NOW WHAT? A Teacher’s Guide to Directing Musical Theatre, Part 8: PRODUCTION DECISIONS

Now What LOGO 2 ProductionAs 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, and PART 7: In Rehearsal. Now it’s time for…

Now What? Musical Theatre ProductionPART 8. PRODUCTION DECISIONS

By this point, you’ll probably have encountered some of the special circumstances and staff members needed to put on a musical. But in case you’re still in planning mode, you’re reading ahead, or you want to find some additional tips, this post can help.

It’s a fact: musicals take longer to rehearse and produce. There will need to be more rehearsals, longer rehearsals, more prep time, and longer performances (most musicals run between 2 – 2 ½ hours). Plus, there are many more moving pieces: vocal music rehearsals for the performers, music rehearsals for the orchestra, dance calls, and intricate set changes and technical needs.

Who will be in charge?

In a musical that features a lot of dancing, the leadership team will likely consist of a musical director (a person who teaches the music and handles the details of every song), a stage director, and a choreographer. Sometimes this will be just two people, or even one. But no matter how many people you have involved, it will be a true collaboration. The staging will inform the choreography and vice versa; the musical director needs to see the dances to keep the singers on task; the staging director needs to know how to block a scene in order to set it up for the next song. Add to all of this the designers, and you’ll see that good communication is a must. Emails are fine, but they shouldn’t replace consistent in-person production meetings. Ask your stage manager to join in to take notes to distribute to the team following the meeting.

Production

Production Meeting: Director, Stage Manager, Sound Designer, Lighting Designer. Q2Q Comic by Steve Younkins (q2qcomics.com)

Don’t forget the design team!

If possible, ask the team to sit in on a few rehearsals. Even if a set or lighting designer is working in their regular, “same old” auditorium, it can be helpful for him or her to get a sense of how that space will be used—and maybe even come up with some innovations! In one of our recent productions, we started running out of room for big dance numbers, so we built a small platform on the front of our stage to extend the playing area. It gave the dancers some extra space, and created a new look for our stage.

Students need be able to move easily, comfortably, and safely in their costumes. If the cast can have some temporary items to practice in (long skirts, similar footwear, etc.) you can catch any problems that may arise earlier in the process. The costume designer and choreographer should check in with each other throughout the rehearsal process.

Making the music…

If you are fortunate to have a director or musical director who plays the piano, grab hold of that person and never let go! Hire a rehearsal pianist: someone who can modify a tempo or play a specific phrase as many times as needed. This person can be used at dance rehearsals, to assist the musical director, and provide music cues for blocking. Even if you do have a piano-playing director, a rehearsal pianist can take over to allow the director to keep an eye on what’s happening on stage. If a live accompanist isn’t an option for your production, Tams-Witmark now offers Performance Tracks for some shows: instrumental tracks of the music that can be used in rehearsals. Unlike singing along to a cast recording or substituting a karaoke track, these recordings follow the score your production is using, to avoid confusion and ensure that your performance stays consistent. The most useful place for an original cast recording is in table work, as an additional resource.piano_music_background_style_80581_3840x1200Who is going to play the show itself? Bringing in student musicians from the school’s band or orchestra is a wonderful way to build collaboration and celebrate student talent. Based on their availability or level of experience, they might need to be supplemented with a few adult members of the community, recent graduates, or local college students. Assuming your school’s band director or music instructor will be conducting this pit orchestra, make sure your stage manager knows when those practices will be so that information can be added to the master schedule. You can have the musicians sit in on a few of your rehearsals so they can get a feel for the show—and it helps to show the actors, tech team, and musicians that they are all valuable members of the production. When it’s time to run the show with the live band, prepare these students by explaining that there will likely be lots of starting and stopping, and it can get a little tedious. Well thought-out scheduling might keep boredom to a minimum: call the musicians in after you run some scene “clean up,” or release them early and save that work for the end.

If you don’t have a student pit orchestra or any volunteers, it’s fine to contract a few pros for the show. Agree as early as possible on how many rehearsals they’ll attend and whether they’ll bill you hourly or as a lump sum. Some professionals charge extra for performances, so make sure your budget can handle it.

Production

The Pit Orchestra at Aliw Theatre in Manila

Places!

Does your theater have a proper orchestra pit that you can use? Will the show be better served by putting the band backstage or in a wing? Do you need to put them on the floor in front of the stage? Because the musicians aren’t present until the tail end of the rehearsal process, it can be easy to overlook some of these details and is another reason why communication with everyone involved is so important. A backstage band will have implications for the set and might need special masking and cabling for mics or amps. An auditorium that requires that the orchestra be placed on the floor on the front of the stage can complicate sight lines or impede character entrances/exits. Figure out placement early to avoid having to re-block scenes at the last minute, and tell the box office if some seats have to be held back. Finally, be conscious of the instruments themselves: the drum set will need extra space, a keyboard will need to plug in, and everyone will need a music stand and proper lighting.

Next up…

Part 9: The Technical Team

KimberleyPattersonHeadshot2015 Table WorkKimberly 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.