#12. Rehearsals – Or… Making it to Opening Night
by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas
In the theater, things don’t always happen in a nice, sequential and unstressful order. And in Equity-waiver theatre—read low-budget—things not going as planned is the order of the day. Meaning a playwright doesn’t often have the luxury of a wonderful theatre to work in, fabulous designers to bring her vision to life, a positive casting period during which actors ideal for the roles you’ve written show up to audition and a smooth but exciting rehearsal period where each rehearsal builds upon the last; until finally your show peaks on opening night in front of an appreciative audience with top critics in attendance loving your play. Oh, would that it were so easy! In fact, getting a play up is more a case of overcoming obstacles—whether those obstacles be physical or mental. And with Villa Thrilla, we had our share of both.
Once we had our cast—a challenge in itself—rehearsal began with just four weeks until opening night. (For more on the challenges of casting, see this post in the series: https://lafpi.com/2015/03/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-9-finding-your-actors/) Four weeks is not much time when you’re mounting a new play with a cast of ten; particularly when it seemed impossible to get all the actors to the same rehearsals, even though the play required that their characters be on stage at the same time.
You do your best to get peoples’ schedules ahead of time in order to plan rehearsals but a few people in our cast apparently hadn’t heard about looking at a calendar to verify their availability before committing to doing a play. Did they not know about Yom Kippur or their Mother’s birthday when they signed on? Add losing a cast member one week into rehearsals, losing another cast member for 10 days when a parent became sick out of town and a third cast member who was so difficult to work with we wanted to lose him but replacing him would have meant losing another cast member we liked and there just wasn’t time to get new people up to speed.
The only advantage I can see to 99-seat theatre going away—and I truly hope it does not—is an advantage only to Producers. I guess they should get something for having to pay actors more. The advantage I see is that actors will need to make a greater commitment to the play they have agreed to do, adhering to rehearsal schedules for the privilege of earning minimum wage. Currently actors can pretty much not show up if they feel a little sick, have an audition the next day or realize there were important events they forgot—including their dog’s graduation from obedience school.
The fact that we didn’t have all the actors to rehearse when we needed them made a lot more work for Gary Lee Reed (Director), Josephine Austin (Stage Manager) and me. At the time, if felt as if it took years off our lives. Gary couldn’t tell what he was looking at with the stage missing up to 5 people at any given rehearsal, which resulted in having to block scenes multiple times; Josie was constantly changing blocking in her master script and having to phone errant actors who were late or hadn’t shown up; And I was not able to watch and rewrite during rehearsals, something I’d been counting on, because I had to stand-in for missing cast members—often two or three of them in the same scene. I was dashing around the stage speaking with multiple dialects and vocal timbres providing a real person for the actors who had actually shown up to rehearse. Some nights, we wanted to strangle someone—usually someone who was missing—and yet, we had to try to remain upbeat for the actors who bothered to come to rehearsal. What would be gained by screaming? I don’t know; we didn’t try it. But I doubt it would have improved the rehearsal experience, which I’d hoped would be a gloriously fruitful period when my play would change and grow in leaps and bounds. But alas, I didn’t get to have that on this one.
Being an AEA actor as well as a playwright, I like to think I understand actors but when I put my producer hat on for Villa Thrilla, I was shocked by the behavior of some of my fellow thespians. Emergencies are one thing but it would never occur to me to commit to doing a show, commence rehearsals and then spring a few “unavailable” dates on the producers.
In retrospect, I would have helped myself by choosing a play with a smaller cast but I’ve already explained why I chose this play in the post on Selecting the Work: https://lafpi.com/2014/12/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-3-selecting-the-work/
Shockingly, we did not have our entire cast onstage at the same time until 5 days before opening. And the only thing I can say by way of comfort if you’re considering producing your play, is that once we got to tech, the actors were mostly great. They showed up for the remainder of rehearsals, then performances and, for the most part, knew their lines. So you may get a few more gray hairs, but if you hire professionals, they will be there.
Next up: Ticketing, pre-sales and making some money back