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What are Cue Sheets?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cue sheets are notes used predominantly in theater performances that indicate when certain lighting changes, sounds, or other events are going to happen during the show. These sheets are often maintained by a director and stage manager to help them keep track of when things are supposed to occur during a performance. Shorter versions of the cue sheets will often be given to those responsible for lighting and sound that only indicate the portions of the full sheets that affect them.

An example of how cue sheets are used would be in a production of Romeo and Juliet where the director had decided to have certain conditions happen to enhance the scene as Romeo is departing Juliet in the morning. The director may want some orange lighting to come on to indicate visually that the sun is rising. In this case there would be a note on the cue sheets to indicate that orange lighting comes on from stage left or right. The lighting operators would then have sheets that indicated to them that orange light needs to come on and when during the performance it would happen.

To make the scene more idyllic, the director may also want the sound of singing birds to be lightly played during this moment. There would be notes on the full cue sheets to indicate that at this point in the performance there should be orange light and the sound of birds singing. The sound crew would have a sheet noting that the sounds of singing birds needs to occur at a certain point in the performance. They would not, however, have the note about the lighting and the lighting operators would similarly not have a note about the sound. This keeps the production simplified but the director and stage manager know all of what should be happening.

Similarly, during film or television performances, the director may choose to use cue cards for his or her performers. These cards contain some of the same information as cue sheets and are often used during live performances to help a performer in case he or she forgets a line or is unsure of a specific action that must be taken. The cue cards can also help a performer move a certain way if it is important to a scene or to add emphasis where needed. Such cue cards have become less popular in recent years as Teleprompters have replaced bulky cards with screens that allow the text to scroll as the performers read it.

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Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Jan 27, 2012

I watched a lot of live television comedy shows decades ago, when cue sheets were still in use. After seeing a documentary on how shows like these are produced, I gained new respect for cue sheet holders.

This documentary showed a man holding several large sheets at once. The writing on the sheets had to be large so the actors could see it from a distance, so only a few words could fit on a sheet.

As the words were read, the man had to drop the top sheet to reveal the next one. He could only hold so many at once, so he had to keep the rest neatly stacked behind him and grab them quickly when the time came.

By cloudel — On Jan 27, 2012

@seag47 – Music cue sheets are probably even more important than lighting cue sheets. There is generally only one person running the lights, but you can have dozens of musicians doing their thing during the play.

I operate the lights for my community's theater. I always have my cue sheets handy, but I make it a point to go to every practice, so I generally have my cue memorized.

I can feel the mood of the play change, and that inspires me to adjust the lighting. Usually, the director lets me choose the colors to fit the moment, so sometimes, I do things that are not on the cue sheets. However, I always adhere to the lighting requests that are on them to make the director happy, and the rest is just bonus lighting.

By seag47 — On Jan 26, 2012

I had a musical part in a play once. I played in a small orchestra that stayed behind the curtains as the play was acted out on stage, and we had to play during certain scenes.

To keep all of us together and make the play go seamlessly, we were given music cue sheets. The musical director also had one, and he would make sure we were all ready to read our music when the cue was forthcoming.

Without these cue sheets, the music would have been a mess. When you play with other musicians, you all have to have a plan, or you will create noisy chaos.

By shell4life — On Jan 26, 2012

That is interesting. I always assumed that sound and light operators just came to every rehearsal and memorized when to do their jobs.

I guess cue sheets are a type of insurance. People tend to get wrapped up in the story during plays, and it would be embarrassing for an operator to forget to do what he is being paid to do.

During every play I have ever attended, things like light and sound have always come in at the right moment. I never knew that cue sheets were the most likely reason for this.

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