October 21, 2015
In Production. . . With Deb
Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you are the type of person that prefers to eat the cake without knowing what went into making it, skip this blog post ;o)
“The story of a play, is how the birds come home to rouste.”
If you were at the QDF Fall launch, you might have heard mentioned that I was blessed with the opportunity to return to the production process for a play that I have had the pleasure of being a part of almost since its inception – Rahul Varma’s State of Denial, under the Direction of Liz Valdez.
The gift of such an opportunity is that you get to know a play, and witness its building process from an intimate vantage point. Just as each play is varied in how it gets from perch to roost, so too is the production process. I was so absorbed in my awareness of process, that I thought I would share with those not in the know, the broad strokes of what goes into the journey.
We will set aside the Playwright for now; unless you are very fortunate, they are finished with the production process after having signed off on the rights. We also won’t speak about the role of the Producer. These vital people, who make it all possible, deserve a blog entry of their own, and I will follow up with one at a later date.
Start instead with the Director, who brings with them a vision and skill-set all their own. Yes, there are great training programs that Directors do take advantage of, but for the most part, such training is like being given a starter set. From there, experience and reflection will shape the soul of the Director. Based on their predispositions, they set the process in place, and guide it, much like the rearing of a child, from zygote to maturity. Rightfully, they will know more about the production than any other member.
A close second however, is the Stage Manager. These people are tasked with ensuring the Director’s vision through to the closing curtain, while making the process as smooth as possible for the entire production team. They ensure broad communications and juggle constantly changing schedules, track changes to the script, blocking decisions, props needed, and feed in reminders of lines, stage/set dimensions, and generally serve as the collective memory for the production. As such, Stage Managers, like the META Unsung Hero Award winning, Melanie St. Jacques, give the term “intuitive” new meaning.
Now, bring on the Designers, light, set, sound and video. Each of these Artists will read the play from their particular vantage point, and if the process allows, will bring ideas into the room that will help to shape the starting point of the production. This can be a very exciting point in the process, because after reading and developing your own fixed vision in your head, suddenly these gifted people will make you see it anew and full of possibilities.
Before this wonderfully creative stew gets out of hand, bring in the Production Manager, who has the unenviable task of hearing what we wish we could do, and then telling us what is possible to do. While the resourcefulness of individuals, like Steve Shawn, is mindboggling, the fact is theatre can rarely afford the imaginations of the artists that call it home.
At this point want is separated from need, though choices are made and creative juices flow overtime to compensate. Truth is that financial considerations have much more to do with what an audience sees than any Artists would like. Keeping production periods tight is another of those necessities. As such, Designers often have to begin their work before the complete vision of the play is finalized. By the first day of rehearsal, they will have their rough sketches done, scaled models built, and ready for presentation to the rest of the team.
Bring on the Actors. There is a common misconception that all actors do is memorise lines and move about the stage saying them. It would be a closer description to say that an actor goes through a process much like falling in love every time they take on a role. While in the living of it, falling in love is natural and unattended to, from an objective point of view, falling in love is a complex process of discovery and acculturation; a peeling away of layers and the building of a new shared understanding.
Just like the Designers before them, each actor brings with them a skill-set and perspective that, if allowed, can open the project up further and infuse another level of challenges and ideas that will enliven the process further.
With the entire team in place, rehearsals start. On a professional production rehearsals will range from three to four weeks, 5 or 6 days a week, plus a week before opening in the theatre if the company does not have a venue of their own, which the majority do not.
Day one usually starts with a table read. This is the first day the entire team is together, and we all get to hear the words from the mouths of the people who will embody the characters. The Stage Manage will take a running time of the reading, which will be used to help track the development process. For most plays, you can predict up to a 1/3 reduction in the run time.
Here is where each production will start to distinguish itself, even if you are working with others you have worked with before. Generally speaking the first week of rehearsal will be focused on building the troupe working culture and establishing a shared understanding of the play. In an open process, this is a very playful time in production, where actors are encouraged to make offerings and test out ideas. Designers visit often, and will begin to finalize their plans based on the discoveries of this week.
As the process moves forward, having received and explored the offerings of the team, the Director will begin to make the million and one decisions demanded on the way to opening. By the end of week one, there may be a stumble through of the play. Again, the idea is to get a feeling for the play, from beginning to end, rather than to try to get a fixed and perfect performance. Based on this, the Director and Stage Manager will plan the rehearsal schedule and that may include other professionals on an as needed basis. Bring on the choreographer, the stage combat expert, the vocal coaches etc.
Over the next two weeks, the production team will focus on building the heightened individual moments and successive imagery that will form the whole of the performance. Some Directors will make firm decisions about blocking – where characters stand and how they move, others will focus on the relationships between characters and we free the actor to make slightly shifting decisions about movement within a given space. Wherever the Directors are on this spectrum, limitations must be agreed upon to ensure that actors and environment come together smoothly. There is no point in a vivid monologue performed outside the lighting areas.
The other big chunk that a Director wrestles with is transitions – how do we move from one scene to another including sets. I can tell you that there is a desk from one of my previous productions that still haunts me.
As we move into final rehearsal week, there will be more full runs of the play, followed by notes from the Director and Stage Manager. By now, all actors are off book – remember their lines- and there may even be design elements such as sound and props incorporated.
Just when it is all starting to feel perfect it is time for the production to move into theatre. On occasion this can be a smooth process. More often than not, good old Murphy will throw you a curve ball.
On some productions, just before the move into theatre, the production team, minus the actors, will hold a paper tech – they will work their way through the play, noting cues, or programming them into the computer. This will go a long way in trouble shooting problems so they can think about solutions beforehand.
Then the Design team, along with the Production Manager and Theatre Technicians will spend two endless days in the theatre hanging and focusing lights, sound, video and installing the set. The Director and Stage Manager will stop in, and help prepare for the arrival of the actors.
Actors are then called for a ten-of-twelve day – meaning they are called for twelve hours, but will get the equivalent of two hours in breaks during the day.
Upon arrival at the theatre, all will be given a safety tour, and instructed regarding available resources. Actors may also be given the opportunity to walk the set for the first time so that they can begin to acculturate. Then the day begins for real, and demands the patience of Job as we move from cue-to-cue and set lights and solve any tech challenges. Depending how long the tech takes, the Actors may only get to do a few full runs followed by Director’s notes in the space before opening.
Generally, if the play opens on Thursday, there will be a media call on Wednesday where the press will get a little preview of the show, followed by a dress rehearsal that evening where Actors perform under real show circumstances.
Next, open the doors to the last partner in the process, the reason we do it all, The Audience. Each artist will have their own goals for this partnership, but fundamentally, we all seek to connect. The shop will run for two to three short weeks, and each audience will see a performance which is slightly different from the next. This is the nature of live Theatre; it is ephemeral.
So much work and love goes into each production that some say only the slightly masochistic choose to become theatre artists. The above description of limited resources and rushed production schedules encountered in professional theatre, can actually considered the ideal. An independent production might have ¼ the resources and none of the infrastructure support.
Yet regardless of challenges, I will continue to plug away at it. Any tool that connects us to ourselves and each other is a gift, and I love being the bearer of such offerings.
Moreover, as described above, theatre is not a one man show, even when it is. The creative infusion that comes from working with, or witnessing the work of, other talented people is invaluable. I, for instance, look forward to tackling my next transitions after studying at the feet of a master, Liz Valdez, and witnessing the enchantment enacted by Djanet Sears this season.
There is so much variation on the topic of process that this year we will continue to post In Production articles with other Artists this year. Have an Artist you would like to see included? Contact our Kenny Streule at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best.
Till next time, be well.