On What Goes On Before, During, and After a Community Theatre Play

Two days ago, my play “Like Kissing Moonlight” closed. Over 600 new people got to see this delightful production about a family navigating a crisis point. The actors did such a wonderful job. The audiences laughed, a few cried, all enjoyed their two hours in air-conditioning as temps spiked over 100 degrees here in Texas.

A few posts ago, I covered the odd verbiage that surrounds the theatre, and what Tech Week is like.* This post is about the activity an audience member doesn’t see before then, a pulling back of the curtain, if you will. What I can say with all certainty that all of us crew and performers want is to do a good show and that you have a good time.

I just thought a few folks might find this interesting.

There were nine actors onstage for my show. There were a lot more crew people and artisans that worked behind the scenes who brought the show to life. Here is a timeline of what goes on in the life of a little community theatre play. Please keep in mind that most of this is a labor of love. The pay is minimal if you get paid at all. The theatres themselves are mostly non-profit, too.

First, of course, the writer writes the play, then starts the often-arduous process of finding a theatre to produce it. This can literally take years. A dramaturg reads it, thinks it might be right for the theatre, and brings it to the decision makers. Seasons for Community Theatres are usually set 1-2 years ahead, as the rights to obtain popular shows are based on geographics. The companies such as Samuel French that own the rights to distribute plays will not allow you to do a newer show if someone nearby is also doing it. The theatre will then approach directors, who are usually booked a year or two in advance to see if they’d like to direct the show. The director will submit a proposed budget for the show, and what their vision is for the piece.

Once the play is locked in for the season, the director’s budget is approved, and the rights obtained (generally $100 per show) a producer is chosen, who will work on publicity and help staff the show, and who will be working what is called ‘the front of the house,’ the ushers, the box office folks, etc. They find a graphic artist designs the program and posters, as well as help assemble the design team for the show. They order the scripts or have them made. They handle the money and reimbursements, collecting receipts along the way, making sure the show stays in budget.

The Props, Costumes, Set, Lighting, and Sound designers are found and then sent a script so they can start planning alongside the director for the look and feel of the play. The designers also find running crew if appropriate, or sometimes the stage manager will take this on. A running crew are the folks who change sets, move props, and help actors change costumes during the actual run of the play. They become like family and cannot be flakey. The director finds a Stage Manager and perhaps an Assistant Director as well to help everything run smoothly. The bigger the cast, the more need there is for a strong AD. If it’s a musical, a Musical Director is brought in, and they find a rehearsal pianist, and make arrangements for any orchestra or band. Renting scores is incredibly expensive, so they watch who has those music sheets like hawks. If it’s a musical, you’ll need a choreographer too, and need to make time for them to do their work in the schedule. The director is in charge of all of these things happening in a timely manner, and replacing people if issues come up. It’s a volunteer army for the most part, so there is inevitably someone who thought they could do the show that ends up needing to be replaced. I have replaced nearly an entire cast. I don’t recommend it.

The director sets a rehearsal schedule and a point of contact, such as a FB page for easy communication. The producer makes sure the space for rehearsals and the show itself is available and posts announcements for actors to come audition. The set designer brings in a model or drawing of the set, and it is discussed before the go-ahead is given to purchase the materials needed to create it. This all happens 2-3 months out from auditions.

The director blocks (how the actors move around on the set so that they can be seen and heard at the right time and that they are making pretty pictures on the set as well, and can make entrances and exits) the entire show based on the set design, and meets with light and sound folks to be sure what they are seeing in their heads all match and that the physical equipment at the theatre can execute that.

The director then decides how they want auditions to run–readings from the script (called cold readings), prepared scenes or monologues, and if there will be call-backs or not. If it is a musical, the Musical Director is in on this too, and the choreographer. The stage manager and the AD and sometimes the Producer help make sure the auditions run smoothly and on time.

Actors come, bring a picture and resume, fill in audition forms, read for parts.

The Director, and anyone else who needs to have input, cast the show. The director contacts the people who are cast. This is a happy job.

First read-through involves the costumer who is taking measurements and sometimes the production photographer who gets headshots for the program. Schedules are handed out.

Rehearsals begin. This is usually a 4–6-week process, between 15 to 30 of them, depending on the show’s complexity. While the director is blocking the show and the actors memorize their lines and movement, the design team is hard at work building the set, gathering props and costumes, hanging and focusing lights, and designing the sound–doorbells, incidental music, whatever will enhance the production at hand. Sometimes the actors help build, other spaces have a crew of people who help build and decorate the set. If there are fight sequences or intimate scenes, a specialty person is brought in. We love our fight coordinators and intimacy coordinators because everyone gets to be and feel safe night after night.

The producer lines up reviewers, publicity opportunities, and makes sure the programs get designed and printed. The director approves and participates in publicity, as does the cast when asked. I love doing radio and television spots, other directors hate it.

Tech week comes… see my post about that. A production photographer comes in to get the shots needed for the reviewers and publicity. Tech week is for sure a full week of non-stop work for everyone. The running crew figures out what needs to go where, who has that fast costume change, that this piece of furniture needs to be placed in exactly that spot. The actors figure out where personal props (ones they carry on and off the stage) need to be, and the mayhem starts to settle.

Then, if you are lucky, you get a preview night, where friends and family or invited members of the community come to see the show. This is especially helpful if you are doing a comedy, as laughter (while dearly appreciated) needs to be gotten used to.

Opening night is always exciting! Call time for every show is usually an hour to an hour and a half before the house opens for the audience to sit down. Fight sequences are run through in slow motion, and vocal warmups soar from backstage. Gifts from director to the actors are given, the control of the show passes to the stage manager who calls all the cues of the show, and coordinates front and back of the house.

The curtain goes up… and hopefully… magic happens.

After the last performance of the show, everyone joins together to return props and furniture and borrowed costumes to their rightful owners. The set is taken down bit by bit; the flats stored for the next use. Sometimes you paint the floor back to black.

Then you go out for drinks and dinner and laugh so that the bittersweet pang that settles in doesn’t hurt quite as much. Yes, it’s true, that particular show with those particular people will never be together again.

But while we were together, all of us, front and back of house, on stage and off… we created something special.

That’s show business. Here’s some of the wonderful cast and crew. “It’s the people you miss.”

*On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language

On Directing Community Theatre

In the film “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a wonderful moment when a theatre owner (Henslowe) and a ruthless moneylender (Fennyman), to whom he owes a great deal of dosh, tiptoe down a London street awash with all manner of foul things, as the sewage systems aren’t up to snuff in this part of town. The play they are trying to put on has experienced one disaster after another. The divine Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, while the always sincere Tom Wilkinson is Fennyman. Script is by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, both of whom know a thing or two about plays.

Phillip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So, what are we to do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

A fictional exchange, yet oh-so-true in all theatre, really. I just know more about the community theatre level. I think of this quote every time I reach what we know as “tech week” in the theatre, a moment when (hopefully) all the moving pieces come together, and you start to see what the show is going to look like.

Being a director is delightful. Theatre is already the ultimate collective of artists working toward a singular goal: to delight an audience, transport them elsewhere for a few hours, and have fun doing it. Being the director for this collaboration means that you get to shape it, and be in a constant state of delight as you see little black words on pieces of paper bloom to life as your cast embodies them.

It also means you’re the one to blame if it doesn’t.

Ah, art!

There are always, always problems to be solved. They change with every show. If the set is ready ahead of time on one show, the paint will still be wet on opening night for another.

If props are easy for one show, they are a nightmare collection of weird things to find on the next. (I’m looking at you, full-on working printing press for “You Can’t Take It With You.) Sound effects can be daunting to unearth even in this day and age when you think you’d be able to find anything. Sometimes the lighting board Just. Doesn’t. Work…. And the poor person operating it has to scramble to work what can be up to several hundred cues manually. On time, and in sync with the actors who just have to hope that the light turns on when they put their hand on the fake switch on the wall. They do it though. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Heaven forbid you have fire or fireworks on your set—you need to get the fire marshal to sign off on it. Sometimes they just… don’t. Then you need to find a way around it.

I will say, there is always a way around it. You just may spend a few sleepless nights coming up with it as the director.

You can count on actors forgetting lines, always. My job is to prep everyone for that certainty. Knees bent, stay in character, know the point of the scene and navigate it. Nothing is certain, except that everyone is working towards the same end, a great show. For me, I also want to add value to the actors themselves. Show them a new way into a character that they can take with them to the next project. Show them their greatness, how talented they really are. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the ‘ah-ha’ bloom.

I’m also extremely partial to sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience laugh, cry, or jump at what we’ve all created together. It’s kind of like sitting with someone who’s never seen Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding is coming. The anticipation of their reaction is just as rewarding as the actual moment on stage.

For me, there are two moments in every show that I’ve had the privilege of directing that make all the worry and work worth it. The first is the hush just before the lights go up. Then, boom… we are in a new place, and a bunch of strangers in the dark suspend their disbelief and go on the journey.

The second moment is the second hush, as the end tableau settles, just before the applause. The moment of letting go of the ephemeral experience that existed only for those people, in that theatre at that time. Not recorded, never to exist again in precisely that form, ever.

There is always a collective inhale from the audience, that happens just as the actors exhale. A final shared breath.

It’s beautiful.

It’s why I direct.

If you’re in the Dallas area, come see “Wait Until Dark” at Garland Civic for a fab thriller. We open April 29th – May 15th on the weekends. Tickets and info can be found at www.garlandcivic.org

Or, if you’d prefer a funny, touching, original work, I’m directing my own play “Like Kissing Moonlight” in its Regional Premiere at Mesquite Arts Theatre June 10-26th. Tickets and info at www.mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets

Wait Until Dark production photos credit: Steven A. Bracey

Gorillas and Lions and No Tigers, Oh My!

Holidays at our house involve a lot of baking, cooking, and eating. I’ve posted my favorite Thick Sugar Cookie recipe below. You can do all sorts of fancy things when you frost them, or just sprinkle sugar on top. They hold up in give-away boxes too. It’s nice to give someone a box of cookies instead of crumbs. I also use this recipe for the base of fruit tarts in summer—just make sure you do a solid curd and let it set in the fridge, so you don’t get a soggy bottom. You know you don’t want one of those.

Speaking of soggy bottoms… I try to balance out the deliciousness of the season with exercise. Swimming and walking in my case. Here in Texas, most walks are flat with barely a rise in sight, so it behooves you to go some distance so you can have that cookie or whatever makes your mouth happy.

If you’re lucky, you have a family member that has a zoo or arboretum membership. You can walk for miles looking at pretty flowers or interesting animals and not notice until you stop walking that you’ve gone a fair distance. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’ll feel great, positively glowing with athleticism after a long walk. Hop in the car, drive home, and then… find myself in the precarious position of not being able to get out of the car. I have to institute a sort of roll and drop which comes factory installed with a deep groan. My legs just quit and forget to tell me. Please tell me this happens to you, too.

This past weekend we went to the zoo on a membership pass, which meant we were inside an hour before everyone else. There was an added bonus of deliciously crisp and chilly weather with a clear blue arch of sky that makes it feel like all things are possible. I believe there were more zoo workers than guests for the nearly two hours we were there. It was like having our own private zoo tour.

The Dallas zoo is a manageable size, with pleasantly rolling paths that meander through different exhibits. It’s shaped a bit like a butterfly, with two big wings and a long tunnel between them. There are plenty of bathrooms, as well as places to get a cup of coffee or refreshment. It was super clean, not a bit of trash anywhere.

We were hoping to see the baby tiger, which is on the far-right wing of the zoo along with the otters. How can you not be happy when you see a sign like this?

We walked all the way over there twice, but no luck on the tigers. The otters were out the second time, though. Perhaps it was too chilly for Sumatran Tigers, but the flamingos seemed happy, and they are hot weather creatures, so I dunno, maybe they were being Tiger divas.

We scored big time at the gorillas, which are located on the left wing of the zoo. Dallas zoo has two troops. One is a family unit, complete with babies, and the other is big bachelor males. “It’s like a frat party all day long over there,” said one of the staff. They keep the troops separated by large walls. Evidently, the papa gorilla on the family side would not take kindly to other males near his tribe. The staff member hinted at bloodshed if that happened. Not the zoo experience you’d want the kids exposed to.

We also got to see the lioness up close during an excellent keeper talk. I took this picture as she tracked the movements of the painted dogs across from her enclosure. Lions are so deceptive, they just lay there, looking lazy and nearly pettable. Then their attention is caught, and you see the ferocious wild in them. We were glad there was thick glass between us and this beauty.

We did the entire zoo, which included penguins and a fun trip to the children’s petting zoo. Delightful!

Here’s hoping your holidays are happy ones!

THICK SUGAR COOKIES (for royal icing)

3 cups flour

½ t salt

1 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 large egg, room temp

1 t baking powder

1 T vanilla

Sift together dry. Cream butter and sugar. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add flour in 3 batches. Knead and shape into a disk. Put in fridge overnight or 4 hours before rolling out.

375 10-11 minutes (turn sheet halfway) Cool on pan 5-7 minutes and then on rack.