I am not alone!
ChaCha

EzBrEzPSM

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Re: Stage Managing for Dance
« Reply #2 on: Jan 31, 2013, 04:19 pm »
I know that this post is ages old, but I always look for my topics in question in the archives before I go asking the same question on the new board. So with that being said, here goes...

I absolutely love your sense of humor about the whole situation. So accurate and insightful! Seeing that you've obviously been there, done that, I thought you might have some tricks of the trade to share with me about my current predicament. I am the production manager/ company manager/ stage manager for a small, non-profit professional dance company. We have a youth company which completes the corps we need for the ballets we perform and our local Symphony has a youth symphony program, so we would like to collaborate to host a youth performing arts event at a local Masonic lodge which has a beautiful proscenium stage, the problem is, their beautiful stage is carpeted. Another issue is that there is no orchestra pit but there is a 20'X 40’ open area between the audience seating and the proscenium which the youth symphony can set up in and play. However, there is hardly any rake to the audience seating and no rake to the stage so the first ~10 rows of floor seating would have their sightlines for the ballet obstructed by instruments or musicians.

Any suggestions of ways to install a raised dance sub floor surface which could raise the dancers about 6" above the existing stage floor so that the sight lines would be cleared up and then we could just lay our marley on top? We have an interlocking dance floor that has not been pulled out of storage for years, but its only about 2" or 3" thick and I don’t know if it will fit in the freight elevator that we will be using for the show, is 7’6”X7’x7’6”, so that’s another limiting factor because the sections of the floor are 8’X4’.

Anyways, that’s my current conundrum, all thoughts are welcome!
Thanks in advance.

PSMKay

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Re: Stage Managing for Dance
« Reply #3 on: Jan 31, 2013, 06:51 pm »
Ez, this post is from the very first incarnation of SMNetwork - it's over a decade old now. Back in the day I would anonymize the names of contributors, but keep the original emails so I could look up authorship. When we switched over to a forum format, I carried over some of the old static content like this piece as archived posts. I unfortunately no longer have access to any of my email accounts from 2002 though, so I have no idea who originally wrote this.

If you wrote this back in 2002 please let me know. Otherwise, I am sure we've got some other very capable and funny dance stage managers who will be happy to step up and give advice. (Right guys?)

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LCSM

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Re: Stage Managing for Dance
« Reply #4 on: Jan 31, 2013, 09:50 pm »
So pleased this post got a bump. That chicken story is the funniest thing I've read in ages.

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