Taking the Hell out of "Hell Week."

by Matt Buchanan


Excerpted and Adapted from

Directing Kids (upcoming)


The last week of rehearsals (generally beginning on the Saturday, Sunday, or Monday of the week that ends with a Thursday or Friday opening) is called “production week.”  It is also sometimes called “tech week,” because it is usually the first time most of the “tech”—lighting, sound, etc.—happens.  In college theatre programs and even in some high schools, it is often called “hell week.”  I hate, hate, hate this practice.  There is almost never a good reason to allow production week to feel like hell.  Many college and community theatres end up with massive nine-hour rehearsals, tech crews pulling “all-nighters” and general panic during this week, and it can be almost as bad in some high schools, but I believe this is simply not inevitable.  It happens due to two factors—poor planning, and the false assumption that it is inevitable.

This assumption comes to folks perfectly innocently.  In the professional and college theatre worlds, or in any situation where the performance space is rented or shared with a large number of groups, it is often impossible to get into the theater until production week.  In this situation, all technical work—from erecting the set to hanging and focusing lights, etc.—must be left to the last minute.  This means hellish hours for the tech people, and it also means competition for stage time that can make rehearsals rushed and long.  But most school productions will not find themselves in this boat.  Usually you can hang and focus your lights anytime you like.  Often you can build the set right on the stage weeks in advance.  Even when this is not the case, with careful planning you can minimize the stress.  Can your set be built ahead of time in “pre-fabbed” pieces that you can quickly assemble once you get into the theater?  Can your lighting designer make use of the space’s “rep plot” rather than re-hanging the whole lighting system?  Can your sound designer spec out the space ahead of time—most theaters will allow this—so that there are no acoustical surprises to slow you down later?  The answer to all of these questions is probably yes, but many otherwise sensible directors fail to even ask them, because they have internalized the assumption that production week is supposed to be hell.

Many college programs even encourage the idea of “hell week” as a sort of rite of passage—if you can’t take it, you’re not cut out for the theatre.  But this attitude has no place in theatre with young people.  (Many of the practices that are commonplace in college theatre departments are, in my opinion, immoral and abusive even with college-age adults.)  I will put in long hours myself, and even pull “all-nighters” in production week if necessary—the success of the production is that important to me—but I almost never have to, because my working assumption is that I can plan things so as to make it unnecessary.  As far as making my kids pull long hours, I’ll do it within reason if I honestly believe it is the best thing for the production, but if you let yourself get so far behind that you’re thinking of keeping school students up ‘til midnight, you’ve already blown it.  Insufficiently rehearsed actors have been put in an unfair situation, of course, but so have actors who are exhausted from late or stressful rehearsals.  Plan well, and get the work done in advance.


Plan Well

But what do I mean by "plan well?"  The first thing to do is to look carefully at your entire rehearsal schedule.  (This is not something you do the day before production week starts--you do it way back at audition time.)  Have you scheduled full-cast, full run-thrus prior to tech and dress rehearsals?  Have you structured the whole schedule with the assumption that you want the cast fully ready to perform, apart from those things that cannot be done without full set and costumes, prior to the start of production week?  Or have you, as most of us tend to do, completely unconsciously, if we're not careful, built into your schedule the assumption that you'll do twice as much work during the last week as in the previous two or three?  Even if your situation regarding tech is in every way as unfavorable as possible--you can't even set foot into the theatre until the Monday before opening, all of your lights must be rented and you can't afford to rent them for more than four or five days, all costumes arrive on Tuesday afternoon, etc.--you can at the very least make sure that the performers themselves are fully prepared before the stress of tech intervenes.  This way, at least you'll be able to concentrate during the week only on those things that cannot be done ahead of time.  (This seems so obvious, but in my experience practically no high school directors do it--mostly, I suspect, because it's so easy to equate "the way it's always done" with "the right way to do it.")

Next, look at the actual tech.  Even if shows at your school have traditionally not moved into the theatre until production week, it doesn't necessarily follow that there's a hard and fast rule that says they can't.  I took over the directing gig at one school, at which, as is typical, all of the set-building, light setup, etc. had always been done at the last minute, but when I looked into the matter I learned that there was literally no other group in the school that ever used the stage, apart from standing on the apron during assemblies.  I was able, without bothering anyone at all, to start building my set the day after the previous production ended--which is more or less what I started doing.  I can't tell you how nice it is to rehearse, right from the beginning, on the structure of the actual set--how many issues typical of production week (discovering a piece of blocking won't work because there's a set element in the way, etc.) simply vanish.  Now, it's unlikely that you'll find a situation quite that favorable (and at that school, it was balanced out by the fact that the reason no one else used the stage was that it was a horrible space) but it's actually quite likely that you'll find, if you push, that you can get permission to build at least parts of your set before production week.  (Again, checking this out is something you do at the beginning of the process, not at the end.  I don't know of a single factor that causes more undue hassles for school theatre directors than the fact that the lack of urgency at the beginning of the process, with the show months away, causes us to fail to do all we can do ahead of time.)

Lighting is even more likely to be something you can get away with doing earlier than is "traditional."  Many schools do, in fact, use their stages regularly for things other than the school play, such as band or chorus rehearsals, etc., which might prevent large set pieces from being installed ahead of time, but these activities typically take place under work lights.  (No one wants theatrical lighting in their faces during music rehearsals if they can avoid it, after all.)  In these schools, you can almost always hang or rehang the specific lighting plot for your show without getting in anyone's way at all.  (Of course, that's assuming that you own the lighting equipment, but even if you have to rent, it's worth at least looking into the question of whether the expense of renting them for a longer period is justified by the savings in wear and tear on everyone during production week.  You may decide it isn't, but the issue is that most folks wouldn't even ask the question.)

Now let's think about your actual set design.  I'm all for artistic integrity and respect for all aspects of the art and craft of the theatre, and I have worked as a professional set designer, and know how fulfilling it can be to design exactly the set you want and see it built.  However, I respectfully submit that the value of a smoothly running, non-stressful tech week is so great as to justify taking it into consideration right at the design phase.  If you can't build the set early, can you design one that will go up quickly?  Of course you can, but are you willing to?  Also, can you design one that will be easy to mock up in the rehearsal hall?  (What that means will depend on the nature of your rehearsal hall, of course.)  That way you reduce the number of scenes that have to be re-blocked because they don't work once you're on the set during production week.  And, regardless of how complex your design winds up being, are you, as the director, absolutely sure you totally understand exactly what it will be like, so that you can block accurately for it?  If not, can you get your designer to make it clearer--perhaps they need to build you a 3-D model, make more or better drawings, or help you mock up or tape out the set in your rehearsal space.  (Clearly I'm assuming that you will have a set design before you start rehearsals, but you absolutely should in any case.  Any director who begins to block a show without a clear set design in mind is begging for disaster, tech week notwithstanding.)  In many schools, it's possible to take this same approach to the lighting design.  Most schools whose theaters or auditoriums (auditoria?) are used by multiple groups have a "rep plot" of lighting hanging all the time.  Rather than designing a plot from scratch, can your designer work within this standard plot, or essentially within it, hanging or moving only a few instruments?  It will save an enormous amount of time.

And don't forget to do your own homework with regard to tech.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen tech rehearsals drag on for days because the director and the designers have not communicated.  Even if you can't hang or focus lights ahead of time, you and the lighting designer should have discussed precisely where you want light cues, and have a basic understanding of what each cue should look like.  This doesn't mean you won't discover, during tech rehearsals, a few new places for cues you haven't thought of, but for the most part it's ridiculous for a tech rehearsal to come to a stop for every light cue while the director explains to the designer what is wanted.  Obviously the same goes for set changes, though directors are somewhat less apt to skip that step--with one exception.  While directors generally know pretty much exactly what set needs to be on stage for each scene, they're much less likely to have carefully thought through how the scene changes should go.  Where does each unit live backstage?  Have you considered traffic patterns so that set pieces (and actors) can get on and off without traffic jams?  Working these things out on paper ahead of time can save hours and hours of time during production week.  Another way you can do your homework is to anticipate problems and take steps to avoid them.  Is there a particular piece of tech or tech-related business that looks likely to be a challenge (say, coordinating the blocking of a magician with the sound and lighting effects that go it)?  If so, can you arrange to rehearse that bit ahead of time, with just the actor and the required techies?  Costume issues often come into this category.  Do you have any actors whose costumes are likely to be especially challenging (hoop skirts, long gowns, bulky animal costumes, drag of any kind on boys, wigs, etc.)?  If so, can you get those costumes (or substitutes) ahead of time so that the actors are not struggling with them for the first time at dress rehearsal?  Every little bit helps.

Getting your backstage area in order ahead of time will also repay the effort a hundredfold.  Like everything else in this article, which steps can reasonably be taken ahead of time will vary from program to program, depending on which spaces are available, which must be shared, etc.  But that fact that it's generally impossible to get everything backstage ready ahead of time too often causes directors to simply not do any of it ahead of time, when, in fact, they might easily have done a lot of it beforehand.  Again, we're victims of the assumption that the way it's always been done is the best way to do it.  A list of those things that you might be able to set up ahead of time:  Prop Table(s), Costume Rack(s), Green Room, Dressing Rooms, Makeup Table(s), Hair Area, The “Booth,” Stage Manager’s Desk, Communication System, First Aid Kits,  Emergency Costume Repair Kit,  Emergency Set Repair Kit, Emergency Prop Repair Kit,  A Detailed, Written Plan for all Scene Changes.  Some of these items will require no advance setup (if, say, you have a built-in booth, or dedicated dressing rooms).  Some will be impossible to fully set up before production week (if, for example, as was the case at one school where I worked, you dressing room is also the headmaster's office).  But it is extremely unlikely that none of the things on this list can be done ahead of time.  (And, of course, you should also get all of the people who will be working backstage on board well ahead of time, but in my experience that's something directors are less apt to forget.)

Okay, so let's assume you have done everything possible to be as prepared as you can be going into your first production week rehearsal.  What about the rehearsals themselves?  Are you conducting them in the most efficient, least stressful way?  Are you even having the right number and the right kind of rehearsals?  There are at least four basic kinds of rehearsals that typically happen during tech week, and most school drama programs do at least two of them, often three, in a particular combination that doesn't vary from production to production.  (For example, some programs do one Dry Tech, one Wet Tech, and two Dress Rehearsals for each show.  Others do one Cue-to-Cue, one Wet Tech, and one Dress Rehearsal, etc.)  In an informal survey of drama teachers I discovered that, when asked why the particular combination of rehearsals, most couldn't tell me--it was just kind of the way they always did it.  (A few said something like "that's how I was trained to do it," but when pinned down they had to admit that no instructor had ever stood up before a directing class and said "this is the proper order of tech week rehearsals."  By "how they were trained," they really just meant "how my college program did it.")  But I'm going to suggest that even if those college programs were, in fact, doing their production weeks in the very best way (which is hardly inevitable), it does not follow that doing it that way is the best for your program. That's because the ideal kind, number and order of tech rehearsals is individual to each program and to each show.  It's ridiculous to think that the sort of tech rehearsals, for example, necessary for a big-budget, multi-media rich production of The Who's Tommy are equally necessary for a unit set production of You Can't Take it With You.  It's equally silly to assume the dress rehearsal requirements of a period costume production of 1776 are the same as for a current teen comedy in modern dress.  Well yes, I can hear you saying, maybe we don't actually need every rehearsal for every show, but it's just easier to do them all each time--what harm do the extra ones do?  The answer is, an unnecessary rehearsal uses up time that could be better spend on a necessary one.  I think the sensible approach is to design your schedule of production week rehearsals specifically for the nature and needs of the particular production.

To that end, I'll discuss the various kinds of rehearsals typically conducted, and their merits.  But first, a general principle to consider--one that I suspect most folks don't consider much: It is possible to significantly reduce the stress on everyone but yourself by avoiding, whenever possible, wasting one group's time while another is working. That's the value of a dry tech, as I'll discuss below, that lets the tech folks get their act together without the cast standing around on stage waiting for them.  (And it's why I hate, and never do, cue-to-cues.)  But it can be applied less globally as well.  If you discover a problem with a scene change (one not involving actors) in the middle of a tech rehearsal, can you, rather than fixing it right then and having your deck crew run it again and again until it works, table it until after the rehearsal, and then have your deck crew rehearse it while the cast is cleaning up--or, indeed going home?  You might think that's not "fair" to the tech kids, but I have two responses to that.  First, "fair" is not worth overtiring your actors over.  You're not keeping the tech kids out any later than you would otherwise (it's going to take the same amount of time to fix the issue regardless of whether you do it in the middle of the rehearsal or at the end).  All you're doing is letting the actors out earlier.  (Similarly, "fair" is not worth overtiring your tech crew--if there's a major train wreck in the acting during a tech or dress rehearsal, it might make sense to table that until the end as well, so the tech crew isn't standing around doing nothing.)  Second, in the particular example above, your actors will presumably need to show up earlier than your techies for dress rehearsals and performances, so it evens out anyway.

So, what kinds of production week rehearsals are there, and which should you have?  Again, it depends on the nature of you show, but I'll discuss the various kinds and their relative strengths so you can decide which best meet your particular needs.  (If you've been doing this for a while, obviously you know all this already, but don't be offended.  My point here is not so much to give you new information as to encourage you to look at information you already know in a different way--since most of us never really think much about why we do particular rehearsals.)  So here goes:


Dry Tech

A “Dry Tech” is a technical rehearsal without the actors.  Many directors tend not to bother with a dry tech, but they can be very helpful, especially if there are a lot of technical cues, such as light cues, sound effects and scene changes.  A dry tech allows you to work these out without making the cast stand around waiting.  Even before the dry tech, the director and the lighting designer should have gone over the script together and decided when lighting changes should occur and the general look the director wants for each cue.  Then the lighting designer can have the lights hung and focused, and the cues roughly written before the dry tech.  Similarly, the sound designer should have assembled all the necessary sound cues, including music cues if the director requests them.  If possible (though it often isn’t) whoever is in charge of the “deck crew”—the folks who will be moving scenery on stage—should have rehearsed with his crew ahead of time as well.  Most importantly, the stage manager (or whoever will be “calling the show”—hopefully it won’t be you but that can happen) should have in her prompt book every cue of any sort in the whole show.  The procedure for dry tech is simple.  The stage manager or director calls the cues one at a time, and the tech people execute them.  Assuming everything goes perfectly, that’s all there is to it, and because there isn’t a cue happening every single minute of the show, the dry tech will take less time than it takes to run the show.  Sorry—that won’t happen.  For one thing, things will go wrong.  The deck crew will discover it can’t see to move the scenery with the lighting the way the designer has planned it during the scene change, and you’ll have to work out whether to close the curtain or to add some light and perhaps allow the audience to see the change.  The sound operator will play the wrong sound effect.  You will discover that one of the scene changes that takes place behind the main drape during a scene is too loud, and is clearly audible from the house.  Moreover, it’s not only things going wrong that will slow down the dry tech.  Part of the point is for the director to see all of the light cues and hear all the sound cues (presumably he’s already seen the set).  Some of them won’t be what the director wants.  Much time is saved if the light cues have been written beforehand, but many of them will nonetheless be rewritten during dry tech.  This takes time, during which, of course, everyone else ends up standing around.  (This is one truly excellent reason to have a dry tech, because otherwise the “everyone” who ends up standing around will include the cast.)  Sound cues may or may not be able to be changed during the dry tech if the problem is that the director wants different music—the sound designer will have to find it—but they must be discussed so thoroughly as to ensure that the new cue, when it is finished, will be right.  As a conservative estimate, it is wise to schedule twice as many hours for your dry tech as the show is long—more if there are an unusually large number of technical effects or scene or light changes.  One factor that often prevents directors from doing a dry tech is that it pretty much has to happen during a time when rehearsal doesn’t normally happen.  Otherwise it prevents you from having a regular rehearsal with the cast, and you probably don’t want to skip a cast rehearsal this late in the process.  I’ll often do them on a weekend, but that will only work if the parents of your student crew will tolerate it.  Still, if you can, a dry tech can be nice to have.


The “Cue-to-Cue”

Instead of a dry tech, some directors like to have what’s called a “cue-to-cue.”  The procedure for this basically consists of running the entire show, with the cast in costume and using all props, but skipping over any passage longer than a few lines that does not contain any tech cues, and “holding” whenever necessary to rewrite a light or sound cue or solve a problem with a scene change or other technical matter.  There are two arguments in favor of the cue-to-cue.  First, it means that the director will have seen all of the lighting cues with people on stage before the wet tech.  That’s important because it is not always possible for a director, especially one who’s not terribly familiar with lighting, to get a clear sense, looking at the cue on an empty set, what it will look like when the actors are present.  Skip the cue-to-cue and there’s a good chance some of the lighting cues will have to be rewritten again at or after the wet tech.  Second, it brings costumes and props into the mix a day earlier than a dry tech.  The actors will go into wet tech having already discovered which costume changes are more difficult than expected and which props cause unforeseen problems, and possibly figured out solutions for them.  This makes wet tech go more smoothly.  However, I never do a cue-to-cue when working with young performers for several reasons.  First, I don’t like the idea of running such a patchwork version of the script so close to performance.  It undermines all the work I’ve done getting the cast to feel the flow of the show.  More importantly, though, cue-to-cues are incredibly long and dull and frustrating for the cast.  Having to stand there in position, being hollered at not to move too much or not to talk, after every cue, while the lighting designer rewrites the cue or argues with the director over it is just not fun, and it’s a waste of time better spent running lines, doing homework so as not to have to do it later in production week, or indeed getting some sleep so as not to be a wreck opening night.  It logically shouldn’t, but a cue-to-cue is apt to last even longer than a dry tech, and I prefer not to put my kids through it.

(I was in a community theatre production once that held a nine hour cue-to-cue.  No exaggeration.  The company owned its own space and lighting equipment, so they could theoretically have hung and focused all the lights and written all the cues ahead of time, but for some reason they were still hanging lights when the cue-to-cue began.  I can only assume it was an extreme example of the way people unconsciously plan hell week to be hell week.  Then when we got started it became clear that the director had not spoken to the lighting designer about cues at all.  Not only had they not discussed what the cues should look like—they hadn’t even determined when lighting changes would take place.  The director and the designer built every single cue then and there, while we stood in position.  And we had to pretty much run everything because the director didn’t know when the next cue should happen until we got to that point in the script.  The stage manager started out the day in an irritable mood—they train them to be that way in professional stage management programs, and she though she was being “professional”—and got more and more strident as the day wore on, berating us for fidgeting and accusing us of not caring as much about the production as she did.  Efficient as she was, she’ll never work for me.  The director passed many similar remarks, in between assuring us that while nobody likes a cue-to-cue, it’s just one of those things that has to be done.  I beg to differ.)


Wet Tech

Whether or not you’ve had the luxury of a dry tech, you must have a wet tech.  (Though if you don’t do a dry tech, the wet tech is just called a tech rehearsal).  Ideally the wet tech is essentially like a dress rehearsal, except that the focus is on technical issues such as entrances and exits, costume changes, lighting, set changes, etc., rather than on the acting.  (Which doesn’t mean your actors shouldn’t act full out.)  In practice, especially if there has been no dry tech, the wet tech will not look much like a dress rehearsal at all, because you’ll be constantly stopping to fix things.  As I carefully explain to my students at the start of the rehearsal, the procedure is to run the entire show from beginning to end, but to stop whenever there’s a problem, and fix the problem.  Typically the kind of things you’ll be stopping and fixing in wet tech will include costume changes that take too long, props that need to be re-located back stage so as to be more easily accessible, scene changes that get in the way of entering or exiting actors, props or set pieces that don’t work, and people who find they can’t hear their entrance cues because of noise—whether necessary or unnecessary—backstage.  If you’ve had a dry tech, you will hopefully not have to fix many lighting cues but you may have to fix a few—it is difficult to know how a cue will look on actors when seeing it on an empty set.  Similarly, you will hopefully not have many sound issues to fix, with the very important exception of those related to microphones, if you're using them.  These include figuring out how to keep track of wireless mics, teaching the actors how to handle them and setting their levels, as well as setting the levels for passive microphones on the stage.  None of these can be done without the cast present.  However, if you have a competent sound operator, you may not need to stop much to take care of these issues.  Apart from organizing the wireless mics, these kind of problems are really better solved on the fly, since you can’t very well listen to or adjust volumes unless the actors are speaking as they will during the performance.  If you’re using wireless mics it is best to have a “sound check” at the beginning of the wet tech, just as you will before dress rehearsals and performances, and then just tell the actors to ignore the mics and any sound they may hear coming from the sound system, and let the sound operator deal with tweaking things as you go.

Basically I start the tech rehearsal with the stage manager (or whoever) calling the cues just as she will in performance.  Whenever something goes wrong—an actor is late with an entrance, an actor is missing a prop or costume element, I don’t like the light or sound cue (or it’s late)—whatever, I call a hold.  I then ask the person who should have been responsible for the problem why.  I might ask an actor, “Why were you late on that entrance?” or, “Why don’t you have your magnifying glass?”  I might ask the sound operator, “Why was the doorbell late?”  Sometimes the answer is simple—“I just forgot my cue was coming up.”  “Sorry—I was looking at the wrong page but now I know what I did.”  Other times the answer leads to more questions.  For example, if the answer to the prop question is, “It wasn’t on the prop table,” the next question goes to the stage manager or other backstage person in charge of the prop table.  “WAS the magnifying glass on the prop table?  Where was it?  Why?”  The point is to get to the root cause of the problem as quickly as possible so that it can be remedied.  It’s not about fixing blame—I don’t care whose fault the problem is, except insofar as that’s the person I might need to ask to do something differently the next time.  (For instance, maybe another actor uses the same prop earlier in the show, and forgot to return it to the prop table.  I need to know that in order to remind him to return it—or, alternatively, to get a second magnifying glass so he doesn’t need to remember.)


Dress Rehearsal(s)

Dress rehearsals exist for three main reasons.  First, they are a chance for the cast to run the whole show without stopping, on their own, and learn that they can pull it off.  Performances are scary.  Until now the director has been running everything, telling them what to do and when to do it, but now they’re on their own.  (It’s not really true in school theatre, but I like to joke, when asked if I’m nervous on the day of a performance—not a terribly original question, but someone inevitably asks it—that I have no reason to be, because “my job is done.”)  One important function of dress rehearsal is to prove to the cast that they’re ready.  (This means, though, that it’s your responsibility as a director to make sure that they are ready by dress rehearsal, or it will have the opposite effect.)  Another function of dress rehearsal is to allow someone—either the director or the relevant designers—to really look at the costumes, makeup, props, etc., under the real lighting, and make notes on anything that needs to be changed.  They don’t stop the rehearsal to fix things, but the cast knows to remain on stage when the rehearsal is over so that notes can be given and repairs made as needed.  The third purpose is to allow the director to closely watch the production—not worrying about the issues covered in tech rehearsals and preferably not following along in the script or looking at his blocking notes—to assess the effectiveness of the individual performances and the overall ensemble, and take notes on what needs tweaking.  The idea is for the director to react as an audience member rather than someone who knows what is supposed to happen.  These notes are also given to the cast, either at the end of the dress rehearsal or at the beginning of the following rehearsal or performance.  (The latter is more effective, usually.)  Possibly the stage manager or assistant director also takes notes, only she does follow the script and the blocking notes.  Her job is to note blown lines and errors in blocking and business.  Most programs typically do two dress rehearsals, but don't do that simply because it's always done that way.  (I'm as guilty of this as anyone.)  If the costumes are very simple (in many teen comedies and dramas costumes basically amount to street clothes), there are few or no costume changes, little or no makeup is used--in short, if few of the kinds of challenges usually met in dress rehearsal seem likely to be an issue--you might be better off scheduling an additional run-thru rather than a second dress rehearsal.  (Or, of course, I really mean rather than a first dress rehearsal--I'm not suggesting you have a non-dress run-thru after your final dress.)

Why would you do this?  Even if you don't really need another dress rehearsal, what's the advantage of a non-dress run thru?  There are two.  First, it reduces the risk that you'll damage a costume in rehearsal and have to scramble for a replacement.  Much more importantly, though, it reduces stress.  Here's why:  I don't know about you, but I have almost never managed to get through an entire dress rehearsal without stopping.  For obvious reasons I try not to stop, but there's always something that can be easily fixed in the moment, but that will come back to haunt you if it's ignored.   But the thing is, everyone knows that you're not supposed to stop during a dress rehearsal.  As a result, if you do, it's unsettling for the cast--it makes them fear they're not ready.  Now, some directors absolutely refuse to stop during a dress rehearsal, but that can also be stressful, if the cast happens to get into a muddle.  By changing the name of the rehearsal from "dress rehearsal" to "run-thru," you eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress.  It frees you up to stop and fine-tune things if you want, or even to skip certain scenes that strike you as fully ready and get your cast home to bed (or homework) that much earlier.  (Years ago I was directing a college production of H.M.S. Pinafore, and I outright canceled one production week rehearsal.  I felt that the cast was fully ready, and that a good night's sleep would be better for the opening night performance than another rehearsal.  Everyone thought I was crazy, but it turned out to be the right decision.  Not that I'm suggesting that's likely to happen.)  Actually, I think two dress rehearsals--maybe even three if the costumes are particularly challenging--is usually the right choice--I'm just saying it's worth asking.  Few things waste more time in this world than the habit of doing things the way they're usually done simply because it's the way they're usually done.



I'm not going to say much about performances.  They're stressful, exhilarating, exhausting, a relief--they're what they are.  All I'll say is this:  Make sure everyone--including the audience and especially including the parents--understands the rules.  If you're going to forbid food and drink in the auditorium (recommended) make sure everyone understands this.  You don't need a fight with an irate patron on top of everything else you have to deal with.  If you're going to forbid parents from saving seats or having their offspring save them(recommended), make sure you clearly communicate this ahead of time.  If you're going to ban parents from backstage (strongly recommended) don't wait until they try to come back there to tell them so.  If you're going to forbid audience members from coming backstage to greet the actors after the show (very strongly recommended) make sure everyone understands this, and make sure they know where they are supposed to go to meet the cast--and make sure the cast knows where they're supposed to go to meet their public.  Similarly, if you're making any significant changes in protocol, make sure the parents (they're your single biggest threat during performances, obviously) know about them in advance, and know why you've made the changes.  (The best example I can think of here is the issue of crew bows.  I hate them and never allow them if I can help it, but when I come into a new school that has traditionally done them, I know better than to just forbid them by fiat without explanation.  That's a recipe for all kinds of excrement falling on your head from the techies' parents after the performance--even if the techies themselves understand and agree with the change.)  General rule--you can get away with almost anything if everyone knows about it in advance, but when you blindside parents, they will bite you.



Most professional theatre companies rent their performance spaces by the day.  Those who don’t are typically repertory companies in which another production is slated to begin almost immediately upon the close of the current one.  College productions don’t generally “rent” their space in the sense of paying money for it, but they, too, usually have very limited time in the space before another group is slated to take up residence.  Since there is never enough time before opening to do all of the preparation that’s best performed, or can only be performed, in the actual space, all of these groups frontload their schedules—however many days they can afford to pay for, they want the largest possible percentage of them to be before, rather than after the production.  As a result, once the final curtain comes down, there is often a very limited amount of time before the production is expected or required to completely vacate the venue.  (It is not unusual for the turnaround to be less than a day—if a show closes on a Saturday night, the next group may well be scheduled to take residence at noon on Sunday.)  This means that the “strike” has to take place very, very fast.  Now, in a professional production, strike does not concern the director or the cast at all.  It is carried out by a crew, generally made up of production stagehands, augmented by extras hired for the night, under the direction of the crew chief, technical director, or other personnel.  However, this is expensive, and college theatre programs realized a long time ago that they had a readily available free workforce, in the persons of the cast, or, in some colleges, the entire class of undergraduate theatre majors.  The protocol is that nobody is allowed to leave until the strike is finished, and officially declared finished by whoever is in charge of running it.  (In many college programs, this sort of thing is viewed both as a rite of passage and as a weeding-out of the weak.  The idea is that if you’re not tough enough to survive a brutal all-nighter, you’re obviously not cut out for a career in the theatre, and you’re better off finding that out now, before you waste four years of college on a degree you’ll never use.)

Unfortunately (in my view) this practice has become standard in community theatres, high school programs, and even some middle school programs—even though in at least some percentage of these programs, it’s completely unnecessary.  Certainly some community theatre groups rent space (and many more rent lighting equipment or costumes, meaning they, at least, must be struck immediately to avoid late fees).  Certainly some high school programs share their auditorium with other programs, and need to be cleared out fairly promptly—though not generally by noon on Sunday!  But even community theatres that own their own space and equipment (and could theoretically take months to strike a production if they chose) and even school programs that don’t share space, or that share it on a much more relaxed schedule, have nearly universally adopted the practice of doing their entire strike immediately after the final performance, and of “requiring” the entire cast to stay until it’s done.  (I use the quotes above because unlike a college program, which can threaten to withhold credit or bar students from auditioning for future shows if they cut out early, there’s really nothing much you can do to a student who bags the strike.)  In some schools there’s a staff person, probably called a technical director or a theater manager, who runs the strike, but the task of organizing and directing the process typically falls to the director—as does, to some extent, the decision about how and whether to do it.  (Wait--whether to do it?  Are you seriously going to suggest that I not do a traditional strike?  Well, yes, I am, as it happens.)

There are some legitimate reasons for doing strike in the "traditional" way.  In some schools there really are logistical reasons that the strike, or at least parts of it, must be done immediately.  (Maybe you don’t really need to vacate the space totally right away, but you have to return the costumes and/or the lights on Monday morning.  Maybe the light plot can wait, but the band needs to rehearse on stage Monday morning, so the set does need to be gone.)  Additionally, organizing strike this way is probably the only way you’re going to get everyone to help—good luck asking them to come in voluntarily for a few hours at a time over the next few weeks!—so chances are, anything you don’t finish on closing night you’ll end up doing all by yourself, or with the help of a limited number of enthusiastic tech students.  Still, I suspect the biggest reason the practice is so universal is that drama teachers, most of whom cut their teeth either in college or professional theatre or in community theatre whose leaders in turn cut their teeth in college or professional theatre, have internalized the idea that this is the “right” way to do it—in the same way that it’s “inevitable” that hell week be hell, it’s “inevitable” that everyone pulls an all-nighter on closing night.  Or at very least, it’s more “professional.”  (By the way, this last idea--that requiring everyone to stay all night for a strike is "professional"--which is often cited as a chief reason for doing it--is completely ridiculous.  While it is true that most professional strikes take place overnight following the final performance, it is absolutely not true that professional actors are required--or even allowed--to participate.)  I am going to suggest that doing strike this way in a high school (or worse, in a middle school) is not only unnecessarily stressful for the students--it's dangerous.

Now, if you’re working in an established program, you may have little choice but to do your strike this way, either because you’re not the one in charge of it, or because it’s so ingrained in the culture that you feel you can’t get away with changing it.  But I will tell you that I no longer do strikes this way—not when I’m directing a play and am in charge of a strike, and not when I’m working for a school as theater manager and am in charge.  I’m pretty sure I would refuse to tolerate it even if I were going into a program with a long history of the practice—they can get someone else to direct the play, or at any rate, to direct the strike.  This is not out of any kind of laziness or desire to get home on my part—in fact, not doing strike in the “traditional” way invariably makes more work for me, as I have to come in the next day or days and do by myself work that would otherwise have been done by the cast and crew.  My reason is that I believe making children stay up into the wee hours doing physical labor after a grueling week of rehearsals and performances is abusive, and, more importantly, dangerous.  Except for striking costumes and props and mopping up and repainting at the very end, virtually all of the activities that make up strike involve moving large, heavy objects—often objects that you’re actually trying to get to fall down.  Many of them involve climbing ladders, often while carrying heavy lighting equipment.  Many involve power tools.  They may involve moving around in a space littered with upturned nails, while lighting and scenery is moving about over your head.  I’m sorry, but asking high school, or, God forbid, middle school kids—most of whom are not techies and have no experience—to do this when they’re already exhausted and well past their bedtimes is a recipe for serious injuries.  And while a child can, of course, get hurt at any time during the rehearsal and performance of a play, it’s just stupid to take this kind of risk just for the sake of being “professional.”

Not that I just send everyone home after the final curtain.  For one thing, the kids themselves on one level want to stay up late for strike—the “rite of passage” thing is important to them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I like the way a strike is democratic—everyone, cast and crew alike, pulling together.  It’s expected, and you’ll hear grumbling from multiple constituencies if you abolish it entirely—among them adults who remember their own high school or college shows, and any folk within the drama program at your school who have bought into the idea that it’s “professional” to stay up until dawn.  Finally, there really are some strike tasks—most notably costume strike, prop strike and general cleanup—that are much more efficiently performed if you have tons of bodies to work with.  For these reasons I almost always make my cast and crew stay and strike for a while, even at the middle school level.  What I do not do is keep them past a reasonable time.  (I tend to think eleven thirty or so for middle school, and one at the latest for high school, but you’ll have to decide what you think is reasonable.)  I also don’t expect them to perform dangerous tasks for which they have no training.

This means a certain amount of planning and organization—more, certainly, than often happens at school theatre strikes, in my experience.  But you really owe it to yourself and your cast to do this planning even if you intend to keep everyone until every last task is completed.  As with many things in amateur theatre, many folks waste enormous amounts of time through not planning carefully—usually because they’ve internalized the idea that the activity in question is supposed to be long and fraught.  Just as leaving things until production week that could be done earlier makes that process more “hellish” than it has to be, lack of careful organization can make a strike take much longer than it has to (if you’re making everyone stay until everything is done) or can leave much more work left over for you to do later (if you’re sending folks home at a certain time, done or not).  I start by outlining every task that will need to be completed.  Then I separate them into three columns—those that must be completed right away, such as boxing up rented costumes for return; those that are not necessarily time-sensitive but which will go much more efficiently with an army, such as cleaning; and those that I can easily do myself, or with the help of a small number of volunteers—kids or parents—later on.  (Which tasks go in the third category as opposed to the first will depend on your specific circumstances—how soon the space must be vacated, how much is rented as opposed to owned, etc.)

At this point, unless it looks like the entire strike will be very quick and easy—as it can be for a smaller production without a lot of set—I set aside the third group of tasks and concentrate on the first two.  I make a note of any tasks on either list that cannot be begun until another task is completed.  (For example, you can’t repaint or even mop the stage floor while the set is still being struck.)  Then I make a note of any tasks that are especially dangerous (I’ll assign those either to myself or to an adult I trust) and any tasks that require specialized training or experience, such as striking the set and the lights (I’ll put only tech students who know what they’re doing on those tasks, under the supervision of either myself or a tech teacher).  Then I divvy up all tasks in what seems to me the most effective and appropriate way, and I show up at strike bearing a list of all tasks, and all students assigned to each “crew,” complete with designated leaders—adults, or with high-schoolers, responsible students.  Fortunately, by this point I know everyone involved in the production very well indeed, and can make intelligent choices about who is best for each task or hat.   If possible, I assign certain tasks to the adults already in charge of those areas—the costume master in charge of packing up the costumes, the prop master in charge of clearing props, etc.  I’m careful to set aside a couple of tasks—mopping (or repainting, if that has to happen on the night) the floor, for example—that will require a large and flexible number of bodies.  This way I have someplace to put kids who finish their assigned tasks early—no fair sending some kids home before the group just because I guessed wrong about how long their assignment would take.  Throughout the strike I’m carefully monitoring everyone—and especially those performing physically demanding tasks, or tasks that require precision—for signs of fatigue.  Unless a child actually collapses or something, it’s better not to send one home earlier than everyone else—he’ll never live it down—but you can take him off the ladder patrol and set him to sorting hats or something.

I should warn you that assigning tasks according to ability or experience—which, it ought to be obvious, is the safest and most efficient way to do it—is likely to make you a few mild enemies, especially if the school has a history of “traditional” all-in strikes with little structure.  After all, wielding hammers and power tools to break down the set is a lot more fun than cleaning the dressing rooms.  Some actors look forward to strike as an opportunity to play techie.  However, you can usually diffuse a lot of this with careful rhetoric.  I usually go with one of two approaches:  Sometimes I point out that the trained techies will get the job done much faster, thereby making the whole strike faster and getting everyone home earlier.  (Even if I’ve set a deadline at which I’m going to send everyone home regardless, this is still a valid argument—I’ll send them home even earlier if we’re done earlier.)  Other times I point out that it’s only fair, since acting in the play is more fun than doing tech.  (Presumably the techies don’t think so, or they’d be actors, but they’re not the ones you have to convince—they’re thrilled by the arrangement.)  But even if nothing works and you just have to put up with the grumbling, that’s better than putting kids in danger pointlessly.


Note:  Remember that if kids are going to stay up until midnight or later, especially after a long show and a long production week, they have to eat.  Make sure someone has been tasked to bring food.  I tend to prefer foods with two qualities in particular—I want the food to be as non-messy as possible, so it doesn’t contribute to the very mess we’re working to clean up, and I want it to be the sort of food that one can eat standing up or on the fly.  The reason for this second requirement is that it’s better if no one sits down for any extended period during strike unless they’re doing a task, such as sorting makeup, that requires it.  The thing is, we’re all so exhausted at this point that once we stop moving it’s very, very difficult to start up again.  I’ve been at strikes when there has been a formal dinner break declared at some point, and everyone sat down and ate.  It’s a nice idea, but it’s a huge waste of time, when you’re trying desperately to get kids home and to bed.  It typically takes at least half an hour after the official end of dinner before most folks are working at full capacity.  Pizza—as long as you stick to cheese, and get the New York style that you can fold and eat without utensils—can work.  Even better are finger sandwiches, or cheese-and-veggie plates.


Bottom Line

Production week is going to be tough and tiring.  But with careful planning, if you do your homework, and, most importantly, if you avoid at every stage of planning and execution the assumption that stress and chaos is inevitable or "professional" you can make it much, much more manageable.  Production week does not have to be hell.