The Penultimate* Vocal Guide to Production Week (Part 1: What is Production Week?)

“If anything makes a show jump from good to great, it is clarity.”

Rachael Beck, Director & Performer

And the time when that clarity arrives for an amateur musical theatre company is during Production Week.  If this is your first show, your initial experiences as you bump-in to the theatre and start teching is that the show becomes less clear, more chaotic.  But wait, the theatre is about to work its magic on you too.  

It could be likened to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  The last 3 months of rehearsal were slower, gentler, and change was gradual.  Now suddenly it is time to emerge so that everyone can see the stunning wings you’ve developed…and the exit process can be a little arduous.  Hang in there…your moment of flight is upon you.

So, what is this phenomenon?  I must state here that I am writing about the Production Week process and experience from the point of view of amateur/community musical theatre companies in one city – Canberra, Australia.  There may be anomalies peculiar to the process here.  

I have gathered these thoughts from my roles as a Musical Director, orchestra member, pit singer, company vocal coach and private singing teacher.  These roles were performed with five different local companies over eleven years (that is not all of our companies – there is a rich theatre community here!).  And I have been privately teaching singer-actors for 14 years.

*It feels too presumptuous to title this as the ultimate guide – so it is affectionately penultimate, because I’ve tried to be comprehensive.  But this is definitely not a finite inventory of what is useful or likely, so let’s make this a living document, with your contributions included.  Send me ideas on what to add so that we can create a resource that is relevant and useful.

Top Tip: 

Remember – for you this is the next stage of a long audition and rehearsal process, spanning months.  But production week is the critical series of FIRST rehearsals for the tech crew – including sound, lighting, stage crew, prop manager, etc.  It is important for you to find a way to embrace the natural excitement of this phase alongside the acceptance of the work that is now required to mount the entire production.

In other words…up until this point, the show has been all about the cast.  But now the lens widens to include many other, previously unseen, players.  Exhibiting respect and empathy for other people’s roles will help you to appreciate the epic piece of coordinated machinery you are a part of.

What happens in production week?

Production week usually spans roughly a week, depending on the day you open the show.  It often commences the weekend before opening for you as the performer, although other members of your team have probably been into the theatre before you to set up elements that can’t be done after the cast arrives, eg installing set and lighting.

Bump-In

This is the affectionate expression for the process of getting everything and everyone that is required to stage the show moved into the performing space.  It is also sometimes called “getting in”.

What needs to move in?

Top Tip: 

The excitement of moving your make-up and costumes and personal paraphernalia into the theatre will distract you completely.  Try to be mindful of what the Stage Manager has asked you to do and do it.  You could get in the way of someone else’s critical bump-in without realising it.

Sitzprobe

Sitzprobe is a German word meaning “seated rehearsal”.  It is arguably the most exciting rehearsal of production.  This is the first time cast and orchestra rehearse the show together.  It is an entirely musical run, no dancing or blocking, led by the Musical Director (MD).  Sometimes it occurs at the start of production week, sometimes the week before that.  It can occur in the theatre or at another location.

Top Tip: 

Usually only the soloists will sing with a microphone, so you need to be aware of how you are using your voice and aim to avoid fatigue and strain.  There are some big rehearsals coming up, so don’t drain too much from your vocal budget here.  It will be tempting to sing loud – the thrill of suddenly hearing the full score as it was intended to be heard, instead of condensed into a repetiteur’s piano score, is often a bit overwhelming and adrenaline-spiking.

Stage Manager Rules

At this point, the Director will hand the show over to the Stage Manager (SM).  This means that they are now the source of all information.  Try to develop the habit of directing your enquiries through them, or the Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) unless they relate to a technical specification like costume, music or microphone.

It is likely that you will have a safety briefing from the SM early in Production Week.  Listen closely.  In the event of an emergency or critical incident, when you need this information, you don’t want to have to be asking other people what to do or where to go.

Sound Engineer

If the Sound Engineer takes time to give you instructions on how to care for the body mic you are wearing…LISTEN.  The equipment they entrust to you is very expensive and easily damaged.  

I cannot overstate the magnitude of complexity that the job of sound engineering a musical production is.  They are often mixing up to 100 channels of vocals and instruments, and each one of those has to be individually EQ’d and then balanced within the whole soundscape. 

THEN they have to program the entire show with the script in one hand and the console in the other (figuratively) to ensure that every mic is turned on and off at the right time.  It is never a good idea to leave a microphone on when you are not on stage.  They are superheroes around this area…so if only a couple of mic entries are missing on Opening Night, that is amazing and they deserve a medal.

It is also worth considering the sophisticated audio experience that we now all expect – whether in a professional or amateur theatre.  How many times do you notice the sound being criticised in a review?  And yet for many community productions, Opening Night is probably only the third full run of the show they have had to rehearse their cues and programming.  

So, buy your sound and lighting guys some treats.  They have been in the theatre in the wee hours working consistently to make your hard word sparkle and shine! 

Top Tips from the Sound Engineers:

Pre-Show Call/Routine

As the week continues, a routine will start to form. 

Tech run

The technical (or “tech”) run of a show is for the purpose of working out the many and varied technical aspects of the performance.  

“30 secs of show can take 15+ minutes to tech. It’s important and has to be done. Need to be safe for everyone. Trust the director. Be patient and cooperative. Be ready when called. Take stuff to do.”

Sharon Tree’s diary during a run of “Wicked”, 2016

It is NOT a musical rehearsal, per se, although you will sing and dance.  The production team need to make decisions about:

Learn to mark your vocal parts and use it to avoid fatigue when a scene is being repeated to get something technical refined. Be patient, expect repetition, and pace yourself.

Top tips:

Teching your show will be a slow process and can be a common slow-down point in Production Week.  Accept this, bring a book along, and be ready when the SM calls you.  

Media calls

A common part of production week is some form of media call where a couple of numbers are performed in the theatre, in full costume, so that the marketing arm of your company can drive local awareness and ticket sales.  It is often in the morning after a late night of rehearsals.  You might need to negotiate time off work or school and get yourself up early.  It is rare for the entire cast to be called.

I recently found a diary entry from 2014 when I was Musical Director for a production of Sunset Boulevard. The entry had lots of capital letters and exclamation points to remind myself that “media calls ALWAYS take longer than advised…at LEAST double!!!!!”   LOL…yes, they do.  Yes.  They.  Do.

You have to arrive early, warm up, and let the director shape the portions you are going to present to the media.  Then you have to wait for the media.  Then you have to do it.  It absolutely takes time.  But it is also thrilling and valuable.

Dress rehearsals

As far as is possible, these rehearsals will feel exactly like a performance.  Costumes, lighting, sound, call time – everything should proceed like it will on opening night.  Unless there is an emergency (usually safety), the show will stop for nothing.  It’s time to really finesse how long your quick-changes take, when you have time for a sip of water, and what your vocal load is going to feel like now that you only sing each song once.

While you have had months preparing for this moment, please remember that this will usually be the first time that the stage crew has had the opportunity to do their thing (set and strike scenery/trucks) at the pace of the show.  The stop/start nature of a tech run is not the same for them as doing it in a dress rehearsal.  

The crew will usually do anything they can to help you – they want the show to succeed as much as you – but understand that the first few dress rehearsals and shows are quite stressful times for them.

Top tip:

It is common for the Production Team to give you notes after the Dress Rehearsal.  So be prepared to hang around and write those notes down so you remember them and fix them next run. 

Preview 

This performance of the show can take a couple of different forms. 

  1. A dress rehearsal with a small audience (often the ushers or friends of the production team).
  2. A reduced-price ticketed performance.

Either way this is a fabulous opportunity to share your hard work with people who have not seen it at all yet.  They will laugh and cry and applaud, hopefully where you expect it, and you’ll learn to allow a little pause in the scene to accommodate that (well not the crying, I suspect ;-).  

Treat this audience with all the respect and appreciation you can muster – as though it really is opening night.  And for you personally, it is an opportunity to observe how your voice reacts to this new presence in the room.

Opening night

“Straight after a show’s-worth of vocal exertion, you find yourself talking loudly over the clatter of a busy theatre foyer, the too-loud muzak in a late-night restaurant or club, shouting to be heard over a bunch of excited friends.  You wake up the next morning and wonder what’s happened to your voice.”

Pat H. Wilson

Opening Night will blow your mind.  There is affirmation and encouragement to fill your buckets to overflowing.  There may be an invitation to a cast party or drinks.  Decide ahead of time how you will handle these invitations.  Recall what your voice may be asked to do at work tomorrow, or whether you have a matinee as well as an evening performance…and choose wisely.  The fear of missing out will always plague you but finding that you have lost your voice will feel embarrassing and foolish.

Train your speaking voice and learn how to talk safely in noisy environments.

Pat H. Wilson

Post-Show Routine

Your post-show routine is as important as your pre-show routine.  Consider these factors in your planning:

Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of Production Week, you’re ready to make your individual plans for how you will manage your voice throughout.  Part two of this blog will go into all the detail you need to feel prepared and safe – so that you thrive, not just survive, this extraordinary hobby you’re living through.

Sources:

Conversations with Matt Black, Chris Neal and James McPherson

Diaries of Sharon Tree

Endless conversations with Canberran casts and production teams

Photo by Carson Masterson on Unsplash

Wilson, P. H. (2013) The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual. (2nd edition). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.

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