This House, This Place

Welcome to Hell Week.

Most of my theatre friends call it Production Week. Through most of our rehearsal schedule, we rehearse three times a week (or four, if there's choreography), but this last week, it's eight days in a row. It's physically and vocally tiring for the actors (especially for the kind of shows we do), and it's mentally and emotionally tiring for me. This time next week, I will feel brain dead.

I think I started calling it Hell Week in high school, and that's what I put on our rehearsal schedule, so that's what we all call it. I always mean to ask my theatre friends if other people call it that too.

Whenever a new stage manager or designer comes to work with us, I make sure I explain to them that we might not work the way they're used to. Over time, we created a blend of the process at a regional theatre like the Rep, and the process at the experimental theatres in New York in the 1960s, and then we've custom-fit that to our work over the last twenty-two years, continually tweaking and readjusting.

Hell Week used to be pretty hellish in our early days – we'd load the set and lights in on Sunday, have three full tech run-throughs, and then open on Thursday. No cue-to-cue, no sitzprobe, no preview. Very frantic. And remember, most of our actors also have day jobs and some have children. I don't know how any of us did that.

These days, we load the set and lights in over a two-week period, while we rehearse on the evolving set. This show was extra cool because Rob had an almost completed set up the weekend we loaded in, which was really helpful to the actors. We always get two and half weeks in the space before opening, which is awesome.

So really, for the past 10-12 years, Hell Week is almost never hellish...

It all started today, Saturday. We had our lighting cue-to-cue rehearsal, where the actors move through the show, and each time the lights change, we stop them, look at the light cue, see if anything needs to be adjusted, then the actors go on to the next cue. In some cases, our cue-to-cues can last 8-10 hours, but our resident lighting designer Ken usually gets us through in 4-5 hours. It can be a bit tedious, but the result is better, more fine-tuned lighting, so it's worth it. And really, it's kind of nice, to essentially have a "lazy day" before the hardcore work begins. We can keep each other entertained.

All that said, Rob broke a New Line cue-to-cue record today – just over an hour. He had really done his homework, and there were only a few things to tweak.

On Sunday, we have our sitzprobe, the one rehearsal in which we focus only on the music. The band comes in for the first time, and we sing through the whole score. Usually, with New Line, this is also the first time the band has played together. But we hire really great musicians so it usually goes pretty smoothly. For the first time, with Next to Normal, we had two sitzprobe rehearsals, so we could cover the whole score without rushing. We'll do the same for Rent next spring.

Then, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, we run the show – full costumes, lighting, sound effects, microphones, band, props, the whole ball of wax. Though we always have the show nicely in hand before Hell Week, adding all those elements really does change things – and in this show, lights and sound will change the show a lot. We usually run these last three rehearsals without stopping, but we may need to stop and fine-tune a few lighting or sound effects Monday. Some of that stuff is pretty involved, and we have to get it right.

My job during this week is fine-tuning and maybe a bit of problem-solving. As our process has evolved and as our actors have grown, I take relatively few notes during Hell Week. And most of those notes are about an actor moving a foot upstage to catch light, or crossing behind someone instead of in front of them, or adjusting staging to make sure the audiences on the far sides still get a good view. And sometimes I ask for slightly different colors in the acting, for an actor to temper an emotion with another conflicting emotion, for an actor to slow something down a bit to make sure it's clear to the audience, that kind of stuff. All the big problems are solved at this point.

The week before Hell Week is the busiest for me as producer. Last week I had to get a final press release and press photos sent out, I had to send out a mass email to our mailing list, I had to get posters and postcards for the next show printed, proofed and picked up, I had to get the program finished and turned in to the printer, then proofed and picked up. I have to get box office change from the bank, I have to get in touch with our "Opening Night Tweeters," to invite them to opening night, I have to check in with the reviewers to see when they're coming so I can reserve seats for them... there's a lot. But being both director and producer has many advantages, so I can't complain.

This week, all I have to do is put the finishing touches on our show. This week is the hardest for the actors, partly because it's every night (and they all have day jobs), and because, like I said, we suddenly throw all these new elements at them that really do change how the show operates.

On Thursday, we'll have a preview. We didn't use to have previews, but it allows us a night with an audience before the reviewers show up. Particularly because we do fairly unconventional work, it's really nice to have that "free" performance for the actors to get used to an audience.

This show's going to be unusual, though, in terms of audience response. Many of the songs don't have a conventional "button" on the end, which cues applause, so some of them won't get applause. When we produced Love Kills, we were stunned to find out that the audience never clapped after the songs. Even when they'd give us a standing ovation at the end. At first, that freaked us out, but we figured out from talking to people that they were just too intensely wrapped up in the story -- and again, many of the songs didn't cue the audience to clap. A few NOTLD songs do have buttons, so they might get applause, but the first several songs in the show "teach" the audience that they don't get to clap, and once we've done that, they may not clap all night, until the end of the show.

Plus, though there are precious few laughs in the show, there are some. But will the audience laugh when the story is this dark and this intense? Or will we get nervous laughter – a tension release – at some of the more intense moments? It'll be different every night. And that's why live theatre is cooler than film.

I do worry a bit about expectations. After we announced Night of the Living Dead last year, Stray Dog Theatre, another company in town, announced they were producing the spoof musical Evil Dead at the same time as us. So it worries me a bit that some folks might come see our show, expecting it to be a spoof. And I bet that both companies will have audiences showing up at the box office, thinking they've come to see the other show...

We've put the phrase "a musical thriller" on all our materials, but people don't always read. You'd be amazed at how many people showed up at Bukowsical having no idea what they were getting themselves into. And that was not a show you wanna go into blind...

As often happens with New Line shows, I just don't know how people will react to this show. All I know is it's really good. The script and score are really strong, and our actors really get it. Nine times out of ten, that's all you need. But if someone is coming, hoping to see dancing zombies and gallons of stage blood, that's just not this show. This is a thriller, not musical comedy torture porn (I love that label).

Hell Week isn't hard on me physically, like it is on the actors, but by the time we open, my brain will be so tired. Solving problems all week and coming up with creative alternatives when things don't work can be taxing, especially after weeks of pouring myself into this show. But I can't wait to put this in front of an audience. It's such a cool piece of theatre...

The adventure continues. I think I see land up ahead...

Long Live the Musical!