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