“The 39 Steps – Part VII – Tech Talk

So in the middle of one of the day’s tech rehearsals, Sean also had to factor in a “thing for the donors.” One of the benefits of supporting Geva at a certain level is a periodic invitation to peek behind the scenes, and this is potentially distracting from business as usual. About 20 people gathered in the Nextstage for a presentation by Matthew Reinert (director of production), Michael Raiford (scenic designer), and Apollo Mark Weaver (charge artist).

Michael’s concept for the set, “a sophisticated playground with the sense of richness of an old movie theatre that everything else moves in,” incorporates various Hitchcockian elements. Light and shadows play an important role in this production, and the set should give the audience a sense of vertigo, between the upside-down candles and the pattern on the marble floor (Apollo described the effort it took to translate the design into practicality – to get the marble effect, as well as the reflectivity of some of the wall tiles, which will aid in the play of light). Michael and Matthew likened the building of a set to the building of a house – you start with an idealized design, then adapt it for the realities of time, budget, and technology. While the team starts planning months in advance, the set is actually build in just 4 weeks (offsite, about 2 miles away, so it has to be transportable, but the pieces also have to fit together seamlessly), and installed in the theatre in 3 days. Matthew explained that, especially in a fast-paced show like The 39 Steps, there are lots of cross-departmental conversations about costumes and sets to ensure they work together when they finally meet up.

Then we were invited into the Mainstage to watch the final 15 minutes of tech rehearsal before their dinner break, and Sean answered questions from the group. I asked why, in a theatre this small, microphones were necessary for the actors. He explained that because of the cinematic quality of the show, they are experimenting with the mikes, determining how much amplification is needed in order to hear the actors’ dialog over the underscoring or in scenes where they are out in the house. They can always make changes in preview if necessary, and he compared tech rehearsal to going camping – it’s better to throw lots of stuff in because after that you can always take something out, but it’s too late to add anything!

In this roughly 100-minute show, there are over 1000 different light/sound cues, set moves, and costume changes. You can do the math, so no wonder Sean said at the beginning of this journey that the show is “built to break.” But given all of the talent and effort that has gone into this production, it’s also build to withstand.

The Thirty Nine Steps – Part VI – Tech Rehearsal

Lights, music, action! Then stop. Then the actors stand around while the crew adjusts light cues or the angle of a doorway or the location of various props. Finally – rehearsal is in the main stage, with costumes (I hardly recognized the actors!), sets, props, mikes (mikes? More about that later…). The actors have their lines down and it’s time for the unsung heroes of theatre to get busy making sure the spots are in the right place, the sets don’t interfere with closing the curtain, the doorbell rings (wait – we need a doorbell!), and so on.

This is where it all comes together, and adjustments are made (like installing a doorbell, or discarding a bit of a costume that interferes with the action). Watching it take 20 minutes to get through a 1-minute scene, I tried to calculate the staggering amount of effort that goes into producing a mere 2 hours of ephemeral entertainment. Thousands of man-hours, counting the time of not just the actors and director, but also stage managers, set designers and builders, costume and prop shop, lighting and sound crew, and many others who work literally behind the scenes. And for many of them (as with, perhaps, many of us in other careers?), if they do their job right, you won’t even notice. Only if a spot ends up on empty space next to an actor, or music plays too early and drowns out an actor’s lines, will the audience be aware of the people behind the curtain pulling the strings.

In addition to attending to details like making sure a rotating doorway clears the hanging lights, Sean and the stage managers were also diligently wandering around the orchestra and balcony to make sure that even ‘the cheap seats’ had good visibility for certain scenes where sets might impede a view of the action. Sitting in this particular rehearsal reminded me that theatre is truly a labor of love.

There’s an incredible amount of technical expertise required to stage a show, in addition to the obvious talents required by the actors and director, and what there is to show for it is fleeting. ” – Maggie Symington






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