This week we take a little peek behind the closed doors of a theatre during its final week of preparations for an opening night—tech week (or “production week”). The very words bring tingles of excitement and dread to theatre people. Crunch time is on! So, what happens during tech week? What SHOULD happen? How does it all come together? We shall see.
This week is called “tech week”, because it’s when the technical elements actually join the rehearsals, and are incorporated into the show. Nominally, by the time tech week starts, every component of the show is ready, merely needing to be combined into a seamless whole. The actors have rehearsed until they can perform the roles in their sleep, the set is built, the costumes are hanging on their racks, and the sound cues are recorded. Everything is ready.
Except when it’s not.
In reality, the set may be 90% built, and probably still needs to be painted; the props are gathered, but might need to be modified to look “right”; sound cues have been recorded and collected, but there may be some question about which options to actually use; half the costumes still need minor alterations or finishing touches; the actors are kind of, sort of ready, and are starting to panic; the stage manager is buying antacids by the barrel, and the director is finding religion. In other words, a “very exciting time” for everyone.
All joking aside, while the individual components may need some more work to be ready, they all will be by opening night. They’ll get fixed, because each component (set pieces, costumes, lights, etc) is the responsibility of just a few individuals, who can work on their own schedule and make sure they get finished. The REAL challenge to tech week is how well everything is put together, which requires everyone.
One reason for that challenge is that some of the “running crew”—the people who will actually be working backstage during the performances—don’t know anything about the show when the week starts. Some of them haven’t read the script, and most of them have never seen a rehearsal. That’s why one of the key aspects of tech week is giving the crew their due, and providing them plenty of time to learn their part of the show. The faster the tech elements are in synch with the show, the more likely the performers will be comfortable onstage when the opening night curtain rises.
The first rehearsal of tech week is called “dry tech”. That’s when the crew walks through all the technical elements from the beginning of the show to the end, with no actors present. Depending on how tech-heavy a show is, dry tech could take half a day, or it could take only 15 minutes. Every single crew person is present, with paper and pen to take notes, and the director and stage manager walk everyone through each step. Every scene change is run once, so that the stage crew can figure out whose hands will go on which piece of scenery. Every lighting cue is run once, so that intensity levels and transition speeds can be adjusted. Every sound cue is played to allow for volume checks and adjusting of special effects. Etc.
Actors love dry techs, partly because they don’t have to be there. The main reason, however, is that after a dry tech, the cast won’t be standing around waiting while the basics are being explained to the crew. The crew WILL have to get those explanations some time, and without a dry tech, it will have to happen when a lot of people’s time is being wasted.
Actors do hate cue-to-cue rehearsals, however, because they do have to attend those. The Q2Q (as it’s usually written) is the very next rehearsal after the dry tech, and its purpose is to let the crew repeatedly practice each technical action, with no time or attention paid to the performance parts. The actors show up and become the stage manager’s puppets. They are told on which line to start, and stop when they are told to “hold”. The idea is for the actors to CUE the technical elements, because this is the only dedicated rehearsal the crew gets.
Starting from the top of the show, and working all the way to the end, as each tech cue is reached, it is run. And if that cue doesn’t work right, the stage manager backs it up and runs it again. And again, and again, until it flows correctly. And then the rehearsal jumps to a few lines before the next technical cue. The more tech there is in a show, the more vital it is that a proper Q2Q be run.
Sometimes actors feel like they get nothing out of a Q2Q, other than bored. So be it. They can’t even wander off when they aren’t onstage, because they have to be ready whenever their next cue comes up. The problem is that they have no idea whether the intervening tech cues before their next entrance will go quickly, or take forever to rehearse. Nothing gets a stage manager more angry during a Q2Q than reaching a tech cue and the needed actors have disappeared.
Rule #1 of Tech Week: nobody wants an angry stage manager.
Actually that’s kind of Rule #1 any time in the theatre…
Experienced actors learn to bring a book and sit quietly offstage, so they can hear what’s going on, but be out of the way, ready for their next entrance.
Q2Qs can be excruciating affairs, trying to pack an entire training process for the crew into a single rehearsal, but they pay off huge dividends in the long run. For the remainder of the week, the technical elements are pretty much working the way they should, and the performers can relax and concentrate on their own work.
For shows with live accompaniment (beyond a pianist who has likely been there at every rehearsal), there is one more tech week rehearsal that is out of the ordinary. Usually the next rehearsal after the Q2Q, it’s when the band/orchestra shows up for the first time. Yes, the band or orchestra has been rehearsing on their own, just like the cast, but this is the first time everything is put together, and it can be rough. The dry tech and Q2Q belong to the Stage Manager, but the Orchestra rehearsal tends to belong to the Music Director (who may or may not be the same person as the conductor/band leader).
Generally, this starts as a normal run-through, but if the music is having real problems, it is very possible for the music director to insist that the rehearsal skip any portions of the script that don’t have music playing. If needed, so be it. Much better in the long run to get those musical portions correct NOW, than crossing fingers that it will sort itself out by opening night.
It is best to do this rehearsal AFTER tech is figured out, because, among other things, the conductor needs a good idea about how much “vamping” he or she will have to provide for scene changes.
There is a subset of the orchestra rehearsal, where it is intended to be entirely about the music–a sitzprobe. This is when the rehearsal consists of everyone sitting, both the cast and the orchestra. This version of the orchestra rehearsal would absolutely be under the control of the Music Director, who spends this one evening getting all the lovely music (both instrumental and vocal) to sound perfect. Not having personally experienced a sitzprobe, I would guess that it is more common with operas, as opposed to theatre musicals. In musicals there tend to be a lot of dance choreography, which also needs to be rehearsed with the live accompaniment for the first time, thus requiring people to be up on their feet for the music rehearsal.
This is it–the actual run-throughs with everything in place. When things are working right, all the pieces click, and it’s a beautiful thing. The director, designers, and stage manager just make minor tweaks here and there. When things are not working right, however, it can get very nerve-wracking, because opening night isn’t going to stay away just because the production isn’t ready.
The most common problems are unforeseen consequences from combining elements that have never been put together until now. Choreography may have to be adjusted once the actors are in their costumes. Spilled stage blood may spread farther than planned, requiring an extra stage hand on mop-up duty during the blackout. Lighting colors may have to be modified slightly to better complement scenery or costume colors. Whatever. The more experienced and organized technical designers, directors, and stage managers will predict and prevent the majority of these kinds of problems, but there is always something.
How difficult each of these rehearsals is, and how long they take, will depend on the show. For a non-musical with a single set, and no special effects or special lighting, dry tech and Q2Q could take a whopping 30 minutes combined. But a well-run theatre group will still spend that 30 minutes before the first run-through of the week.
On the other end of the spectrum, for a typical major musical with multiple locations, times of day, and special effects…well, let’s just say that it is not possible to overstate the importance of having a proper tech week schedule: dry tech, Q2Q, orchestra, dress.
So a tech week schedule for a big musical in community theatre might be something like this:
- Saturday: Final tech set-up and work in the morning. Actor run-thru in the afternoon, with the actors moving set pieces and props around (like they’ve been doing for weeks). The crew is just there to watch the show (the only chance they’ll get).
- Sunday: Dry Tech in the afternoon (no actors, just crew). Q2Q in the evening (with everyone). Commonly, as the crew is disappearing for a dinner break, the actors show up to do a “costume parade”, where all the costumes are tried on and “paraded” in front of the Director and Costume Designer onstage, under the lights. That wraps up about the time the crew returns from dinner, and the Q2Q begins.
- Monday: Orchestra rehearsal (usually costumes but no make-up, unless it’s a sitzprobe, in which case, no costumes).
- Tuesday: Full Dress (maybe w/ makeup)
- Wednesday: Final Dress (starting at normal curtain time, and running like a “real show”)
- Thursday: Dark. (No rehearsal)
- Friday: Opening night.
If you noticed, there was even a day off for the cast and crew the night before opening night. Believe it or not, there are actually theatre groups out there that are organized enough to get everything in during the week, and STILL give the cast and running crew that night off. It gives them a chance to get a good night’s sleep, and the technical designers an evening to make finishing touches, like painting the stage floor.
Now, theatre groups don’t HAVE to do tech week this way. If, for example, every rehearsal is a run-through, then the learning and adjustments that would otherwise happen during dry tech, Q2Q, and orchestra rehearsal, STILL happen, but they’re on the fly, all week, and likely well into the run of the show. The above techniques are the accepted norm in professional theatres, and they require no extra funding or extraordinary training, but ultimately, it’s entirely up to the group to decide how they want to run things. Doing it other ways isn’t “wrong”, it’s just probably not the most efficient method.
Hopefully audience members reading this enjoyed the little glimpse backstage, and maybe a few theatre folks learned something new as well.
In keeping with the theme, I want to introduce you to Q2Q Comics, a funny online comic series clearly being created by a long-term veteran of working backstage. Click that link for some chuckles.
See you at the theatre!
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