How to remove the fear and trembling from your tech weeks.

As I sat in the theatre watching the crew hang set pieces in the fly tower, I recognised how hard working they were.  People who turned up when no one else did, spending the hours necessary to get the stage ready for performance.

The technical people of your productions are unsung heroes who are often overlooked and over worked, happy to never take a curtain call but starving for a simple thank you from the people who rely on them.  They install a complete set in the theatre in eight hours, they move it around without killing anyone, install lights and sound equipment, create wigs, costumes and props and they have their own stories of challenge and achievement within the dark recesses of the wings.  Look after your crew and you’ll build an infrastructure that will support your company for years.

Stage crews need strong leadership based on knowledge and experience.  One of the worst things you can do as a company, director or stage manager is be unprepared for technical rehearsals but this is often where community companies struggle.  Organisation and planning is key to tech week but rarely is it achieved and the result is disastrous and unnecessary.

I remember working with one company a few years ago. We had spent two nights and a full day installing the sets and now the cast were in the theatre, eager to get on the stage.  The stage crew were tired from the installation and looking for leadership.  The problem was the stage manager didn’t know what he was doing.  He was a keen and a very friendly person but the wrong personality for this sort of job.  This is not a problem in itself if the role is supported by training, but it wasn’t.

Stage crews need strong leadership based on knowledge and experience.

As we started what was loosely termed the technical rehearsal, it became clear that no one knew what they were supposed to achieve.  They did not know the purpose of the rehearsal so it was aimless and frustrating.  30 minutes in, the director exploded with frustration (the futility of this is for another post). We achieved nothing.

All this downgraded the dress rehearsals that followed to unproductive and stressful for all involved.  You can brush all this off as “part of community theatre” but I believe that to be amateur in the worst sense of the word.  It doesn’t have to be that way, especially when the internet provides any number of free training possibilities with endless stage manager’s handbooks available for download online. You can belong to professional stage manager’s forums online, allowing you to follow discussions about the role and YouTube videos showing it all in action.  There is simply no excuse for ignorance. By the way, directors should be familiar with this content as well. You’ll find yourself in situations of stage management and leadership more than you realise.

In my naivety, I used to think that all community theatre techs were wading through all this available training to equip themselves for the carnage that was tech week.  I was wrong. In fact, what I realised was that they didn’t even know that they should.  They didn’t know what they didn’t know.  They had no idea that tech was supposed to be anything other than the mess they had always experienced.  I realised that many community theatre people do not look for training.  Worse still, there’s the attitude that “we’re only doing this for fun, we don’t have to know”.  What a crock! Don’t put your company through it.  Don’t put your cast and crew through it.  Get organised and prepare for tech week so that everyone can enjoy the experience.

Technical rehearsals allow you to test and experience all the technical elements of the show, practising them until you get them right.  You can’t do this in a run of the show because you would be there for hours and you just end up rehearsing what doesn’t work.  Break down the technical requirements into sections.

  1. Spike the stage:  go through the show, scene by scene and mark the stage positions for each piece of stage set; set the drop positions for all flys (no cast).
  2. Without the cast around, let crew move the sets through each scene change, rehearsing any choreographed changes until they are familiar with them.
  3. Cast should rehearse set movements that they are involved in, for example, the operation of the boat in The Phantom of the Opera.
  4. Allow time for the whole cast to walk through the set, scene by scene. They have been working from their imaginations until now, in a rehearsal space with chalk outlines on the floor.  They will get a shock the first time they stand amongst the set, adjusting to the realities of space and place.
  5. With cast and crew together, go through the show from cue to cue, checking that everything works, that space is correct and that timings for things like quick changes are sufficient, adjusting things as necessary before dress rehearsal. This is where your planning is very important.  Have a list of the cues and the items you need to check.  Skip whole sections if nothing changes within it and move onto the next cue.
  6. Give sufficient time to sound and lighting. This is the one area that community theatres stuff up big time and it’s a whole post in itself. These people don’t get enough time to work through their processes (or too much is asked of their equipment and skills) and I get sick of hearing people whine that the sound and lighting isn’t working, or uninformed reviewers talking out of their various orifices about how bad the technical work is. It’s bad because you haven’t set up a process and design that works within your company’s resources of skill and equipment.

So much of this post can be directed to the management of theatre companies. It is their responsibility, NOT the responsibility of a director or stage manager alone. As a company you should be developing systems and processes that make your technical rehearsal period productive, respectful and allows everyone to keep their dignity. I’ve seen so many that haven’t and things have to change if you want to grow.

Tech week should be progressive. Don’t expect it all to be correct at the beginning. Add levels of experience in each rehearsal so that by the time you get to dress rehearsal, you’re actually running a show that works.

It’s a challenging, busy and tiring time but it doesn’t have to be rude, unproductive or overly stressful.  Get organised and respect your volunteers’ time – they don’t work for you; they’re volunteers and they have day jobs.

I know this is tough to hear but community theatre deserves better than me telling you you’re wonderful and perfect. We’re not! We are part of something that provides a platform for our community to participate in the arts and that comes with great responsibility. There will always be things to learn and improve. Someone needs to be fearless and courageous to lead your company to better things. It won’t be the charismatic extrovert who speaks the loudest. It will be you, the person who gets off their behind and does something with this information.

Turn up, give it everything you’ve got and expect great things.

Cheers, Sher.

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