Embarking on a new production can be daunting, filled with questions like: How are we going to build the set? Will we have enough rehearsal time? And who’s going to make sure every actor has a costume? Here are 10 easy steps to lay the groundwork for a successful production.
1. Choose a show that you love. You’re going to be spending the next 4-6 months deep in the trenches of the show you’ve chosen. If you love the show and the music, working hard on the show will be worthwhile. When picking a show make sure the language, number of roles, themes, and style are appropriate for your performers and audience.
2. Assemble your team of collaborators. You can use the sample list below. Start at the top and put a name next to each job. If there is one person covering more than three jobs, try to expand your staff to distribute the workload. Look to all students, parent volunteers, and staff within your organization that have these special skills. You’ll be pleasantly surprised who has a interest or side hobby in say lighting design or who may have a hidden love for carpentry.
Sample list of jobs on any given production:
Production Stage Manager
Assistant Stage Manager
Assistant Stage Manager
Follow spot operators
3. Get your design ideas in order. Design includes sound, lights, props and costumes. As the director, take the lead in the design process. Start by getting all your designers on the same page before rehearsals, also known as “pre-production”. Gather everyone’s ideas on the entire feel of the show as a group or one-on-one meetings.
4. Post audition notices. Be specific about what you want actors to prepare for auditions, such as: Sixteen (16) bars of an up tempo song (or any section of a song that has a natural beginning, middle and end). You can also suggest the actor use a specific section of a song (a verse and chorus). If you’re working with younger actors, teaching them a short section of a song from the show as a group, then have them perform it for you individually. For acting, it’s best to work with short sides from the show you are producing. Sides are short excerpts of longer scenes. I like to start with one actor asking another actor a question, and then use enough dialogue to get a sense of whether or not a person is right for the role. Usually 1 page of dialogue is plenty. Sometimes ½ page is all that you need. Monologues are an okay substitution for sides, but you will get a more accurate understanding (and maybe a pleasant surprise or two) of who is best for a part if you audition actors from sides.
5. Set up a room that feels like a real audition room. If there are computers or desks in the room make them neat and tidy, so that the actor coming in for an audition feels like he/she is in an audition room and not a computer lab. This gesture alone will raise the bar on their performance. In the audition room the producer, director, choreographer, music director, and a reader should be present. Actors on Broadway audition only in front the necessary staff. Avoid auditioning actors in front of other actors. Your team’s goal is to cast the best person for the role. It is the job of the director, choreographer, and music director to set up a situation where all of the actors will succeed and feel comfortable, and be cast in the role most appropriate for their skill level and type (or “essence”, which is much deeper than just the way someone looks, but really encapsulates who they are as a person).
6. Create a production calendar. The production stage manager should put together a production calendar, with clear goals, like: “Rehearsal,” “Work through Scene 2/3,” “Designer run,” “Load In,” “Tech,” “Dress Rehearsal,” specifically sketched out. Obviously things can change along the way, but there should be a well thought out plan to begin with. This calendar (which helps performers understand the timeline and goals in a tangible way), should be distributed on the first day of rehearsals, along with a contact sheet that includes who is playing which role(s) (all members of your team should be noted on this document), cast/scene breakdown (this tells you who is in each scene), script, music, and any other necessary paperwork including contracts.
7. Make the rehearsal space comfortable. Make sure the room is clean and organized. Put out enough chairs so that every person has a chair, a place to store their belongings and water. People may think, “This group of actors likes to sit on the floor.” They might, but in reality if you give everyone a place in the room that is designated (like a chair of their choice), or a music stand, they will use their space and feel calm when they are in their space with their stuff. The room will be easier to manage.
8. Always start and end rehearsals on time. From here it is the director’s job to guide the ship. It is important that everyone is treated with the utmost respect, and that time is managed efficiently. Any actor sitting around without something to do is potential trouble. So make sure that everyone is engaged and participating while they are in the rehearsal room.
9. Share your process and expectations up front. When working with performers ages 7-25, it’s important to set clear goals and expectations. For instance, I let actors know that during an initial staging (or “blocking” if you prefer that word), of a scene I assume that they will be on book (writing down their staging notes). The next time I schedule that scene for rehearsal all actors should be off book (have their lines and their staging memorized), even if the rehearsal is the next day. Getting off book as you go is far better than one giant “off book” deadline in the future. This way, the actor and director can actually work on acting all along the way. And, if an actor finds him/herself with time to spare in a rehearsal, you should suggest that he/she might want to work on running lines (rather spending any time on a cell phone). Note on cell phones: With the exception of recording/listening to music from the show, cell phones should be absolutely forbidden from the rehearsal room. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to set up a high standard of concentration in the rehearsal room, where the focus is entirely on the task at hand. Your performers will become better actors by being in the moment, not glued to instagram or snapchat.
10. Stage a Scene, then Run Through It. The director and choreographer are responsible for staging and teaching choreography in an efficient and timely manner. Once a scene of the show is staged, work through the whole scene stopping and adjusting as necessary. Then, run the whole scene off book. Then move on to the next scene. Same process. Give yourself a couple of rehearsals to circle back to previous scenes, and a rehearsal or two to put scenes together. Even if you don’t rehearse previous scenes for a while, trust that the good work you did along the way will stick, and be informed by all of the work you do on later sections. Actors and directors get smarter about a show as they work on it. And, if the actors know up front what they are aiming for, success is inevitable.
Enjoy the process! All actors respond well to positivity, strong leadership, and a clear understanding of rehearsal goals. How your actors succeed is a direct result of how well they are cast, and how well they are lead. When actors are lead by a cohesive, collaborative team of talented, knowledgeable, well-organized, and inspired people that are enjoying every step of the theatre making process, that energy is infectious. If you convey a sense of fun rather than anxiety and stress, your performers will pick up on that and bring that sense of fun to the stage, ensuring a hit production that your audience will enjoy watching.
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Do you have any additional tips for making sure your production runs smoothly? Leave them in the comments below!
Written for Beat by Beat by Terry Berliner. Terry served as assistant director on the Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, trained young Simbas and Nalas on the Broadway company of The Lion King, and is currently a freelance director in New York City. Terry is originally from San Francisco.