As readers of this blog already know, we are HUGE advocates of musical theatre in schools. But we are also the first to admit that putting on a musical is hard work, especially for the teachers. It is the teacher who is usually expected to be the director, choreographer, stage manager, and producer; all while still being a teacher!
That is why we have asked Kimberly Patterson, the Theatre Arts Teacher and Performing Arts Chair at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, to write this series for our Spotlight On Musicals blog.
The series will outline the process of putting on a musical from start to finish, providing helpful tips and maybe even some new ideas. Topics will include:
- Applying for a license with a publisher
- Budgeting and creating calendars
- Assembling your team
- Running rehearsals with a student crew
- Working with your technical theater team
- Managing the house
…and many others. Whether you’re a seasoned producer of school theatre or you’re just starting out and have suddenly been put in charge of it all, this series will have something for you.
Thus far, we’ve posted PART 1: Selecting a Show & Securing Performance Rights, PART 2: Creating Your Documents, PART 3: Assembling Your Team, PART 4: Casting, PART 5: First Rehearsal, PART 6: Table Work, PART 7: In Rehearsal, and PART 8: Production Decisions. Now it’s time for…
Throughout this series, I’ve talked a bit about the technical aspects of producing a show. Here’s a quick recap before we start on some more specific information:
- Select your team as early as possible—if your tech staff is already on board, they can weigh in on the musical you select to catch any special tech considerations.
- Share contact information and introduce everyone to the stage manager, who will be the liaison between the artistic and production staff.
- Have the tech team at the first read-through for team building and group instruction.
- Encourage them to be involved and welcome them at rehearsals. It can be easy to think of the tech staff as late-inning players, but they can be valuable resources at any stage of the game.
Depending on your situation, you might have designers and technicians who are a regular part of your school’s staff, and you all collaborate every year. That’s fantastic! These relationships can be hard to build if you’re starting from scratch, if you work at a small school, or if you yourself are not a regular part of the school’s staff. For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that not all positions come fully manned (if yours are, maybe this post can spark a discussion at one of your production meetings!).
Who does what?
The bare minimum can be thought of as people, places, and things. “People” covers costumes and props for the actors; “places” would be the set pieces; and “things” would be technical equipment like lighting and sound. These jobs can be separated if you have more hands and can make one person responsible for each of the above categories. A robust team can include a costume designer/coordinator and a sewing assistant; and one person to design a set, another to lead construction efforts, and another to paint, dress, and decorate the locations. Sound can be divided into live (microphones) and recorded (sound cues). A skilled assembly can make for an incredibly smooth production.
What information does the technical team need from you?
Obviously, the kind of information they will need will differ from show to show, but the basics will always remain the same.
- Schedules: Not just for tech week, but also for any other major dates. Designers will need time to research, create plans, and take the next steps into putting the set together. When can construction begin in the venue? Will there be other events taking place there that they’ll need to work around, and what are the typical school hours? Is the rehearsal schedule structured so there’s enough time for scenic artists to paint?
- Documents: First and foremost, a script! Give everyone the dimensions of the playing area, backstage and the wings, and available storage space. If your technicians are new to your auditorium, they might need an inventory of equipment, and even if they’re not new, they’ll want to know what equipment is instrumental to the production, like how many performers need to wear body mics. Costumers will need a cast breakdown and appropriate sizes and measurements (they’ll need to know about the backstage dimensions too, for places for quick changes or storage). Feel free to ask them what else they need.
- Ideas: If you have specific things you’d like to see on stage or happen in your show, share it with your design team. Ideally, they’ll use the script as a guide, but don’t assume you both envision a castle in the same way.
- Communication: Don’t wait until the last minute to announce you’ve added three more performers to a scene on a small balcony, or want the chair stage right instead of stage left. In addition to putting it all in the rehearsal reports, contact them directly.
If you have the time and are so inclined, it never hurts to educate yourself in the areas of stagecraft or technical theater. Most theater textbooks have chapters focused on these topics, and there’s a wealth of information available online.
What information do you need from the technical team?
Actually, a lot of this information is the same, and simply comes from the opposite direction. Just as they will need specs from you on the size of the space, you’ll need to know the dimensions of what they’re building or bringing in. The stage manager can tape out the floor plan of the set early on so you’ll know where a wall might be placed, but it never hurts to compare that to actual size. If you plan to have actors move scenery, it will be especially useful—you’ll know how many kids to assign to one piece for both safety and efficiency. If you’ve given a team member a budget to work with, ensure that you’re getting receipts and that they can account for what they’re spending.
Sometimes it helps to divide your ideas into categories:
- Need to do
- Can do
- Shouldn’t do
- Can’t do
Note that your idea of a “need” and tech person’s idea of a “need” might be different. Don’t butt heads! Figure out if you need something because it’s essential to the script, essential for safety, or essential for your artistic vision. For example, if your school is producing THE WIZARD OF OZ, having a yellow brick road of some sort is key. Having an actual 3-dimensional flying house might not be an actual “need.” Safety should always come first, but do be mindful of how hard or labor-intensive something you’re asking for might be, and consider compromises or alternate solutions. This can be especially true if you’re hoping to stick to a budget.
Part 10: Troubleshooting
Kimberly Patterson is a two-time graduate of New York University, with an undergraduate degree in Dramatic Literature, Theater History and the Cinema, and a Masters Degree from the Gallatin School. Her program in Individualized Study focused on performance studies, dramatic writing, and technical theater, and her coursework included scenic design, puppetry, and “ritual-as-performance.” She spent more than a decade in New York City working in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters in almost every capacity possible. As a playwright, her plays have appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theater Festival; her musical, Oedipus for Kids!, is published by Samuel French and has been produced around the U.S. Kimberly has extensive experience working with educational technology, and has managed online content and curriculum development for McGraw-Hill, ProQuest Education, and Curriki.org. When not working behind the scenes in Oxbridge’s auditorium, Kimberly plays Japanese taiko drums and is a performing apprentice with Fushu Daiko.