What Really Happens Before Opening Night- Part One
Opening night! The crowd is filtering in. Actors are backstage putting on their make-up and costumes. Technicians are double checking the props and making sure everything is pre-set for the top of the show. The director, who is no longer in charge of the play, is pacing nervously in the back. The stage manager, now fully in charge, is in the booth waiting for their moment to begin. Opening night is a very special time for actors and technicians. They get to show their hard work to an eager audience for the first time. Putting on a show, whether it is in a middle school gym, or at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in New York City, takes countless hours of hard work, preparation, and an incredible amount of dedication. So, what does it take to get a show from script to stage? An army of people working together towards one collective vision. Here now is an accurate, but not necessarily singular, guide to what really happens before opening night.
It all begins with a script. A playwright will spend years developing their work. They will write multiple drafts, subject their script to many rounds of workshops, and dramaturgy sessions. They put their heart and energy into getting the play just right. Every comma, period, "but", or "um" is crafted into their own personal masterpiece. The playwright needs a raison d'etre, or "reason for being" for their play. What do they want to audience to leave the theatre thinking or feeling? What questions do they want to raise, or concepts do they want to challenge? Some scripts are better than others, but they all have one goal: to be performed in front of an audience.
From there, someone, or a group of someones, will decide that they would like to produce this play. This someone could be a producer, an artistic director, or a director (at some point we will detail the difference in these roles). The play will fit the mandate of the theatre company (eg. producing Canadian content or new works), align with the message the theatre company wants to pursue, or offers a challenge for the artists involved. The theatre company will then arrange for the performance rights of the play from the playwright, or the licensing company they are associated with. The production company needs to know when the play will be performed, where it will be performed, how many performances there will be, what the cost of tickets will be, and how many people can be in the audience. This information will determine how much the theatre company needs to pay for the rights to perform the play. Putting on a play without acquiring the rights is not only illegal, but could affect the theatre company’s ability to put on any future plays. One of the reasons the works of Shakespeare are performed all around the world to this day, besides still being incredible works of art, is that there are no royalties needed to be paid since Shakespeare's works are in the public domain.
The director will then spend many nights over several weeks toiling over their vision of this play. The Director's Vision is crucial, because it forms the anchoring point for everyone working on the play. The director may decide on tone, genre, time period, the message, and design elements that they see in this play. They will identify themes, or ideas that are important. Other than the playwright, no one knows the play more than the director at this point. Their job is to interpret every comma, period, "but" or "um" that the playwright set to the page.
Next, the designers are handed the script and the Director's Vision. From there they begin the process of designing the set, costumes, lights, sound, props, hair and make-up. The more detailed and specific a Director's Vision is, the easier the designers will be able to create something that fits with what the director has in mind. The marketing team designs the posters and handbills, creates a social media campaign, arranges for ticket sales, and updates the company’s website. The stage manager or production manager will schedule auditions for the roles in the play, and the director will determine what they want to see from the actors. The director will also create a character breakdown of all of the play's characters. This will tell the actors what roles are in the play, and give them an idea of what monologue to pick.
Rehearsal space needs to be booked, and a performance venue needs to be secured. This is a job that may be done by different roles depending on the theatre company. Some companies have their own performance and rehearsal space. In most companies booking is done through a production manager. Rehearsal space is a huge portion of most theatre company’s budgets. Many theatre companies will rehearse in a space that is not their performance venue. Church basements, community centres, or Grandmas' living room are only a few examples of rehearsal spaces.
Actors will usually prepare at least one monologue for the audition. The Audition Notice will tell them exactly what the director is looking for. The actors may be asked to prepare one or more of the following: a contemporary comedic piece, a dramatic contemporary piece, a comedic classic piece, or a tragic classic piece. Sometimes a movement piece needs to be prepared, or a song. Some auditions, especially for theatre schools, require that an actors prepare two contrasting contemporary and two contrasting classic monologues, a movement piece, and a song. Actors that are serious about the craft should have all of those already in their actor tool box. When the actor auditions, the director will be in the room with them, as well as one member of the stage management team. Sometime the artistic director, production manager, producer, or music director may also be present. Auditions vary from company to company, but generally the actor will present their prepared pieces, and the director will redirect them. The re-direction is used so that the director can see the actor make a different choice, or to see how they take and interpret direction. The director may want to see another take on the piece, or focus on a single moment.
The director and their team then need to cast the roles of the play. If it is a musical the music director and choreographer may have an input, but ultimately it comes down to the decision of the director. They base their decision on who they see as being able to portray the role in the way the director sees the show. In most cases the decision is not based on who is the most talented, but who is the best fit for the role. Directors also consider experience, education, attitude, and word of mouth. If an actor has a good or bad reputation, that may follow them into the audition. It is often said that 80-90% of the job of director is in casting the show. If the show is cast well, the director only needs to sit back and watch the play unfold.
Once the cast list is finished, the actors that have been cast are offered their roles. Upon acceptance, they are sent a rehearsal schedule, which has been expertly crafted by the production team. To aid in efficient, the director will break the script down into smaller units. Most often this is based on character entrances and exits. The smaller units are useful because it allows the rehearsals to be split into sections where only certain actors need to be called at once. This process is arduous, but essential to ensuring that time is not wasted. Actors will then be given scripts to begin to work on.
Meanwhile, the designers are creating concepts and sketches to show the director. Once approved, the construction portion begins. The set department has carpenters, decorators, painters, and electricians. Depending on the play and budget, this can be as complex as building a house; a house that may need to be torn down and rebuilt night after night. Some sets need to transform almost by magic from one location to the next, seamlessly and effortlessly. One scene may be set in Kansas, and then be whisked away by a tornado to transition into the Land of Oz. The props are being researched to be authentic for the time period, but also so that they are functional for a play. Some props need to break and be rebuilt every night, some have to look like something one minute and another thing a moment later. Costumes need to be pulled or built. A team of people often scour local thrift shops for just the perfect dress, or shoes. The sound designer needs to create a soundscape for the show that evokes the vision the director has. If microphones are needed for the play, the sound department needs to acquire them. The light designer puts together a light plot for the show. Light designs need to evoke time, place, setting, and mood. Lighting design can be realistic or surreal, as long as it helps to tell the story of the play. All of the design elements should work together to establish a cohesive and unified version of the finished product. This all relates to the vision of the director.
Outside of rehearsal, actors are memorizing their lines, and reading the script ot figure out exactly who their character is. Every actor has a different way of preparing, but everything should come from the script. In rehearsal, actors are working out their blocking, and more importantly, figuring out what their character wants from the other characters. The phrase "what's my motivation?" is more than just a cliche. Actors need to determine what their character wants the other characters to do. This is something that they can actively pursue. An active objective is much easier to play than something that is passive. The actors will work together to determine relationship, and stakes. The director will observe and help the actors with the mysteries found in the text. The text is where the actors and director will mine for clues as to what drives the characters. There are many different ways to create a character and to pursue an objective. One of the most accepted and widely used styles of acting is based on the work of Sanford Meisner. The Meisner technique is studied around the world, and teaches to “live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances.”- Meisner.
Rehearsal time is often based on the amount of pages in a script. The general rule of thumb is that for every page in the script, an hour of rehearsal time should be scheduled. For a 60-page script, there should be 60 hours of rehearsal. For those wishing to produce the full length, unedited version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, be prepared to rehearse for about 240 hours.
As with styles of acting, there are just as many styles of directing. One style that is common is to essentially run through the show three times in three phrases, with a full run through following each phase. The first phase is exploration. In this phase actors are, well, exploring. Actors make choices, try out new things, and determine what their character wants. They will play around with their blocking (entrances, exits, where/when they sit and for what reason). The director and actors will run through the whole play slowly from beginning to end, exploring each unit and what it means. The stage manager will attend every rehearsal and take note of the blocking, additional needs (props, lights, sound, costumes, set, or hair and make-up). Often in the exploration period an actor may ask for an additional prop, or the director may discover they want an extra chair or door, and the stage manager makes note of it all and passes this information to the appropriate department. This process takes about 20 minutes per page. So for a 60-page script, this would equal around 20 hours of work. After this phase is done, the cast has a run-through where they run the whole play from start to finish. Each department head should be in attendance for each run-through of a play. This includes the props, sound, light, set, and costume designer. This is done so that the designers can be there to take notes on anything that is happening in rehearsal that may affect their design and work. The director will then give the actors notes on the run-through, and the stage manager will tell the actors which lines they need to correct.
Meanwhile, the production team will have meetings throughout the rehearsal process to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and that all of the work is being done on schedule and on budget. The production manager or the stage manager will lead these meetings. A tragedy of theatre is that the audience often does not see the incredible work that takes place behind the scenes. The crew of technicians involved in any show is as essential to the final product as the actors. Their work may even begin months or years before an actor even gets a script.
This is the end of part one of What Really Happens Before Opening Night. Stay tuned next week for part two, where the next two phases of rehearsal, load in, Q2Q, and tech week are explained. Please feel free to comment on your experience in theatre. Is it different than this account? Shockingly similar?
Written by Albertus Koett, Artistic Director, Tree House Youth Theatre