Let the show begin! – Setting up for a theatre performance
Lights! Camera! Action! Well not quite but that phrase is such a simplistic view of film-making and there is probably a similar view of a theatre performance. You gather a bunch of actors and props, they rehearse, and the shows happens.
There is so much more to a theatre performance than the script and the cast. While front of house is dealt with by the theatre management staff who promote and sell tickets, produce programmes, keep the seating areas clean, and maintain audience hospitality, there is a whole host of people involved backstage making sure the theatre is ready for a performance.
Lighting is crucial not just for the audience to be able to see the actors/performers, but it also adds to the scenery and atmosphere. Most theatres and performance areas will have some kind of lighting usually controlled by a central “board”. Depending on the size of the theatre, there will be one or more lighting technicians who will manage the lighting through a performance. Before a show, the lighting technician will need to ensure that all the lights are working. The lights will have been rigged and focussed for the final dress rehearsal or sound and light check, so it is a case of checking that positioning is still correct and no bulbs have blown.
Many modern theatres have microphones in strategic positions around the stage and some will kit out actors with individual microphones. The introduction of radio mikes has made life a lot easier for performers and technicians so it’s not so common now to have to find safe routes for trailing cables. There are still things to check pre-performance though. All microphones should be checked to ensure they work and the level of each personal mike should be checked once it is attached to the actor. They should be securely attached and should not interfere with costumes. If the performance is a musical or a live band/singer show, checks should be made on the boom mike.
For many plays, the scenery is crucial to the plot, other times it is just background. It might be state of the art with projections onto blue screens or it might be wooden boards that slide along runners on the stage floor. Pre-performance all scenery should be in position. Scenery not used until subsequent scenes/acts should be ready to be moved onto stage between scenes as required. Any technology-driven scenery needs to be checked to be in working order and painted scenery really should be dry before it is needed on the stage.
Prop failures may be amusing to the audience, but they can throw an actor off. The prop master is responsible for sourcing the required items before the main rehearsals, so the actors can familiarise themselves with them. The props master also needs to be ready to be able to provide a replacement or additional items if required. On performance day, the props for the first scene should be in place when the stage is dressed and all props for subsequent scenes should be to hand when the scenes change.
Everyone loves the drama of the huge, heavy velvet stage curtains opening and closing. It is part of the theatre of the theatre (apologies for the pun!). The stage manager should ensure that a stage hand has responsibility for ensuring the curtains open and close smoothly.
Backstage immediately before a performance can be manic. Everyone will be making last minute checks on everything they are responsible for and the performers will be nervous and anxious. There might be prima donnas making unreasonable demands or an ingenue feeling so sick they simply won’t go on. A number of clear heads and sensible people are needed to direct proceedings so that come curtain up everything is ready to go without a hitch. The stage manager and any assistant managers should take the reins and come into their own in the last hour or so before the performance.
Other items to be considered are things like backstage security, both access from the auditorium and the stage door. There should be provisions like water available and a stocked first aid kit. When it all comes together and with a great script, the performance will entertain and engage the audience and keep bringing back bums to fill the seats.