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Q&A: Stage manager Sydney Smith on calling ‘Peter Pan’

It doesn’t get much more “behind-the-scenes” than Sydney Smith.

As the stage and company manager for BalletMet, Smith is the main liaison between the dancers and the company, as well as the person in charge of knowing and calling each performance at the theater.

Calling a show requires Smith to know every cue throughout a performance, down to each light, curtain and set move. She stands backstage, headset on and music in hand, ready to give the crew their signal.

And she’ll do just that for our upcoming performances of Michael Pink’s Peter Pan, Feb. 10-12 at the Ohio Theatre. Below, Smith shares what it’s like to be backstage during a show—and provides a little insight into the inner workings of Peter Pan.

Q: Tell us about your prompt book.

A: For opera and dance, I typically have a score with all of the sheet music. If the sheet music doesn’t exist (usually for newer works), I may even call an entire show off the blocking/choreography only. (I had to do this for Lambarena during Night and Day.) On one side of the prompt book I have the music and on the other I have blocking pages. On the blocking pages are mini ground plans of the set, and I can draw in where the dancers are at any given point. There are also lines for notes—for Pan in particular, it’s really important that I document which dancers are assigned to moving certain set pieces and doing certain effects. I have all of the standbys cues I have to give to the crew in the music. Basically, anything I say over the headset goes into my score. Everything is very specifically timed, so when it comes time to call the show, I’m paying more attention to my score than I am my blocking pages.

Q: What all are you hearing on your headset?

A: I typically have about 10 to 15 other people on headset who can hear me and vice versa. These include the light board operator, sound operator, most of the crew on the deck and my assistant stage manager. The crew communicates with each other a lot via headset, so I will hear them give each other “clear” or “set” when they can’t see each other during scene shifts. Sometimes they ask me questions about what’s coming next or how much time there is until the next intermission. Our head props person usually acts as my deck manager as well, so she is the one who acts as my eyes and ears backstage. (I usually can’t see much, and I stay tethered to my console). If anything goes wrong, she (or whoever can see what’s happening) will let me know, and then we work together to come up with a solution as quickly as possible.

[image_with_animation image_url=”10936″ alignment=”” animation=”Fade In”]Q: What do you enjoy most about the process of calling a show?

A: With ballet especially, I love the musicality of it. I love the moment when a difficult cuing sequence finally clicks, and it matches up with the music perfectly. It gives me chills every time!

Q: What are some of the common challenges?

A: On a show as complex as Peter Pan, it can be a real challenge to make sure that I am being 100 percent clear all of the time. I’m giving cues to a lot of different people, and if I’m not clear about who the cue is for, it could spell disaster. In the physical calling of the show, another big challenge is timing all the words I have to say. For instance, if a bunch of cues need to happen at the same time, they will all share a “GO” (that’s the magic word!), but I have to time out all of the things to say before that “go” so that the cue lands at the right place. The same goes for “Standbys” (which I give 15 to 30 seconds before the actual cues). So, I might have to say, “Standby Lights 105, Sound Track 14, Rail Cue B, and Spot to pick up Peter Pan at 50 percent.” Then about 20 seconds later, “Lights, Sound, Rail and Spot: GO.” That “GO” has to land at the right spot, so timing out everything before it can be difficult.

Q: Peter Pan comes with some unique challenges—can you describe those?

A: The score is quite a challenge to read. The time signature (how many beats per measure) changes frequently, so it takes quite a bit of concentration in order to not get lost. It’s also a heavy orchestration, which means that there is more than one musical line to be following most of the time. I do a lot of studying, and I make a lot of notes in my score about where in the music I should be looking to match the instruments I naturally hear first. I also study the music in the context of calling my cues. I “rehearse” at home so I can get it into my muscle memory (always knowing, of course, that anything can change once we get into tech).

Q: What’s your favorite part of the show?

A: Nothing beats when Peter Pan flies through the window. I can be watching it from behind the set, from the side or right up front— it’s so magical!