How to Set Up a Stage for a Concert

Notes from a Stage Manager

Stage Plot
Stage Plot. © 2014 by Berklee Press. All Rights Reserved

Setting up a stage for a concert can be a complex affair, involving hundreds of pieces of equipment. Let’s discuss a number of different considerations, to help organize the process and make sure it gets done right.

  1. Make a stage plot. A stage plot, or “stage setup diagram,” is like a map of exactly what goes on the stage. There are certain conventions that you will see in concert halls worldwide. An X indicates a chair, and an – indicates a music stand. Rectangles are for risers, and their height is indicated to the side. Tympani are large circles O, while stools for upright bass, etc., are small circles o. Pianos are drawn with their curve, so you can see how it is situated. Note: you need as many stage plots (and also sound and lighting plots) for as many different setups as you have. For each one, in a corner or attached sheet, write the total number of each type of gear (stands, chairs, risers, instrument stands, specific percussion, etc.) you need on stage. (See figure, from my book Music Industry Forms, Berklee Press 2014.)
  1. Make a sound plot. The live sound engineer will prepare a similar diagram that indicates microphone and monitor placement, with numbers indicating mic locations and an accompanying chart indicating precisely what model mic is associated with each code number. You could also make a lighting plot, which is like a sound plot, but with lighting specifications and accompanying cues.
  2. “Spike” center stage. A "spike" is a mark on the floor, often a cross that is made with gaffer’s tape, but sometimes paint or inlaid wood as part of the floor construction. Some other locations similarly might require temporary spikes, such as showing location for the piano or for risers The center stage spike tends to be the one most referenced.
  3. First, sweep the stage. It will become more difficult to do that once you start setting up. Sweeping after the concert is often ideal, in order to simplify the next day.
  1. Set up platforms and risers. Make sure the artist/manager is clear about different heights required. Check them for stability every time you use them, and never use a riser if it isn't absolutely sound.
  2. Set up pianos, percussion, harpsichords, and other large instruments. Confirm that there is a clear sight line from each of these to the conductor.
  1. Set up chairs and stands. Angle chairs so that everyone can see the conductor, and as best they can, each other. Confirm that there are unobstructed paths where people can actually walk to their seats. Sit in chairs throughout the setup to make sure that there is enough room for each player to sit comfortably and accommodate his or her instrument, including additional instruments, stands, and mutes, besides their primary instrument. Consider non-obvious required chairs—for example, one for the pianist’s page turner, or for the timpanist when he’s sitting out for a movement. Make sure all stands are tight on their base.
  2. Set up sound gear: mic stands, mics, monitors. Also, set up lighting and any effects or special electronics (fog machines, laptop, projector, screen, etc.). After sound is set up, tape or otherwise cover any cables that will be in place for the whole concert.  
  3. Have a plan for gear coming off stage during the concert. There should be dedicated space in the wings or in a prop room where they can be stored, out of the way of traffic. Similarly, if there are to be a lot of people waiting backstage, make sure that there is room for them. Have a big trashcan backstage.

Before the concert, make sure to discuss the details of the setup with the artist or the artist’s manager.

Confirm the number of music stands; some players sometimes need more than one, and sometimes, pairs of musicians (particularly strings) share stands. Consider the risers: their relative heights and the amount of gear that needs to fit on them. Will the players bring their own instruments or use the house piano/timpani/gong? Draw up the plots well in advance, and make sure the artist/manager approves them.

Make sure that there are enough stagehands. Calculate the time required for each change. Figure, a competent, average-sized stagehand can take about four chairs or four stands per trip on or off stage, at perhaps 30 seconds per trip if they are fast and the stage is small. Use that formula or one that makes sense for your team and circumstance to figure out how long each scene change will require, and consider whether that is acceptable.

Dollies can help speed up the process.

When the musicians take their places, watch them carefully. Confirm that nothing has been forgotten, and note if there are any extra requirements: a stand for another instrument, accommodations for a wheel chair, etc. Musicians always adjust their setups a bit, when they take their places, but if they change anything significant, make note of it, particularly if the setup is to be done again at another time.

Another helpful stage management form is the “Performance Report.” (See figure.) Typically, these feature space where you can make notes about gear, sound, lighting, and the facility, and whether any maintenance is required before the next event, such as a riser requiring repair or a burned out light bulb. Adopting standards for stage plots, performance reports, and other similar mechanisms, and having a checklist of issues to discuss with artists/managers well in advance of the event can help to improve communication and reduce risk, hopefully addressing any possible issues well in advance of an event, before they become problematic.

REFERENCE

Music Industry Forms, by this article's author, Jonathan Feist (Berklee Press, 2014).