Set Etiquette

As actors, we are schooled in dance, in Chekhov, in Scorsese, in diction. We are trained in all aspects of performing arts, so hopefully when that day arrives when opportunity comes a knockin’ we can say, “Yeah, I can do that. Easy.” What we are not privy to during all that Shakespearean training, archery lessons or while attending yet another “How to get an agent” seminar is how to behave when we do get a job.

Those who come from the theatre know that you always acknowledge the stage manager’s “15 minutes” with a “Thank you” as much as they know not to speak The Scottish play’s namesake or the mistake it is to whistle within the confines of the theatre. But what special if not eccentric rules exist on a set? Namely, what is set etiquette?

“We all know we couldn’t do anything without the actor,” says Adam Reed an experienced 1st and 2nd Assistant Director (A.D.) and now Director. That being said, Adam also recognizes that those actors who know the ropes are more likely to shine on a set. “You’re always being observed. Someone’s watching. It’s really hard to get away with anything,” he adds. So basically, it’s to an actor’s benefit to know how a set runs and who its players are, especially a beginning actor who most likely is working as a background player looking to move up.

A set, from a feature to a music video to a commercial, union or non-union, is run by certain rules. And within a set, each department is its own little world “That’s the only reason it works,” Adam says, “Different, specific jobs that all have boundaries and are all heading towards the same goal. The best thing to do is sit back and observe. That’s how you’re going to learn the most.” And he adds, “Stay out of the way.”

There is a specific hierarchy on a set. Adam breaks it down like this for those the actor’s are most likely to deal with: Producer, Director, Production Manager, Production Coordinator, 1st A.D., 2nd A.D., 2nd 2nd, Production Assistants. Then there are the grips, the gaffers and the camera department, all of which have their own formula from the key to the best boy to the Director of Photography. Again, each little world has its own rules and its own players. As actors, we’ve seen this illustrated in the treatment between a principal, a day player or background. And for those who’ve been background they know it’s better to be one of the others. Crew hierarchy is a little different. Though, like the background player who knows someday they will be the star or at least the guest star, according to Adam, “everybody on a set is aspiring to something else.” Therefore, be nice to everyone. “Don’t piss off the gaffer, he may light you poorly.” Or more productively, that nice guy you were very respectful to at the crafts service table may remember you in six months when he is finally directing that script he’s been working on for the last three years and cast you.

“The industry is really tiny,” Adam says. “Reputation is huge. 75% of jobs are on referral. Primadonna behavior is never rewarded. The crew will talk badly of you.”

From Adam’s point of view, as one who is in charge of picking and placing the background players, he “needs people I can control. Others aren’t going to be as apt to take direction.” And Adam himself has cast people in his own projects that he’s met while “A.D.ing” and they were “backgrounding.”

When asked what’s the most outrageous or silliest thing he’s seen an actor do on a set, he pauses and then says, “There are so many to chose from. The most outrageous I guess would be girls overtly flirting with the director. When they walk away, they will probably never be asked back again.”

“It comes down to tact. It’s a balancing of egos, to get what you want as quickly as you can. But, it’s a fine line between being involved and knowing when to mind your own business.”

Adam points out that for the actor, “It’s also a fine line between being taken advantage of.” I tell him the story of when a few years ago I had gone down to Central Casting to earn some extra money and was immediately cast because of my then Winona-short haircut as a tomboy/murder suspect in an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” Angel was my name. I was in a bunch of one on one scenes, my character’s name was listed on the shot sheet and I was specifically cast for my look but I still knew I would only get background pay because every time I was given instruction it was, “Remember, just mouth the dialogue.” They could get away with paying me significantly less as long as they never gave me a line. I was experienced enough to know I was being screwed, but still too green to know what to do about it. After talking to Adam, I now realize if I’d known the hierarchy, instead of pouting and complaining to the A.D. as I did, and who quite rudely cut me just as I was about to eat my meal and literally made me put down my tray (I guess depriving one of a free meal is the industry standard for being smarter than the production thinks you are), I could have gone to the Production Manager and explained the situation or even to SAG.

But you learn. You learn the silly names that different shots have. You learn when to make a stink and when to sit quietly reading your book waiting to be called. You learn that after awhile craft service makes you fat. You learn about the Key and Best Boys. You learn the teamsters are kind of fun. You learn that all the different departments, though separate, seem to know what everyone else is doing. You learn not to sit in certain chairs. You learn that charm and a little luck may get you bumped up. You learn to always say thank you if someone is catering to your needs in any way. And you learn not to take any of it for granted, because everyone in every department has worked hard to get there and will keep working hard to stay there.

I remember my astonishment on another job when a fellow backgrounder who seemed to be rather buddy buddy with everyone slipped away from the set for an audition for an hour or two, professing, “no one’ll notice.” I was livid thinking he was right and that I would sit there properly following the rules and that possibly because of his buddy buddy status he would be rewarded and I would be forgotten. But I remember what Adam said, “It’s really hard to get away with anything,” and I smile, because I realize Adam’s right. I ended up in that movie and my fellow backgrounder did not. I was respectful. He wasn’t.

One needs to be able to apply their many, varied skills as an actor in the work environment and that means understanding that work environment. “Actors who have free time should P.A.,” Adam ends with.

In addition to the set vocabulary of martini shot, key grip, please, bottled water, thank you, within the realm of set etiquette, the most important lesson of all, as important as anything Stasberg or Adler could have shown you is this, according to Adam our very own Miss Manners, “Late is a four letter word.”

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