Directing a play is a long drawn-out process. The first step is to decide what play or musical will be performed and this may depend on the talents possessed by the students. You cannot, for example, put on a musical with a large male cast if you do not have enough young men who are musical. The decision also depends on the age group; a GCSE group of 15 to 16 year olds can take on almost any adult play while the choice for younger students is more limited.
Once the decision is made, auditions are held. The dilemma here is that most of the students want a ‘main’ part and there will inevitably be some disappointments. The director should, however, always make sure that there are at least two people holding the auditions in order to avoid any suspected favouritism.
You now have a play, or musical, a cast and a script or score and it is time to draw up a rehearsal timetable. Initially, rehearsals are held twice a week after school for one or two hours but as the date of the production draws nearer, rehearsals will take place three times a week after school, during the weekends and at any other available times.
The cast and director usually have a simple read through of the script before starting the actual rehearsal process. The read-through can be very nerve-wracking because, despite the fact that it is supposed to be a cold reading, everyone is on the alert for possible casting or script problems.
The first Rehearsal brings everything into reality. Up until this point it has just been the script. Now there’s a sea of young faces, staring, waiting, wondering – is this going to be a great experience, a great play, or memorable for all the wrong reasons?
The first few rehearsals are taken up with ‘blocking’, which is when the director determines an actor’s movements and positions on stage. At this point, everyone works with scripts in hand. In some plays the stage directions have been very clearly indicated by the playwright, in others there are fewer instructions and in some, none at all. This is an extremely important part of the rehearsal process and the director must be dynamically inventive. All of the blocking must come from the director (and whatever the actors are able and encouraged to contribute). There’s nothing worse than watching a play where you can see the actor thinking, “I’m moving this way because I was told to. I don’t know why I’m moving this way but here I go!” Blocking that seems to come from nowhere, and has no grounding in the action or the characters, takes the audience out of the world of the play and must be avoided that at all cost – we want to plunge the audience into the play and never let them go! During the initial rehearsal period, the cast should be learning their lines although they do, quite naturally, learn some of them as they go along during the rehearsals. Some students have learnt all their lines by the third or fourth rehearsals, some take a little longer, while others are still struggling days before the performance.
Some rehearsals run beautifully smoothly while others, for a number of reasons, are frustratingly awful. Students may arrive late, some may not turn up at all, and mounting tension can give way to quarrels, grievances and jealousy.
However, rehearsals are now nicely in progress and it is time to think of the costumes, scenery and props. If you are lucky, you may have a costume-maker who will immediately relate to you and your requirements. Hopefully you have someone in the art department who understands the play and your ideas and also has a deal of creativity of their own. You may find a stage manager, although this can be a thankless task, and he or she will have put together a team armed with a list of props to be bought, borrowed or made. Or, if you are really unlucky, you will have to do everything yourself!
You are approaching the date of the performance and start to move from the drama studio to the theatre stage and begin to work with the scenery and props in place. It is now also time to work with the light and sound designer, engineer and technicians. If you do not have a light and sound specialist, this task will fall to you.
However, it is still looking nothing like the finished product and there are only three weeks to go. In spite of directing a large number of performances, the usual pre-performance panic is setting in.
One week to go and at last the play or musical is taking shape – a story is emerging. The costumes are hanging expectantly in the costume wardrobe, the scenery has not yet collapsed and most of the props can be found – beware of those who might take a fancy to some of your hard-found props, especially period ones.
The next big step is the technical (or ‘tech’) rehearsal. The director, actors and sound and light people ensure that the lights will go on and off, fade in and fade out at the correct time and that any sound effects will be heard at the right time. You do not want a telephone being picked up by a cast member before it has rung, nor do you want bells chiming after the door has been opened.
All is going more or less well and the day of the dress rehearsals has arrived. There is no stopping and starting; the whole performance must run straight through, come what may. This is when you hope that anything that could go wrong will happen today.
Finally – the first night. By now everyone is exhausted but the adrenalin takes over. The make-up is on, despite the reluctance of the male performers to wear it. Costumes are donned and the actors are waiting in the dressing rooms suffering from stage fright before they even get on stage. There is a five-minute call and the actors who are in the first act rush to the wings, where they stand shaking in fear, worried about forgetting their lines, falling over, missing their cue and so on.
Someone gives a welcoming speech. The house lights are dimmed; the stage lights fade in as the curtain opens. The magic begins!