Tips of the Month
Up in Lights
Oklahoma's Gaslight Theatre developed an unusual fund raising idea a few years back. Using its marquee, the company offered to create personalized messages or fake theater billings and photograph them. For $19.95 theater patrons saw their name up in lights as the star of a play or musical of their dreams. Patrons were encouraged to be creative in their messages.
What the People Want
Each year a theatre in Washington asks donors, subscribers and randomly selected single ticket buyers to help the company "formulate our future seasons and give us a report card on how we're doing," according to the company's newsletter. "We received nearly 1100 responses." That is an impressive result. While that survey showed that most theatergoers were happy with the mix of offerings, a similar survey by a theatre company in Kentucky indicated that its audiences wanted more musicals and comedies. Based on survey results, the company removed its December family show from its season package, offering it instead as a bonus production with more matinees and earlier evening performances.
The effect of actors illuminating their faces with a hand-held candle or flashlight on an otherwise darkened stage can be dramatic. However, have actors work in front of a mirror to determine the exact height to hold the light so that their features are visible. This is particularly important if more than one person is illuminated in this fashion; the audience should be able to see each actor's face equally well.
What's That You Say?
When a caller asked about ticket availability, the answer was, "I can give you four nice seats in the orchestra section." There was a pause. "Well," the caller said, hesitating, "we'd really rather sit with the audience." This true story (reported in the Reader's Digest) illustrates that not everyone understands theater jargon. And even if the ticket person explained the term "orchestra," the caller very likely felt a little foolish when it was all done. And the last thing any theater wants is to alienate people. A good rule is that before you recommend seating, ask, "Are you familiar with our theater?" If the caller says yes, you can probably recommend "orchestra" seats. If the caller says no, switch something more generic, such as "downstairs center, about six rows back."
Sound effects need to fade away. We should not hear it click off. If the effect is something continuous, like traffic, crowd noise or a train passing, create a very long fade so that the audience is barely aware that the sound level is dropping. Bring dialogue in when the sound has dropped a bit; this lets the dialogue be heard and also helps cover the fade.
A Certain Ring To It
When rehearsing farce or other high-energy play, some directors have a small handbell on hand. When energy drops below what is appropriate or needed, they ring the bell to signal the actors to pick things up. This is certainly better than yelling,
and is processed faster than words.
A Nice Touch
In its newsletter to patrons and members, the Mendocino [CA] Theatre Company included a page called "Applause To...." A nice, bulleted listing of thanks to individuals and organizations who have donated time, money or services isn't unusual. But this one includes complete paragraphs about the donations, with a nice informal style that humanizes those often faceless folk who are thanked in more routine ways.
Taking It Off
Skin reactions to makeup result from many factors. One of the most common is due to the use of paper towels to remove makeup. Most are too rough to be used on the face and abrade the skin, allowing makeup and dirt in, where they can cause irritation. Facial tissues should be used instead, or better yet, actors should bring a clean face towel with them each time they will be using makeup.
Help is On Hand
The Topeka Civic Theatre formed a Volunteer Committee that meets monthly to help facilitate the daily operation of the theater. The three main purposes of the committee are to give volunteers a greater sense of ownership, to serve as a liaison between the volunteer community at large and the TCT staff, and to create social opportunities for volunteers at TCT. "It is the desire of TCT that volunteers have a place to go with problems and complaints, or suggestions and compliments, when they feel uncomfortable talking directly to a staff person," explained the company newsletter. "In addition, there are many ideas that would improve the life of the volunteer at the Topeka Civic Theatre, and this committee would serve to brainstorm those ideas and then direct their implementation." Sounds like a good idea for many theater companies who wish to do a better job of managing volunteers (and who doesn't?).
It doesn't hurt to ask.
It also doesn't hurt to be specific while you're at it. A case in point is the want list printed in a recent issue of a Minnesota company's newsletter. Among the items being sought wew black coveralls, treats for rehearsals, batteries, postage stamps, cleaning supplies for set strike, tissues for makeup tables, sailor hats, truck rental, or funding for the set strike party, newspaper display ads, or dry cleaning for costumes.
Here's an intriguing way to start up a new theater company. A newly organized Oklahoma group organized a community-wide amateur night, with prizes for four age categories. Each presentation was limited to three minutes, and included singing, dancing, comedy, recitation or "any other legitimate talent." After getting off with a bang, the company then held community auditions and began rehearsals for its first stage production.
Fire or police departments in many communities loan out engraving tools as a public service. Check with your fire department to see if it has such a program. If it does, now is the time to engrave your company name in all those tools, appliances and other expensive equipment you own.
Getting the Word Out
When production of a little-known play did not draw huge numbers of people, company members and regular patrons received an email saying, "Come see the show and have a great time. Bring a couple or two with you, as well--perhaps friends who haven't been to the theatre yet. This show would be a great introduction to what live theater is really about. And consider haviing dinner out before you come to the show. Supporting our local businesses is good for the entire community."
Celebrate Your Best
Consider creating your own "Walk of Fame" on the sidewalk outside your building, like Carpenter Square Theatre in Oklahoma City did. It can be an annual fund raiser.
The Human Element
What motivates volunteers or staff members most? Recognition and appreciation, according to one recent study. Independence and status are the next most important job considerations. Third, the chance to contribute to the organization's goals.
The Inside Story
Increase ticket sales by educating your audience about the historical or literary context of classic plays, or the background of plays that aren't well-known. A subscriber or patron newsletter can do this very well--and so can a website--helping to interest potential playgoers who might not otherwise come--or help them explain the play to friends. For example, the Omaha Community Playhouse spotlighted a dramatization of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (set in nearby Nebraska) with two articles on the novel and a third on how it was adapted for the Playhouse stage.
We recently came across a color publicity photograph that at first glance appeared to have been taken in a wax museum. The reason was partly too-heavy makeup, and the result was somewhat repellent, particularly with a young man who seemed to have all the animation of a department store mannequin. To avoid the problem, instruct your actors to use makeup sparingly for publicity shots. Remember that a camera is like an audience member sitting three or four feet away. And instead of having actors hold a pose, take a series of shots while they are reacting to each other's character.
Public vs. Private
When designing finery for a historical play, bear in mind that sartorial richness was not always expressed in terms of velvet, satin, ermine and silk. We sometimes forget that portraits of emperors and kings seldom portray everyday dress. Many dressed very simply in unofficial moments, and most great lords had their "second-best" garments as well. A costume designer can use this fact to good advantage in contrasting private and public moments through dress.
Dollars and Sense
A number of theaters offer "pay what you can" performances on Thursdays "allowing financially pressed people to attend at whatever price fits their budget." And helping to fill the theatre on a Thursday.
Acting with Purpose
To avoid over- or under-reacting to another actor or events in a scene, try writing your own sub-text, a scenario of your part in the scene. This might include how you are affected, influenced or changed by what the other characters say, and how much physical and facial reaction is called for. This should always be economical, true to both character and situation.
When embarking on a corporate fundraising campaign, consider that executives tend to judge the quality of an organization by its letterhead and other printed materials. A study of 100 executives nationwide found that 92 cited identity materials like letterhead, envelopes and business cards as an indicator of an organization's professionalism and prestige. The survey also found that readability was also considered important--perhaps because executives are busy people, and the sooner the piece gets to the point the better.
As you create sound and music cues for a production, take into account the design and execution of set, lights and costumes. How stylized or realistic other design elements should affect how you choose to build the sound or use the music. Your design should complement the overall concept that the other designers are expressing.
If you can't find buttons to suit a particular costume, you can make your own. Cut out pieces of felt and glue several layers together. Size them with varnish, leaving it off the bottom layer so you can sew them on. These will suffice for costumes that don't put a lot of pressure on the button.
When lighting an actor with naturally darker skin tones, avoid green or blue-greens, and stress warm tones. Blue toning can be injected through heavy back lighting and careful side lighting, while lighting on faces can emphasize neutral tones selected from pale warm tints. To make this lighting work with mixed casting, actors with lighter skin-tones will need their makeup warmed up a bit.
Thou Shall Not Knot
Don't let knots develop in rope used for rigging. These can produce bends in that reduce the rope's strength. Under test, the rope will fail next to the knot rather than in the knot itself. The worst offender is the simple overhand knot, which sometimes appears on its own. Because it produces a sharp bend, it can reduce the rope's breaking strength by 75%. If you leave it and stress is applied to the rope, a permanent weak spot can develop.
A play with technical or casting demands beyond the resources of one company may still be possible if produced with the help of another group--for example, two theatre groups combining efforts to put on The Little Shop of Horrors.
You're Getting Warmer
When considering colors for lighting the stage, remember that "no color" and "open white" can be categorized as warm colors. This is particularly true when used at low light levels. The range of color from a "white" light at level one to white light at full can be surprising.
If you plan to give a company holiday party this year, decorate the tree with inexpensive glass ornaments on which are painted or stenciled the names of the shows your company has done. If someone has true artistic ability, add artwork. (If your company has been around for awhile, get started now.)
Hammering Home a Point
Using nails to attach flats to one another (or anything else) is at best a temporary solution. Constant use will eventually weaken the wood. Try to use nails only when it's essential and not as a replacement for screws, hinges or lash hardware. Your flat frames will last longer and remain stronger without nails at all.
Delivering an Audience
One Washington group secured the assistance of its local Kiwanis Club in transporting 80 senior citizens to each of its final dress rehearsals, and back home again. It should be noted that even though you don't charge admission for such an audience, royalty houses may consider it a "free performance" and charge royalties accordingly.
Tools of the Trade
If you need to build up your supply of tools, put out the word to members and patrons to donate extra tools or unused tools. Another tip: Many people enjoy hunting for bargains in thrift stores and flea markets. Find out who and give them a shopping list of tools you need. If you plan to reimburse them, make sure you also give some idea of price range. Otherwise, if you are a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, you can provide a letter acknowledging a donation of the tools, based on the value established by the donor.
The building committee of a West Coast theater group got itself into trouble recently when it set aside opening night for a special, one-time-only event for potential donors. This inadvertently caused resentment among many of the company's longstanding opening night patrons. To resolve the dilemma, the group quickly held a second "opening night" party after the first Saturday evening show. The lesson here is clear: When looking for new support, don't alienate or abandon your current base.
All in the Family
Encourage company members to attend auditions, whether they intend to try out or not. Members can greet newcomers, help them fill out audition sheets, and introduce them to others. They can cheer on those who audition. Their very presence boosts morale and projects an image of a company that really cares about its people. Announce in your company newsletter and/or online that non-auditioning members are invited, with no pressure on anyone to try out. Then call a few people to act as official hosts.
If you sell season tickets, consider offering subscribers a discount on additional single tickets purchased for friends (based on availability). This is an excellent way to broaden your audience, since newcomers are more likely to attend a production when accompanied by someone who knows and likes what you're doing. When notifying patrons of this service, you may need to include a statement such as "Because of assigned seating, it may not be possible to seat guests next to their friends."
Padding the Part
If you want padding under a costume to look natural, it must have direct contact with the body and be held in that position to conform with the actor's movement. In other words, if the actor's upper torso turns, his "paunch" should too. Costume experts mount padding on a foundation garment which has been fitted to the actor. The unit must be durable but light enough to be worn comfortably and worked in easily. It must also be cleanable. Since the actor must have time to work with and become accustomed to the padding, try to complete the unit early on in rehearsals. This will help the costumer as well, since the padding must appear to be part of the body and the costume must be made to fit that body.
The Eyes Have It
Make up the left eye first and then the right eye (unless you are left-handed, in which case make up the right eye first). Why? If you make up the right eye first, your hand blocks your view when you try to make up the left one, and this makes it difficult to create a matching effect.
Getting the Word(s) Out
About two-thirds of the way through the rehearsal schedule, a director may want to call a "word rehearsal." The cast sits comfortably and speaks the dialogue quietly.There should be no attempt to project. The object is to think about the play as a whole and to think about it in detail. Not having to project or move around, the actors listen more carefully to the play and to each other. Some actors close their eyes to concentrate even more on the language. Often, directors find this type of rehearsal brings new insights and subtleties to a performance.
When an actor gestures too much, try this. Tell the actor to put his hands in his pockets and stand with a book on his head. You'll find that all the energy that was going into movement now goes into line delivery. Now have him repeat the exercise, allowing just three gestures. Many actors will immediately feel the benefit of this exercise. However, they will soon revert to old habits if you don't watch them. Technique isn't acquired easily.
Good Neighbor Policy
If your theater borders on a residential area, include a notice in your program that calls this to your patrons' attention. Ask that audience members help respect neighbors' privacy and desire for peace and quiet when they arrive at or leave the theater or parking areas. If patrons are not to park in certain spots--such as an adjacent church or restaurant parking lot--let them know.
Take a Break
Find the pauses in a drama. People don't talk constantly in real life. Listen how conversation is littered with pauses, broken sentences, moments for reflection or for performing a task; moments of embarrassment or boredom. Use these for more realistic portrayals. And remember that a change of thought requires a chance of voice, inflection, tone, pitch, rhythm and/or tempo.
Getting a Round to It
In blocking a play on a proscenium-arch stage it sometimes may help to block as though the production were staged in the round. This can add a three-dimensional depth to the grouping. At a later stage you can clean up the grouping so that actors don't block one another from the audience.
When attaching a waistband to a costume, observe the grain of the waistband fabric. If the grain is not aligned, or if the two sides of the waistband are not aligned with each other, the fabric can twist or draw into creases at the seam.
Food for Thought
Ask nearby restaurants to offer discounts on dinners to your audiences. Patrons can show their theater tickets to confirm eligibility. In return, mention the restaurants in your program. Take this cooperative effort one step further: If you offer special group rates (for example to groups of 15 or more) make the offer more attractive by offering to help plan an entire evening including arrangements for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres or dinner at one of these restaurants.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
When using familiar household items for backstage use, be careful to make their new use obvious. Recalls Mike Bromberg of the Sudbury [NH] Savoyards, one of the company's lighting crew had used a large plastic garbage can to carry cables to the auditorium where a company dinner was to be held. "Several cables and two-fers were still in the bin when someone commandeered it (without looking inside) as a trash can for dinner garbage," Bromberg says. "We found the cables at the bottom of much gummy foodstuff, and we had to wash the cables and hang them up to dry."
A publicity photograph in a local newspaper showed the cast of Arsenic and Old Lace. While some care had been exercised in getting the leads into appropriate costume, the bad-fitting wig for one of the Brewster sisters gave a slipshod look to the photo. Think about it: How would you judge the quality of the show when a photo shows a half-inch gap between a wig and the actor's head? Audiences make quick judgments based on whatever evidence is before them. You don't have much time to make an impression. Even the smallest details can win- -or lose--an potential audience member.
To make a batch of "spaghetti" last for 10 performances of The Odd Couple, one enterprising prop person used a large quantity of rubber bands--long ones, we presume--sprayed white and heaped in a bowl. (By the way, no one was required to eat the spaghetti.)
Making Light of the Situation
Be careful about colors in a brochure. We recently saw an expensive brochure with six large photographs printed in dark green with text overprinted in dark purple. The result was unreadable. In some cases the text could have been reversed out--that is printed as white letters on the dark background. But some of the photographs had light areas on which the reversed-out text would have been invisible. When faced with such a problem, decide which is more important--the photograph or the text. If it's the text, then have the printer screen the photographs to 30-40% of their original darkness. They will still be visible, but won't compete with the text. If the photograph is more important, then don't run text over it. Use text beside or below, or in a box inset into the photo.
Marketing & More
Great ideas from the Oklahoma Community Theatre Association [OCTA] newsletter: Offer a specified "rebate" on season ticket prices for the first 25 or 50 subscribers who renew; invite your corporate underwriters or major donors backstage for a special after-show introduction to cast and crew; split the proceeds of one performance a year with a local charity. Another idea: Tell local businesses or corporations that you would like to receive older equipment as it's being replaced. "Everything from copy machines to heating and air conditioning systems are given to theaters every year as businesses update systems," notes the article.
Audition & Educational Resource
An excellent source of monologues is Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. This book of poems, first published in 1915, is "set" in a cemetery. After an introductory poem, the rest are supposedly "epitaphs," but, in fact, relate the story of each dead person's life and most often how they came to die. Some are dramatic, some comic, some matter-of-fact. They can be used individually, or with the introduction, as a group. One person can do several to show his or her dramatic range, or they can be done separately if short pieces are needed, as in a class. Since the poems are in free verse, they are easy to speak. And because they cover the full range of human emotion, you can pick out those which best suit a particular person or performance need. They make good audition pieces as well.
Tit for Tat
Consider this mutually beneficial trade-off we found in the publication Communication Briefing: Offer to include your printing company's name on your high-profile printed pieces (mailers, brochures, programs) in exchange for a reduced price. You save on your most impressive pieces and the printer gets a free testimonial advertisement.
In the Loop
The director of high school theater should keep coaches and activity advisors informed of those students cast in a production or working backstage, along with a rehearsal and performance schedule. You'll find this kind of thoughtfulness is appreciated, and allows others to plan around your rehearsals.
The simplest and most accurate way to transfer a drawing to a larger surface is to project the drawing with an overhead projector. And since these are being replaced by computer video, you may well find one cheap online or in local stores. To use an overhead projector, make copy the design onto an 8 1/2 x 11-inch transparency (available at office supply stores). If the drawing is larger than a regular sheet of paper, find a copier that can reduce. Then simply project the design onto the upright surface using an ordinary slide projector. Be sure the projector is level so that there is no distortion of the projected image.
In the Cards
Here's an idea that works for one publicity person. She looks for offbeat postcards that fit area media personalities and sends the pre-stamped card whenever she travels for personal or business reasons. "The response has been amazing and built stronger relationships, respect and interaction," says Donna West of Yakima, Washington. "If the med1a hasn't received a card in a while, I'm asked why! They look forward to the cards!"
Keep the Line Moving
At the box office window, don't ask "Where would you like to sit?" If you do, a long discussion is apt to ensue, holding up others in line. If you say instead, "I can give you two excellent seats in the tenth row, center." That way the transaction will proceed more quickly.
Got Your Back?
You can improve the appearance of muslin-covered flats by back-painting. This opaques the muslin and stops light from bleeding from behind. Since the back-paint is normally a dark color, it stops "bounce light" from backstage. Use a medium-to-dark gray paint; the best source is to mix all the leftover paint from each production and save it. If necessary, this can be tinted to produce a dark gray.
When hanging or focusing lights, it's often difficult to make yourself heard to either the supervisor below or the technician above. This is especially true if there are others in the theater who are also talking, hammering, or whatever. Keep directions simple. Even an inexperienced electrician can focus if he is given clear, intelligent instructions like "up," "down," "left," "right", "bigger" or "smaller." Plus, the person giving the orders reduces the likelihood of developing laryngitis from shouting complex instructions.
Getting in Character
Nazimova, the Russian-American actress (d. 1945) said of preparing for a role, "Once you know what she is, what she does becomes easy to interpret." Sir Laurence Olivier agreed: "To create a character, I first visualize a painting [the visual and physical characteristics] of the person; the manner, movement, gestures, walk, all follow."
Many costume books (especially older ones) recommend wire for giving shape to corsets or crinolines. While heavyweight piano wire can be used, a cheaper, easier-to-find (and more workable) replacement is the round cane sold for caning chairs. The one-quarter-inch variety is ideal for many costume purposes (and can be found on eBay and many craft sites). Wet it until it can be bent without breaking, then use it in those situations that call for wire.
Pause for Reflection
Consider installing in some backstage area a mirror and two gelled spotlights to approximate the general lighting for the play. That way actors can check their makeup before going onstage. To reduce heat and save energy, put the instruments on a switch.
Because if its smooth, hard surface, Masonite is sometimes used for set construction or as a floor covering for performances. However, this composition sheet material is also un-flexible and brittle. If you plan to nail Masonite to anything, first drill small holes through which the nails can be driven. Don't use Masonite for curved surfaces; it may crack when bent. Use doorskin instead.
Face the Music
In a musical, the stage manager calls lighting cues timed to specific measures in the score. The best approach is to keep a copy of the score handy and make cue markings in it. However, if you can't read music, you may be able to get around the problem by using a stopwatch. Rather than listening for a specific note, you time how far into the music the cue occurs and then take the cue from the stopwatch. This will work if the music is a recording, or if the conductor follows the same tempos each performance. Another way is to make a recording of the music in which the cue falls. Play is over and over, listening carefully. Soon you begin to recognize the component parts of the music, and .you may find it easier to locate the point where the cue occurs--perhaps after a certain repetition of notes from a trumpet, or a drum roll. Always consider asking the musical director for help. He or she knows the music well and can call your attention to something that may act as the signal you need.
When shopping for costume fabrics, try to find the most interesting and unusual ones you can. Any costume is more attractive (and realistic) if the audience can't immediately recognize the material used.
Stamp of Approval
When sending out personalized letters--for publicity, fundraising or any otherpurpose--always use stamps, even if you have a postal meter or can use someone else's. Postal meters are efficient, but stamps suggest individual labor andattention. Studies indicate that people open stamped letters first, and that the message inside may be viewed more favorably.
Stippling (applying paint by pushing the ends of the paintbrush bristles against the painting surface) is a common technique for texturing setsurfaces. However, it is slow when dealing with very large areas. You can get the same effect with less work by using an 18-inch square of material. Wearing rubber gloves, dip the cloth into the paint, squeeze out and then roll it over the painting surface using the palms of your hands. Change direction occasionally. Experiment with different textures of material--burlap, canvas,muslin. Rag rolling may need a fine spattering of paint afterward to tone down the effect.
Do It Again
When blocking movement in a musical, don't forget to allow for repetition. Spectators carry images of movement in their minds which are reinforced if the movements are repeated. Just as the musical itself has recurring tunes in overture, performance and reprise, choreography benefits from occasionally repeating a movement sequence. Audiences actually find it pleasurable if not overdone. To get the most benefit from this, have dancers perform two or more of the same movements, one after the other, and then move on to something else. Some choreographers slow a movement down to ensure that it is noticed, but repeating it can be a far more effective device.
The Eyes Have It
Flat front lighting flattens an actor's features, and is thus usually avoided. However, it can be useful when an unavoidably high key light has made an actor's eyes disappear into shadows cast by the upper part of the eyesocket. Front lighting at a flat angle takes care of this problem. Be careful not to set the intensity level too high or ugly shadows will be cast on the upstage part of the set.
A Director's Touch
Sometimes actors have a clear idea of what is needed in a particular scene, but are technically or emotionally blocked from doing it. A director can help by taking time out to try different ways of telling the story, perhaps through gesture or movement alone. Remember that all acting is storytelling, and actors are frustrated when unable to tell the story they know. Finding physical ways to get the message across helps them as they work with the playwright's words.
Music recitals are commonplace. But what not acting recitals? A group ofactors could easily put together a performance of favorite writing, prose,poetry and scenes. Choose material because you like it and think the audience might, too. Such recitals give performers a chance to spread their wings and try things they might not otherwise. In a company with many performers but a short season, a recital provides additional performance opportunities and a wayt o show off the versatility of your members. Live music of some sort would make an effective bridge between the various elements. And you don't have to call it a recital, if you don't want to.
It's a good idea to store copies of computer backup files in a building other than with your computer. That way you'll be sure your records--particularly your mailing list and financial records--are safe in the event of a file or other disaster. One company we know went through a fire. All paper records in their metal filing cabinets were scorched and smoke-filled, but otherwise readable. All computer files on a backup hard drive were lost when the unit melted. Suggestions: Use a portable hard drive to back up daily and take it home, or use one of the many options for cloud backup, in which files are uploaded to a server via the Internet.
If you find your set design is too symmetrical--a problem that plagues less experienced designers--here's a trick that may help in an emergency. Take the ground plan and turn it slightly so that the center line of the design crosses the center line of the stage at an angle. By doing so you increase visual tension, often with an improvement of dramatic quality. It's worth a try.
The Other Side
Use the back of mailings to your advantage. A recent survey by a direct marketing firm discloses that three-quarters of people turn their envelopes over to open them, giving you another chance to grab the reader's attention and to tout the offerings inside.
If you are in charge or marketing or publicizing your shows be sure to read the plays in question and talk about them with the directors. Surprisingly, many people in these positions never do this--even though it's difficult to sell something to someone else when you don't really know the product. Knowing the play and the director's concept can suggest story ideas for local media. It will also prepare you to answer questions from the media.
Prompters at rehearsals should try to look at the actors as often as possible while following the text with the fingers. If you read along without glancing up your tendency will be to prompt every time there is a pause. Some actors may ask for a prompt. Others will not want to break out of character and may just look up in your direction. Every time there is a silence, look up at the actors to see whether they are acting or have really dried up. Mark all acting pauses in the script to remind yourself not to prompt at these moments.
Create a "fire code" word or phrase. That way if there is a fire you can signal others without alarming the audience. If the stage crew can handle the situation, there may be no need to concern your patrons. If the fire does require evacuating the theater, you will gain a few precious minutes to organize your staff to handle the situation and avoid panic.
Start with a Bang
For an offstage gunshot, a starting pistol and blanks should be used. It's a good idea to have a spare pistol available and loaded in case of failure. Always keep fire arms and blanks locked safely away. Don't allow cast or crew to play with them. Fired at close range, a blank can still injure someone's hearing; ear plugs may be necessary for the person who fires the pistol night after night. In some communities, some pistols (even when using blanks) may need a license--consult your local police if in doubt.
Color It Right
When working with lighting gels (color filters), remember that certain colors cancel each other out and some complement others--especially darker colors. Remember that most colors are not pure. For example, purple has blue and red elements, and green may contain a lot of blue. These elements will affect how the color looks when projected on people, costumes and sets.
With recorded sound effects, remember that the human brain is good at distinguishing the direction a sound comes from if it is a high frequency, but not if it is a low one. When setting up speakers, listen to a variety of effects before deciding on final placement. If the speakers are built in, you may need to adjust frequency levels for different sounds when you create the final tracks.
When planning a mailer, it's a good idea to make paper dummies on the specified paper weights you plan to use. Many people overlook the weight of the piece and how much the postage will end up costing until it's too late. If you are planning a mailing, take the time to go to the post office with a paper dummy of the job and have them weigh it on their scales. This way you'll know ahead of time if your piece is overweight, and you can make some changes.
Lighting the Way
Many theaters have hallways that lead from the dressing rooms or green room to the stage. During performance, the hall lights are turned off, often making the journey a hazardous one for actors in a hurry between costume changes. A simple way to light the path is the use of photoelectric night lights. These plug into any wall outlet and turn on automatically when the other lights are turned off. These lights also are useful in other places where ambient lighting is likely to dim during performance.
Up Against a Brick Wall
When painting a set to represent a brick wall, make sure that some bricks are shown more clearly than others. To illustrate every brick equally makes for an overly busy or distracting wall unit. An overall impression is all that is really necessary.
Know the Ropes
If your theater uses rope for rigging, inspect it over its complete length on a regular basis. This is best done by unrigging it and inspecting, by hand or eye, its entire length. Replacing rope is expensive, but replacing a life is impossible.
The Color of Money
Check with your quick print shop to see if they offer special prices for certain colors on certain days. (This is not the case with color copies, however.) It's easier for a printer to run several jobs once a color is set up (presses have to be washed down when a color is changed). If your print shop doesn't offer discounts on particular days, ask if you can get a price break by scheduling your job with a similar one to avoid the extra cost of press set-up. While you're at it, ask your printers for swatch books of their house stocks. These are papers of equivalent quality to brand name papers, but far less expensive. You'll save ordering time as well.
If you plan to design a new theater, know that laws restrict your ability to borrow ideas from another theater or building. Architectural designs embodied in buildings quality for protection under U.S. copyright law, explicitly adding architectural works to the type of works protected by the Copyright Act. The law explicitly entitles the owner of a copyright in original building plans--usually the architect or firm that designed the plans--to enjoin and recover damages from anyone who designs a building that is identical or substantially similar to a copyrighted design. The law applies to any work created on or after December 1, 1990--and any work that of that date was unconstructed and was embodied in unpublished plans or drawings, provided that the building was constructed by December 31, 2002.
Put a Lid On It
To pour paint with less mess, clean a lid from a used-up gallon paint can. Punch out a 1" x 2" hole about one inch from the edge of the lid, using a metal chisel. Use this lid on the can you're pouring from. When you're done, replace the original lid and clean the punched lid for the next time.
If you need something on which to hang lengths of cable, hose or rope, try an old car rim wheel mounted on a wall. (Be sure to clean it well first!)
When a proof of a brochure or flyer must be circulated to and approved by several people, don't circulate the same copy to each person in turn. This may result in people trying to "outdo" each other by finding "mistakes" and making suggestions. Instead, give each person their own copy and tell them you will coordinate their comments. You'll get fewer unnecessary changes. It's faster, too.
Costumes may be shaded or highlighted in order to give the garments more dimension and increase their sculpted effect--just as makeup is used for the same purpose on the actor's face. Shading may be done lightly and realistically, so that the garments look completely natural, or with strong contrasts for a more stylized look. Some costumers use spray leather dyes, usually in brown or gray. Others use liquid fabric dyes in a spray bottle or atomizer. In small areas, you can use a brush or sponge, blending carefully for a subtle effect.
To get the sharpest possible point on an eyebrow or makeup pencil, put it in a backstage refrigerator--in the coldest spo--for about 10 minutes, then sharpen with a single-edged razor blade.
In the Know
When holding auditions, it's a good idea to post information about the production at the entrance to the building or room where the auditions are scheduled. Try to anticipate what actors would want to know about your show, including the rehearsal schedule, performance schedule, what parts are being auditioned, and what pages of the script will auditioners be asked to read. Posting this information will save having to repeat it verbally throughout the audition period. This same information should be available on your website.
To capture the appropriate walk and posture of the character you are portraying, wear character shoes in rehearsal and make use of all costume accessories. They are part of the action and help define your character.
No Reflection On You
You can tone down reflections from an onstage mirror by applying a light coat of Vaseline to the glass, and it's almost invisible. (A thin layer of soap also cuts glare, but it's obvious if the glass is in full view of the audience.)
When you encounter problems in technical rehearsals, give priority to those that affect performers--costume and scene changes and props. One simple reason is that lighting and scenery problems can be more easily solved when no one else is around. More importantly, however, actors need to gain confidence in their use of props and costumes, and with how set changes will affect their entrances and exits. Once secure in this, an actor can concentrate on giving a good performance.
If you are going to use a number of prerecorded sound effects and/or music in a play, it's a good idea to have a rough copy to be used in rehearsals so that the actors, stage manager and director all get used to working with the sound cues. The rehearsal copy can be done quite simply, without the fine tuning that will be needed for performance. (The rehearsal tape will also help make sure cues are appropriate.)
New Uses for Household Stuff
In a pinch, you can use plastic lace tablecloths cut to shape for elaborate lace collars. And cellulose sponges make good rehearsal props to represent any number of small items--they are lightweight, washable, and come in many different sizes.
If you attend a performance by another theatre company and are impressed with an actor's performance or a designer's work, make a point of writing them a note, praising their work. The contact may help in getting that person to work with your company in the future. If the theatre allows backstage visitors, you can deliver the note in person. If not, you can hand the note to an usher or the house manager, and have it delivered.
Get It All Down
A rehearsal log--kept by the director, assistant director, or stage manager--is an excellent way to keep track of many things, including the answer the question, "How did we ever get ourselves into this predicament, anyway?" (or, better, "How did we overcome problems and end up with a magnificent show?") In a loose-leaf notebook--perhaps the one in which you keep the working script--dedicate a sheet of note paper for each rehearsal. You might include such information as cast members who are late or absent, cast changes, scenes that were blocked or run and the number of times the scenes were run, delays and causes, any failure to run a scheduled scene and any out-of-the- ordinary event such as an accident, mechanical problem, argument, etc. You can also use the log to keep track of miscellaneous items for follow-up, such as a needed prop or change in costume. A log also comes in handy when doing a "post mortem" on the production; it's easy to forget all the bits and pieces that go into making a show.
If you are designing lights for a production, drop by rehearsals from time to time rather than sitting through one entire rehearsal. A series of short random visits will gradually build up a feeling for the whole production as rehearsals progress, rather than remembering the play frozen at the moment of one long visit. You'll also find that frequent visits inspire confidence in the director and actors--and forgiveness if things don't go smoothly in technical rehearsal.
When another actor upstages you in an audition reading, use it. Register your awareness--with humor--of the situation. Then be willing to compete. If the actor invents some bit of business or an imaginary prop, acknowledge it and work with it. Otherwise, all attention will be diverted from your performance.
Choose one member of your company to be media spokesperson, and refer any questions from electronic or print media to that person. That way you can be certain that you will have a consistent profile and that facts are given accurately. Obviously, your spokesperson should be chosen with care. You will need someone who knows the company well, understands the dynamics of your membership, and is easy to get hold of.
Narrowing the Focus
Sometimes it's best to rehearse an actor separately when introducing complicated bits of business. Working out such details in public can cause feelings of inadequacy and undermine confidence. It can also hold up rehearsal.
Advice at Your Fingertips
Maintain a contact file with names, addresses and phone numbers of people who may be helpful in your theater work. These can be kept either on 3" x 5" cards or on your computer, or smartphone, but the purpose is the same--to have advice or help at your fingertips. The names might include actors, directors, designers, technicians, costume builders, equipment suppliers and prop sources. For example, each time you hear that someone has a particular item that might be useful as a prop at some point, put it in your file.
Make sure that volunteer stage hands know that they are not to shift sets without prior briefing. Often, sets are complex and potentially fragile. In other cases, rigging or drapes may be torn by someone who doesn't understand the steps that must be taken before shifting.
When making breakaway furniture, use just enough white glue to hold the joints together. Use butt joints only, no nails or screws. If you want a specific joint to break on a chair, for example, build the prop out of balsa or basswood and make all joints strong except the one you wish to break. For the weak joint, glue wooden match sticks to hold the two pieces together. This makes it fast and easy to reset them and use the prop again.
Keep It Real
If you need an offstage crashing sound of some sort, don't suppose you can drop anything to get the effect. Our webmaster saw a production where someone supposedly tried to hang himself from an offstage tree. According to the plot, the limb broke and he fell to the ground with the branch. However, while the effect certainly was loud enough, it was obviously the metallic sound of several folding chairs being knocked over. A prerecorded effect would have provided the crack of the limb, followed by the thud of the branch and the would-be victim.
Getting It Together
Give some thought to organizing your makeup kit, keeping like items together as much as possible. If it's not easy to determine what color or type an item is, print a one-word description on a small adhesive label and attach to the item. You can also use small color dots (blue, red, yellow, etc.) to label a series of makeup products that go together (for example, cake, lipstick, eyeliner, etc. in the same color family).
What's in a Name
Some companies don't use the word "auditions." Instead they have "readings" for casting the next play--a way of making the experience seem a bit less stressful.
Do Your Research
Sometimes 17th and 18th century comedies are mistakenly directed as if they were pure old comedy farce. True, Moliere's plays, for example, are farcical, but they are also social satires. His characters may at times act ridiculous, but he also means them to be believable, multidimensional human beings. Likewise, Restoration or Georgian comedies reflect a time when people took their social pursuits very seriously. People gossiped, flirted, gamed and dueled with a vengeance. At the same time, both masters and servants prided themselves on the gracefulness of their behavior; bawdy behavior in public was considered boorish. (One could, however, say bawdy things in private--if one did it cleverly.) Fashions in clothes, social manners, music, art literature, drink and food are all well-documented. Much of the fun in creating characters in these plays is learning about these elements and working with them, whether director or actor.
When using a stroboscope to create a series of jerky movements similar to early silent movies, use the effect sparingly. It can induce nausea or even trigger brain seizures in some members of the audience. To avoid these problems, most authorities advise that flash rates not exceed eight per second. Many theatres run a warning in the program, or post it at all entrances to the house--or make it part of pre-show announcements.
Making It Easy
If possible, leave the center back of women's costumes open to the hips, to be fastened after the actor is inside. This way, the actor can just step into the costume. Even if some of the clothes have to go over the head, there is still plenty of space so makeup doesn't rub off and hairstyles aren't mussed.
Are You Covered?
If you are involved in opening a show in a rented facility that has recently been converted into a theatre, ask the management if local regulations have been checked. City regulations dictate the number of people allowed in the building (audience, actors and crew), the number of off-street parking spaces, and even the amount of restroom space. Check these things early on--or you may find yourself closing before you open.
You've spoken to a newspaper or television station, found there was some interest in your company, sent materials, but you've heard nothing after three weeks. Do you call? Write again? Contact someone else? There is no universal answer, but if you haven't had a response after several weeks, it's a good idea to call and ask if the materials were received and if there is still an interest in a story. Sometimes the material has not made its way to the right desk. Sometimes it has, but has got buried. And sometimes, the person in charged has changed his or her mind. It's always better to know where you stand. And if they say no, be sure to thank them and tell them you'll get in touch again when you have something you think they can use.
News That Sits Well
In the newsletter of one state's theatre association, we find that among the perks of membership of one of its companies is "a free cushion for all performances!"
Return on Investment
Some theater companies find that, instead of throwing away set decorations or furniture made for stage use, a well-publicized sale of such items once a year can be a money-maker.
There's Always a Next Time
Suggest that your production people start a "next time" file. Put all materials and information about a specific task in a separate folder, then put a piece of bright colored paper at the front of the folder on which you jot notes about what could be done better next time you have the same
responsibility. Alternatively, scan as much as you can, saving the documents in PDF format, and storing a copy locally and also on another server. Material that can't be scanned can be put into folders and stored separately.
- Often you'll find a scrap strip of quarter-inch plywood that is eight feet long and only a few inches wide. Don't throw it away. Instead, use it as a straightedge for drawing lines on other sheets.
- If you are using cardboard to cover the front of a curved set piece, use a spray bottle to spray water on the convex (outer) side of the curve. This allows you to bend it without buckling or cracking; fasten while still damp.
- If you save platforms and stair units, store them with any padding or canvas covering intact--when you use them again, this ready-to use covering could come in handy.
- If you have to make pencil marks on finished scenery (to show where hinges or other items are to be installed), press a piece of masking tape into place at the spot where the mark is to be made. Then pencil directly onto the tape. When you're done, the tape can be removed without damaging the paint.
When taking publicity photos of a production, try to limit the number of people in a shot to four or less (duos are always good). The simpler the photograph the more likely it is to be noticed.
All In a Day's Work
A volunteer, like any other worker, needs a job description. Without a job description, volunteers can easily get in over their heads, or may end up doing too little to satisfy your needs. The description should include the qualities you are looking for as well as the responsibilities of the position--this helps the volunteer, as well as the person who supervises their work. [AACT members can access more helpful information in articles on volunteer management in our Resource Library]
For quick paint touch-ups, use cotton makeup rounds. These round cotton pads, about the size of a silver dollar, won’t shed. Use them to apply dabs of paint, oil or paint. You can find them at drugstores and discount stores, as well as online. The ones shown at right are the most basic (and thinnest), and will do for most jobs (click image for larger view). Thicker pads are also available, although more expensive.
The Power of We
Whether you’re a director, board president, or chief administrative officer of your theatre company, take a tip from the Harvard Business Review, and motivate your team with “we,” not “I.” Using first-person plurals and second-person pronouns such as we, us, and you—rather than the first-person singular pronouns I, me and my—show that you are focused on what you and your team can achieve together, rather than on what you need from them. It also helps shift your perspective and makes you more aware of what others need.
Getting the Word Out
If you can put together dramatic or musical snippets, or even a mini-version of a recent show, many civic, school and church groups may be willing to pay a nominal fee to have you demonstrate your capabilities. More important, use the opportunity to publicize your group and upcoming production and get names for your mailing list.
Cardboard often warps or buckles when painted. To avoid this, paint the first side and while it is still wet, paint the second side. If one side won't be seen from the audience, you can use leftover paint on it.
The Secret's in the Braid
Ever wonder how professional dancers breeze through the most complicated routines, without giving hats a second thought, while your performers can barely keep a flower in their hair during action scenes or dance numbers? The secret is "horsehair braid," a type of braided nylon available at online millinery supply houses or large bridal shops. Purchase 1/2: or 5/8" braid in all the basic hair colors. Sew a piece matching each dancer's hair color along the entire bottom edge of crows, tiaras and caps; for flowers, wrap pale green braid in two or three places along the stems. Make a curl in the performer's hair at each point of attachment (the sides and center, for a larger headpiece) and criss-cross with two flat bobby pins. Finally, use as many thin v-shaped hairpins as necessary to secure the headpiece in place.
No More Split Ends
Because they are repeatedly tied and untied, the ends of lash lines often become frayed. If you use cotton lines, dip the ends into white glue and press them firmly into a compact shape. If you use nylon or polyester rope, seal the ends by melting them slightly in the flame of a pocket lighter. Allow the rope to cool before using.
Strong and Thump-less
To make a strong walking stick, use a hardwood banister rod (used to construct stairway rails). A rubber tip attached to the end will keep it from thumping on the stage floor.
Bustle in a Hustle
If you're doing a Victorian play and need bustles, consider using ski or bicycle packs for the purpose. Sometimes called “fanny packs,” these consist of a nylon sack or bag attached to a belt of the same material that straps around the waist. Designed to carry small items, for costume purposes, you fill the bags with crumpled newspaper. The actress then buckles the lightweight unit on, with the filled sack at the back. The costume is slipped on over the unit and the result is a convincing bustle effect.
One way to recruit new audiences is to schedule special low-priced performances—like 99-cent previews or "pay-what-you-can" matinees. Some theatres offer these specials in return for the patron’s email address, while others hand out a special “Welcome to Our Theatre” brochure , with information on the current or upcoming season, contact numbers, etc.
Tying One On
Monofilament fishing line is transparent, strong and relatively inexpensive, and is ideal for suspending lightweight scenic elements in front of light backdrops, or for securing items that might shift during scene changes. It comes in several different thicknesses, each clearly marked as to how much weight it can withstand—typically ranging from 8 to 60 pounds. When hanging from above, you also can add another piece stretching from from the bottom of the item back to the wall, to keep the item from swinging. This can be helpful for lobby displays, as well.
On the Way Up
If your theatre company is working its way up from the bottom, capitalize on the underdog principle when fundraising. Studies suggest that people tend to support the underdog. Just make clear that your organization is strong, with a clear plan for the future—donors like to know their gifts will be used wisely.
If carpeting or carpet padding on stairs or platforms doesn't look right for the period or place, try using sheets of heavy corrugated cardboard stapled in place. The cardboard can be painted or covered with canvas and then painted.
When creating a brochure or web page, avoid using many small photographs, which designers say detract from rather than enhance visual communication. Ideally, use one strong photograph, but if you have two or more photographs, make sure that one of them is dominant. Note that square photographs lack visual interest; use other rectangular shapes with a mixture of horizontal and vertical orientation.
Share and Share Alike
Consider the possibility of shared rehearsal space with another theater or theaters in your area. Ideally you need at least two rooms to avoid conflicts for space, but the cost of rental for a two-room space is typically far less than for two separate spaces, when the expense is shared between companies.
There’s a Catch
If you use magnetic catches for onstage doors or cupboards, you can reduce the amount of "stick" the actor needs to overcome by taping over part of the metal plate to which the magnet sticks.
Short and Sweet
When preparing a direct mail or fundraising letter, keep the first sentence short. This signals that the letter will be easy to read. Also limit paragraphs to no more than three or four sentences. Longer paragraphs turn off readers.
Room with a View
To suggest glass in a window, stretch rolled window screening over the back of the opening. It suggests the glint of glass without the weight, glare, or danger of breaking.
In the Know
Consider making available a glossary of your company's particular jargon and slang for volunteers and new members. This helps them more quickly understand memos, discussions and special projects. The extends to abbreviations for local businesses, government offices, or organizations.
No More Peek-a-Boo
When repainting a set, if old paint bleeds through the new, allow the paint to dry. Then cover the area with a coat of white glue, thinned with a little water. After the glue dries, try painting again. This usually works, although occasionally two coats of glue may be necessary.
The Public Eye
If you want to gain positive recognition for your company, create a service award to be given annually to the resident who makes the most contributions to your community, or to the arts in your community. By being associated with this award, your organization gains publicity and prestige.
4 Questions for Fundraisers
1) If you had only one donor and he or she gave you $50,000 every year, how would you write to that person? 2) How much would you want that donor to feel fully part of what you're doing? 3) Why not treat every donor as if he or she were a $50,000 donor? 4) How can you go wrong with this approach?
The Print Calendar
Plan to have materials printed at times when printers are less busy. For example, avoid school openings, the beginning of a new year and major holidays? Reason: you can expect to receive lower bids when printers aren't busy.
It Doesn't Hurt to Ask
For its production of Rumors, set in an upscale New York home, one community theatre managed to get a donation of an entire coordinated set of furniture. The head of the production crew sent letters to furniture stores in the area, asking for help in exchange for complimentary tickets and an advertisement in the program. The manager of a local furniture rental firm responded with tables, chairs, a sofa, bar, and other elegant pieces--and they delivered and picked up, as well.