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On with the Show, Properly
By: Tony Hansen

Many of you have likely just finished a holiday production or are looking at an Easter show. It's certainly not too early to start thinking about your next production. Some of the larger shows I work with will start production 11 or more months out.

Many facilities are not aware of the requirements and responsibilities to putting on even the simplest of shows. I have been called on many times to help with a production that could have saved a lot of money, time, and tears if it would have been considered a few months, or even weeks, earlier. The size of the production has little bearing on the amount of time needed to pull it off. A larger production will usually have a larger team to help pull it together. I am going to lay out what a typical design would involve for me to give you some insight into your considerations at show time.

Well before any auditions or rehearsals are held, a production needs to have its support team in place. At a minimum, a show should have a director/music director to handle the overall show and talent, a technical director to handle the technical infrastructure, and a production designer to handle the look and feel of the show. Obviously, as the show increases, so will the team. Usually a producer, scenic designer, costume/makeup designer, lighting designer, audio designer, stage managers, and even a house manager will be added to a team for technical alone.

You will also need good promotions, possibly an acting coach, choreographer, etc. All of these folks make up your production team and should be involved early. They will shape the show and may likely have some ideas and input that could affect the overall direction the production takes. Most people aren't aware that a show is almost completely designed and well under construction before the first rehearsal.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a progression to the design process. Just like building a house, you can't put up the drywall until the foundation is done. You also need to follow the proper build order of a show. For example, the lighting designer can't create a lighting design until the scenic designer has provided his plans. There wouldn't be anything to light or any colors to work with.

This, however, doesn't mean that the light designer shouldn't be involved from the beginning; any person can contribute to the design process and the lighting designer may have some welcome scenic or costuming input. It is also important that everyone have a common goal.

The director and producer will lead the overall intent and feel of the show for the team, and it is important that everyone do their job on their schedule in order for the show to stay organized. It is also important that the team "play well" together and accept input from each other while focusing on their duties. This is a team and should be treated as such. Most importantly, don't lose focus of the show itself.  You can have a beautiful set, but if the intent of the show is not getting through, something is wrong.

Also, budget is not only money but can also be time or resources. It is certainly possible to do a production with limited money, but it will likely need more time. Likewise, you can make up for some lost time with increased funds.

For example, if you have a good team of carpenters in the church willing to give up their weekends, they can possibly build the scenery. If you don't have several weekends, you can hire a professional scenic shop. However, if you are asking volunteers to build a show in one weekend that will take a professional shop a week, don't do it. It is not fair to you to try this impossible task and it is unfair to the rest of the team to trust this projects completion to you..

Remember that you are building a temporary show, not a house. Scenic construction
practices are far less substantial than a regular construction project. The scenery needs to be solid enough to support whatever it is doing, but it also needs to get on and off stage. Before you handle scenic construction, grab one of the fine books on the subject. Remember also that certain materials can be highly flammable and need to be used accordingly.

Painting of the scenery needs to be handled in the same lighting conditions as what will be on the stage. I worked on a show that the set was painted in the facilities gym under fluorescent lights. When the set reached the stage, the color temperature of the lights had changed and it looked horrible. It is the job of the light designer to make the show look good, but this added an entire extra level of work and the set did not look like the colors picked by the set designer.

When I design an aspect to a production, I will start with reading the working script and getting a feel for this production at least twice. I will then sit down in the first production meeting and get to know the team and show. This is where we will get our first impressions and set up the schedule and budgets. I will then go away and start my initial design concepts, budget, schedule, and equipment lists. The team will meet again and compare concepts and budgets and usually start the actual design and drawing process.

The next meeting will usually have a scenic rendering, costume drawings and material samples, and a stage layout. This is when the lighting designer can start to work on his plan and the script should be fairly locked down. Once the team agrees on the overall design, construction can start. Following meetings will track progress and budgets and possibly introduce that cast. While designing, remember that the technical is used to enhance the overall show, not replace it. Don't go overboard or use something simply because you have it.

Once the set and cast reach the stage, we will get the lights up and then look at the overall show with lights and costume about a week out. At this time, all of the blocking should be fairly tight and the next week is tech week. This is the time to program all of the looks and rehearse the timing of the show. Any changes now to the show will only take away from the tech time and cause cascading delays. Lighting a large show can take 40 hours or more of programming time and the set needs to be fairly complete for this to happen.

One rehearsal will usually be devoted to lighting and will be a long process of the cast stepping through from look to look so the designer can set up his show. The week will usually culminate in a preview show for invited guests and these folks will be asked for opinions. This is not a good time for family as it can still be pretty loose. This is all part of a complicated ballet that has been danced again and again for decades.

The overall point is to get the show in front of your audience and have fun. Remember that there are professionals out there to help if you need it and don't grab more than you can handle.

Tony Hansen is the resident lighting designer at Techni-Lux in Orlando, Florida, www.Techni-Lux.com. He has more than 30 years of theatrical design experience and often consults on productions across the United States. 

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