Rehearsals, lunch breaks, costume calls… and spreadsheets galore. Writer and director Poppy Burton-Morgan shares her tips to ensure the smooth progress of a show from before the earliest rehearsals to opening night
Scheduling is simply working out who is called in and what you rehearse at what time, right? Actually, scheduling is a vital part of the process of putting on a show – and getting it right (or wrong) can have a big impact on its success.
The best schedules have a degree of flexibility. Sometimes, a director will have an instinct that a section of script or music will take much longer, but it’s unrealistic to think you can schedule an entire show in advance without some things shifting, or unexpected absences, whether illness, auditions, even funerals – last year I had a poor cast who (between them) attended seven during rehearsals.
It’s very helpful to prepare early to get a mental picture of how the next three or four (or 12 if you’re at the National) weeks of rehearsal will play out. How long should you spend on table work – the talking, reading, character discussion before anyone gets up on their feet – and how long will it take to stage a scene?
On Shakespeare, I aim for a week of table work; in circus-theatre we discover the character in the act of physical creation so there’s almost no table work at all. Then, there’s the question of how many run-throughs to factor in. Phyllida Lloyd, my greatest mentor, always warned against ‘running’ too soon because at that point the show becomes ‘fixed’ and everyone starts polishing rather than inventing.
That said, it’s always helpful to know from day one when you’re aiming to do your first run, as well as the first stagger-through before that. I find the best thing to do is schedule the end of rehearsals and work backwards.
Do you schedule production meetings over lunch? That is great for those with caring responsibilities because the working day is not extended, but it’s not so great for those who need proper breaks in their day.
‘Phyllida Lloyd warned against running the play too soon – everyone starts polishing rather than inventing’
Director culture is pretty non-stop, work-through-every-break, because that’s when all the other departments can easily get hold of you. But it’s a nightmare for stage management and not exactly a healthy approach to a work-life balance or well-being. I haven’t cracked it, because I choose to work through breaks to get as much time with my children afterwards.
In putting together the show, should you work chronologically or bunch sections together to release company members who aren’t in those bits? I’m always strategic in releasing cast so that everyone in the room is being used – it’s more efficient and creates a happier room and a less exhausted company.
I also always start by creating an ‘in/out’ sheet, which is a designers’ tool I’ve borrowed as it’s so helpful for directors. You create a spreadsheet with ‘characters/performers’ on the left-hand column and scene numbers along the top in rows – I break it down further by exit/entrance if the scenes are long. Then fill in the relevant cells (by colour code if people are playing multiple roles in the show). You can immediately see who has the most stage time, which helps in carving out time to release them so they’re not constantly called to the rehearsal room.
The in/out sheet allows you to see which scenes have the most performers: a five-minute scene with 10 characters might take 90 minutes to stage initially, but a 10-minute scene between two characters might take 45 minutes; if it’s emotionally lightweight then possibly even less.
Always schedule a read-through on your first day – even if that’s speaking the lyrics in a musical because the music hasn’t been learnt yet. I just held a read-through for an opera in which not a note was sung. It meant everyone understood the story and the entire company was on the same page. I have learned the hard way never to assume that a performer or creative has read the entire piece in advance.
In larger shows, especially musicals, having ‘split calls’, where you rehearse across multiple spaces, are a necessity. Even on small shows, there are often split calls for costume fittings unless you’re happy to lose two days of rehearsal – something no director wants. So it’s best to schedule fittings at times when the relevant performers aren’t called to rehearse.
I generally always push back – in a friendly way – against a dedicated fitting session if a character has only one costume (15 to 30 minutes is fine) or it’s mostly sourced. Made costumes require adjustments, so 40 to 60 minutes may be necessary. I also try to anticipate who may take longer during fittings because of other issues such as body image or low self-esteem and schedule them later in the day.
When running multiple rooms, learn your collaborators’ habits – music calls always happen at the start, and it’s fairly easy to predict how long they’ll take, though if it’s a new musical remember to schedule extra time later on to accommodate potential new songs.
Dance calls, on the other hand, are as long as a piece of string. Some choreographers prepare so much that they can create a three-minute sequence in an hour, others who ‘create in the room’ can take three hours just to make a one-minute sequence. Every department always wants more time, but if anyone suggests ‘tag teaming’ across multiple rooms on a musical, I promise the music department will never get a look in and all the time will be eaten up by dance.
Be aware of your company’s physical, cognitive and emotional needs in advance of creating a schedule so that it can help accommodate them. If someone is recovering from major surgery can you call them for afternoons only? Company members with caring responsibilities always appreciate being released on Saturdays and for evening calls, although Saturday rehearsals may soon become a thing of the past. I feel ambivalent about this – as a parent it’s great, as a producer, it theoretically adds a week of rehearsals (costing £7,000 or more) to the budget.
Simply the act of sharing a rough schedule in advance can support some people’s mental health by allowing them to plan their time. But it’s important to reinforce that schedules are subject to change – this is crucial, something that is seemingly often misunderstood by some. And being the ‘bad guy’ by moving the cast on to the next scene, because you know you’ll run out of time to finish staging the show if you don’t, is just one of those burdens that directors must bear.
Provided you factor in a degree of flexibility or buffer time – an art in itself – the scheduling work you do helps every member of the company manage their time, their energy levels and, perhaps most important of all, their expectations.
Poppy Burton-Morgan is artistic director of Metta Theatre