Stage & Performer Management
Efficient stage management is crucial to the success of your event.
I have written this article to help you learn the basic principles of stage management, learn some techniques, and understand some common mistakes. A lot of our clients do not book acts or performers regularly, so the idea of doing this for a major event can be quite daunting.
Who Does What?
Before consideration is given to what acts to book, it is a good idea to think about who is doing what within your team. Sometimes your team can just be yourself, but typically you will be working with other people, agents and an event production company like SXS. Below are the key tasks that need to be delegated.
Given that this is key to the strategy of your event and budget, it is a very good idea to for the main event organiser to have a high level of involvement in this. The SXS team can assist with this process.
Negotiating with Acts
Even on smaller events there will be an element of negotiation with performers with regards to what they are doing, what they are bringing, performance times etc. Given the potential intricacy of this work it is best for an experienced professional to do this. SXS offer a free Performer Broking service as part of a larger production solution whereby we broker the deal to ensure everything has been covered and everyone is getting value out of the relationship. The event organiser may also decide to do this, but it is wise to get input from an experienced professional.
This is the role of speaking to all performers about the event in advance to ensure that everything will run smoothly. This includes discussing logistics, kit storage, stage layout, technical requirements, sharing of instruments, food, dressing rooms etc.
This is the job of deciding what act performs when. This also involves creating a running order. This needs to be done with careful consideration of what else is happening at the event, such as catering, off-stage entertainment etc.
This is one of the most important jobs and takes place on the day of the event (plus advance planning). The job of the stage manager is to ensure that the performers and production team all know what is happening and what each party needs to do. The stage manager is also responsible for ensuring performers get on and off stage at the right times. This role requires good people skills, excellent organisation and the ability to think quickly and be flexible. It is also helpful for a stage manager to have strong leadership skills.
Stage Crew are the people who move equipment on and off the stage. They may also assist with helping load the performer's equipment in and out of the venue. They will typically also ensure the stage is kept tidy. In general stage crew are support staff to everyone else.
The sound engineers do everything relating the technical side of the music - so microphones, cables, mixing, sound effects etc. Sound engineers will also reposition microphones and other audio equipment for each band. Sound Engineers are not to be confused with stage crew. On smaller events the sound engineer may also help with stage crew work - but only on performances as small as a pub gig. On multi-performer projects (corporate events, festivals, student balls etc) the sound engineers will need to focus all their time and energy on ensuring everything sounds perfect and all the equipment works well.
House Kit is the general term given to performance equipment provided by the event organiser that can be used by multiple performers. This typically includes drum kits, guitar amplifiers, stage risers and keyboards. The benefit of house kit is that making it available can significantly reduce the time required for one band to get off stage and another to get on. The other benefit is that more of the setup work is displaced to a time well before the performers get to site. When I run shows I like to provide the drum kits and backline as it makes everything run much smoother on the day. This also means that our sound engineers have plenty of time to get the sound perfect. Extra time spent aligning microphones and tuning drum kits can make a huge difference to the quality of performance. We have an excellent stock of guitar amplification and drum kits that are suitable for international touring acts. These are immaculately maintained and setup by our sound engineers, many of whom are experienced musicians. Typically we aim to provide house kit for low prices to encourage clients to book this with SXS rather than getting musicians bringing their own. It is also worth seeing if the performers can offer some cost savings by not bringing their own drum kit and guitar amplification.
This is the process of getting one performer(s) off the stage and the next one on. This can be as simple as a soloist leaving and the next one walking straight back on again. In other cases it can involve a full change of all instruments, set, stage risers, drum kits, microhones and cabling. It is very important to allow for adequate time for change overs between acts. A change-over for a soloist can be instant whereas the change over for a larger act could take up to 40 minutes. The factors that will affect change over time are:
- Number of stage hands
- Experience and skill of stage hands
- whether the performers are sharing "house" drum kits and backline
- access routes to and from stage
- use of movable "rolling risers" which allow for drum kits to be pre-set then wheeled into position - note that this requires substantial stage space
- use of sat-boxes and multi-cores to allow for swift changeover of each act
Sound checks are the time that performers get before the event to play onstage. While the primary purpose of this is to get their sound right, it is also useful for everyone in the production team to work with the band and test everything. With the use of modern digital sound desks it is now possible to do sound checks for bands in any order as their individual sound settings can be recalled swiftly and easily. Sound checks can take a few minutes up to a few hours - although 30-60 minutes is typical.
A rider is a document that a performer provides to outline their requirements for their performance. These range hugely in detail and style. I have worked with some US acts whose riders are 50+ pages and go into a very high level of detail with every aspect of their performance, food, backstage dressing rooms, transport, type of drinks, spec of hotel rooms etc. Other riders are a simple one-page document with a stage plan (layout of where each performer stands) and overview technical requirements. Many performers (especially semi-professional or those working in small venues) do not have riders. It is important to remember that riders are generally written with a certain type of show in mind. Sometimes I get given riders that have been written with a stadium performance in mind, but the event the performer is working on may be much smaller. In these cases the best thing to do is get an experienced production manager to speak directly with the performer's management or technical team to establish what is actually required. I have had conversations that are quite amusing for both parties, as in some cases the equipment specified on the rider would not physically fit into the venue! In other cases the performer's rider is far too basic for the show they are working on. In these cases the production designer should design a solution for the event which will invariably exceed the performer's expectations. This is a much more common occurrence for our team. The main thing to remember is that riders are almost always a set of guidelines and a basis for understanding the needs of performers. This means that there is usually flexibility from both performer and production designer. It is vital that open communication takes place between production designer and performer. While there generally is flexibility with riders, it is important to understand that there are often certain non-negotiables - i.e. things which the performer must have with absolutely no substitutions. These can include but are not limited to:
- Certain models of sound or lighting control desks (often performers have their shows pre-programmed for a specific piece of equipment).
- Certain models of backline such as guitar amps - as this is crucial to the sound of the performer.
- A certain size of stage because of set or other equipment that needs to fit on it.
- A certain quality of sound system (although there can be some flexibility on specific manufacturers as there are several main brands that all offer comparable quality).
It is wise to get a copy of a performerâ€™s rider before booking them. This is because they may have very specific requirements that could present considerable costs to the event organiser. All production managers are happy to speak with your acts in advance of booking to ensure that a suitable technical specification is being provided.
Scheduling the event
The performance schedule is the most important document for stage management. The purpose is to show everyone what is happening, when it is happening and what each party needs to do to make it happen. The performance schedule should be a table with the vertical axis showing times and the horizontal showing what happens at each point.
The column headings should include, as a minimum:
- Start time
- Stage manager
- Stage hands
You may also include other specialist areas where applicable such as video, special effects, backline technicians, dressing room etc. For each section of this running order write any relevant details that each party needs to know.
A stage is a potentially dangerous workplace and as such needs to be treated carefully. Stage design and risk assessments are an in depth field of production management which requires considerable knowledge of statute and good practice as well as years of experience. As such it is beyond the scope of this article. However I will list a few top-line considerations below:
- Stage height - do you need handrails, or a drop stage?
- Light levels - have you got adequate work light in the backstage area?
- Is the stage and roof structure sound and suitable for the environment?
- Backstage tidiness - is the backstage area tidy and free from trip hazards or other items that could cause injury?
- Public access - consider how easy it would be for a member of the audience to get onstage. You may identify needs for specialist barriers, or to make the stage suitable for public access (there are various statutes and building codes relating to raised platforms, ramps and steps)
On the Night
By the time the event takes place all the hard work should have been done and the show itself should be a smooth and enjoyable experience.
As long as everyone knows what they are doing and the planning has been done well the show should run smoothly. The exact chain of command will vary depending on the event, but as a basic outline the following are essential:
- Stage manager to oversee everything and make sure the schedule is adhered to.
- Production manager to oversee the technical aspects of the show and manage the sound and lighting technicians
Things to think about
The following is a checklist of things that should be considered for a live event.
- When the performer can gain access to the venue
- Parking for performers
- Access to venue, especially if there are large items
- Storage of performer equipment
- When sound checks take place
- What order sound checks are being done in
- Stage layout, especially if there are multiple performers
- Any items that bands are sharing
- Sound desk settings between each band (this is much easier now, as SXS use digital sound desks which allow for instant recall of settings)
- Dressing rooms
- How long each performer is performing for
- What is happening between performers? Are you having pre-recorded music? If so, who is providing the music and in what format? E.g. will it be on a CD or USB stick?
- Will have you a DJ, or other form of entertainment between acts? If so, what are their requirements in terms of space, staging, tech etc?
- Food for performers and the production team and when this will be scheduled
- Drinks for performers and production team
- Water on stage
- Towels on stage
- How much time is available for bands to get off stage and the next one to get back on?
- What happens if other parts of the event run over schedule and how this will affect the performances
- Accommodation for performers
As you will have learnt from this article, most of the work with stage management is done in advance. It is all about communication, managing expectations and organisation. Get this right and stage management can be a very fun and enjoyable role to have.
About the Author:
Johnny Palmer is the founder and Managing Director of SXS, a leading European event production company. He started his events career as a DJ in 1996 and since then has produced over 1000 events ranging from society parties, to festivals, to conferences. SXS employs multiple production managers, all of whom share the same values and passion for events and production.
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