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Cast members from Singing the Moon Up! a recent production based on the work of legendary "song catcher" Jean Richie were part of an almost "paperless" production at Pennsylvania Center Stage.

Photo/Courtesy Travis DeCastro



A Paperless Production

Travis DeCastro
General Manager, Pennsylvania State University's Pennsylvania Center Stage Theatre

It was never my intention to stage manage a paperless production. But this last fall, I found myself with circumstances that that led to a production not totally reliant upon paper based communication and record keeping.

I have long been an advocate for a more clever approach with technology in stage management. For two years now, students at Pennsylvania State University have posted their rehearsal and performance notes on a "digital callboard." This opportunity was unheard of a few years ago but, with the proliferation of the personal computer and the explosion of wireless technology, the marriage of technology and communications seemed ripe.

The circumstances around this production of Singing the Moon Up! were unique. Rehearsals began at the end of the summer when most of the support staff were enjoying summer vacations. The production itself was a musical review, and the director was also the author of the piece. The performers were all musicians playing a minimum of three instruments apiece -- not your typical theatre group nor organization.

The production was built around the music of Jean Ritchie, a folk performer of substantial work and merit. The woman who was to play Jean was the wife of the director/author. Two of the performers in the play (who played various Ritchie kin) were actually Ritchie's kin -- her two sons. They played so many instruments between them, I lost count. The final actor in the production was a performing and recording fiddle artist. All together they represented a musical force that was at once a well balanced band and would drop into songs (show written or not) at the drop of a hat.

Since the scenery had been designed and built before our arrival (I didn't get a floorplan until the second week of rehearsal), we rehearsed on the set. A prop master was assigned to work with the director and me from the beginning. As we created the "front porch of the Ritchie Family home," she would bring in loads of options for us to choose from. I generally e-mailed our choices to the designer, who was in and out of town, and sought approval or modification.

I started with the typical stage manager's notebook and tabbed dividers in the order that I am most accustomed to working. Since it was a work in progress, I only received the first act (digitally) to work with. In my communications with the director, I was informed he would arrive with the second act for the first rehearsal. Needless to say, the cast hadn't seen the second act either. It was distributed by CD and they all loaded it into individual laptops.

From the very first rehearsal it was clear there was going to be a lot of cut and paste activity as songs were moved, lyrics eliminated, new songs added, and new orders arranged. Rather than print out a new script and order nightly, I printed out one set of songs and dialogue per page. Then as they were either cut or modified, the performers made the adjustments on their printed pages while I kept each version documented on my laptop. Nightly I would post the latest version on the digital call board for all to reference while sending a digital copy to the director who, to my knowledge, never used a paper copy.

Rehearsal schedules, notes, costume calls, and press and publicity dates were all posted on the on-line callboard. The cast members all had broadband wireless routers installed in their local housing and, with the wireless technology in all of our theatres, I was able to update and organize the company via the on-line callboard.

The rehearsal schedule was very brief. By the end of the second week, we were in technical rehearsals. With so many alterations and changes being made, I still hadn't printed out a calling script. I began to see little use in it. I entered all the cues directly into the script on my laptop. Each night while I was uploading the new notes, calls, etc. to the callboard I also hot synced the files to my Tungsten T3 Palm Pilot. With "Documents to Go" software, I am able to run Word and Excel files directly off my palm. In a worse case scenario, I could still open my palm and run the show. Cues were color coded to make identification easier. Just to be safe, I would occasionally take all the files and throw them on my jump drive -- just in case.

Normal call board functions didn't seem to apply either. The traditional half hour call was supplanted by the performers themselves. With so many musical instruments on stage, they needed close to an hour just to tune them. I found myself getting to the theatre early to open the doors since they often wanted to sit around and play some music to get them in the mood prior to a performance.

By the end I had generated significantly less paper than I had on any prior production. There was no production book. The blocking was entered directly onto a running list of floor plans I generated in Excel. All the music, all the dialogue, and all changes had been saved to my hard drive. At the end of the run, I merely burned all my files to CD: one for the company, one for the director, and one for me.

Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding this production were unique. However, I did relish a certain satisfaction that I had used the available technology in an environmentally responsible manner. In a field well known for paper use, it was a pleasure to decrease my reliance on paper.

Communication is influenced by the tools we use, and the tools of the day are computers, PDA's, cell phones, digital cameras, etc. Already my students are using their laptops, AIM, and wireless routers to assist in running rehearsals and productions. We are installing web cameras in our theatres for remote access. I am able to talk with my students and view their work either directly or from a remote location. With multiple productions going on at the same time, I cannot be in two places at once physically. But I find I can still be there as a resource at all locations we are producing a play -- something a few years ago I would have run myself ragged trying to follow.

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