5 Steps to Deciphering Stage Cues

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Photo Source: “Les Misérables” Credit: Matthew Murphy

Consider the vibe-altering lighting changes during the Prince of Denmark’s existential soliloquy in “Hamlet” or the climactic instrumental crescendo of “I Dreamed a Dream” in “Les Misérables.” Theatrical cues like these turn light, sound, and movement into theatrical storytelling. Let this guide take you from clueless to clued-in when it comes to comprehending cues.

What is a cue in theater?

A theatrical cue is a signal or prompt that indicates when an event or action should happen on stage—anything from a specific line to a lighting change, sound effect, or set movement. These directives have been a part of theater since its inception, helping to choreograph the intricate dance of actors, props, and technical elements that make up a performance. Playwrights typically write some into scripts; others are added by stage managers. 

Theatrical cue examples

From the anticipation built by a dimming light to the emotional impact of a perfectly timed sound effect, each cue matters. Some of the most common are line (an actor’s line elicits another actor’s response), action (a movement indicates a shift), light (changes in stage lighting), sound (sound effects or music), and set (movements of scenery or props).

Here are a few examples:

Line: In “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo’s line, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” in Act 2 Scene 2 calls Juliet to appear at the balcony. 

Action: The performance of “Guns and Ships” in “Hamilton” undergoes a mood change as a letter is handed off, catalyzing a lighting and musical shift to a more melancholy tone.

Light: As Willy Loman transitions from nostalgic memories to his harsh present reality in “Death of a Salesman,” the lighting likewise shifts from warm to cold.

Sound: In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the sound of a passing train prompts Stanley to leave the room stealthily. The script reads

[Another train passes outside. Stanley hesitates, licking his lips. Then suddenly he turns stealthily about and withdraws through front door. The women are still unaware of his presence. When the train has passed he calls through the closed front door.]

Set: The chandelier’s dramatic crash onto the stage in “The Phantom of the Opera” marks the climax of Act One.

Why stage cues matter for performers

Cues ensure that all elements of a performance happen at the right time and in the right order, creating a seamless and engaging pace for the audience. They matter to ensure:

  • Coordination and timing that guarantee lighting, sound, and actors’ movements are synchronized to maintain the intended rhythm and pace of the play.
  • Emotional impact and atmosphere, without which a scene’s emotional depth could be compromised. Lighting and sound, in particular, play a vital role in evoking emotions and setting the tone of a scene. 
  • Safety onstage and off for both actors and crew members. Many stage productions include complex machinery and large moving elements. Without proper reminders, these set pieces could become hazards. This is important especially when it comes to technical indicators, like lighting changes, stunts, choreography, or set movements. Missing or misinterpreting one of these signals can disrupt the pacing of a performance, confuse other performers, and potentially even pose safety risks.
  • Theatrical illusion allows the suspension of disbelief that’s core to the audience’s experience. Avoiding disjointed or jarring moments that could pull them out of the story helps maintain the illusion.
  • Efficiency and professionalism, keeping the show running smoothly and on time. This level of professionalism exhibits the team’s competency and preparedness.

How to understand actors’ cues

Stage actor

Nikita Sursin/Shutterstock

The cornerstone of a compelling and synchronized execution of the play’s narrative involves understanding theatrical cues. Here’s our step-by-step guide:

1. Become acquainted with the cue sheet. Stage managers use a master cue sheet, a spreadsheet that makes sure everyone on the production team is on the same page. The sheet includes cue numbers, types, descriptions, and the page in the script where each takes place.

This template from Theaterish shows what a master sheet usually looks like:

master cue sheetmaster cue sheet midsummer

And here it is partially filled out for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

It can also help to analyze iconic plays and their cue scripts. For example, you can read through the (handwritten!) cue script for the original Broadway “West Side Story” or compare this cue script with this one for “A Raisin in the Sun.” The more you study master cue sheets, the better prepared you’ll be during a performance.

2. Read your script thoroughly. Understand the context of your lines and actions, and pay attention to stage directions. Look for written signals like character names in ALL CAPS on top of each dialogue block indicating whose turn it is to talk, as well as personal directions (in parentheses) or [in brackets]. 

For example, check out the written signifiers in “The Importance of Being Earnest”:


[Languidly.] I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

3. Listen and watch during performances. Stay alert to what’s happening on stage, even when you’re not in the spotlight. Listen and watch for visual and auditory signals and consider how other actors respond to them.

4. Rehearse. Practice responding to your fellow actors’ lines and actions. Pay special attention to:

  • Verbal lines that precede your entrance onstage, exit offstage, or another particular action. 
  • Visual movements, gestures, and changes to the set and lighting.
  • Sound shifts in music, effects, or your stage manager desperately whisper-yelling your name.

5. Communicate with your stage manager. They’re responsible for calling the shots during performances, so make sure you understand their signals and timing; the ability to execute cues correctly can be what differentiates the good from the great.