Ask the (former) stagehand/stagemanager, director and all around theatrical jack of all trades

Based on this thread there are at least two people who are interested in this sort of a thing.

I worked professionally in the theatre from the time I was 16 until I was 26. In that time I have acted, directed, produced, stage managed (a lot), and worked as a stage hand and theatre tech. I have worked on academic productions, small theatre, community theatre, mid sized shows, and a few shows in some large venues too (The Alley Theater in Houston, Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles). I was also on the board of directors for a Shakespeare company. I picked up a degree in theatre arts with an emphasis on directing from UCLA while I was at it.

So ask away. I have done every job there is (I think) except costumes, and I dated a costume designer for 5 years, so I can probably answer those questions too.

I used to work tech and backstage in high school theatre, and no matter how many dress rehearsals we did, there was always a lot of hushed talking, costume-changing, and chaos going on to the sides of the stage. It was actually pretty loud, but the audience could never hear it because the stage curtains were really thick. Does this bedlam happen in professional theatre, too? Or is it more organized and practiced?

I really miss doing theatre.

What was your biggest trainwreck?

Ooh I can actually help in this thread if you like. I am a professional Technical Director and Set Designer. In the past I have also done, Production Management, Stage Carpentry (rigging and such), Scenic Carpentry (set building), and all sorts of other stuff. I also handle special effects in my current job. I have been working in professional theatre for about 10 years now and have worked from coast to coast. (Canada)

rachelellogram Things are MUCH quieter in professional theatre. A director would never put up with any extraneous noise backstage. In fact some shows are just as interesting watching the backstage choreography as the play itself. One show I worked on had four actors and over 100 characters. The amount of costume quick-changes and moving set pieces was amazing. Everything was timed out perfectly and it was a thing of beauty.

What methods of acting (including, but not limited to, Method Acting) are you familiar with?

I’ve been reading a bit about the Meisner technique, and it seems the most intuitively “right” to me*, but the things I’ve read tend to focus on how you yourself should behave spontaneously in a scene – they don’t talk about how you might go about portraying a character who is very different from you. (I totally understand why it’s first important to learn how to respond truthfully in a scene as yourself, but how do you translate that into playing someone else, who might have a different energy level or a different way of expressing anger, for example?)

As a director, how do you direct actors who are using different styles or otherwise approaching their tasks very differently? How do you gauge how much or how little direction someone needs, and how to approach them?
*Errrr, by that I mean, if I were to act, I’d like to use this technique because it seems to evoke the kinds of performances I enjoy watching, more so than other techniques – not that there’s one correct way to act.

Hey guys. Sorry to start an “ask the…” thread and then disappear. I will be back at a computer in an hour or two and will answer questions then.

What did you think of “Waiting for Guffman”? Was it exaggerated? Is live theatre still financially viable in today’s world of 3-D cinema, or is it just a money-losing labor of love?

Like Ludy said, at high levels this does not happen. The big shows that I have worked on are very practiced, everyone has very specific jobs and they execute them flawlessly. This isn’t to say that stuff doesn’t go wrong, it’s live theatre, stuff goes wrong. But even when things don’t go right we can usually fix it so that no one notices. Even when the things are big, there are contingency plans and so forth.

My big break (got my foot in the door as an assistant stage manager and eventually led to me doing real stage management) came because the ASM on a production was hospitalized after a car crash the night before a show. I was working as her assistant (intern) and took over for her for the rest of the run. It was stressful, but the whole process was set up so that I *could *take over seamlessly in case that exact sort of thing happened. I had copies of all her notes, access to her book, knew all her responsibilities, etc. The show didn’t miss a beat.

That said, lower level stuff…this still goes on. It’s frustrating as a director and stage manager, but a lot of the people who work on these shows at the small theatre level are doing so because it’s a good time. At really small levels it was often just me or just me and one other person running the whole show and it gets very clean again. That is actually my favorite type of show to work tech on.

What is your definition of trainwreck? I worked on a show where the director decided to do a total re-write of the script before casting started, but didn’t tell anyone (including the playwright). It was a little known production so none of the cast knew that the script had been changed until the playwright came to see the first dress. At that point he got royally pissed off that it wasn’t his play on the stage and demanded we either revert to his script or he would pull the writes and sue the director/producer.

So previews were canceled and the new script was implemented about 2 weeks before opening.

That was fun.

I worked on a production of Hamlet that had the cast members constantly dropping out to take film gigs and having to be replaced sometimes only an hour or two before a performance.

I directed a production of Lear (same company) that had the artistic director fire five of my actors without telling me, one at a time over the course of five weeks. They were all playing the same role and replacing the previously fired actor. :rolleyes:

I also directed a show where one night literally only 2 people showed up. I have stage managed several shows that got canceled for lack of audience. One of them was an absolutely brilliant amazing show that was very well reviewed, so it was really sad that people weren’t coming to see it. That production company went out of business after that show closed.

I have a lot to say on this subject so I am going to come back to this one.

Waiting for Guffman is hilarious exactly because it is not even a little bit exaggerated. Not everything is like that, but everyone I know who works in theatre and worked their way up from smaller regional and community theaters has worked on a “Guffman Production”.

I think that theatre can still be financially viable. 3-D isn’t live, you don’t get the electricity of a live performance when you go to the movies. Nothing against movies, or even 3-D, I love them, but it isn’t the same experience at all.

I feel strongly that the big downfall of theatre today is that it is trying too hard to be like film.

[art school soapbox]Theatre needs to focus on doing what theatre does well and abandon (to an extent) a lot of the “traditional” proscenium productions that still dominate the art form. Don’t break down the forth wall, that’s silly and gimicky, but re-conceptualize what role the audience plays in the production. I think Brecht had it right to a large degree in that respect. We shouldn’t be running away from the idea that plays are productions, and trying to envelope audiences in the “reality” of the show, rather we should be embracing the performance aspect of live theatre and doing things that a movie never could. Leave realism to film, theatre is a place for the fantastic.[/ass]

But that is just my opinion. I do believe that there will always be a place for live performance. It is the second oldest art form, and it is going through a period of evolution (has been for about 80 years) but I don’t think it is going anywhere. Performance is something that I believe is hard wired into our nature as humans. Go back and look at the theatre that was being produced when it was outlawed anywhere. Performance and storytelling are as much human needs as visual arts and music.

How do you get into doing lighting and sound without experience or an internal hookup? I’ve tried to get into the technical backstage stuff but it tends to be an exclusive club. I ended up doing front of house, which was okay, but it wasn’t where I wanted to volunteer.

I almost had my in, during our stage production in Grade 12. However, the theatre director decided it would be useless to train me because I wouldn’t be around next year. I stuck around the city for 3 more years and would have been a dedicated volunteer (this was the time I did front of house) if that director wasn’t such a dickface.

As someone who hires lighting and sound technicians I can tell you there are two ways to go about this.

First is education. I went to College in Technical Theatre and then after that went to a program that specialized in transitioning new technicians into the professional world. Real life is very different than school. Through those programs I met people that helped me get the jobs that I have gotten today. The theatre community is very small and incestuous, you never know who will get you a job and who will prevent you from getting one.

On the other hand my husband is the head of lighting at the largest concert hall in the city and has no formal education. He got a job at a small town theatre right out of high school working long hours for no pay. At that job he learned what he needed to know to get a job working at a gear rentals shop. He had the drive and the interest to learn about all of the gear on his own time so that in short time he was the go to guy. Once you know how to use the gear quickly and efficiently the sky is the limit.

The problem with just applying with no real experience and education is that theatre is run on very tight budgets and little time. Not many companies will want to risk either on someone they don’t know, or has no references.

A fair number of them, if only in passing. I have actively studied (at least in a theoretical way in college) Meisner, Stanislovsky, Michael Chekov, Strasberg (method), Adler (sort of like method), Robert Wilson, Grotowski, Suzuki, Brecht, and a few others (mostly Asian and archaic styles). Everything has some merit, and I firmly believe that focusing on one persons method to the exclusion of others is limiting.

That said, as a director, I intensely dislike both Meisner and Strasberg. Strasberg because I think it produces inconsistent acting that is at times psychologically and possibly physically dangerous with minimal results. It’s ok for film work, and that makes sense because it was developed primarily for film work. But over the long haul of a production, it doesn’t work.

I dislike Meisner primarily because most of the meisner actors I have met are insufferable douchebags who aren’t half as good as they think they are, can’t take direction and refuse to turn in a consistent performance. I might be a little bit irrational when it comes to Meisner ;). I think there is a lot of merit to Meisner in rehearsal actually, but strongly feel that it is a very incomplete method that places the actor above the character, and the character above the story which is (IMO) exactly backward.

A lot of this has to do with what I think theatre should be, and the types of shows I like to watch and produce. As I said in my last post, right now I think that Brecht had it right when it comes to what theatre should be today, and my favorite acting is the stuff that Jerzy Grotowski was doing. Very physical, very body focused, long rehearsal periods (months and years of rehearsal) that kind of thing. That said, I can’t directly implement any of that in a production (for a lot of reasons) and my fall back is late period Stanislavsky, mixed with some of Michael Chekhov’s psychological stuff, and some Brecht.

Which leads me to:

So, I said all that I said about what I like in acting above. What I admire, what I like what I don’t (and feel free to have me go into more detail if I am rushing over stuff, I can’t judge what is interesting to the average person and what isn’t anymore). So when I prepare for a show, any show, I go through the script and break down the whole thing with that lens. Block the whole thing in as much detail as I can, take a lot of notes and get as solid a mental picture of the show in my head as possible.

Then I cast*, and go into rehearsal, and leave all those notes at home. My job as a director is not to be the actors acting coach, it’s to be their director, and as their director I have to recognize that they are the actor and it is *their *job to realize the characters not mine. My job is to make sure the story is being told clearly. Story first, everything else follows. I also have to recognize that they are artists in their own right, that it is their face and reputation on the stage, and that I want them to bring their own different perspectives to the production.

So I have the framework that I prepared, I know what I need to happen, but then I turn them lose and let them play inside that framework. I keep them from going off the rails in rehearsal, and get us all on the same page in terms of the tone of the show with table work before we start to block, but once we start to get the show on its feet I don’t “block” unless I have to. I guide, I suggest, I collaborate, and at the end of the day I make final decisions, but I do everything in my power to keep from saying “do this.” The *best *stuff happens when good actors are allowed to just play. Get everyone on the same page and just turn them lose and amazing things that no one (including the actors) expected will start to happen. Getting everyone on the same page is the hard part.

And if we ever run into a roadblock I have my detailed blocking that I can fall back on as an option, if only to spark a little more creativity into the scene.

*I take care of conflicting acting styles in casting. I don’t cast actors who have drastically different philosophies than I do. It ends up with everyone being unhappy. If there is an actor who *has *to be spontaneous and improvise in order to turn in a good performance, I don’t work with them. That sort of thing only works on film. I need actors who can set a performance and keep it that way for the run of the show and still have the performance seem fresh. Fortunately there aren’t many good actors who are like this. Brando would have driven me nuts, but not many people are Brando, so it’s not much of a worry.

Oh man, I don’t mean as a job or on big productions. I’m talking about really small cities, like 200k or less people and just community productions. That’s why I said volunteering. Sorry, my bad. :o

Yeah, exactly this.

My suggestion would be, do front of house stuff first. Meet people, start making connections. Learn some stuff along the way when you can. Hang out when things are slow and get the board techs to show you stuff. Offer to help hang lights for free, or paint sets. Everyone needs free labor, so show up to pitch in and start making friends.

ETA: Small productions is the same thing. More so. Show up, help out, let people know where you want to be eventually but be willing to do what is needed now. Make friends, learn as much as you can without it getting in the way of anyone else, and doors will start opening.

You gave some pretty wild examples there! I was thinking more about during a performance. Wardrobe malfunctions, inadvertantly locked doors, actors reciting Act I lines during Act II, things like that.

Same show where the director rewrote the script, on closing night the actors decided to replace the fake sake with the real thing. The show called for three of them to drink a whole bottle rather rapidly about halfway through the second act.

In retrospect it was hilarious.

That’s pretty good. Are closing nights sometimes hack nights?

I’ve done shows at both MIT and Harvard. MIT almost never does hack night, but Harvard almost always does. In the one show I did there, we decided not to have a hack night. The show didn’t really lend itself to that.

People still threw a few in though.

In one scene, a girl pretended to seduce a jailer just enough to distract him, then steal his keys (rather conspicuously to the audience), hand them to her father who let her brother out of jail, then put the keys back on the jailer’s belt, then jilt him.

On closing night, the jailer hung the keys on the front of his belt, basically right over his junk. Those of us in the orchestra were all like “Oh no he di’n’t!”

Not in the professional work that I have done, as a rule. All the student work I have ever done, yes.

That whole show was a mess though. I had actors calling me up crying at 3am for no good reason, people quitting and having to be begged to come back, it was being heavily publicized in the local Asian community and we got some TV coverage and had tons on tickets pre-sold, so canceling previews was a really big deal, one of the shows financiers turned out to be mobbed up and when it looked like the show might fall apart and he would lose his money he got sort of scary. The producer was also the lead actor and could barely speak English, let alone act competently.

Though my assistant stage manager on that show introduced me to the woman who would later become my wife, so it wasn’t all bad.

Wow, that sounds scary bad.

I worked on one show where the lead tenor quit a week before we went up. The lead soprano injured her foot and couldn’t walk, much less dance, around the same time. The set designer just disappeared. Before one performance an actress claimed that an actor hit her. (And all of their scenes were together as father and daughter.) A lot of things like that happened.

Sounds like your production was way worse.

It was surreal. Just strange on every level. A lot of it was surprisingly fun though because most of us working on it realized exactly what kind of insanity this all was.

My husband worked on a show where one of the actors had a heart attack and died onstage on opening night.