Building and Training a Running Crew


Feb 20, 2007
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York,
Goal: To address how best to form and train a running crew as a stage manager for a high school theatre production.

Author’s Note: This article contains several excerpts of my own production materials. I am more than happy to have people edit and reproduce this article, but I would appreciate giving appropriate credit for the production materials that belong to me or any future contributors. With thanks, Ben Andersen.

In early January of 2008, I stage managed one of the most technically challenging shows that I expect to encounter—City of Angels, Cy Coleman’s racy detective musical. If you’ve never heard the music, read the script, or seen the technical difficulties of the show, it’s hard to explain. City of Angels, by the numbers, was a nightmare: 476 cues (with standbys), 40 scenes, 31 set changes, and 112 props and set pieces (excluding costumes). We had 38 actors, 18 musicians, and 16 tech crew members. Of those 16 crew members, 10 were running crew. 5 of those 10 running crew members had never worked crew for a high school show.

Herein lay the challenge I faced – Out of 10 stage crew members (the largest crew I’d ever had for a high school show), half had no experience in the role they now found themselves in. And, returning from winter break, we had eight days in which to tech and dress the entire show.

The show was a huge success, and was a tremendous learning experience for all involved, ESPECIALLY myself.
=The Hierarchy=
One of the most dangerous wastes of time a stage manager can find himself dealing with is a crew that does not know its boundaries. A running crew that argues with the stage manager about the best way to execute a set change; a lighting designer who argues with the director about how to light a scene; a sound board operator who does not wait to be cued. These are problems many of us have faced, and dealing with these problems wastes valuable rehearsal time and is simply unacceptable. Although senior tech crew members are usually familiar with proper theatre hierarchy, newer members may not be as well-versed, and the hierarchy must be introduced and enforced from the beginning of technical rehearsals.
This is the hierarchy of my crew from City of Angels, which I feel is a fairly typical high school technical theatre hierarchy:
Stage Manager
> Asst. Stage Manager
+ Running Crew (x9)​
+ Spotlight Operators (x2)​
> Sound Designer​
+ Asst. Sound Designer
+ Body Mic Coordinator​
For other hierarchy information, there is another article here on technical theatre organization. It focuses more on regional theatre, but still has some useful information.
=Stage Crew=
==Defining the Role of a Stage Crew==
A stage crew is probably the most fluid part of the tech crew. Like actors, they are put on the spot every time they step onstage. One night they can be flawless, the next, the smallest of complications can have disastrous results. We’ve all seen that set change that just simply didn’t work. Or that crucial prop that didn’t make it on stage in time. Consistency is the cornerstone of success for a stage crew. A stage crew serves many important functions. They are the custodians of the props that actors need. They execute set changes, they (sometimes) cue actors, and they must do all of this calmly, with purpose, without being seen and without endangering themselves or anyone else.
Paperwork is crucial for a stage crew. An accurate inventory must be kept of props and set pieces. Often, especially in a show with many set changes (31 in City of Angels), it is helpful to have a cheat sheet for set changes: the cue number, the cue from onstage action (when applicable), what must be done, and who does what.
For example, an excerpt of my set change cheat sheet from City of Angels:
The following is excerpted from production materials created by Ben Andersen.
SC 14 During Scene 16
MUSIC CUE and STONE: “How’d you know it was my birthday?”​
- Chris and Jesse: Bed CSR
- Christine: Night table USL of bed​
SC 15 During Scene 18
STONE: "First, you level."​
- Chris and Jesse: Bed offstage
- Christine: Night table offstage​
SC 16 At end of Scene 18
VOICEOVER CUE: "Another dame. Another gun."​
- Sam and Noah: Bed offstage
- Emy: Table offstage
- Emma: Phone booth USL
- Chris and Jesse: Gurney DSL​
SC 17 At end of Scene 20
BUDDY: "And just one morgue scene!"​
- Noah: Phone booth offstage​
A prop list should be divided by the side of the stage and by the act. Meaning that a prop that enters twice from stage left, and only in act two, should be on a prop list entitled “Stage Left Prop List: Act II.” A prop that is used frequently, in both acts and on both sides of the stage, should be listed according to its first position in each act. Therefore a prop could be on the “Stage Left Prop List: Act I” even though after Scene 2 it spends all its time on stage right. This allows you to preset for the top of each act effectively.
==Building Muscle Memory==
As I mention above, consistency is the cornerstone of success for a stage crew. A running crew, therefore, must learn its set changes as soon as possible, in order to have time for the maximum number of possible run-throughs. The following, therefore, are some exercises to build proper muscle memory for set changes. Obviously there are many other exercises that you may find work better given your crew, your time constraints, etc.
===Paper Tech Method===
A dry tech, as many of you know, is a tech without being in the theater – a simple ‘talking-through’ of the technical aspects of the show. For a running crew, this means sitting down with a cheat sheet (like the one shown above) and talking through each set change. For each set change, go over: “Who does what?” “Where does everything go?” And, “What order should we go in?”
===Run-Through Method===
The run-through method is probably the easiest from a logistical point of view. Find some time in the theater for just your running crew, block out a certain number of set changes (e.g. for our first rehearsal, set changes 1-10; our second, set changes 11-20; our third, set changes 21-31) and get to work. Make sure you take notes on what is working and what is not. You will want to make changes to those set changes that are just taking too long, or not working well.
===Individual Repetition Method===
Usually, this is the last exercise I run in this sequence. Having run through all of the set changes once or twice in order, I have figured out which set changes are giving us the most trouble. Now, I will ask the crew to preset (for example) Act I, Scene 10 and then run set change 7. I have the crew re-preset I.10 and run SC17 again. And again (usually three repetitions is the magic number for me, though I encourage you to increase the number if the first couple repetitions do not go well). This is about building muscle memory, so it is important to get several correct repetitions in.
==Crucial Concepts for an Effective Running Crew==
There are so many important skill sets and concepts for a running crew member to learn. Teaching a seminar in running crew to a group of middle school students, I remember focusing on three themes that would define the seminar and the coursework to follow; my message to these middle school students was that their goal was to be safe, invisible and perfect.
Safety is of utmost importance to a stage manager. He or she is responsible for the entire crew and the entire cast. Since he or she cannot do everything themselves, they trust the rest of their crew to keep the theatre in safe working conditions. This means, at a minimum, that a few basic rules and practices are in place.
  1. Sweeping the stage. There is an important theatre adage that says: “Do not let actors walk onto the stage unless you would walk on it barefoot.” Hold your stage crew to this. I personally sweep the stage before every rehearsal, unless I am working on something else, in which case I delegate it to another stage crew member. You are the stage manager, and they are the stage crew. This is your domain, your workspace. Take (and teach) pride in that workspace, and make sure that you keep it as clean and presentable as possible.
  2. Know evacuation procedures. Where are the closest exits, not only in the house, but also onstage? Do you have a plan for how to evacuate the stage in a safe way during a rehearsal? During a show? Personally, I always want the actors to be evacuated from the stage first. They are more inclined to panic than your crew, if you’ve trained them to be calm during this kind of situation. During a rehearsal, I prefer that the actors come to the edge of the stage (if safe to do so), rather than go down the stairs backstage. During a show, if it safe to do so, I prefer actors to exit backstage, so as to maintain a sort of professionalism. If there is a fire, of course, you must evacuate in a way that is safest for the cast and crew (and farthest from the source of the fire).
  3. Where are you fire extinguishers? Do you have a fire extinguisher on both sides of the stage? You should. Talk to your school’s theater advisor, buildings and grounds department, etc. Make sure you have someone trained on both sides of the stage in how to use a fire extinguisher.
  4. Moving large set pieces. My firm belief is that you should never move anything larger than a chair by yourself. A desk, a table, a bed… these are all set pieces that should have two people moving them. Certainly any platforms or flats must have at least two people moving them. You can never guess how easy or hard it is to move a large set piece, even if it seems lightweight.
  5. Lighting booms. If you are ever lowering or raising a lighting boom or rail, always give a warning. Such booms are heavy and can cause injury to those who are too close. Always shout “First electric, coming down!” or “Second electric, going up!” and do a physical, visual check to make sure everyone is clear. If you cannot see from backstage, have a second person tell you whether it is safe.
  6. Scenic booms. Scenic booms do not usually get a warning, because they are used during a performance. Instead, sit down with all actors and running crew members associated with the boom’s use. If the boom comes down at the beginning of scene 4, and goes up at the end of scene 5, you should talk to:
    a. All actors in scene 3 (who would be exiting as the boom came down);
    b. All actors in scene 4 (who would be entering as the boom came down);
    c. All actors in scene 5 (who would be exiting as the boom went up);
    d. All actors in scene 6 (who would be entering as the boom went up);
    e. All running crew members who execute set changes between scenes 3 and 6.​
  7. Electrical cords. Any cords, power cables, etc. should be taped down properly so that no actors or crew members trip over them.
  8. Glow tape. It is important to glow tape any sharp corners, steps, or obstacles backstage that may be hard to see.
As you run into other safety concerns, you will want to add them to a list for all stage crew members to become familiar with.
I tell my running crew at the beginning of every production: “Stage crew is an inglorious profession. If you are here for the recognition or glory, take up acting. Much like a referee at a sporting event, you are doing your job best if nobody remembers you. If you have done your job well, the audience remembers only the actors, and it seems as if the sets just magically change.
For this reason, all stage crew members wear black clothing (‘stage blacks’). There is no place for jewelry or watches on a running crew. Shoes, shirt and pant should all be black, so that in a blackout, the running crew appears “invisible.” All running crew members must consider how quietly they walk.
If for any reason a running crew must appear in the light (e.g. a light cue is given at the wrong time), it is important that the running crew appear calm and purposeful. No member of a running crew should ever run, or appear panicked. Simply walk with purpose, just as an actor might if he/she had to cross upstage in view of the audience. The audience will appreciate seeing a running crew member appear poised, but will notice something is wrong right away if the crew member seems nervous, frenzied or unsure of how to act.
Many running crews will use ‘spike marks’ (small pieces of colored tape) on the stage to demarcate where a set piece goes. In a show like City of Angels, with so many different set pieces, it was not feasible to use spike marks – they would have been a source of confusion rather than a help.
Regardless, it is crucial that a running crew know exactly where every set piece goes. Lights are focused specifically on certain places, so a table too far upstage (even if only by a foot or so) is enough to throw the whole “feel” of a scene. One of the greatest compliments a running crew can receive is to be called especially precise in their set changes.
This leads me to the most important four words a stage manager can say to his running crew: “STAY ON YOUR TOES.” Nothing can endanger both the pace and the smoothness of a show quite like complacency. The moment you feel entirely comfortable with a set change is the moment that it will likely go wrong. Always be ready for something to go wrong, never be passive, always pay attention, always STAY ON YOUR TOES.
==Before the Curtain Goes Up: Preshow Procedure==
Although every production will have its own requirements, a basic preshow ritual is fairly standard. The following is an excerpt from my stage crew’s preshow schedule:
The following is excerpted from production materials created by Ben Andersen.
Crew callArrival and notes.
Sweep stageThis includes orchestra pit, platforms, and stage floor. Remember, if you would not walk barefoot on the stage, you shouldn’t let actors on it!
Prop and furniture inventoryTake inventory of all set pieces and props, so that they are all accounted for. Make sure that Act I props and set pieces are most easily accessible.
Preset for the top of the show Setup the stage with all relevant props and set pieces for the first scenes, as well as presetting the next-used scenery for easiest access (part of the above prop and furniture inventory).
Close curtainCurtain must be closed in preparation for the house opening.
==Cueing ABCs==
As holds true for all cueing, stage managers will have their own conventions for giving cues. So I will only say this is the method that I prefer.
  • The stage manager will (hopefully) always say “STANDBY set change 13” prior to giving the GO cue. Sometimes the stage manager will also give a ‘WARNING’ prior to the ‘STANDBY.’
  • To let the stage manager know that you have heard the cue, please reply with “Set change 13 standing by.” I know sometimes it is easier to just say “standing by,” but if the stage manager has given many cues, it may be difficult for him/her to determine who has replied and who has not.
  • The stage manager will always say “Set change 13 – GO,” never “GO – Set change 13.” This is to prevent anyone else who is ‘standing by’ from assuming it is their cue.
  • The running crew’s reply to hearing a GO cue is simply to execute the set change.
In conclusion, I will just say that although I have spent time working in many roles in theatre, running crew is quite possibly my favorite. It is the only entirely ‘live’ element to technical theatre – everything else is computerized. You never know what will happen, you must always stay on your toes, and your adrenaline is always pumping high. It’s a wonderful experience, and I wish it were a prerequisite to stage management. Although I know plenty of excellent stage managers who began as actors, directors, lighting designers, etc, I don’t think anything really prepares you for the calm under pressure like stage crew. It is an absolutely unique experience.
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