What Really Happens Before Opening Night- Part Two

This is part two of our exploration into all of the work that goes into putting up a play from page to the stage. If you have not read part one, you can find it here: Part One

Following the exploration phase, two very similar phases follow: working and polishing. Both of these phases take roughly the same amount of time, but differ in that now the director can focus more and more on smaller details and moments. It is as if the director is going through the play with a fine tooth comb. The actors should be off-book, enabling them to dig even deeper into their characters and their motivations. This is when the energy becomes extra focused. Opening night is fast approaching, designs are finalized and being built, actors are settling in on choices, and the show is beginning to take a defined shape.

Rehearsal for Little Women by Marisha Chamberlain

The marketing team is putting up posters, sending out social media posts, and pushing ticket sales. A photographer is taking cast and crew headshots, and the director is giving interviews to the local newspapers. The front of house team is assembling and getting organized and scheduled. Programs are being created for the show that feature actor and crew bios, the director’s message, advertisements for the next show, ads from the sponsors, and special thanks given.

The stage management crew is determining their roles and responsibilities. What set piece needs to be moved, and when? What needs to be set up before the show? Who will be on headset, and where will they be located. The lighting designer is hanging their lights, and programming in their light cues into the light board. The sound designer is programming in their sound cues, and determining just the right sounds for just the right moment. The set is in the final stages of being built, and is ready to load into the performance space. Most sets are built offsite, and will need to be taken apart, transported, and put back together. The costumes, which have been built, borrowed, or purchased are placed on costume rack, which can include hats, gloves, shoes, coats, shawls, bonnets, helmets, ties, pocket squares, rings, watches, earrings, necklaces, glasses, visors, tutus, jerseys, wigs, mustaches, and capes. The costume designer and their team carefully measured each actor for their sizes whenever they could steal them away from rehearsal. The props have been assembled, and built. Often a props team is sending out social media posts asking for obscure things from their friends and family like “an old fashioned looking hunter’s duck” or “a clock that looks old but well taken care of”.

Load in day is when all of the technical elements begin to come together. The organizational process of this day began months ago. The moving truck, a load in crew, and a schedule of load in is written with to the minute details. Often the set, props, costumes, lights, and speakers are being loaded in at the same time. This is the first time the world of the play is being put together outside of the director’s head. The sound and light designers set their cues, and work with the director to figure out the best levels for each. The director may request a sound be a little louder, or a light a little brighter. Once this has been programmed, the stage manager finalizes their prompt script. Every sound and light que is accounted for and numbered. The stage manager knows the instant when a cue needs to happen. At this point, the person that knows the most about this show is now the stage manager. Even the director doesn’t have as intimate of a view of the full show than the stage manager.

Q2Q. This is the day that the stage manager begins to take control. This is the day that the director begins to hand over the show, with the process fully coming to a completion after the last dress rehearsal. The actors arrive, and the stage manager takes everyone through the show from que to que. The sound and light board operators are at their position, with their respective boards fully programmed with every cue. “Stand by cue 1”. “Cue 1 standing by”. “Go”. “Hold, please”. On and on, and on. This is the day that it all comes together. This is when an actor should realize that they are not the most important part of a production, but an equal contributor. Months and even years have lead to this day, where every element is brought together into a cohesive unit. This is when the director gets to see their vision fully realized.

Now for the final few rehearsals. Traditionally a show will have a Technical Dress Rehearsal, a Dress Rehearsals, and a Preview show. The larger scale the production, and the bigger the budget, the more tech, dress, and preview rehearsals there are. Some shows spend weeks in previews where the director and designers can tweak every aspect of the show. Most low budget or smaller theatres do not have this luxury. These are the final moments for the director to have an input and give actors and technicians notes. This is not the time for major changes, only small adjustments. Cheat out a bit more, make your objective a bit clearer, bring that cue in just a bit quicker, or the pace needs to be quicker/slower. After preview the director’s job is done. The saddest and loneliest person in a theatre is a director right after giving notes on the preview performance. Everyone else is buzzing with excitement about the next phase of the journey, opening night, while the director has done their job. They are now relegated to the position of audience member. They will hopefully send their team off with best wishes and some words of encouragement. Months and years of work are now over.

One hour per rehearsal is just the amount of time spent on the acting part of things. The hours spent by the director, stage manager, producer, production manager, costume/light/sound/set/props/hair/make-up designers, actors memorizing their lines and breaking down the script, the artistic director, marketing department, painters, carpenters, set decorators, costumers, assistant stage managers, photographer, light and sound operators, back stage crew, and front of house crew is almost immeasurable. The work though, doesn’t seem like work for those that truly love it. Every stitch, every line, every nail, every dimmer switch is part of this joyous process of theatre. Human beings have been creating theatre in some form or other for thousands and thousands of years. While long and exhaustive, this account of a show being put up is not complete, nor is it indicative of every theatre process. The work is part of the fun. Opening night is not fun because it is opening night, it is fun because it represents the culmination of all of the hard work of countless others.

We hope you have enjoyed this trip through the process of what it takes to put on a play from beginning to end. What did we miss?

Written by Albertus Koett, Artistic Director, Tree House Youth Theatre