THEATRE, IN MANY WAYS, REMAINS UNPLUGGED and offline, the form itself impervious to our desire to document our every move in the digital age. It’s live and ephemeral. What you see one night will differ (even if only slightly) from the next. Often, we may not think about a show existing beyond a script, a score, production photos, a cast recording or our memory of a particular performance—yet it does, and an iPad app is changing the way theatre is created and maintained.
Jeff Whiting began dreaming up Stage Write Software when he worked alongside Susan Stroman as an associate director and choreographer. For shows such as Young Frankenstein and The Producers, Whiting was tasked with creating what’s known as the “Stage Bible,” a tome containing hundreds of pages charting every scene in each production. At the time, Whiting was using a combination of Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint to show how all the actors and set pieces moved throughout the space, providing notes on direction or choreography alongside blocking patterns.
Because it was difficult to make changes to these pages—though changes were invariably made in rehearsal—Whiting began thinking about how he might combine the functionality of the three programs into a single app. Fascinated by technology, but not familiar with code, Whiting approached a tech company, Tekyz, based out of Arizona, to create the app, which can be purchased on iTunes for $199.99 and is compatible with the iPad 1, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad mini and with the iOS 6 or later operating system. Launched in the spring of 2012, Stage Write Software now contains a second in-app component known as Staging Score, recently made available for an additional $49.99. Whiting is planning to expand Stage Write into a web-based system.
“Oftentimes I think apps are created by larger companies that say: Okay, here’s a market,” says Whiting, who was recently selected by Apple to be featured in a documentary about five apps that the company has determined to be industry game-changers. “But I actually created it for me and for the market that I work in.” Whiting purposefully didn’t hard-sell the app, believing in the merits of his product and its ability to sell itself. To his delight, friends and colleagues are taking notice.
John Tartaglia, director of the new musical Because of Winn Dixie, which premiered at Arkansas Repertory Theatre last December, essentially discovered the art of directing with iPad in hand. With a solid background in performing, but scant directing credits, he says, “I had no basis for comparison as far as: This is better than this. But what I did have was a joy for it because it was exactly what I needed—I just didn’t know that.”
Visually inclined, Tartaglia says Whiting’s app gives him the freedom to be more creative in the room. Before he arrived in Arkansas, at a theatre he had never worked in before, Tartaglia was able to figure out the logistical elements of Winn Dixie. He set the dimensions of the stage and scenery in feet and inches, and Stage Write converted those dimensions to scale. (Whiting is working on allowing users to input metric measurements in future versions.)
“It’s kind of like having a doll house,” Tartaglia observes. Right now Stage Write provides an overhead view of the stage, and soon users will be able to see a front/audience view as well. Animation may also be added so that users can see in real time how a scene progresses. “It’s like you have all the pieces and you have the structures, but you can keep changing and creating and moving and functioning until it is the world you want it to be.”
TO SOME DEGREE, THE APP MIMics old-school animation, in which a light box is used to trace a drawing while making slight adjustments each time, except Stage Write preserves the chart you already created when you upload a new one. Thanks to Stage Write, the time resident director David Ruttura and associate director Seth Sklar-Heyn spent blocking the new national tour of The Phantom of the Opera was cut in half. They can also print out PDFs for dance captains or swings that need to reference different tracks at once.
“We all create our own shorthand that makes sense to us, but once you know the basics of this, it makes sense to everybody,” says Ruttura, adding that it took him and Sklar-Heyn about a week to really dig into Stage Write and discover all it can do. In fact, universities (such as New York University, Pennsylvania State University and Pepperdine University in California) are integrating Stage Write in their courses for students studying stage management, giving the app more credibility within the industry.
Users can get even more creative on the in-app addition, Staging Score, which allows them to notate what’s happening at each moment. On Staging Score, there is a line of counts “1 e and a” “2 e and a,” etc. Users have the option to use an app-generated musical staff or dialogue staff that aligns with time passing along that horizontal line. But, “How do you describe when your arm goes like this?” Whiting asks, swooping his arm overhead like he’s doing a port de bras. “Perhaps Stroman might say something like, ‘This should be like the rainbow,’ so I would write that in.”
Ruttura and Sklar-Heyn found Staging Score useful for archival purposes, but also time-consuming and too dance-centric. Both are looking for ways to make it more intuitive for a director not too concerned with “the 5, 6, 7, 8.” Sklar-Heyn, having worked as an associate director on Evita and A Little Night Music, is used to narrating each scene in his own way with handwritten pages. Having to go in and manually input the libretto and each characters’ motivation proved overwhelming. He cannot import a staff from an existing score or script and have it align automatically with the counts, so that pauses (breaks or breaths, for example) can only be visualized using some clever spacing. Encouraged by Whiting to share their experiences, Ruttura and Sklar-Heyn penned what they call “Dear Jeff…notes,” often passing them along to him in person at New 42nd Street Studios where they were all rehearsing this fall.
Meanwhile, Stage Write is starting to catch on outside New York. While the app may prove particularly useful in documenting annual holiday favorites like A Christmas Carol or The Grinch, its usage is still highly show-specific, often employed on musicals that may transfer elsewhere.
Pamela Remler, an associate director and choreographer, decided to use Stage Write for the first time on The Last Goodbye at the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif. As assistant stage manager, Remler was the only one with the app, though she showed it to the production stage manager, Peter Lawrence, who took an interest.
“When I found out I was going to be in charge of the deck, I knew how to organize things with a dancer brain, which is where Jeff comes from,” says Remler, who had already developed her own way of charting. “I researched it [Stage Write] and I thought: This is the only way I know how to work.”
The set for The Last Goodbye was deceptively simple—a series of columns that moved laterally on arcades. They were the same in terms of structure and color, yet keeping track of their movement, down to the inch, was key for lighting cues and safety. Remler was the only one capable of documenting these transitions and often sent updated information to the associate designer who was not in the room but working on CAD.
Because shows so often load out just weeks after they load in, Remler doesn’t believe regional theatres invest in charting to this degree of specificity. However, she’s proud that “by the end of the show it was archived for the Globe. The thing I love so much about Stage Write is that you can see it.”
Laura Hedli is a writer based in New York City.