How to Put on a Musical
The Production Team
by John Kenrick
- Assistant Director
- Musical Director
- Set Designer
- Costume Designer
- Lighting Designer/Manager
- Sound Designer/ Manager
- Stage Manager
- Stage Crew
- Property Master
- House Manager/Ushers
- Publicity Coordinator
- Program Coordinator
Take on too many jobs at once, and you will be overwhelmed share the challenge and you will have a stronger chance of sharing credit for a success. Who will you need on your team?
The producer oversees all the business aspects of the production, coordinating everything that does not involve the events on stage. If you are lucky, this job goes to someone other than the director. However, in many amateur organizations one person handles both tasks. While it can be fun to imagine yourself as a neighborhood Hal Prince, you'll get some princely headaches along the way.
The director has the final say on all artistic aspects of a production, and is in charge of everything that happens on stage. This person must be a mixture of dictator, diplomat, artist, mind reader and drill sergeant.
Example: At Higgins High, brave Ms. Doolittle is acting as both producer and director. (Ah, what fools these mortals be . . .)
Consider having an assistant director on your team. This takes pressure off the director and means more than one set of performers can rehearse at any time. While the director stages a new scene with the ensemble, the assistant director can run the leads through sequences that have already been blocked.
It is also a good idea for a director to have a production assistant to coordinate schedules, organize papers, act as a go-fer, etc.
Example: Ms. Doolittle is not a total masochist. She has enlisted one of her fellow English teachers to act as assistant director. She also has a reliable student acting as a general production assistant.
You will want someone with musical knowledge to conduct rehearsals and performances. Your accompaniment can be a full orchestra or one person at a piano. Some licensing firms now provide pre-recorded "rehearsal" accompaniment for certain shows even if you use these recordings, your cast will benefit from having a capable musical director to guide them through the often terrifying prospect of singing on stage.
Example: Mr. Pickering is the musical director, and has a responsible senior who can play piano for rehearsals. His orchestra will include some of his most talented students, as well as two friends who teach in nearby schools.
If your show requires serious dancing, have someone on hand who can make those dances look good, preferably someone with professional training. You do not want dance numbers that expose your cast to ridicule or possible injury.
Example: The dance requirements for Big River are simple. Even so, Doolittle is bringing in a choreographer with professional dance experience -- a local dance teacher who is willing to work for a reasonable stipend.
Someone will have to design and build your sets or stage decorations. In some theatre groups, the person in charge of sets is called "Technical Director" and coordinates all tech teams. While I don't find this useful, see what fits your team best. Make sure everything on stage is sturdy. This is a point of safety andesthetics. Shaky sets will distract an audience and ruin a performance.
A word to set designers do not let your creativity be limited by what others have done. Scenery for any show can be as complex or simple as your abilities and budget allow. My college director placed Camelot on a unit castle set, with parapets and the all-important tree always in view and the raked stage floor painted as a giant chess board. Set changes consisted of moving a few small props (chairs, tables, etc.). It was a creative, visually striking and affordable approach that added to the impact of the production.
Example: The art department has come up with workable set designs. The school's machine shop teacher is pitching in, making the sets a project for his students. With some pointers from a book on set building, they will create the backdrops and basic pieces needed.
If you have capable seamstresses and designers on hand, you are blessed. When your show requires contemporary clothing, the cast can provide its own. If you have to rent or borrow costumes, have someone coordinate measurements, costume selection, alterations, and costume maintenance.
Example: Pickering and Doolittle have found several mothers with decent sewing skills to create the costumes. One volunteer mom is acting as coordinator. She is so enthusiastic that she's even dug up period illustrations and photos of the original Broadway production to give her team ideas. The homespun, pre-Civil War outfits will be easy to create. No hoopskirts or expensive fabrics are needed. They may rent a few accessories, but most of the costume list will be their own.
It takes tremendous patience to get the lights set properly and safely. Have someone with technical expertise set up and maintain your stage lighting system. If you have a qualified volunteer, three cheers, but note the word "qualified." There is nothing more dangerous than the inspired amateur. A licensed electrician should check out your system to verify everything is safe.
This job may or may not be handled by your lighting designer. It must be someone you can depend on to handle all the intricacies of lighting every performance. For revues or small shows, you may be able to get away with one simple lighting plan that merely turns on and off. If so, enjoy it while you can.
Example: A local electrician with ties to the school is willing to put in the time to hang the lights and train some students in running them. He will also help out during the final tech rehearsal, and all for a light $1000 stipend. For the hours involved, he could be charging far more. (Don't be surprised if you have to pay a higher fee for professional tech assistance.)
If you are using any kind of sound system, you want someone coordinating microphones and volume. This technical wizard will supervise the sound levels during final rehearsals and performances, preferably from a command post in the auditorium. A sound crew will be needed backstage to assist with microphones.
Example: Mr. Karparthy, a teacher from a neighboring school, is willing to help run the sound for Higgins High. Doolittle and Pickering will owe him a favor when his next show comes around. This is what colleagues are for.
The SM is the director's right hand, assisting at rehearsals, setting up materials and keeping the script on hand to call out any forgotten lines. The SM also makes sure everything backstage goes smoothly during performances. In fact, once a performance begins, a director's works is done and the stage manager is the one in charge. The SM orders the curtain up and down, and makes sure all lighting and stage effects go off on cue. In many instances, the SM or an assistant sits in the wings through each performance, ready to quietly call out a line if one of the performers goes blank.
Example: Miss S. Pierce (one of Ms. Doolittle's students) is organized, level headed, and well liked by her classmates. She is a no-nonsense person who inspires respect, even from trouble makers the perfect choice for stage manager.
It is not enough to line up some brawny volunteers to move sets and work the main curtain. The stage crew has to be intelligent and mature. Their backstage behavior can make or break a performance, and their attention to detail is a major safety issue. The old rule that only men or boys belong on a stage crew is way out of date this is definitely a co-ed department today.
Example: A few seniors well known for hell-raising offered their services, but were politely turned away. Pierce and Ms. Doolittle quietly put together a team of boys and girls who they feel comfortable with.
The prop master and his/her team are in charge of obtaining and keeping track of all hand-held properties swords, suitcases, books, etc. What they cannot obtain, they will have to manufacture. Props can be misplaced backstage, never to reappear. Prop stations belong on both sides of the stage. Have the prop team at all dress rehearsals to work out prop placement issues. If King Arthur is entering stage right but Excalibur is waiting stage right, key scenes in Camelot will be jeopardized.
Amateur productions often expect cast members to create and care for their own props, and the results can be embarrassing. My college theatre group had no prop team, and every run was plagued with misplaced props. In our production of Carnival, I had to set off a flash paper effect with a lit cigarette. On opening night, I discovered the stage crew had inadvertently smoked my (I had thought) well-hidden pack, and my entrance cue was in progress! In desperation, I grabbed the flash paper and ate it, in full view of the audience. I swore I'd never put an actor in the same position, and I haven't.
Example: A student with a knack for details has volunteered for this job. Her father is a professional carpenter, which won't hurt if she needs to construct some period items.
The House Manager is more than a head usher. You want a level headed "people person" in charge of seating the audience. Even if you do not have assigned seating, have ushers on hand with flashlights to help seat latecomers and find items lost in the dark. If you are selling reserved tickets and your seats are not pre-marked, the house manager is in charge of labeling the seats and rows. Some magic marker on masking tape will do the trick. The train the ushers to know the seating system in case any wise guys try to move the seat markers around.
During performances, the House Manager keeps track of everything that happens on the audience's side of the curtain, including box office activity, seating, and letting the stage manager know when the audience is ready for the performance to begin. If someone in the audience has a complaint or becomes ill, ushers alert the house manager who will call 911 if needed.
Once, I was musical director for a school show and did not have a house manager. On opening night, four people who had a grudge against one of the performers started a disturbance. I had to stop the performance and herd the troublemakers out of the auditorium. The audience cheered and the show went on, but I made sure we had another teacher acting as house manager for the next day's performance.
Example: Students will act as ushers, with a senior as house manager. The assistant principal has promised to be on hand during performances to provide back up.
Once the posters, flyers and any similar items are ready, a publicity coordinator will see to their being posted and/or distributed. This person must make sure all postings are legal and authorized. Most store managers will agree to allow a poster in their window or inside their business, but an unauthorized posting will just engender bad feelings. Outdoors, posters should be placed in accordance with any local regulations. No show benefits from flyers torn down by angry property owners.
Example: Enthusiastic senior Freddy Hill and a few volunteer helpers will get the posters and flyers onto bulletin boards and into shop windows, reaching potential ticket buyers on the streets where they live.
A theatre program can be a simple sheet listing your cast and crew, musical numbers, authors, etc. However, if you have someone with a talent for organization and a flair for sales, advertisements can turn your program into a source of income. Many local businesses, community groups and politicos can be persuaded to buy program ads. Family and friends of the cast also buy ads to wish their loved ones luck. At the very least, this means you can have a handsome program that pays for itself with luck, it can pay for far more.
Do not use the black-on-yellow "Playbill" logo on your cover it is protected by copyright, and the folks at Playbill do not take infringement lightly. Think they'll never find out? If you or any member of the cast or crew has an enemy, or if your community includes as least one righteous troublemaker, a copy of your program will land on a desk in New York.
Example: Alfie, an enterprising Higgins sophomore with a flair for sales, is canvassing local businesses and selling program ads at a healthy clip. The art teacher has designed the program layout on her computer, and the folks in the office will print it up on school equipment. Alfie is coordinating their efforts, and expects the programs to turn a profit . . . with a little bit of luck.