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.

“Sing out, Louise!” and other things I might yell at you from the audience.

An Idiot on Stage stage technique

When I grow up I want to be Elaine Stritch! I want to be that old woman sitting at the back of the theatre with the balls to yell out every time the actors fail to project from the stage. Every time they swallow their words and force me to fill in the blanks of the story, I want to take that little bit of amplified plastic tubing hanging from their ear and shove it where the sound technician will never feel comfortable looking for it.

It’s time we took the elephant in the room and stuck him centre stage – that microphone on your face does not replace projection. Its purpose is to enhance sound.

In many community theatre companies, amplification has led to poor staging, decisions to go bigger in totally inappropriate ways and left a generation of performers without the skills to be heard when their microphone doesn’t work.

We’ve entered a time in community theatre when basic stage craft has been lost to so many. All those basic truths that represented our respectful relationship with the audience have been, on the whole, replaced with useless techniques relabelled ‘contemporary performance’; a fancy term that really means ‘we’re doing the audience a favour by allowing them into our space’. At least that’s how I sometimes feel when I sit in an audience.

The introduction of amplification in community theatre should have meant the ability to maintain our emotional range on larger stages, over orchestras and to bigger audiences and, to experienced actors, it has done exactly that. But to many community theatres, it has led to poor staging, decisions to go bigger in totally inappropriate ways and left a generation of performers without the skills to be heard when their microphone doesn’t work.

Now, let’s understand something – projection is about so much more than volume. You can project a soft sound. But you’re not projecting sound alone. You’re projecting personality, energy and character. You’re filling a space with a whisper. You can walk onto a stage full of people, not say a word and yet draw the attention of the entire audience.

Projection is the opposite of the very insular actor that was birthed out of the ‘amplification’ era. I’m not suggesting we go back to the pre microphone days – not at all. I am suggesting that we need to acknowledge that acting is a skill to be learned and when I finally become that old lady in the audience, those actors who don’t project are running the risk of me punctuating their performances with a well aimed boiled lolly every time they fail to project (just kidding – maybe).

There’s a great story about Marilyn Munroe that demonstrates the energy, personality and charisma that you should be able to generate, sometimes without even speaking. The story goes that a journalist asked her what it was like being the persona of Marilyn Monroe rather than Norma Jean Baker. Marilyn answered by demonstrating. She stood in the street as Norma Jean, herself, and not one person took any notice of her. The instant she ‘turned on‘ Marilyn, everyone stopped. She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t changed her clothes. She had simply projected Marilyn.

Actors without projected energy tend to be insular in their performance. This separates them from the very people they are trying to connect with – their audience. The result can be a that the audience disconnect from the story. They don’t care about your character and, because they are having trouble hearing you as well, they begin to get pretty peeved, looking at their watch, waiting for interval and a large glass of red.

So where do you begin to take your performance from insular and ineffective to charismatic and full of what it takes to lead your audience on the journey of storytelling?

You could go to theatre school but, as we’re talking community theatre, that’s not an option for most. You could also learn to sing from a good teacher trained in sound classical technique. Regardless of whether you do musical theatre or not, good singing teachers will build strong projection based on a solid physical foundation. Finally, there is this thing called the internet.

Youtube is your friend. Simply search “how to project your voice on stage” and you’ll have many, many videos to choose from. Of course, some are going to be complete rubbish but many are by good teachers. Take what you learn and experiment at every rehearsal. Give yourself time to grow and improve.

Study basic acting technique. There are many schools of thought, options and resources online. I have been studying and recommending the techniques of Uta Hagen for years. You can buy her books, Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor and DVD on Amazon. Accept that you will never stop learning and continue to study your craft. I just bought a Masterclass course with Kevin Spacey online. This interwebby thing has so many possibilities.

Finally, shhhh, listen! I want you to really, really get this.

What you are currently doing on stage is not as good as you can be. Stop reading your own reviews and seek out new and wonderful teaching. Search for new ideas, experiment with them at rehearsal, ask questions of those you admire, watch everyone you work with and keep all the good bits. You have the potential to be such a great performer if you pull your head in and seek wisdom. And finally …

You’re telling stories. Respect your audience. Don’t forget them. ‘Can they see my facial expressions if my face is angled too far up stage? Is that important to the story? Am I dropping the ends of lines? Is my poor diction making it difficult for my audience to understand me? Am I projecting character, energy and personality or am I fading away in the middle of an empty stage?’ The questions we should be asking ourselves as performers are endless.

Of course, you could ignore all this and just perform for yourself in your own living room. But now you have that vision in your head of that old woman, sitting on your couch throwing boiled lollies at you every time you drop the end of your lines.

Imagine that. 🙂

Cheers, Sher

Sherryl-Lee SecombSherryl-Lee Secomb is the founder 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 http://www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

 

 

 

 

Who the heck cares about your theatre legacy?

Who the heck cares about your theatre legacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about legacy in community theatre. The legacy we leave and the legacy that we inherit from others. Some legacies are absolute rubbish but so many are valuable beyond measure. The privilege we all enjoy of working in community theatre comes from years of dedication by people who probably wondered if anyone even noticed them. Managers who pulled companies through economic recessions, determined not to let the company die on their watch; lighting technicians who rig lights show after show; those who quietly sell programmes in the foyer or make sandwiches in the kitchen; everyone of them is building a legacy and they’re the reason our theatre companies exist today; the reason we can enjoy what we do.

But where does your legacy begin? How do you make sure you’re building a positive legacy of your own? And, who the heck cares anyway?

As I considered my own legacy, I remembered the moment when the very concept actually entered my brain. Years ago, I was performing in the chorus of a musical and I was bored. out. of. my. brain! The show was old fashioned and the director struggled to release the chorus to do more than “enter as a single pile” (Victor Borge, you are magic). As rehearsals continued, I grew more belligerent. My attitude was rank with self righteousness and while I kept my thoughts to myself, I didn’t even try. In other words, if I was working with a ‘me’ now, I’d be sticking a boot pretty far up my immature behind.

One day, I noticed a friend who had created a little story for herself within the upstage action of the chorus. This story went far beyond the ‘whisper behind your hand, nod at the people either side of you’ stuff. This was well thought out business that added to the depth of the story without pulling focus. She continued to create this little lone character and pull her life onto the stage every time the chorus entered. She was wonderful and, it was at this moment that I realised how little value I was adding to the show and, just as importantly, to the team I was part of.

I learned several things in that show:

  • You set your own attitude. No one is responsible for your work ethic but you. Precious, self absorbed actors are useless on stage and add no value to the story or the team. Flush a bad attitude and get on with the job. Someone is learning their bad attitude by watching yours.
  • You can learn something from everyone you work with, even a director with limited skills. They’re working their butts off, are probably well aware of their limitations and don’t need anyone else to point them out. It’s theatre, people. You work together to create something bigger than yourself and, to do that, EVERYONE needs to think with the team in mind (and when it gets too much, stick a straw in a good bottle of red and enjoy some quiet time ;-).
  • As a future director, I learned the value of releasing chorus actors to create; that they are more than an homogeneous blob. Each performer on the stage has enormous value and I needed to learn to release each person to participate fully in the story. They aren’t there just to be a moving backdrop. They can be so much more.
  • Chorus work takes skill. Remove the phrase ‘just chorus’ from your theatre vocabulary. It takes time to learn how to create stage business that adds to the production without drawing focus. It’s a fine balance and takes maturity in performance, not to mention humility.
  • Finally, I learned that leaving a legacy does not require a high profile. Don’t ever think that what you do goes unnoticed. It’s noticed, all right. So make sure that what you are projecting is positive. Someone will notice you thanking the sound technician who removes your microphone for you but they will also notice when you are rude to a member of the stage crew. The thought that an act of immature behaviour would be mirrored by a less experienced performer should horrify us.

So, does legacy matter? Aren’t we all just desperately trying to make our own mark on this world, eager to be noticed and acknowledged? In my opinion, our legacy is one thing that really says ‘we were here’ in this theatre community. And before we get any deeper and force my head to explode, let me remind you of something.

Every single one of you in the theatre does something that the average person would (I’ve said it many times) pee their pants doing. On and off the stage, everyone involved in a community theatre production exhibits courage when they create community theatre in spite of ridiculous limitations and challenges. You are therefore the very people who should be demonstrating what it means to create and grow a positive legacy.

So, before you release your ‘attitude’ at your next rehearsal, remember that each word and action will become part of your legacy.

No pressure 😉

Cheers, Sher.


Sherryl-Lee Secomb

Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the founder 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.