Directing a Play at HTC

So you’ve joined the company, maybe taken a few roles in plays – or maybe you want to get stuck straight into the director’s chair! How do you go about it?

First Things First

Even if you have directed a play with another company before, we do things differently at HTC, so we always recommend that you assist a seasoned member in co-directing a play before taking control of a production yourself. If you approach the committee to express your interest, they will help to set this up for you.

The Play’s the Thing…

Before a play can be staged by the company, our rules say that it has to have been read by at least four members together at a play reading, and comments written in ‘The Book’. This is to make sure it suits our tastes, it’s a quality show, and it can realistically be staged in our theatre.

If you just want to direct, and don’t have a specific play in mind, you can browse The Book (kept behind the ticket desk) to see what has been read already, or you can approach the committee and ask to be matched with a play.

If you want to see a specific play put on but don’t want to direct, you can propose it and ask to be paired with a director.

Programme Selection

The Committee meets once a year, usually backend-ish, for a special ‘selection meeting’ to consider proposals for plays people would like us to put on. Once they have agreed a balanced programme of comedy, drama, musicals, etc., this draft programme is ratified by a vote of the membership at the December business meeting. It’s helpful if you can provide a written proposal describing the play and how you’d like to stage it, and/or attend in person to answer any questions members have.

We now have four slots a year for plays (in addition to the pantomime, and two youth productions): Spring (late March), Summer (early July), Autumn (early September) and Winter (late October). The exact dates are set in advance by the committee but can be negotiated.

Assembling a Team

So you’ve successfully got yourself a slot – what next?

You need to assemble a team who will help you stage it. You might even like to do this before you submit your proposal to the committee. There are a wide range of roles in a production team, not all of which are necessary depending on the scale of your production and how much you are comfortable taking on yourself.

The Company do our best to organise training and shadowing opportunities for anyone who wants to take on any of the more in depth roles!

This is you.

By default, you will have full creative control of the production: everything that happens on the stage, and final say on anything to do with the production.

If you don’t appoint a producer, you’ll take on all of the admin too. That might mean anything from scheduling rehearsals to buying timber, to organising set painting and the after show party. But basically you are there to make the play look and feel how you want, and direct rehearsals.

Except for very large productions, it’s rare for a director to appoint a producer these days, but it still happens. The Producer is responsible for assisting with all the admin a production involves (in no particular order):

  • Scheduling rehearsals and putting them in the Theatre Diary
  • Liaising with the production coordinator to get the set built to the director’s specifications
  • Liaising with the Wardrobe Manager to organise costume
  • Liaising with the Publicity Officer to get the poster and programme designed and printed, and any other publicity, well ahead of production week
  • Compiling information for the programme
  • Ensuring the production sticks to its budget
  • Ordering and distributing scripts to the cast, stage manager, lighting and sound team, prompt, etc.
  • Making sure all cast and crew are fully paid up members (and therefore, fully insured)
  • Organising certified chaperones if there are children and young people in the cast
  • Making sure we sell as many tickets as possible
  • Holding contact details and communicate with cast and crew about rehearsals
  • Organising socials and trips for cast and crew if desired (e.g., The Gaul team had a research trip to the Arctic Corsair in Hull)
  • 101 other little jobs, and being a general ‘go-fer’

The assistant director (if there is one) can direct rehearsals in the director’s absence, or block/re-run scenes in another area while the main action is rehearsed on stage. A good starting point for anyone wanting to observe how the director’s role is done.

The stage manager has control of everything that goes on behind the scenes. It’s essential they attend all rehearsals and make note of scene changes, curtains, and prop movements. After the dress rehearsal, the stage manager takes over command of the ship: you’ll relinquish complete control over the show to them.

The stage manager is in charge of producing risk assessments for the play, especially if there are any practical effects or sword fights involved. They are generally expected to recruit their own crew of stage hands as they require – when you’re running a show behind the scenes, it’s essential that everyone can be relied on to work smoothly as a team.

The stage manager is not expected to pay for their script.

The prompt must attend every rehearsal, noting any pauses or changes in their script, so that once the actors are ‘book down’ they can feed lines smoothly as required. In the prompt’s absence, the producer or another member of the cast might handle this temporarily – but the director’s attention has to be on the action, not the book.

The prompt does not pay for their script.

The Lighting Manager needs to be someone trained up to use the theatre’s lighting system (and potentially the sound board too), and be confident climbing ladders to move and set lights (or directing others to do so). This is a specialist role. Operating the lights from the board now often involves only pressing a ‘next’ button, so the lighting operator could be anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of how to turn everything on – and what to do if something goes wrong during a performance.

The lighting manager is not expected to pay for a script.

If you’re appointing a costume person, you will need to liaise with the Wardrobe Manager – the committee officer ultimately in charge of our costume stocks, and with details of the various costume hire services we use. It’s ultimately up to you as the director whether you want to hire costume in, use stock, or have items made specially – but it will be up to you to find volunteers able to do this.

If you are unsure where to start with getting your set designed and built, the best thingis to speak to our Production Coordinator (appointed by the committee). They can advise you on what flats and doors we have in stock, what is possible on our stage, and how to adapt your grand designs to something we can build and operate. They can also, if required, organise the set building teams and work parties to get your set erected.

If you’re interested in joining work parties and set building teams, you can speak to the Production Coordinator who will make sure you’re included in invitations – or come along to a set break and make yourself useful! Having your own drill is useful but not mandatory.

Depending on the complexity of your show, you or the producer might take on this role as well, but it’s useful to have someone on board to handle this. The props master:

  • Sources or fabricates props as required
  • Makes sure props (or ‘gash’ or stand-in – props) are available and set for rehearsals, or issued to the cast
  • Makes sure all props are returned to their correct places after use and at the end of each rehearsal or performance
  • Sets and moves props between scenes
  • Is in charge of the ‘props shelf’ near the stage door, where props are organised

The Company have a wide selection of generic props available in the barn.

Front of house will be organised by a manager appointed by the company committee, but you should speak to them if you have any special requirements, such as volunteers being costumed or a front of house ‘theme’.

The practical aspects of Publicity are mostly handled by the committee Publicity Officer and Webmaster, but you have creative control over your poster, programme, online ads, etc., and will need to either design the artwork yourself or ask someone to do it.

The programme may be as simple as a list of cast, crew, and thanks, or may include cast bios, children’s activity pages, information about the author, ‘making of’ shots, or anything else (within reason). The audience love something to read!

If your show contains a lot of music and/or singing, you’ll need to find a musical director to organise musicians, singing and music rehearsals, etc. Historically the company has sometimes partnered with local bands and choirs like Banovallum Brass where they can be accommodated on stage.

If your show contains dancing or sword fighting, you’ll need a choreographer to organise auditions for dancers, and organise dance rehearsals. This need not be a member – there are several local dance teachers who have joined as members or associate members to help bring shows to life.

Auditions

Auditions are open to anyone – even non-members – and should be advertised as widely as possible, and as far in advance as you can. It’s usual to hold at least two auditions, one on a weekday evening and another during the day at the weekend, so that everyone has a chance to attend. You can hold them in the theatre or elsewhere.

Publicity

You’ll need to get your publicity organised as soon as you can after the membership approve your play for production, and make sure there is a ‘gash’ or temporary poster ready for immediate display on the website and social media, and in forthcomings leaflets. You can speak to the publicity manager about organising photo shoots or finding a designer for your poster – or you can take on the whole job yourself. You’ll also need to provide a very short ‘blurb’ of the play to get people interested.

Rehearsals

Although it’s (strictly speaking) up to the director to schedule rehearsals, the convention is that they will be held every Tuesday and Thursday in the six to eight weeks between the previous production and your performance week. Occasionally, you may need to put in additional rehearsals on Wednesday nights, or even Friday, or Saturday afternoon in dire situations.

This is considered a short and intense period of rehearsal by the standards of some companies who prefer to rehearse for as long as six months, and if you’re staging a musical, there is a much longer rehearsal period available before the July slot (by design). The pantomime usually rehearses from November to late January, with the expectation that attendance may be poor during the festive period. For straightforward shows, however, we recommend resisting the desire to rehearse for too long as you risk cast fatigue and may peak too soon!

The cast are expected to be ‘book down’ – have their lines learned – by a couple of weeks before the performances.

Rehearsals should start promptly at 7.30 (with all cast to arrive by 7) unless otherwise agreed, and the cast will expect to be in the pub by 9.30 or 10 PM at the very latest!

Tech and Dress

Although elements of lights, sound and costume may be introduced in the last couple of weeks before the show is staged, we have a single dedicated ‘tech’, most usually on the Sunday afternoon before opening night. Curtain up should be around 13.00 or 14.00, so there’s time to iron out practical problems, but everyone can still be home by early evening (in theory!).

The dress rehearsal always takes place on the Monday evening before opening night, and is run as though it were an actual performance as far as possible – with no stopping. This is also your final opportunity to thank your cast and give any last minute notes on the performance.

After the dress rehearsal, the director should relinquish full control of the production to the stage manager, and some people would say you shouldn’t even step into the Green Room during performances – although you can watch from the back of the auditorium!

Opening Night

Performances at the Lion Theatre run from Wednesday to Saturday, usually for one week – but sometimes (in the case of a musical or the annual pantomime) for two. Saturday matinees are usually only run for the pantomime. Curtain up is at 7.30 PM (3PM for matinees) and you should be out of the theatre by 10 PM (a legal requirement if there are children in the cast).

After Show Party

The after show party takes place immediately after the end of the last night and should be arranged (or delegated) by the director or producer. For small casts it might happen in the theatre bar (it’s usual to provide refreshments – there is a budget for this) or for larger productions, you can hire one of the venues in town with a bar (the Masonic Hall, the Community Centre, etc.).

Before the party, directors often like to go to the dressing room to thank their cast and crew for their hard work on the production and congratulate a job well done.

Set Break

Set break usually takes place the Sunday morning immediately after the last night, and anyone who has participated in the show is expected to be there to help with dismantling the set, packing away props and clothes, giving the back stage areas a thorough clean, drink lots of coffee and tea, and helping to eat whatever is left over from the after show party the night before (or in some cases, from the play itself!)

We find that many hands make light work, and this is usually a very social occasion – running from 10 AM to 2 PM at the latest, members of the company who haven’t been involved in the show are invited to come and lend a hand.

In exceptional circumstances set break may be held on another day, by special arrangement – although sets always need to come down as soon as possible so the next production can begin rehearsing the next week.

Things to Remember

If you’re in doubt, ask – there are many seasoned members who have decades of experience putting on shows at the theatre who will be happy to advise you on how things are done.

There are no hard and fast rules – just because this is ‘the way we’ve always done it’, doesn’t mean you can’t innovate or introduce best practice you’ve learned elsewhere. You’re the director!

Remember that at the end of the day, this is a hobby! Your cast, and even your crew, are there at worst to do you a favour, but mostly (we hope) to have a good time, socialise, and express themselves. They all have lives outside the theatre – including day jobs, other volunteering responsibilities, and families.

Your duty as a director is not only to put on the best show possible for our audiences. You need to balance this by making sure that everyone involved has lots of fun and wants to come back in the future.

And last but not least, don’t whistle in the theatre. Oh, and break a leg!