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The basics of calling cues

This is the bare bones basics of how to call a cue, read on for more info as well as examples, and more on complex cue sequences:

  1. Call a Standby about 10 seconds prior to the cue. Always use “standby” as the first word in the call.
  2. Use the formula *DEPARTMENT* + “Cue” + *CUE NUMBER* + “GO” to execute the cue.
  3. Lead the exact moment of the cue placement by a beat to allow for reaction time of the crew.
  4. Visually ensure the cue is running as intended.

Calling Standbys and Warnings

Standby cues and warning cues are slightly different, but serve a similar purpose. Standby cues are placed about 10 seconds prior to the cue being called to give the crew a heads up they need to be ready with a finger on the GO button, or with hands on the set piece. Warning cues are typically called about a minute prior for large scenic changes where prep time is necessary to move a set piece into position or to get to their post.

To call a standby for a cue:

Use this formula to create your call: “Standby” + *DEPARTMENT* + “Cue” + *CUE NUMBER*

You will always start with the word “Standby” to place a board op at ready for a cue.


Calling “Standby Sound Cue 12” about 10 seconds prior to where cue 12 must happen, lets your Board Op ensure cue 12 is loaded and ready when you call the cue.

To Call a Warning for a cue:

Use the Formula: “One minute Warning for” + *DEPARTMENT* + “Cue” + *CUE NUMBER* + “One Minute Warning”

I repeat “One minute warning” at the end to ensure everyone is aware the large cue is coming up.


Call “One minute warning for Deck Cue 12, One Minute Warning.”

How to call a Cue Over Headset

To execute the cue, use the following formula:


Your board op or crew member should only execute the cue on the word “GO”. This means you can say everything prior to the word “GO” in advance of when the cue needs to happen and pause for a moment to place your “GO” in exactly the right spot.

A quick note on placing your “GO”, remember that the Board Op will take a split second after your commend to react and press the button, so lead each cue by a beat to allow them reaction time. Calling your “GO” right when the cue is supposed to happen will lead to late cues. This is something you need to feel out with each new Board Op.

Getting a feel for how early to begin saying each cue prior to the moment the GO needs to happen will take time and experience, but don’t be afraid to start a bit earlier than necessary to ensure you get it all out in time. You should always have a moment to pause before saying go, but try to shoot for about 1 second.


How to Call a Cue

In this example, we have a light cue and a sound cue which are called together. Here you would say “Lights 17 and Sound 905” before Flora turns to the garden, leaving yourself about one second of time before she turns and you say “GO”.

According to the 2021 study done by The Stage Manager Survey, 83% of stage managers worldwide “typically call cues to a crew member”. When you are calling your first show you will likely be calling cues over a headset. Practice calling the cues, and try to remember to keep your eyes on the stage whenever possible.

Best Practices for calling over headset

Although headsets are typically very reliable, providing as much clarity and consistency as possible will help prevent cues being missed or taken prematurely. By saying “standby” before the rest of the call on standbys, you keep the back end of the cue clear. This can prevent a jumped cue. Keeping your cue calling as consistent as possible in terms of lead up to the cue will also prevent missed cues, and accidental go button hits by the wrong board op.

Also speaking softly, but clearly will allow everyone else to speak softly. If one person is yelling into the headset, everyone must turn their volume down and the they can’t hear the other members of the crew who need to speak quietly.

How to use cue lights

According to a 2021 study by The SM Survey, 80% of USA Stage Managers have experience using cue lights, and 98% of UK Stage Managers had experience with cue lights. Cue lights use a control panel set up at the SM call station, and receiving stations where the signal is sent to the crew member. Each receiving station is controlled individually from the control panel, allowing the SM to signal individual stations alone.

What The Lights Mean

There are 2 different configurations for cue lights, which are based off the area they originated in. These are the US and European systems.

With the standard US setup, Cue lights only have an ON and an OFF setting. Light ON = “standby”, Light OFF = “GO”.

In the European setup there are two different colored lights, one red and one green. In this configuration, Red light ON = “Standby”, Green Light ON = “GO”. Recently with the introduction of the ETC CueSytem platform, the European setup has become much more common in the US, so being familiar with both configurations is helpful. I prefer the European system.

With both configurations, there can also be an “acknowledge” feature built in, where the respective standby light will flash when first turned on by the SM. In order to “acknowledge”, the operator at the other end of the cue light will push a button which turns the flashing light to a solid ON light. This lets the SM know they are standing by to execute the cue, similar to saying “standing” over headset.

Cue Light Controllers

Most new systems use a button setup similar to this:

Here the red buttons at the top are “standby” buttons, and the Green buttons along the bottom are the “GO” buttons. The yellow buttons in the middle are the master selects, which enable you to choose multiple buttons that will go with the master “GO” buttons along the sides.

Though most new cue lights systems use push buttons enabled by digitally controlled out stations, many older setups in the US used physical switches in a panel, with individual wires running directly from each switch to its corresponding light. These switched setups often do not have master switches, and required much more work to manage during the show.

Writing Cues into the prompt book

Cues should be written into the prompt book in a fashion that works for you, but should also be clear enough that any other SM could pick up your book and call the show. Since this article is already pretty long, I will include basics here, and more detail in a separate article for those interested.

When writing cues into the book you should include the Department, Number, and Cue Line or Action.

For dialogue based cue placements, mark the exact placement in the line with a box. If more clarification is necessary, add notes in smaller print.

For action based cue placements, write the exact blocking or action which triggers the cue on the end of the line. These visual cues require a bit more memorization so you can keep your head up through the sequence.

Common department abbreviations are:

In Book AbbreviationVerbal Cue Call
LQ or LXLights or Electrics
SQ or SXSound
FLYFly or Rail (often on a cue light)
Deck or StageDeck or Stage
TB, AV, ProTab, Video, Projections
FX Special Effects
ADAuto-Deck (automation on stage floor)
AR Auto-Rail (automated flying elements)


This is an electronic copy of a prompt book page, but handwritten would look very similar. If you are interested, I use PDF Expert for my electronic prompt scripts. It isn’t a purpose built SM app, but it is extremely user friendly.

In this example, you can see where I initially marked the cue based on dialogue, but then added the visual notes as well. In this instance, visual and dialogue based cues were intermingled and called in rapid fire, so I found it easiest to include these notes for quick reference, even though it was not strictly necessary.

Notice my use of the caution “Quick” before the final cue. The first few times I called this sequence I missed the final cue (LQ-104.2) because it fell into an awkward offbeat. In this particular instance, cues 100 through 104 created a bit of a pattern where I had time to double check my next cue note between each call.

While looking ahead at the section each night, I would see this note and remember to stay alert for this final cue which broke that rhythm.

Make sure your notes are clear enough to be read and called by any other stage manager. I have personally stepped into calling a show mid performance when the calling SM got sick. Because of her clear and concise cue notes, I was able to call about 20 minutes of the show successfully without any prep time.

If you have yet to build your first SM kit check out my article on the 33 items you need in your kit.

Special Circumstances

Follow Spot Cues

Follow Spots require a bit more specification than many other cue types, since these are much more manual than other cues. On larger shows, calling spot cues will typically fall to someone other than the PSM, but If you Stage Manage for a while you will inevitable call spot cues. Calling spots always adds an extra layer of complexity to the call, and that is why they are my least favorite thing to add to the book.

I typically ensure my spot ops have a very clear cue sheet, and call a simplified version of the cues. The Spot Ops then rely on their cue sheet for most of the information, and rely on me mostly for the exact timing of the cues like other departments.

When calling spots I usually give an extra 5-8 seconds compared to other standbys to provide most of the info the spot op will need for their upcoming cue. These extra few seconds are helpful since they often need to change gels colors, consult their cue sheet, and get lined up.

Especially with new or less experienced ops it can require a bit more verbal prep for each cue. This video of the SM calling Hairspray at San Diego Rep is a perfect example of what calling spots can sound like in busy moments. Don’t let this intimidate you if you are just starting out as an SM. This is a professional production where everyone has years of experience.

Calling Fog Cues

Calling fog cues that are manually controlled by a crew member can add another challenge since standard cue calls can get confusing without extra care. The trouble comes when telling the crew member to stop the fog when it has achieved its desired effect, since “Stop, GO” can get confusing over headset. Work with your crew to come to an agreement on what works best for your situation.

I recommend using the words “ON” and “OFF” instead of start and stop, to avoid confusion. This also keeps the word “GO” as your command word.


“Fog ON, GO”… (fog running for a bit) …”Fog OFF, GO”

Tips for Improving your Cue Calling

If you are looking to improve your cue calling, read Part 2 of this guide with the 5 Tips for Improving your Cue Calling. There we talk about calling complex cue sequences, and how to call fast cues.

Where does the SM Call cues from?

On most shows in smaller theaters in the US, the Stage Manager will call cues from the booth located at the back of the house behind the audience. During larger shows and tours, it is much more common for the SM to call the show from somewhere backstage. On the Hamilton tour, the SM calls the show from Stage Right directly behind the proscenium. With the Lion King tour, the SM calls the show from a raised platform backstage built specifically for this, since they can’t afford to lose any floor space.

While speaking with the PSM of one of the Hamilton tours recently, he mentioned they had a venue where the normal spot on Stage Right they would call from was blocked by a fire door, meaning they needed to shift their setup to call the show from Stage Left. Without intimate knowledge of the show, and the ability to adapt, they wouldn’t have been able to make the show happen otherwise.

I recently wrote an article detailing the 11 Skills Every Stage Manager Needs, which lists many more essential factors that make a good SM.

Cue Calling Terminology

What is a cue?

A cue is a predetermined action or set of actions that change a technical element during a play or musical. A good example would be a light cue, which changes the look on stage from one dim light at center to the full stage lit with an even wash. The cue can be programmed to take any amount of time, and will be triggered by the Stage Manager calling the cue at a specific moment.

What does it mean to call a cue?

Simply put, Calling a cue is when the stage manager prompts the board op to trigger the cue. This is done by specifying the kind of cue being called, cue number, and the word “GO”. Only on the word “GO” will the board op execute the cue (usually by hitting the GO button on their console).

What is a Board Op?

A Board Op (or Operator) is the person responsible for pressing the GO button and troubleshooting mid show if something goes wrong. Prior to the computerization of most technical control systems, board ops were a necessity since the Stage Manager couldn’t manually control each individual console. Lighting consoles required the operator to physically move the fader for each channel during a cue, and sound cues were recorded on reel to reel tapes, requiring swapping and management during the performance.

After the digitalization of these technical elements it is possible for the stage manager to press go on each of these systems, and is often done at many smaller theaters. The problem with this, and the reason is isn’t common at larger theaters is that the Stage Manager is then responsible for hitting cues and troubleshooting when things go wrong. This leads to missed cues, and technical malfunctions going unfixed for much longer, if they are fixed at all.


The word “GO” is the only word that will be used to trigger a cue in almost every situation. This word is standardized across the US as well as internationally. Only in select situations where “GO” would be confusing should you use another word, and you should work this out ahead of time with the crew.

One example would be telling the crew member who is manually running a fog machine when to cut the fog. In this situation you might say “Fog Stop” since GO is likely to be taken as ‘start the fog’. Another way to call these moments though is with a description of the cue prior to the GO. “Fog on…GO………….Fog Off…GO”


Placing a cue on Standby means to warn your board op that their cue is coming up in about 10-15 seconds. “Standby” is also standardized now with 90% of Stage Managers using this as their announcement prior to the cue. (SMSurvey.com)


The most common use of warning cues is a heads up about a page prior to the cue happening. This warning happens earlier than the standby cue, and serves to let crew members get set up for a cue before it happens.

I typically use warning cues for any of the these 3 situations:

  1. Prior to large scene shifts which need setup time backstage
  2. Extremely complex technical sequences where cue calls might be non-standard
  3. When there has been a long break for a department between their cues

The warning gives the crew time to consult their cue sheets, move a large scenic element into position, or to make their way from the green room back to their post for their next cue. Use your best judgement on warnings and ask your board ops and ASMs if they would like one when in doubt.

Headset or Comms

The headset (or Comms) is the communication system used in the theatre to provide a link between the Stage Manager and every member of the crew. These are also called Cans in the UK.

Cue Light

A system used to communicate standby and GO signals without using headsets. The Stage Manager will have a control panel, and will turn lights on or off to indicate the standby and go signals to the crew. these are often used in conjunction with a headset, though not always.

Call Mic

This is the mic that the Stage Manager has to communicate to the backstage areas over the PA system, and will typically not actually be used to call cues, but instead to call Half Hour, Places, and other calls to the dressing rooms/green room.


In theatre, the monitors refer to the system used to feed sound from the stage into the backstage and crew areas of the theatre. These speakers allow the stage manager who might be in the booth to hear the show, as well as the actors backstage to hear where they are in the show so they know when to be ready. Recently, video feeds have been making their way into the backstage areas as well as the calling station, and often even infrared cameras are becoming common allowing the Calling SM to effectively see in the dark.

Who calls cues in a play or musical?

In smaller shows with short runs (less than a couple of months) the PSM will usually be the only one to call the show. On broadway and touring shows which often have no set closing date, the members of the SM team will rotate through calling the show and running deck tracks.

Rotating who calls the show allows everyone to stay fresh and for replacements to be possible since everyone will know each track.