Backstage Pass: assistant-directing the school play

I’ve just completed a week as Assistant Director on the school play, this year the 40s/50s-set musical, ‘Guys and Dolls’.

Backstage
Backstage

In a theatre, this means taking extra rehearsals, doing the Director’s admin, corralling the cast and crew, and liaising with technical staff to work out how to both make this an excellent production and keep the director happy.

At school, all of that is also true, although with the additions of making prop lists, sourcing props, sewing costumes, making anything proppy or costumey we can’t find, fixing things last minute, running the backstage team doing set changes, and placating the orchestra. There’s also the added difficulty of the average age of the cast, technical crew and orchestra being sixteen-and-a-half, and them gaving lots of other extra-curricular commitments that, before the actual production week kicks in, all seem far more important than rehearsals. And, of course, there’s my full time job actually teaching.

Frankly, it’s an utter joy to be so busy. It’s probably a little masochistic to derive pleasure from being so tired you can’t actually sleep – as my partner would certainly sternly agree – but for me it seems to signify a job well done. Being able to do it all with a perky smile is a challenge, and I have to admit to getting the first-lesson grumps at times, but put me backstage, two minutes to curtain-call, a button to sew on, a member of the orchestra improbably missing, a microphone pack battery suddenly needing replacing and a ‘breakaway’ bottle in a cast member’s hand that is in danger of getting broken at least one act too early, and I’m in hog’s heaven. The sense of camaraderie among everyone, no matter what their role, is tangible, and the secret smiles and nods across the playground between pupils and staff the next day, testament of the backstage mime-alongs, the dance-offs, the tearful displays of peer affection and the actual costume dramas.
Now it’s over, the techs have taken the stage down and the costumes have been counted up and returned, the kids keep coming up and saying they miss it, and I don’t know what to do with myself. Some actual work I imagine, because Lord knows I’ve a ton of marking to do.


My best tips for ADing and Backstaging at a school show are these:

Pre-Casting:

  • Advertise well: if you miss out on amazing cast members it will be because they didn’t know about the audition. Also, try and have more than one audition time so there’s flexibility to allow all who want to to attend.
  • Plan Ahead: you’ll have a show-date, so make sure there’s a rehearsal schedule already in place, stating when, where, when til and what act and scene. Also schedule some TBA dates for working on scenes that need more work.
  • Chase them up: if you want them at the audition, tell them, making no promises : tell them you want to see their potential. Students at this age may be suffering a crisis of confidence and be last-minute no-shows, so make them feel wanted.
  • Know your potential cast: make sure you do auditions for everything the actors need to do, eg for a musical act, sing and dance. This might seem obvious, but I’ve known people get cast without their vocal range being tested… It’s something you can do without later, and saves heartbreak for the kids involved if you can say ‘its not you, it’s the song’ when they don’t get cast.
  • Make no promises: put away your preconceived ideas of who you want to cast and as what, as there’ll always be an unknown quantity who knocks your socks off. Definitely don’t tell those you want to cast that you want to cast them until after they’ve auditioned: if they don’t get the part then they’re a sure-fire drop-out if you cast them as something else.
  • Make note of commitments: make it very clear what the rehearsal dates are *at* the audition. Make it clear exactly when students will be needed.
  • Cast it quickly: trust me, they’ll be waiting to know with baited breath. Don’t make it painful. You, the Director and the Musical Director will need to decide between you. Let the kids know when they’ll find out so that the whole show appears organised and professional from the start.
  • Get everyone’s email addresses and make a mailing list: this is the fastest way to get a response from your cast and crew, trust me. You can back it up with posters on whatever noticeboard you use at school, but now that everyone has email on their phone you should be able to get messages to them in seconds.
  • Sort out your backstage crew and set-builders NOW: preferably, with months to spare. These are really important jobs, and while the majority of the work these guys will do won’t actually come until just before production week, knowing who is going to be doing these things for you – and knowing they know – is the removal of a possible headache. It also allows them to plan around your dates, order flats and paint and anything else that’s needed, well in advance. No stress 🙂

During Rehearsals:

  • Take a register: know who is meant to be there and whether they are there. If they’re not, chase them up RIGHT NOW!
  • Be there: as AD, you need to be at every rehearsal. As the Director blocks the scene, you’ll need to…
  1.      Write down the blocking on a copy of the script (‘The Book’
  2.      Make note of props needed – and start sourcing them!
  3.      Make note of entrances, exits and costume changes: these notes get forgotten. Make sure the cast copy them up into their own scripts at the end of rehearsal
  4.      Make use of Media: use your smartphone to video the choreography and upload it to the school system in a file the cast can access – it’s up to them to practice, but if they forget its far easier to show them what they’ve done.
  • Measure the *whole* cast now: the sooner you can get costumes the better, but obviously you’re not going to be hiring them til the latest possible date to save money. What you don’t want is to be heading off to the hire shop when you realise you haven’t a clue what dress size the chorus are and you don’t have time to find out.
  • Make sure the cast have the stage plans: you want this blocking to last, so make sure they know what’s where.
  • Don’t let the marking slide: not now, at least, but it’s definitely going to later…
  • Inventorise EVERYTHING: as soon as you get the costumes, write down in a spreadsheet exactly what you’ve got, what colour it is, who wears it, how many of them you have and what bag it came in. Keep this for later.

Production Week:

  • Order food and drink for the cast… and crew… and orchestra: keep those kids happy, fed and watered.
  • Take Vitamin C: if your production week is in the Winter, this is obvious. You won’t be eating right or getting any exercise, and the last thing you need to happen(amongst many, many things you don’t need to happen that week, like costumes going missing, crew dropping out, and all the tickets having a typo on them) is for you to be ill.
  • Try on costumes as early as possible: you need to make sure everything fits and nothing falls apart when in use!
  • Start using props as soon as you can get them: the sooner they and the backstage crew can practise with them the better.
  • Don’t make plans for after Dress and Tech rehearsals: you won’t make them.
  • Keep an emergency pack handy: I’m not talking about health and safety, but backstage necessities:
  1.      Pre-threaded needles with black and white thread and at least one colour that matches the majority of your costumes.
  2.      Gaffer tape – black and white – for blocking and making out sight lines backstage
  3.      Thinner electrical tape – black and white – for random fixing of wires and such
  4.      A paintbrush – just in case
  5.      Hair grips – so useful and not just for hair
  6.      A big box of assorted safety pins – a fix-all for costumes
  7.      Sellotape – for fixing props
  8.      Water, juice, sandwiches and chocolate bars – it is hungry work backstage, and often dehydrating
  9.      Bin bags. See below:
This is why you need bin bags.
This is why you need bin bags.
  • Be backstage at every show: it’s not about you watching the show, but the Director, who will also be reading The Book at the same time, making notes for tomorrow’s performance, and signalling the Tech Team at the back of the auditorium. Your job is now to make the Director happy by hiding the chaos going on around you. Only you need to know about this. Make sure that you get actors and musicians into positions early, then let the tech team know when House Lights can come down.
  • Print off the scene changes with cues and notes about who sets what, and put them in each side in the wings: this will be a major life saver, and make sure that the younger crew (remember, they’re kids), aren’t asking you to remind them every five minutes about ‘what happens next?’
  • Watch TV: if you can, it’s absolutely worth hiring in an AV unit that you can link to a camera that’s watching the show. Put the TV unit backstage with chairs around it. The cast will be glued to it, judging each night’s performance, mouthing the words along, and getting their cues. It also makes for a far more exciting and professional-feeling production for the kids, and has the final added benefit of being like a backstage babysitter – you won’t need to tell them to be quiet because if you turn the sound down (or off if your backstage is directly behind the stage) they’ll be straining to watch.
  • Check the cast are buying the Director a present: they probably will be, and will be mortally offended if they think you think you have to tell them to, so do this subtly. This is their grown-up contribution, and they will have done a lot of growing up over the course of the play, even if it isn’t noticeable. But, if they don‘t know they have to make a suggestion!
  • Make the last night memorable: they’re really going to be pretty sad once it’s all over, so make sure they have a memory to take home. I always get a programme and get everyone to sign it over the night – it gives them a backstage focus, and if they’re all doing eachother’s programmes it’s a nice way of signalling the end as well as  calmly getting them to acknowledge it. We’re lucky enough to have a guy at school that is an ace photographer and comes to all the production week rehearsals to take pics for the school magazine and the refreshments area (for the Interval – hopefully that won’t be in your remit because you’ll be too busy sewing buttons on to actually even leave the backstage area in the Interval), and he printed off small versions of the big cast photo for all the kids to sign – a really nice gift.  (You can also, as I did, dance a rumba whilst holding the last breakaway bottle and pretending to drop it several times before finally taking it on stage. That was pretty memorable.)
  • Plan to get out quickly: the last thing the cast will be doing at the end of the last performance is neatly returning their costumes and props to you on hangers, so do this instead: buy a roll of white swing-bin liners, enough for each of the cast and with spares. Then, using a permanent marker, write on each swing-bin liner the actor’s name and their character name. (If they have a lot of costume changes, give them two bags.) Hand these out at the interval, and ask the students to put every piece of costume they have been allocated into their bag at the end of the show, tie it up and put it in an agreed place. Then, you’ll know exactly who has handed what in and who needs to be charged for missing stuff. (make sure they know this – they’ll be so much more careful.) When it comes to returning costumes, empty the bags one by one, tick off what’s in them on your inventory sheet, and hang them up. then you can do a final count once they’re all unpacked, ready to return them. We lost the grand total of nothing at all on this show, and I was so proud.

IMG_6118

Right, I think that’s it. The last thing I can say is be prepared for being unbelievably, ridiculously tired afterwards. It has taken me about a week to write this post, and it’s about all I’ve achieved – my brain is fried.

It’s all been damn worth it.

Cafe Cabana, Havana :)
Cafe Cabana, Havana 🙂
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2 thoughts on “Backstage Pass: assistant-directing the school play

  1. Now you need to learn how to “do” downtime without guilt, it’ s just as important you know
    If you are finding this concept difficult, going for a run would be a good place to start, I think…..

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