Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Show Must Go On!

One of the many joys I have in my life is being involved in theatre, particularly musical theatre. I've been doing musical theatre since I was 8 years old, and to date I've done 35 productions (not including concerts or revues!) on-stage as a performer, as part of the band or as the musical director. So I thought I'd give a bit more of a detailed run-down of what it's actually like being involved in a production for any of you that maybe love to go see theatre, but aren't entirely sure how it works.

Any show starts out as an idea, and I can assure you, meticulous planning goes into putting on a show, of any size. The production team (Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Stage Manager, Costume/Set/Props/Lighting Designer) spend literally years organising a show before actors auditions for it even begin. And, for those of you who don't know what they spend those years doing, that would include (and is not limited to): obtaining/negotiating show rights, obtaining a space/theatre, and most importantly, budgeting. Then auditions can take place, and they need to spend a few days (maybe weeks) finalising the casting before drawing up an initial rehearsal reschedule.

Practice makes Perfect! Singing/Choreography/Band rehearsal for
'Summer Holiday' 2014 (Evoke)
Rehearsals are obviously the backbone of getting any production ready for an audience to watch it, and, as you'd expect, take up the majority of anyones time who is involved. In Guernsey, the average rehearsal timescale is usually about 7-8hrs a week across 10-15 weeks, which is roughly 70-120 hours of rehearsal.... that doesn't include tech week! That being said, I've done ten '24-hour Musicals' with the Guernsey Youth Theatre, where you show up Friday night, rehearse for 24 hours straight and then put on the show the following night. Yes, it is possible. Yes, it's not going to be perfect. But, yes, it's one of the funnest (and funniest!) things to be involved in ever. It's truly amazing what can be achieved with a limited amount of time, space and budget!

After weeks of rehearsals, the show moves into the theatre, which can take between a few days to up to two weeks. This includes 'The Get In', 'Tech Week' and 'Dress Rehearsals'. Tech week quite often feels like a massive set backwards, as everything looks and feels really different. The choreographer now has to re-set numbers to accommodate for a change of space, the actors may have to re-set their positioning in scenes due to a change of lighting design, and it takes a few days for the actors to get used to using all their set, and for the crew to get used to how to move it and where to place it, on AND off stage (in a game we like to call, 'Set-Tetris').

Dress rehearsals which usually consist of about two in the rehearsal space, and another three in the performance space, are called so because you are running the show 'in-full-dress', and that means costumes. For some shows this can be incredibly demanding, and things that were easy can be made so much more difficult simply by the addition of costumes, particularly if you have some seriously  quick changes. The quickest I ever had to do was 30 seconds in EVITA - luckily that was only a change of dress, and I had a dresser to help me. Along with figuring out your timing for costume changes, you need to figure out if you need to set any costumes outside your dressing room (again, to facilitate quick changes), if you need help with a change, whether you need to set any personal props in certain places etc. It can take a few runs to get all of this correct, but usually by the opening night you've got your 'Show Rhythm', and things flow smoothly.
- And then there is the run itself: the culmination of all of this hard work finally comes to fruition, and you get to put on your show to a paying audience, which for local Guernsey Theatre is anywhere between 2-15 shows - small scale productions usually do 2-3 shows, and large-scale musicals/pantos tend to be much longer runs

That's pretty much the low-down, but your experience of being involved in a production really does change dramatically for a variety of reasons: whether you're on stage (acting/singing/dancing), whether you're in the pit (musically directing or in the band), or whether you're behind the scenes (directing/crew/costume etc) - and of course, let's not forget the social dynamic. Shows are much, much harder when you don't like who you're working with, or if there's a prima donna or two to deal with! Thankfully, 9 times out of 10 I've liked everyone I've been cast with (... I'll be discreet and not mention who I didn't like!) - I have worked with a lot of amazing people though, and in a variety of ways. So to sum up, I'll give you my own experiences of what it's like to be a part of certain areas of a show.

Myself and Chris Swift as 'Eva & Che', "EVITA" 2008 (Evoke)
(Photo by Graham Jackson)
Being the/a lead role: A huge responsibility, and not to be taken lightly or for granted. If you've been cast as a lead, then you probably proved yourself to the production team in some way, and they are literally trusting you to bring their vision of the show to life, so you need to respect that! You'll have at least three times more work than everyone else in terms of lines/songs and maybe even choreography, and you need to take the responsibility seriously, and, in my opinion, actually lead! By that, I don't mean boss everyone around (that's the directors job!), but I mean be a leader by example - you have more lines/songs to learn, so make a point of having them all learnt quickly, that way no-one else can complain they 'haven't got time' to learn it all. I've had the good fortune of being a lead role about five times now, and I usually give myself bout four weeks to get my script down.

Being a supporting role: The description is in the title there - you should be supporting. Depending on the show, supporting lead roles vary massively in size - for example, in EVITA the lead role of Eva Peron covers about 85% of the show, whereas the only other female 'lead role' has literally one song - in 'Summer Holiday' however, the lead male has a lot to do, followed by the three supporting males (who are in nearly as much as the lead), followed by the female lead and the three supporting females (who have pretty much the same amount as each other) - 'Summer Holiday' is much more of an ensemble show, which requires more work on the supporting characters, and much more time spent together.
'Let Your Freak Flag Fly' - the joy of being unique in an ensemble!
'SHREK' 2015 (GADOC)

Being in the Chorus: Usually the most social role of any production. If you're in the chorus, you're going to get to spend a lot of time with your other chorus members, and you'll have a lot of fun learning everything together - and, when it's not going so well, you've got a core bunch of people who all feel the same, so ranting about it is not a problem because everyone understands. That's not to say that the chorus don't (or rather, shouldn't) work hard, however! Often, in terms of 'prestige', the chorus are under-appreciated. It takes great skill to be able to work just as hard to create tiny little characters who maybe most of the audience never acknowledge, but if they weren't there the show would be really lame. 'Shrek' is a prime example of great chorus. Everyone is cast as an individual fairytale character, which means even though you're an ensemble part you need to find a way to push through and be individual to keep the show alive. I know a lot of people go, 'ugh, I'm in the chorus, that sucks!' - Well, a part is what you make of it, no matter how small.
MD-ing is easy when the band is friggin' awesome!
'The Last Five Years' 2014 (GADOC)

Being the Musical Director: musically directing comes with many strands of potential responsibility. You're essentially responsible for teaching the cast the music, rehearsing all the songs, directing the leads vocally on how to perform a song (a lot of people forget this one!), rehearsing the band, and eventually conducting the band, which, as has been the case with every show I've MD'd, means conducting with your head and face because your hands are too busy playing the piano! MD-ing is really fun, but really exhausting, and you definitely need to have a good sense of how to teach if you're going to do it properly. If the MD teaches the cast well from the beginning, the show will be great, and (in my opinion), that doesn't mean teaching at the pace of the slowest learner. You can't go at the speed of the fastest, because no-one else will learn anything, but then if you go at the speed of the slowest and just 'assume' the others will pick it up on their own, they'll feel ignored and actually not work as hard as they could. You need to find a middle ground that pushes those who struggle, and keeps those that find it easier engaged, and that in-turn will speed up the rate of learning, but also keep your cast bonded as they learn together.

Being in the Band: from my experience of being on-stage, I find the moment that the band and the actors come together, the show comes alive for the first time. Little nuances in the score that don't come out in rehearsal can really lift a scene - prime example was the recent production of Sister Act, and our fabulous guitarist Casey-Joe Rumens, who would put in these little licks and tricks that weren't there in rehearsal, but made the whole cast go 'Wow!' and lift their performance. As an aside, as an audience member I always make a point of staying in the theatre until the band finishes playing their 'play out/exit music' number to give them a final applause, I just think they deserve it, and sometimes people forget how hard they work. 

All in all, being involved in big productions, particularly musical ones, is incredibly rewarding. You get people who say things like, "I don't understand why Music and Drama are taught in schools" or "What on earth are you going to learn about life doing 'Performing Arts'?" - well, you only have to read through my post to see how much discipline, how much self-sacrifice, how much team-work, and how much passion is required from every single person involved in a show in order to get it on the stage, let alone make it a success! Life isn't a musical, but if it were, we might actually get a lot more done! 

Excellent teamwork makes an excellent show - for me, this was 'The Dream Team' - 'The Last Five Years' 2014 (GADOC) 

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