Picture this: it’s the end of a play in the Ford Center for Fine Arts. The last lines are read and the actors are taking their final bows before the curtain closes. Where did that play come from?
The short answer: a lot of people working really hard. The more interesting answer can be found in the productions of three productions this term which each represent a different kind of theatre at Knox.
Most people think that play production begins with auditions, but this simply is not so. For senior Kate Donoghue, her choice to produce “Cleansed” began during winter term last year. During her directing class, she was drawn to scenes by British playwright Sarah Kane.
“We were independently drawn to Sarah Kane for similar reasons,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue had to have her crew selected before she petitioned to put on the play last year.
The most important member of the crew is the stage manager. Their job is to make sure the performance runs smoothly, which can mean preparing the rehearsal space, keeping track of production notes, keeps track of cues during productions and setting up props, among many other tasks.
“This year, the three faculty directors know who’s going to be stage manager for them,” theatre professor Neil Blackadder said. Blackadder is directing this term’s production of “Mary Stewart.”
The main stage play stage manager is usually a student who has shown promise while working as an assistant stage manager or while managing a Studio Theatre production.
“It’s not formalized,” Blackadder said. “But what tends to happen is that serving as an assistant stage manager is a kind of apprenticeship for having a go at being the stage manager.”
At this point in a main stage play, the set designer and costume designer have their plans ready to show the actors during the first week of rehearsals. The plans are in place, so the play is ready to find some actors.
Auditions are an essential part of theatre productions, since they can shape the entire feel of the show. For the main stage productions, the students begin the audition by presenting a monologue before performing movement exercises.
In movement exercises, the director will ask the performer to move as their character might.
“I get all the students up on the stage to have them try various things,” Blackadder said.
Finally, the director will give them scenes to read in pairs as cold readings to give the director an idea of what their acting instincts are like with only a couple minutes of rehearsal.
The studio productions had joint auditions a few days after the auditions for the main stage play. Donoghue did movement workshops while sophomore Miranda Loeber, who is directing “Mnemosyne,” worked on line readings.
The number of students who volunteer for a studio play can differ wildly. If there are a lot of roles for a main stage play, more students will get parts and not audition for a Studio Theatre piece. Donoghue also said that she found it was most effective to do what she called “guerilla marketing.”
“You will get a better turnout, undoubtedly, if you go up to people and say ‘Hey, come and audition for this show,’” she said. “People respond to that more than a slew of emails.”
Blackadder described the process of casting a play as “a nightmare.” In the process, there are too many actors who are good enough to cast—for example, in “Mary Stewart” he said he saw half a dozen actresses who he could see occupying the main roles, but in the end, he could only choose two queens.
A lot of it, he said, comes down to how each actor would affect the tone of the play.
“You end up think of a lot of things, including characters in relation with each other,” Blackadder said. “It’s also important to understand it’s not a process you can analyze and distill rationally. At some point, you have to go with your instincts.”
The process of casting a studio play is slightly different. Both directors look over the auditions together to decide which actor will be in which play.
“We have to do it jointly to make sure we don’t want the same actor,” Loeber said.
The time commitment for different plays can vary wildly. The studio play has the longest rehearsal schedule since it was the first play cast and is the last play performed. They rehearse three hours a day, five days a week, digging deep into the play and analyzing their characters before doing their first stumble-through—a rehearsal of the full play that’s still too rough to call a “run-through.”
There isn’t time for this in “Mnemosyne.” The play has the shortest rehearsal time of the three plays and Loeber’s actors only meet for rehearsals three times a week for three weeks.
Cleansed is a mix of the two. Donoghue has chosen to “frontload” her rehearsals for the first few weeks, meeting seven days a week to discuss characters and learn lines so she could do her first stumble-through earlier than normal. Her play relies heavily on motion and movement and so she wanted to get her actors off-book—knowing their lines so they can run through scenes without a script—as soon as possible. After the stumble-through, she will decrease the rehearsal schedule to five days a week.
Both Donoghue and Blackadder mentioned that when it comes to directing action in the scene, they like to let the actor have some say in what they do.
“I encourage them, especially at this stage, to say ‘what if I do this,’” Blackadder said. “If they understand the characters well, the impulses they feel are … valuable.”
Costumes, sets and lighting
There are many parts of the process of making a play that have nothing to do with actors. These portions—usually called “tech” or “production”—can encompass costumes, sets, lighting, audio-visual elements and much more.
“Mnemosyne” has none of this. Since it is Loeber’s first play and she has not taken a directing class at Knox, she’s producing what’s called a bare-stage play. Her only props are wooden black boxes called acting boxes, her only costumes are ones she can get for free—from either her actors’ closets or the Free Store and her lighting is the regular lights in the Studio Theatre.
These restrictions force the director to be creative.
“The script calls for one character to be wearing a negligee and boxer shorts and this is a guy, so we have to find a negligee that fits him, so that’s a challenge,” Loeber said.
Donoghue has already taken the directing class, so when she petitioned to direct a one-act play, her choices weren’t as limited. In addition to being able to get costumes from the costume shop, actually have a set and use more creative lighting, Donoghue has decided to use audio and visual elements to create emotion in the play.
“The moments in the show that call for technical effects involve really subjective tense emotional experiences,” Donoghue said.
She also said that tech adds an element of vision to a show that bare stages don’t have. In bare stage plays, she said, one has to focus more on characters and their motivation, but with a teched show, one has the time and resources to create an overall feel for the play through lighting, costuming and sets.
“Once you add tech to your show, your research increases tenfold,” Donoghue said.
For teched shows, like “Cleansed” or the main stage play, there is a weekly production meeting, where the director and assistant manager meet with the designers on what they’re working on. Then, during the last week of production called tech week or Hell week, the focus shifts from the cast to the crew.
The run-throughs during tech week (or in the case of the main stage play, tech weekend) are much more focused on the design side of the play. Actors may have to stand on stage for hours while the crew adjusts the lights, sounds and costumes.
“It reminds all of us, especially the actors, that this is a collaborative process,” Blackadder said. “Without all the hard work of the designers and the building of the designs, all the actors would be standing up there naked in the dark.”
After the final adjustments are made, after the last run-through is run through, whether there’s more to be done or not, opening night comes.
“You’re extremely excited and extremely nervous,” sophomore Jordyn Stewart , who is directing one of the scenes in “Mnemosyne, said.
Stewart believes both emotions are necessary for the first night, as the excitement encourages the cast and crew to perform but the nerves make them careful.
“Having an opening night without either isn’t good,” Stewart said. “Feeling too excited or too nervous can distract you, but having both keeps you in check with yourself.”
When the actors go on stage to perform, they are going with weeks of practice, supported by the blood, sweat and tears of the crew. The culmination of months of work from the actors is all the audience sees, but if the cast and crew do their jobs right, those few minutes are worth all the work.