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Theatre Lighting Design: A 7-part Hub Series -- Part 6: Writing Cues

Updated on November 10, 2014
Ellwood Designs
Ellwood Designs


Alas, part 6 is here where I will be talking about the process of writing cues. I don't foresee this being a long article like ones in the past. Still, there are some things to know when writing cues and everything we have discussed up until now is about to be put to work. It's all necessary before you can sit at the board and begin the cuing process. The process varies depending on the type of board, the size of the house/stage, instruments in use, etc. But to maintain continuity, we're going to stick with the situations and equipment established in the previous articles, writing for a proscenium stage.


Before starting the cue writing process, be sure to do your channel check and go over all the instruments, making sure they are still properly focused, have the proper accessories and gels, board is still properly patched, etc. If any of this has changed since the hang/focus, your cue focus will be off throughout the show.

It is usually helpful to have one to two people on stage to “walk the stage”. It is their job to go where you, the designer, tell them so that you can get a better look at what the cues will look like on the actors. If you are blessed enough to find someone to do this for you, let them bring a book or a hand-held video game. It's going to be a long, boring night for them so make them as comfortable as you can without hindering the process.

A lot of theatres frown on this, but I try to let my board op have coffee or water while they're pressing buttons for me. Again, it's about making your crew comfortable. The better you treat them, the more responsive they will be and the more efficient the entire process will be. Remember, writing cues is pretty boring for anyone who isn't the designer. The only reason it's not boring for us is because we get to see our vision light up the stage and become tangible. To everyone else, it's often just lights on a stage.

Have the Stage Manager (if available) or Master Electrician prep the stage for the beginning of the show. Make sure they are ready and hopefully have a stage tech to assist them with any necessary set changes. Many times, you can write the cues without many of the set changes taking place, but if there are any specials or tight focuses that are dependent on the set, these changes will need to be done.

Now to you. If the theatre has headsets, I recommend using them. It's best for the designer to be sitting in the house and the board op to be in the light booth and you don't want to be yelling back and forth. Alternatively, you can often bring the light board into the house, but that's often more hassle than it's worth. If the theatre doesn't have headsets, then if you can manage it, get some basic walkie-talkies with an ear-bud and microphone and add it to your personal inventory. You will thank yourself later. While all the previous stuff is going on, it's a good idea to go over your script and make sure you have all the cues labeled properly. I write the preset as Q1 then the black out (if used) as Q2, then lights up as Q3, etc. LABEL EVERY CUE!

NOTE: If there is a period where the show sits in one cue for an extended period of time (I usually mark it as about 25+ pages in one cue), it's usually a good idea at around page 15 into the cue that you do what I call a “wake up cue.” Wake up cues just very subtly and unnoticeably brighten the stage by 15% to 20%. The key word here is unnoticeable. Boost them at about 20% over a 30 second count and the audience won't be the wiser. When the light levels remain the same for an extended period of time, the audience will start to drift off in focus. This helps them maintain focus to the stage without noticing that anything is happening.

One more very important point. Listen to your board op. They're not there just to push buttons. They will correct you if they think you're doing something you don't actually want to do. For example, if you have them write Q7 but there already is a Q7, the board op will ask you if you want to over-write the cue. This is their job. Let them do it. KNOW THE BOARD! I say this because it's your job to make the board op's job easier and understandable. S/He may not be familiar with the board being used so it is up to you to call everything in EXACTLY as it should be entered into the board. This also helps negate any confusion. For example, if you want channel 37 at 50%, you would tell the board op: Three Seven At Five Zero Enter. This is especially important if working with a new board op. Some liberties can be taken otherwise.


Writing the Cues

Alright. Now that all of that's out of the way and you're sitting in a dark house staring at the dark stage with a little blue light next to you shining on your script, let's get to writing. Starting with Q1, start building your cues. Remember in a previous article where I explained how to patch the board and why you set it up in a specific order? Now's the time to put that in practice. If you have 8 areas and you set them up with warms 1 through 8, then you know exactly what to tell the board op without having to refer to your paperwork. Start building your preset cue. One Through Eight at Six Zero Enter. Set each channel to desired level until you have the cue built to your vision and liking. Then simply state, “Record Cue One Enter.” You may need to adjust the timing (fade time) on the cue. We won't get much into that, but it's simply stating “Time ##” where ## is in seconds.

At this point, I often make a cue 0.5 which is a black out cue. This holds two major functions. Before each show, when time for black out check, I can go to cue 0.5, do the black out check, and then hit GO to enter into preset (Cue 1). Also, if I have any black out cues throughout the show, I can go to cue 0.5 and then Record Cue XX Enter. This isn't necessary, of course. It's just a habit I've gotten into that really helps streamline the process for me. If the board doesn't allow for X.X cues (in other words, they only allow whole numbers), then I recommend skipping numbers. For example, create cue 1, then make the next cue #3, then 5, etc. If the show has a lot of cues, you might even want to skip more numbers in certain places. The reason is because you may need to add a cue later. It's easier to insert it than to have to rewrite a whole slew of cues. However, most modern boards now allow tenths of cues (1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc.) so that makes it much easier and offers less to worry about. And I know I am going to get flak for this, but don't be scared to over-cue. Don't be scared to write more cues than you may actually need (but make them make sense). It's always easier to delete a cue than it is to add one later.

Moving forward, you build each cue with the same process described for cue 1. Do this for the entire show and don't forget that you will need cues for intermission (usually takes three to four cues just for that) and also don't forget to mention House Up / House Down cues (if the house lights aren't patched into the board. DO NOT WRITE THESE AS Q NUMBERS! Write them in notation form for the stage manager/board op. Why not write them as Q numbers? Because if you do and the stage manager calls, “Light Cue 27 (for example) GO”, it's possible that the board op will hit GO on the board. You will suddenly be in a cue into which you do not wish to be. None of this is necessary to pay attention to if you can, in fact, write the house lights into the board.

As you're going through the script writing cues, let's say Q 17 and Q 20 are the same. You don't need to completely build cue 20. Just tell the board op: “Go to cue 17 Enter”. Board op will respond, “Cue 17”. Then say, “Record Cue 20 Enter.” The board op should respond to almost every command you give so that you are aware the command has been understood and executed. In this case, the board op will say, “Cue 20 recorded.” The designer and the board op really need to work as a team in the writing process. If they don't, then confusion can set it rather rapidly; especially if something goes wrong and isn't caught. I have had to rewrite tons of cues from scratch just because I wasn't given proper verification from the board op. So be aware.

Once you get to intermission, it's usually a good time to give the crew a quick break. Once the break is over and your board op is back at the station, just have him/her run through the cues from 1 to whatever the intermission cue is. Call GO for each cue progression. This allows you to take a fresh look at the cue transitions and make any necessary changes before moving on to Act II. This can be VERY useful because Act II is often mostly duplication of Act I cues so you will be doing a lot of, “Go to cue X. Record cue Y.”

Once you've run through them, begin writing Act II using the same process. Don't forget that you will need cues for the end of show and at least two of those cues will be for curtain call. I usually write dummy cues here (cues that don't change or just bring all up to denote curtain call) because rarely does the designer know what the director is going to do for curtain call at this point. Once the director blocks the curtain call, you can go back in and overwrite the cues with the appropriate lighting.

I mentioned dummy cues. I will occasionally write a few dummy cues throughout the writing process that don't make any changes from the prior cue. I typically do this if there is a place I think I might want to try a change in the future, or if there is a place that might need a wake up cue but won't be noticed until you see the dress rehearsals. If you find that you are not going to use these cues, it is best to just delete them to avoid confusion and to make less work for the stage manager. S/He is busy with a lot of other stuff too.

Most modern boards have a place to “label” notes per cue. It is always a good idea to take advantage of this; especially if the cue is taken on a visual, but is useful always. An example note might be “Sally walks stage left to get glass.” or “Christopher: “Why can't you go back?”” These are just examples where the first one is a cue to be taken on blocking. The second is to be taken on a line. Now that it's all written, before handing it off to the Stage Manager, go through the entire show just cycling through the cues from 1 to the last (same process you did after the intermission break). Fix anything that you notice needs to be fixed and then call it a night for the crew. If the stage manager is available, it's time to give the hand off.

This more belongs in the paperwork article, but also fits here.
This more belongs in the paperwork article, but also fits here. | Source
This stands true for informing the Stage Manager (more so than the tech since the SM makes the calls).
This stands true for informing the Stage Manager (more so than the tech since the SM makes the calls).

Informing the Stage Manager

Hopefully, the Stage Manager is available. If not, then at your first opportunity, give him/her the script with your cues written in it. Go through each cue with the SM, explaining when the cue is to be taken, what the result should be, etc. The SM will write the Qs into his/her script with any notes you give him/her. From this point forward, the show is no longer yours with the exception of any instrument additions, cue tweaks, focus tweaks, etc. that must be done (and there will be tweaks... it's inevitable). But when it comes to calling the show and being responsible for the cue execution, the ball is now in the SM's court. With that said (as you will see in the next part of the series), your job is not done. In addition to the things listed above, you will need to be taking notes throughout the entire tech rehearsal/dress rehearsal process; making note of cues called late, early, etc. and passing those notes along to the SM. Do not pass them on to the board op. It's not their responsibility. Any changes you make to the cue order, make sure you inform the SM. They need to know.

SM Prompt Book

This is an example of a STAGE MANAGER'S Prompt Book. I put this in here to show how confusing it can get for an SM... so be clear and concise when you give your SM notes
This is an example of a STAGE MANAGER'S Prompt Book. I put this in here to show how confusing it can get for an SM... so be clear and concise when you give your SM notes | Source
I only put this here in case anyone wants to buy me this shirt. Yes.  I need this shirt.
I only put this here in case anyone wants to buy me this shirt. Yes. I need this shirt. | Source

In Closing

That's about it. While it was a bit long winded, the process is actually very simple as long as you've done your homework, know the board, and have logically assigned your channels. Really, it's all about having a good eye for light levels at this point. It's all about blending the light and making sure it's even throughout (unless you specifically want harsh lines). Beyond that, it's simply calling out what buttons to push. Go hit the pub and have a good beer... and get one for your board op. You've both earned it.



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