There are certain terms for events that happen in the theatre that have no “real world” equivalent that I am aware of. Two of these terms are “cut show” and “split track”. I will attempt to explain these two theatrical inventions and then I would like to discuss the various ways we, as stage managers, work with these realities.
The cut show means you perform the show or a part of the show without the full compliment of cast. In a musicals one hopes with enough swings (offstage performers who can magically jump from one ensemble part to another, they are the superstars of a show but that’s another story) you will have all of the specialty parts (characters with lines, vocal parts or individual choreography) covered, although not even specialties are safe in the kingdom of, “throwing up all night.” When a performer cannot perform, it is non-negotiable. Although I have seen some of these titans go on with the show when the president/CEO of a corporation would be crying uncle.
The split track is slightly more complicated. A “track” is a terrible reference for all of the onstage/offstage activities a performer does throughout the night. I only say terrible because it reduces an individual artist’s work to their base actions during a show. So often we have to split up a track between more than one Actor for a variety of reasons ranging from: ability to perform the actions required, to how a person needs to look, to the director’s & creative team’s desire, or simply to avoid a cut show. The cut show or split track is often born out of necessity, although there are split tracks built in by the director & choreographer to give the audience the best show they believe is possible without the usual player. An example is if 55 year old Sally from the Ensemble has to go on for a principal role (leading role) we put 30 year old Susan on from the ensemble in Sally’s “specialty” and the the 22 year old swing Stacy will go on for Sally’s other ensemble track but Stacy will also go on for Susan’s ensemble track when Susan is being Sally. Okay, the S thing was a little unfair but honestly this is how they feel inside my brain.
Where the Stage Manager comes into this equation is working with the creatives, music department and dance captains to create and construct this puzzle and communicate it to all of the technical departments effected… which is every department. Our influence on the alternate show really depends on what your creative team construction is. I have been on shows where we are just responsible for getting information to the crew because the resident director/choreographer does all of the performance decisions. I have also done shows where the stage managers effectively create the entire track and then have dance captains & music department cross our T’s and dot our i’s to make sure everything is looked after. This is more familiar to me than previously mentioned just because of the shows I have been hired on. Then there are also the teams, that I love, where it is super collaborative so everyone’s expertise is expressed… these are kinda few and far between because these decisions are rarely made with advance notice. Cut and split track shows are typically to triage a performance. There are questions to ask: What combination makes the best & safest show for, in the case of Broadway, a high paying audience? What swings are available and where do their strengths lie? You don’t want to cover a major vocal track with a dancer. Does the director, Choreographer and Music Director have preferences about how things should be covered? This is where your relationship with the show and its creative team becomes extremely important. The answer can never be “I don’t want to ever see Michael on in the Ken track.” Of course we do hear these comments frequently, but the reality in a long running show is the unfathomable often happens, so how do you make the unfathomable palatable? Can you split up the track so Michael doesn’t have to do the part in the show where he has to tap dance with a limp? Can swing Joe do that number as Ken & still do the Bill track that he is on for already? Can wardrobe get him changed. Can sound patch his mic in for that number or should you have Michael sing offstage while able bodied Joe does the number? You must know the people you are working with and what they do. You have to ask questions and be ready to accept the information coming at you. You have to have the relationship with your technical departments where they can let you know if a certain cover is doable or does it put other parts of the show at risk. My personal plan of attack is to learn as much as I can about everyone in the show and what the creative team sees as their strengths. Watch everything right from the beginning. Have spies everywhere, not only your fellow stage managers, but dressers, crew, cast members, anyone who can be honest with you about who is ready for what. An example of this is from Motown the musical, now mind you I learned a lot about cut/split shows from doing Motown but the spy part came in very handy. We had a swing who knew the choreography for the Diana Ross back up singers (Eddie Kendrick’s Singers), now this swing was white and our Eddie Kendrick’s Singers were black but not on this night. I had a spy who told me about this particular swing knowing this choreography and the vocals so I called this swing and begged him to cover us, which he did much to his chagrin. I discovered his distain for this assignment when he texted me instead of his wife to complain about the evening’s task (again this happens). The point is, I was super protective of the show that our audience was seeing and listened to the boots on the ground who told me this was possible, so I did not have to cut one of the Diana Ross back up singers.
Once you and the theatrical posse have created this alternate show the stage manager’s need to then communicate this to ALL departments in the clearest most timely fashion possible. Its the beauty of the job really, working with fellow professionals to do the best show possible. There are multiple times where as a stage manager you would just like to tell people the best way, in your opinion, to do something and depending on your status with the company people may just go along with your solution. This solution may make your life super simple because the effort is minimal, but you will miss out on one of the key elements in the theatre, collaboration. We, as stage managers, are not creating the show in the traditional sense (Director, choreographer, music supervisor, designer, actor…) but we are in the unique position to practice the art of collaboration. Collaboration is the art form that must continue as long as the show is being played and it is up to you as the stage manager to give that room to grow within the company.