A few years ago, Jeff Whiting, a choreographer and director, was working on a show for Disney in Hong Kong. Work was progressing at a snail's pace.
"There were so many languages represented at rehearsal," he recalled. "It was taking so long. I thought, let me draw this out and project it on the wall rather than wait for someone to translate for me."
Later, while working as assistant choreographer to choreographer-director Susan Stroman on the 2007 Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein, he was put in charge of creating the "Show Bible" — the book into which every stage movement and design cue is recorded. While working on the ponderous volume, Whiting's Hong Kong experiment began to solidify into something more advanced than drawings and projections. Whiting felt certain there must be a computer program out there that would render his work more easily.
"I kept looking for software to do it," he said. "I thought surely somebody must have it." But such a program wasn't to be found.
So, Whiting decided to create the software himself. He called the result Stage Write, an app which makes documenting stage blocking and choreography a fast, fluid, clinical and permanent affair.
"Part of me wondered if I should do it," he explained. "Is it a big enough market to make it worth doing? I knew 20 people who wanted it. But was that the only 20 people who wanted it?"
He didn't have to worry. Stage Write, which was launched in early 2012, is fast on its way to becoming a permanent and indispensable implement in the choreographer's toolkit. Seventeen Broadway shows currently employ it, including Newsies, Mamma Mia!, The Book of Mormon and Big Fish. Stage Write is also being used at Disney World, Universal Studios, Cirque du Soleil and on two cruise lines.
"It's one of those things that people in our business jump on," said Stroman, who has used Stage Write on every show since Young Frankenstein, including her current project, the musical Bullets Over Broadway. It's one of those rare advancements that seems so obvious an idea in retrospect that one wonders why it didn't happen before now. Or, as Stroman put it, "Why did we wait so long?"
Apple was impressed enough that they decided to make a documentary about Whiting, selecting Stage Write as one of the five apps they showcase each year with such films.
The process of developing Stage Write was surprisingly quick. It took Whiting about two or three months to figure out how he wanted the program to look. After that, he went to four or five software companies with his idea, and the interested companies bid on the concept. He finally settled on Tekyz, based in Scottsdale, AZ. "They had the best understanding of what I wanted to do," stated Whiting. Tekyz spent five more months working on Stage Write.
In practice, the app is remarkably easy to use. First off, one creates icons for each performer in a show, using different shapes and colors to signify individual players. The actor icons are stored in a section of the screen called "The Green Room." A simple sketch of the stage's shape is then made, including features such as curtains, the position of scenery and common pathways across the stage. Once those two basic steps are complete, charts can be created tracking the position of performers on the stage at any given moment in the play.
Stage Write is sold through the iTunes app store for $199.
Having employed Whiting on Young Frankestein, Stroman was one of the first choreographers to have access to the new device. "He showed me charts he made with apps," she recalled, "I thought what a good idea that is." Stroman added that she never expected Stage Write to become as much of a game-changer "as it has turned out to be."
By the time Young Frankenstein was on national tour, Stroman was already using Stage Write. "With each show, he's been able to upgrade it," she said. "Right now, we're using it in workshop of Bullets. Now, when I mount it for real, I can remember more easily what I did in the workshop. It will be right there in front of me."
Stoman sees advantages stretching on into the distant future. "Hopefully, if you have a hit," she continued, "some day in high schools and community theatre they'll be able to recreate what you did."
The success of Stage Write has made Whiting think there might be other corners of the theatre world that could use a touch of technology to speed things along. "I've been approached by a lot of people," he said. "One idea that's been tossed around is a casting app."
It's a strange turn of career for the man who, at age ten, was cast as Dopey in a production of Snow White, and has been involved in the theatre ever since.
"I never thought I would be in the software business," he said.