Cue Sheet – Written instructions for technicians (audio, lighting, spot light, curtain, pyro, etc…) that tell them what you need to happen, and the timing of those events.
When I promised readers I’d write an article on proper creation & use of cue sheets, I figured it’d be a snap for me. After all, I’ve been doing live sound for about 25 years, so I must know enough about cue sheets to write a good, useful article, right? I’ve mixed for Joe Perry (Aerosmith) to The Grand Ole Opry Touring Company, for Muddy Waters to some the big punk bands from the early 80s, and I’ve even chipped in with Spinal Tap and The Black Crowes, and helped Judas Priest to program guitar effects. The problem, though, for the purpose of this article, is that none of these fine folks used cues sheets. I have followed cue sheets sometimes, when mixing fashion shows, corporate events, or occasional musical-theatre performances, but my experience is woefully inadequate to qualify me as a coach in this area.
At this point, you may very well be asking yourselves how I expect to offer any help at all! Well, I contacted some friends & acquaintances, all full-time magicians, and all with oodles of stage experience, and they sent me some really excellent tips, anecdotes & insights which will help all of us to create excellent cue sheets, and those excellent cue sheets will help us to put on well-choreographed shows!
At the end of the article, you’ll find very short bios of the four generous contributors: Dan Harlan, Loran, David Merry and David Peck.
By the way, if you intend to use pyro, make sure everything is planned, set-up & operated by a fully-qualified pyrotechnician. People do lose their lives or get hurt due to the unsafe use of pyro, and you do not want to be part of such an incident: Not legally, and not morally. By no means am I discouraging pyro’s safe & legal use, so if you’re considering the use of pyro, check out “Pyrotechnics & Special Effects”.
Well, here we go, gang!
Think Your Show’s Too Simple For Someone To Screw It Up?
David Peck suggests, “A structure is important, but to expect that it will be rigidly adhered to is naive at best. Unless you find yourself working in the same venue for a prolonged period of time it will be a constant challenge to expect any kind of theatrical consistency.”
David Merry sent me a story about a comedy club performance in Vancouver, at which he gave the soundman one simple instruction; “Start the CD when I’m introduced.” Well, the soundman forgot, and he was nowhere near David’s entrance area. “I am backstage waiting for the music to start, standing in this outfit filled with props and gags for a two minute opening, and no music. I learnt my lesson that night … cue sheets.”
Loran handed his neatly-folded audio cue sheet to the DJ/soundman. Now please keep in mind that this DJ had done the show before, using the same set of cues. “During the first act of the show, almost every song was wrong or not played on time. At the intermission, the DJ told me that my cue sheet was not clear, because he couldn’t see the track’s numbers on it.” The only reason the DJ had not seen the track numbers was that he had not unfolded the cue sheet!
As these stories so painfully illustrate, and as we all know from other areas of our lives, “anything can happen”. We all have moments of carelessness, stupidity and/or poor judgment. Present a clear, easy-to-execute cue sheet, and you’ll have made things much easier for everyone involved.
Think You Don’t Need Cue Sheets Because You Use A Remote Control System?
For those who maintain that it’s best to retain control over the technical aspects of the show, thereby not relying upon cue sheets, David Merry sets a perfect example. “I now own a wireless mini disc player and run the music myself just to make my life easier. I do however have my entire show scripted and a series of light and music cues for when I play theatres.” Remember that, even if you use your own remote music & lighting system, other people are still doing things, so you still need cue sheets! Someone still needs to turn the house lights up/down, someone runs the stage curtain, someone turns off the bar music, etc…
Think You Can Make Things As Off-The-Wall As You Want Because You Use The Same Crew Every Night?
If you have the same folks running your show every night, you may think simplicity isn’t important for you, but one of your techs could be sick, quit or fired, and you certainly don’t want a new person, who’s never seen your show, trying following complicated cues, thereby messing up your carefully-rehearsed show. What if you’re offered a great opportunity at a venue that’s bigger than you’re used to, and you need someone to operate the stage curtain, or more follow-spot operators? You’ll need to be sure you know how to create effective, easy-to-follow cue sheets so that you stand the best-possible chance of your show coming off exactly as you envision it. The bottom line is that if you need anyone to do anything during your show, you need cue sheet(s).
How To “Keep It Simple”.
The most pervasive message from all four of our pros was, “Keep It Simple”!
Loran says, “Make it as simple as much as you can. And after you are done … re-write it more simply again!” He also adds, “Use layman’s terms for your cues, not magician terms. People are not supposed to know terms like Professor’s Nightmare, Super-X Suspension, Svengali deck, etc… For example, if your music must start when you take your “Zombie” ball from your table, put “The Silver Ball” on you cue sheet instead.”
From his extensive work in comedy clubs, David Merry knows that the sound operator may also be the manager/bouncer, so he learned to gear his cue sheets to “regular” people. “I wrote the cues and handed the finished product to two people who were not in the business. I asked them if they could follow along clearly and if they understood the instructions. After a few corrections I had the final copy of cues complete.”
Dan Harlan simply says, “My cue sheet reads “Lights: ON. Sound: ON.” That’s it. I find that works for me most of the time.”
Regarding consistency, David Peck recommends, “Once you have found the spot where you will perform and you are comfortable with the lighting as a whole, mark the stage with a small piece of masking tape or two. This will ensure that you get your table set up and that you stand in the right place at the right time.” You can also get “spike tape” from a theatrical supplier. It’s glow-in-the-dark, and you use a piece that’s big enough so you can see it while you’re moving your props on a deliberately blacked-out stage, but small enough so that the audience can’t see it.
Have one cue sheet for each person involved. If you have three techs (audio, lighting, stage curtain), having all three sets of cues on every person’s sheet will confuse all of them. Make sure each cue sheet is titled with your name as well as “Audio Cue Sheet”, or whatever descriptor is most appropriate. Also, make sure it’s a full sheet of paper, because that’ll be harder for the tech to lose. Even if your info doesn’t fill the page, that’s okay, just leave white space at the bottom.
Use only one font (with the possible exception of your logo), and make sure the font you use is a very simple “sans serif” (Arial, Helvetica). Don’t futz with this point and don’t think this is just my opinion: It’s a fact that these fonts are easiest to read. Also, make sure all text is as large as possible, with the title info being the largest.
Use only one music source (laptop, CD player, etc) for your entire set, and make sure it has all your tracks in order, and at matched volumes. Have duplicate files or CDs on hand and make sure each has your name. Make sure the name is very clear and NOT applied with any sort of sticker, because some CD players really hate stickers.
When evaluating your cue sheet, decide which cues are absolutely essential, and make sure that your signals for these cues are almost impossible to miss. What I mean is this. If your signal to start the music is that you open a suitcase, a distracted soundman might miss the fact that you’re opening the suitcase, and you’ll get no music. If this cue is crucial, why not make your signal something like, “Okay, my friend, please start the music!” If you say this with an excited voice, and a pointing motion like Mick Jagger signalling to someone in the back row, the soundman would have to be AWOL to miss the cue! Who cares if the audience knows you’re cueing the music?!!! Play it big, and you’ll appear assertive and in-control. Underplay a crucial cue, and you may look foolish for having a poorly-run show.
How To Create Cue Sheets
Your cue sheet(s) should be created specifically for your show, so the examples I’m providing are for a theoretical act (see example). The format and the column headings are entirely up to you, but remember … simple.
• The first column is “Event”, Use layman’s terms for effects so that the operator can follow along with the show.
• The second column is “Sound Source”. In this case, that will be either “Laptop” or “Mic”.
• The third column is “Do This”, and it describes what action is to take place.
• The fourth column is “Duration”. It tells the operator how long the cue will last.
• The fifth column is “When”, and it tells the operator when to take this action.
Try Loran’s suggestion that, after you’ve written your cue sheet(s), re-write them even more simply. Then, try David Merry’s suggestion, and give it to a couple of civilians for beta testing, because they are probably no less knowledgeable than the folks who might end up running your show sometimes! And, bear in mind that cue sheet creation is not something you’re gonna nail on your first try, and cue sheets can always be improved.
Similar cue sheets might be required for stage curtain, stage lights, spot lights, and house lights.
A Bit A Theatrical Philosophy.
David Peck offers an excellent method for you to evaluate everything from the audience’s perspective. “It seems to me that the exercise of assembling a cue sheet will be as useful as the cue sheet itself. The theoretical will inform the practical and vice versa. It will be an effective way of thinking differently about your act. In order to set up a useful cue sheet you will have to get down off the stage, remove the tux and watch your show from the other side. The process will be as helpful as the cue sheet itself. By considering various technical aspects of your performance you will undoubtedly be situating yourself as an observer. Switching seats with the audience is always a wise and fruitful idea.”
David also recommends, “Arrive at your performance in plenty of time to rehearse the cues with the techies. Have them work through your cues and take the time to see them from the stage as well as from the room itself. If you have a specific curtain request, for example, look at it from both angles. On and off stage can make all the difference in the world.”
Consider A Less-Rigid Structure.
While specific cues almost always need to be followed as per the cue sheet, “real” lighting techs can do a lot of good work for you because they have such a grand understanding of colour, mood, form & movement.
David Peck had the following t say about this. “As far as lighting cues go, a good piece of advice is to allow the techies some flexibility. Let them play a little bit with the lighting. Give them a structure, but allow them to move freely within it. A short dialogue with the person responsible for lighting will determine exactly how ‘free’ is ‘free’.
“If this is a one-time performative affair, then perhaps a simple follow spot with a few coloured gels (at the techies discretion) will be more than adequate. It seems to me that the follow spot is often overlooked when it comes to effective lighting for a magical performance. Follow spots demand audience focus.” In my opinion, the two people who best understand focus on a stage are the lighting tech and the audience, although the audience’s understanding is entirely non-didactic. Maintaining suitable focus is second nature to a good lighting tech.
Mr Peck also suggests, “Construct your act so that it is not dependent on cues that are so exact that the performance will fail if the cues are missed or forgotten altogether. By keeping it simple you will ensure your success with or without the cues.”
Be Prepared To Create New Cue Sheets The Day Of The Show.
The day of the show, or even shortly before show time, you may find that a prop is broken and cannot be used, or that a particular illusion is not appropriate for your audience, or that your performance time must been extended or abridged. You may even find that the promoter has added or taken away a follow-spot and that lighting cues need to be updated. In any case, it will not suffice to change cue sheets by hand if doing so reduces their legibility. You may need to create new ones from scratch, either by hand or by computer. Have spare paper cue sheets on hand, have them in your laptop, have templates burned to a thumb drive in Excel or Word format, or do whatever else it takes to ensure you’re never caught without proper cue sheets.
You also need to be prepared for the fact that one cue sheet, or set of cue sheets, is not enough. Maybe you can run your own wireless music system, or maybe there’ll be union technicians running everything. Maybe there’ll be a stage curtain, maybe not. Maybe there’ll be a follow-spot, maybe not. I suggest creating a list of questions to ask when advancing (qv) each show so that you can do your best to prepare for what would, otherwise, have been the unexpected.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
All of our pros pointed out that, no matter how easy & clear your cue sheet is, you’ll still have occasional problems. Whether it’s because you encounter David Merry’s bouncer/soundman, Loran’s careless DJ, or a volunteer, cues can be missed. Remember, too, that even a top-notch tech can encounter distractions of his own: He might sneeze, a promoter might ask for more/less volume, a pretty waitress might even pass by. Heck, you may even mess up your own routine, or forget part of the script, thereby making it difficult for the tech to follow your cue sheet!
Ever the consummate pro, Dan Harlan is always sure to ”… just use whatever happens as part of the entertainment for the audience. If the lights go out, I’ll just say “Oooo, and now we come to the spooky part.” If I have to, I’ll just keep vamping. If the sound cuts out, I may break into an impromptu dance or hand-shadow routine. If everything (the power) cuts out, I’ll yell “Pay the bill!” Obvious, but funny. Then I’ll resort to my theatrical training. I can fill most houses up to about 500 seats (1000 if designed well) with just my unaided voice. I may make some other funny comments, but generally, I know I have to keep the show going and avoid uneasiness or panic.”
The Bottom Line!
Learn to create excellent cue sheets, and you’ll have fewer headaches. You’ll learn how to view your show from the perspective of the techs, and that will give you a better understanding of what they do, and what they can do to help you. You’ll also learn how to view your show from the perspective of your audience, and that will open up a whole world of self-evaluation & improvement.
Fewer headaches, better understanding, a world of improvement … all thanks to cue sheets! With this article and the one on “Stage Plots” you’ll be miles ahead of many other magicians!
Well, my friends, thanks to our special guests, I have a whole new understanding of cue sheets, so MEGA-thanks go to the following gentlemen:
- Dan Harlan – It seems to me that Dan must be one of the most prolific magic inventors & teachers of our time, because his videos & tricks are everywhere! Dan’s background in theatre, ever since his childhood, certainly serves him, and is audiences, very well.
- Loran – Loran is an International Magician who has thrilled audiences with his performances on stage and television, in movies, and at special events for more than 30 years. In 2003, Loran opened for the Rolling Stones at the biggest concert in Canadian history … SARSTOCK
- David Merry – David has performed over 5400 shows in twelve different time zones and been on over 70 TV shows. He is a past recipient of Canada’s “Club Comic of the Year “Award, and his show “DON’TPANIC REMAIN.COM” was nominated at the Canadian Comedy Awards in the Category “Best One-Man Show”.
- David Peck – Nowadays, he’s primarily an keynote speaker, writer, and social change consultant. David is an award-winning prestidigitator with over 40 years experience performing magic at corporate and private functions around the world. He’s also a philosopher and a poet.
Thanks for your interest!