Everything you think you know about tech week is a lie!

An Idiot on Stage blog header

Technical Rehearsals.

When you mention tech week to a community theatre person you can almost see the facial ticks begin and they struggle to choose between fight or flight. We’ve all got our own stories about tech weeks that started bad, went bad and definitely ended bad. If you haven’t experienced a bad tech week, close this post, make a coffee and celebrate the fact that you are truly special.

I’ve been part of enough poorly attacked tech weeks over many years to have my own stories but as I look back over those memories, one thought keeps yelling at me. They didn’t have to be that way! Community theatre practitioners have come to believe a whole lot of crappy notions about what tech week is, what it should be and how we do it. We have accepted that tech week will create extreme tension, ruin relationships, last until 2am and achieve questionable results.

During tech week, most of us have said things we regret, allowed ourselves to get angry and frustrated (I’ve even witnessed the famous ‘walk out’ – funny as). We’ve witnessed some performers stamp their little feet and verbally abuse the stage crew/cast/anyone else within range. Finally, we all go home, drop into bed and spend the entire night lying awake berating ourselves for our poor behaviour, rerunning conversations we had, should have had and wish we hadn’t had.

I’ve experienced all of the above and I regret to say, I have participated in some of it but I believe it’s time to begin the revolution. It’s time that tech week came clean and, heaven forbid, it’s time to CHANGE!

It’s about now that some of you will close this post and go and make a coffee.

Then there are those of you who will raise the flag of revolution, make a noise but never actually get beyond the words. You’ll use the tried and tested excuses:

  • We’ve always done it this way.
  • I don’t have any influence here.
  • It’s someone else’s fault and they’re never going to allow change so I’ll give up and eventually move onto another company – where things will be different (they’re not).

And finally there are those of you who make a lot of noise, you have a lot of passion and you might even have the skills but don’t actually do anything. You talk too much about what should be but you don’t actually follow through. It’s you that frustrates me the most. Not because you’re an idiot (ok, maybe you’re a little bit of an idiot) but because I was you. I understand that feeling of frustration where you can see what needs to change, you might even know how to fix it but you haven’t figured out how to use your revolutionary character for good (puts on cape and mask).

A revolutionary character recognises that they:

  • will keep going even when it seems nothing is changing because they believe in what they’re doing.
  • will treat others with respect because they understand that everyone has something to offer.
  • understand they don’t know what they don’t know.
  • have studied and developed the technical skills required for this job and want to share them for the greater good (can’t say that line without visualing the movie, “Hot Fuzz”).
  • are self aware enough that they can recognise when they are being a pain in the arse.
  • can admit their own mistakes or when someone else has a better idea.
  • must learn to shut up and listen (I’m still working on this one).

You will not advance the revolution and achieve any valuable change in your theatre company if you don’t get your head around these things. You have ideas, skills, knowledge and passion, that’s great, but community theatre companies need people with the integrity to stick it out long enough to make changes that will allow us to survive.

Everything you know about tech week is a lie.

A successful tech week does not begin during your first tech rehearsal. It begins way back at the beginning of your project. The director must share and control a SINGLE vision for the show. Many companies work to multiple visions – every department developing their own designs in isolation, leading to a show that is incohesive and problematic. People are empowered by a single vision. It creates artistic boundaries that ironically allow your team to create with more freedom.

Collaboration – working under one vision – allows you all to discover challenges when you have time to deal with them. For instance, if a set designer does not include the rest of the production team in their process, you will face challenges including:

  • the lighting team being unable to light a section of set that is outside the restrictions of the theatres lighting grid.
  • costumes that disappear because they’re almost the same colour as the set.
  • the set is too large to be moved by the limited crew available to the company.
  • expensive rebuilds because of the above.

Planning is going to be your saving grace. For a director, bumping into the theatre becomes about compromise. Looming deadlines will force your team to ask you to make choices that can threaten your original vision. By creating a detailed plan for tech week, you will remain in control of your vision, reduce stress for everyone and come out the other side with a show that isn’t hanging on by it’s teeth. The bigger the show/company, the more important it is to have a plan.

The director and stage manager should meet together before you move into the theatre and decide how you’re going to tackle tech week. Create an overall schedule and detailed run sheets for each rehearsal. Make sure you share them with the technical team for feedback. They’ll have things they will want to test before dress rehearsal, eg. a quick costume change.

Your run sheet: Go through the script, page by page, and create a checklist  of every bit of blocking, lighting change, quick costume change, sound effect, set change, EVERYTHING, in an excel sheet. List everything by script page number. This might seem excessive but these are the very things that are going to create your biggest problems if you don’t check them before dress rehearsals. If you have time, split the checklist into separate, relevant rehearsal times:

  • set movements for crew only
  • lighting and sound cues
  • quick changes of any kind, elements that rehearsals have exposed as potentially challenging.
  • run of show with focus on technical elements only
  • dress rehearsals

It’s during these processes that the cast learn that they are there to help the crew. It’s a great lesson for an actor to realise that they have had 12 weeks to learn their skills while the crew get less than a week.

The whole process, from the first rehearsal to your dress rehearsals, is meant to be progressive, each stage building on the previous one. You can’t expect your cast to move from a blank rehearsal space into the theatre and instantly be at ease with the new elements of performance – costumes, wigs, microphones, the fact that it takes more time to walk from their dressing room to their entrance point, etc. They’re freaked/excited as it is. Build the information progressively and you will build their confidence.

Use your checklist to allow everyone, cast and crew, to experience (for the first time) what it feels like to:

  • Open that door – it sticks, squeaks (fix it); it opens in, not out; there’s a ledge at the base – I musn’t trip and fall on my face.
  • Walk on stage – good grief, this feels amazing. Ooops, what’s my line?
  • Change a costume – Ok, that was quick. I will have do that change side stage. Now the SM has to organize a space and a process for side stage.
  • Adjust to equipment – I haven’t operated this spotlight before. It takes a long time to warm up.
  • Move a set piece – oh crap. That’s your foot. Sorry but you won’t be able to move into your entrance point until we have moved the truck into position.
  • Work cue timings – That screen has to fly out before the actors speak so I have to adjust the calling of that cue.

Get the picture? This list may seem picky but it is what will make or break your tech week because it’s not just ten things you have to check. A show is made up of hundreds of checkpoints. You should aim to check them all and when you don’t have time, you have to make the call as to what are the most important things to have on the list. Remember, you will always be compromising in tech week. Experience will teach you how to compromise without affecting the integrity of the show.

The old ‘cue to cue’ rehearsal is useless UNLESS it’s only purpose is to familiarise everyone with the sets and how they move. Cue to cue’s as the only tech rehearsal, is one of those habits we’ve inherited and forgotten to question.

Your dress rehearsals should be a clean run of the show. Yes, a dress rehearsal can have challenges but they shouldn’t be because an actor got caught out by a quick change.

What excites me most about this whole process is what happens to the team during a well run tech week. People step up. You witness people empowered to deal with challenges. There may be adrenalin flowing up the wazoo but we feel like we’re fighting a giant with our team beside us instead of pushing a rock up hill, single handed. Opening night becomes more than just relief that you made it there alive, it’s a celebration that you built something huge and you’re better for it.

Group reflects leadership. You have to begin the way you intend to finish. From the start, you need to be organized so that everything you do is leading toward that final week of crazy becoming the cream on the cake. Then opening night will be the cherry that stays on top instead of sliding down the side.

Cheers, Sher

Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the creator of An Idiot On Stage.

The Idiot exists to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Learn more about the Idiot at www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.