“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.
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.
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?
- Sound and lighting rigs
- Stage crew
- Cast members
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.
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.
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:
- Microphones HATE hairspray and make-up
- Do everything you can to have your hair and make-up completed before you get your mic on
- If a mic is damaged, don’t try to hide it, go straight to the technician in the wings
- The mics are easy to break and contain very fine wires and mechanisms which do a magnificent job of picking up even a sniff – handle with care!
As the week continues, a routine will start to form.
- “Call” time is when you are required to be at the theatre for cast warm-ups. That might be anywhere between 1-2 hours before curtain. You should plan to arrive a minimum of 15 minutes before your call, if not earlier.
- It is wise to find out what time the Stage Door (rear entrance) opens so that you know when you can arrive.
- Decide when and what you are going to eat (more detail below).
- Know how long your hair and make-up take to do and when you should do that in conjunction with getting your microphone on.
- Take responsibility for your own vocal warm-up. Don’t rely on the cast warm-up. Not only is it impossible for the MD or Vocal Coach to run a warm-up that meets every performer’s needs, but it is also possible that vocal warm-up might be missed entirely if schedules start falling behind as problems with sets and tech arise.
- Find ways to preserve your equilibrium. A lot of excitement can build up in the dressing room and wings, and this may not serve your voice or your performance well. Monitor what is right for you and look for places of peace to retreat to occasionally.
- Get used to how your SM gives time calls. They will either be delivered via an intercom system or in person as a call through the door. Likely time calls are:
- 1 hour to beginners
- 30 minutes to beginners
- 15 minutes to beginners
- 10 minutes to beginners
- 5 minutes to beginners
- Beginners to the stage (5 minutes before curtain)
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:
- Whether the sets change any decisions that were made in the rehearsal room about blocking, choreography, entrances and exits.
- How the stage crew will get props and set pieces on and off the stage.
- When microphones are turned on and off.
- How much time you really have to do your quick-change (costume).
- Whether that many of you really fit in the wings to sing backing vocal.
- How many repeats of a musical vamp are required to keep a scene flowing.
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.
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.
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.
This performance of the show can take a couple of different forms.
- A dress rehearsal with a small audience (often the ushers or friends of the production team).
- 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.
“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
Your post-show routine is as important as your pre-show routine. Consider these factors in your planning:
- Cool down your voice. This will help release muscle tension and prepare you for sleep.
- Steam before bed so that your voice has been intentionally hydrated after the cool down.
- Avoid eating a big meal within two hours of going to bed, in order to minimise the chance of your voice being adversely affected by reflux.
- Create a wind-down routine to process the post-show adrenaline you have on board. Taking hours to get to sleep is ok if you don’t have to wake up early and go to work or school. But if you do have to get up early, do your research and come up with a bed-time routine to get yourself to sleep.
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.
Conversations with Matt Black, Chris Neal and James McPherson
Diaries of Sharon Tree
Endless conversations with Canberran casts and production teams
Wilson, P. H. (2013) The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual. (2nd edition). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.