Thoughts on Organizing Performances
Tonight I’ll be at PantheaCon for the ritual of the Descent of Inanna performed by “House of Inanna” (my ATS belly dance troupe) and friends. It’s been a fascinating experience so far, especially since I’ve not previously participated in any plays. Oh, I was the head of a green dragon during a play when I was maybe 6 years old, and I think I’ve been bit parts in other grade school plays… but that was usually a situation where the teachers were working hard to include everyone. Consequently there were often a lot of really pointless bit pieces that could be filled with the less popular kids, and I certainly qualified for that role as an awkward kid who was too smart for her own good.
Perhaps more relevantly, I have a strong understanding of teamwork due to both the horse shows my family attended while I was in school, and the occasional choirs in which I sang. I also learned about “being on” all the time while I was the second princess of Trimaris. That’s all that’s occurring to me off the top of my head… so yeah. This entire cycle of preparation for this ritual has been quite fascinating, and I thought I’d write down some notes for myself so that I learn good things from this endeavor — of both smart ideas I saw, and situations I would have done differently. Of course, if any of these ideas are of use to you, or you have any suggestions from your own experiences, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Also, I’m writing this as if I’m talking to myself, so the “you” being addressed below is just me.
- The first thought I should keep in mind is this: putting on a performance seems much like a form of the project management in technology that I’m familiar with. There’s a saying amongst the coders I know who’re organizing timelines for their projects: figure out how long you think something will take — then double it! I suspect this goes for performances too; e.g.: if you think you’ll need four rehearsals, schedule eight — and so on.
- Make sure the folks in each part actually want to be there and want that part. Then make sure they’re willing to put in the time to learn that part. It’s probably better to have a role filled by someone less skilled but more willing to work their tails off, than someone extremely talented who is half-assed about the role.
- Getting people to move in concert is harder than getting people to move individually. If you have a group chorus or troupe that are all supposed to be moving smoothly together, make sure to schedule time just for them to practice their part — and give them more of that type of rehearsal than everyone else. They’ll need it — and once they finally “get it” they’ll look great together! Plus knowing you care enough to work a little harder or extra with them is a huge motivator.
- Keep in mind that just because someone can sing or dance doesn’t mean they can act — and vice versa. If you have a truly beautiful dancer who is terrible at lines, for example, try seeing if instead they can dance their emotions. Be flexible to the needs and abilities of your participants.
- If you have people who like to interrupt in the middle of rehearsal to offer their opinions and suggestions, try taking them aside later for a talk. Let them know that you really are interested in their thoughts — but in the middle of rehearsal isn’t the place for that, as it disrupts everyone else. Ask them to keep those ideas in mind, and come to you with the suggestions once the practice is concluded.
- Make sure the script and/or the music list is finished and ready for use before rehearsals begin. If you want to ask for feedback on the script or music, make sure you have plenty of time to listen and sift through suggestions so as to make the best choices that you can. Google docs are a fabulous way to share things like this. Thank everyone who participates and remember: even if you don’t like their suggestions, they gifted you with their time and effort. Always, always thank them.
- Props and set pieces can be produced while rehearsals have already started, but make sure they’re all completed or nearly done before the first full dress rehearsal. That first full dress rehearsal should produce a lot of notes too: what isn’t working yet, who can repair any damage, where does that prop or that costume have to be during this act and who will put them there, and so on. The second full dress rehearsal should hopefully have all those notes marked as solved… in a best case scenario, of course. By the third dress rehearsal there should be no more issues, hopefully — it should flow smoothly and well, and people can concentrate on polishing their performances rather than basic set or role work.
- Rehearsals are when everyone memorizes their parts and learns their blocking, i.e.: where they stand or move on the stage. These don’t have to be full rehearsals, of course — you can break them up by acts or by choreography or for stagehand prop movement training or whatever. Make sure everyone knows how to not block sight lines for the audience. Make sure everyone has attended at least a few of the rehearsals so they’re not being taught basic parts of their role while everyone else is well past that point. If there’s someone who never makes rehearsals, think long and hard about whether they’re a good fit for their role, or not. Once everyone knows their part backwards and forwards, only then begin full dress rehearsals — since those should be nearly a piece of cake, rather than when the various roles are being learned.
- Know when to delegate. If you don’t have time to lead the chorus in extra rehearsals, make sure the most experienced or most enthusiastic participant knows the choreography really well — then make them responsible for organizing and teaching the chorus. Checking in periodically to make sure things are going well won’t hurt, but unless there’s a disaster remember to stay hands off. Conversely, if one of the chorus comes to you for extra teaching, either open those teachings to everyone, or refer them back to the assigned lead.
- While it’s true everyone has lives outside of the play/ritual/dance/whatever, make sure everyone keeps in mind that a professional, polished performance reflects well upon all of us. It will be important that everyone volunteers as much time as they can, and understands that this will take a significant chunk of effort. As a single example, in the last week before the performance there should probably be rehearsals every night, with people expected to participate in a majority of them.
- If you’re a performer, know your part. Practice it during every rehearsal you can get to, and then again later with other performers or friends if they’re willing, and yet again when alone at home. If there’s music, listen to it as much as you can; if there are lines, declaim them to your long-suffering family and pets! Practice your part repeatedly until it is second nature; until you can pick it up in the middle as if interrupted and still give a flawless performance.
- If you’re the director: be aware that while directing, you are “on” for your performers. Keep it positive — because whatever you say that is negative will carry far more weight than usual, and you can inadvertently crush someone through carelessness. Try hard to be kind: these people are all volunteering their time and effort to you. Try to suit people to their roles, as mentioned above. Give people a chance when you can; e.g.: if you’ve got someone who knows their role but is always late to rehearsal try pairing them up with someone who needs a bit more help in getting their role down pat. Sometimes more responsibility will help settle folks who’re slightly careless with other people’s time but good at taking care of themselves. However, also be aware that it’s you that’s going to have to do all the nasty shit: you’re the one who’ll have to “fire” someone from a role they can’t fill, whether due to lack of talent or lack of practice.
- There are lots of ways to direct. My personal choices follow: when directing, present yourself as calm and collected. Have the tools to hand to take notes, and do so re each rehearsal — perhaps even for the performance itself. Know the script inside and out. Be polite and as articulate as possible with your volunteers; don’t let yourself get easily exasperated or angry. If someone is constantly flubbing their part or role, try to figure out if there’s something in your instructions that’s causing the issue. If not, try to figure out a non-humiliating way to better communicate with that person and help them fix things.
Hmm… this was actually rather entertaining and enlightening for me. I think after the performance I may also add anything new that I’ve noticed. Hope this is useful to you too; enjoy! :)