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Putting a Performance Together

I’ve been thinking recently about how the performance of a play gets put together. There are the very obvious things, of course. The actor gets the script and memorizes lines, the director blocks the production and guides the actors in their portrayal, costumes are sewn, props are built, makeup is applied and so on and so forth. But there is kind of a magical, unspoken transformation that happens amongst the company members to create these amazingly complex works of art.

I started thinking about this during a talk back with high school students after a matinee of “The Tempest.” Our production (that is being remounted at the Rose playhouse on the campus of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp on August 27th *hint*) had an impressive number of live sound cues. I think I counted 101 sound cues for a ninety minute performance. I’d like to think that to someone watching the play, the sound cues appeared effortless and magical. But the reality of putting them together was much less than that.

The whole process started with Katherine Mayberry (the director of “The Tempest”) and I sitting down and deciding exactly what sounds needed to be made at exactly which moments. Then I gathered all the instruments, created a master sound cue list and assigned cues to the all the actors. Then we had a rehearsal where we add all the sounds into a run of the show. This of course was somewhat messy. But as rehearsals ran on, the timing got more precise so that we were all ready for it all to go seamlessly in the public performances.

So I’ve been thinking about how that same sense of moderate improvement and slow crawl towards perfection affects every show we put on. This past weekend we opened our production of “Henry IV” at Dog Story Theater and found it fascinating to watch the process a little closer.

Our “tech week” started last Sunday. If you have theater friends, but don’t participate yourself, you might have heard that term but been unclear on what it means. Basically tech week is the final week of rehearsal before you begin performing for the public. It’s the time when actors move from the rehearsal space to the actual performance space and start adding props, costumes, sets, and light and sound cues. Our tech weeks tend to be less involved than performances in a proscenium theater, but can still be hectic.

The ideal situation in almost any theatre productions would be that we add ALL of that stuff as early as possible. That way the actors and behind the scenes tech crew can get accustomed to it as quickly as possible. It usually doesn’t happen that way. It always seems like there’s one last significant prop, or missing sound cue, or costume adjustment that happens pretty late in tech week. So on Sunday we had actors arrive early to try on possible costume pieces, then we did a full rehearsal with weapons, and as many props as possible. It was essentially the same on Monday. Tuesday was the day we loaded into the space. So we put up our set, loaded in costumes and props, and did a run in the space. Just doing that can sometimes be enough to throw actors off their game. All of the sudden the distance that has to be traveled to get from point A to point B is drastically different. There is either more or less space to act in than you’re used to. In rehearsal, props are normally stored on the left side, but now they are on the right way in the back. There is a lot of adjusting that happens. Then as the week progress we add costumes, maybe set pieces, more props, until we finally reach our final “show.” At this point we usually have only one or two more runs before an audience shows up.

It’s this point of the process that I find the most interesting recently. Once we have all of the bits and pieces of a performance there is kind of a low level of mild panic that happens backstage. All of us are worried about making entrances on time, ensuring costume changes happen efficiently, being ready to open curtains, make sound cues, and triple check that we set our props in the right spot. It’s fun to watch as actors, over the course of a few days, go from running around in a hurry to sitting around backstage reading a book because they’ve got 20 minutes until they need to be available to do something. Finally, it’s at this moment that we are ready for the most unpredictable and exciting element: you the audience. And to me, that’s the best part.

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