A few days ago, my ASM (assistant stage manager) started posting rehearsal reports to the department’s tech group on social media. Rehearsal reports. Like the kind you see in a real theatre. I am thrilled beyond measure. I had vaguely asked for this for years, and it is awesome, because it means that we are all on the same page. It made me realize how far tech has come at my school. It then occured to me that at Monday’s first listenthrough of our Spring Musical, my stage managers, rather than I, had opened the meeting and run it.
I don’t teach in my performance space. Like many theatre teachers, I work out of a classroom, and load shows in and out between two weeks and four days before something goes up. This means that my technicians could be at a severe disadvantage when learning and having the time to practice the necessary skills of tech theatre. However, I am blessed with a huge and active tech theatre community, who run everything for the department, from auditions to strike. Sometimes they begin as technicians as a pathway to performance, other times they leave the stage to become technicians. I credit department practices evolved through trial and error, rather than circumstances, for this happiest of situations.
Things my student technicians do:
- Create an entire rehearsal schedule from scratch
- Worry about student rehearsal conflicts (I am informed of absences by stage managers when class begins)
- Design the set
- Singlehandedly pull and coordinate costumes for an entire ensemble
- Hire someone to make posters or a program
- Count and track rented scripts for musicals
- Run sound for rehearsal
- Schedule auditions
- Recruit technicians
- Hand build props
- Design makeup
- Manage ticket sales
- Maintain all backstage discipline
- Maintain call times, time rehearsals or breaks
- Run fight calls or dance calls
- Handle interpersonal disputes between crew members
- Run strike
- Organize the official cast party
- Maintain a cleaning and racking schedule for the costume and prop shop
Not having to do these things leaves me a bit freer to do what directors are supposed to do, create and maintain the artistic vision of a show.
WHAT TO DO TO MAKE IT EVENTUALLY POSSIBLE
1. Teach the value of technical theatre. Reflect on anything that’s glorifying “Broadway” and “Hollywood” and sending the message to students that if they’re not onstage, they are less-than, and maybe stop doing that. Teach the principles of design in your intro classes. You can build white models with index cards and tape, you can create costume design projects for any play you want to teach, you can teach students to create a poster by showing them pictures of professional posters, you can build puppets from newspaper and paper bags. Google now has a set design program. Allow students in classes to direct or design as part of a project, and give them credit. Insisting that everyone act in everything all the time is not a realistic mirror of the business you are trying to teach.
2. If you see something, say something. Your leaders in Beginning Drama are often your future leaders for mainstage shows. Allow them to know they’re doing good work. Observe and tease out the guardians, too, the students who are constantly searching for order or asking how they can help. Giving these students tools to be effective, and not taking them for granted early on, is key to building your group. If someone shows promise in design or organization, TELL THEM. Invite them to observe after school rehearsals. High school theatre is an interesting beast. Many students think they’re interested in it, but lose that interest when they see the reality. Open your doors, allow visitors and tourists, and you will often find that you will turn around to see that you have an entire crew in place, composed of those who stayed.
3. Maintain hierarchy, with you at the top of the Great Chain of Being. Explicitly show the hierarchy of the production process to your beginning classes and cast and crew using a flow chart. For every project, put a team of stage managers in place and teach them how to score a script, write down blocking, make prop lists, create costume and shift plots, draft rehearsal reports, and run auditions. You can practice these skills by doing a festival of one acts, rehearsed in class. There are always one or two students in every class who live for this. Give them credit for it, and allow them to do it in lieu of performing, and most importantly, empower them. Empower them to ask for order, empower them to correct misbehavior, empower them to strive for excellence, and most importantly, TO TEACH NEW PEOPLE WHAT THEY HAVE LEARNED. Then get mostly out of the way.
3. Insist on regular meetings. My group meets once a week at lunch, whether there’s anything impending or not. Because I’m there, it’s a great time to be able to give students information and dispel any myths that may be building about how something is going to look or go. But because I don’t run it, it makes my job easier. Stage managers run the meetings, listen to every department, and give me my two cents.
4. Pay them. Credits? Activity Points? Thespian points? Pizza and t-shirts? Do not EVER, EVER take these kids for granted. It took me years to get this, and every show I had to learn it on suffered. They need recognition. Some teachers have a tech curtain call. I think that’s weird, but do what you have to do to make them understand how valuable they are.
5. Focus on the future. My students created and maintain an online SOP (Standard Operating Procedures Manual) to describe and document best tech practices in the department and help new hires learn to do their work. Having students document and set the standards for what they do in writing is a powerful tool. While we’re on the subject, students need to know that there is a huge industry for this thing called technical theatre, and that it can lead to bigger and better things. As often as possible, Call in those favors, your former students who are working in the industry, your friends and colleagues from the theatre world who are managers and designers. Have them come talk to students, and accord them the same flair and excitement you do when you bring back that one kid who’s an actor now.
It will take time, but paying attention to your technicians early and often will yield powerful results beyond your wildest expectations.