So You Think You Can Produce, Part 4: Make It Work

Everybody understands the importance of good acting and musicianship in musical theatre—without them, obviously the show isn’t going to be very good, even if it’s brilliantly written, composed, and directed. What you might not realize unless you’ve spent any time thinking about it is how vital good design is to a show.

An easy way to see what I’m talking about is to attend a staged reading. Staged readings are wonderful, of course, and provide an invaluable look into what works and what doesn’t work in a show, but even the best staged reading is to a fully-mounted production what a 15-year-old is to his or her adult self—there’s a lot of the basic underpinnings of who he or she will be, and a lot of promise, but definitely some awkwardness that needs smoothing out. A big part of that smoothing is your design.

I talked about hiring designers way back in Part 1 of this series, because it’s important to have them on board early. You want your costume, scenic, sound, props, and light designers to be with you from the beginning of the process so that you are all working together to create a whole (the production) that will work as a unified piece of art.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rigmarole of auditions and scheduling and rehearsals and to neglect your designers. I beg you, no, I implore you: do not do this thing.

Your set will *probably* be smaller than this one. ("Celebration of Hope," via Wikipedia.)

Your set will *probably* be smaller than this one. (Photo: “Celebration of Hope,” via Wikipedia)

Learn from my experience. If your design falls apart, no matter how hard the rest of your artistic team works, your show is never going to be quite what it had the potential to be. And when you hit tech, you want your director and SM and actors and musicians to be figuring out how best to do their job in the environment of your implemented design. You don’t want them to suddenly have to become ad hoc designers themselves.

Luckily, it is not that difficult to avoid this fate. All you need is the magic of communication and planning.

You’ve already hired designers whose work you respect. Now it’s about working together to help them put their skills into practice.

How To Work With Designers

  • Get them a script early in the process.
  • Don’t make them fend for themselves if you have a design concept in mind. You don’t want them planning for a Bollywood-inspired set when you were going with a steampunk theme.
  • Meet with the whole design team early to set expectations.
  • Continue to meet weekly or bi-weeklyand at each meeting have a designer present their ideas, color scheme, swatches, sketches, or models.
  • Collaborate with your designers to set clear and realistic deadlines for initial design ideas, final models or plots, and actual build for their design components. Scenic, lighting, and sound designers are going to do most of their actual work in the first few days of tech, but costume and props designers can be shopping, thrifting, and building pieces earlier than that.
  • Keep checking in on progress and adjusting deadlines. Snafus can and do arise. If you are communicating regularly, you’ll be better equipped to be flexible and to problem-solve as issues come up.
  • Invite your designers to runs (multiple) of the show before tech so that they can see where exactly actors will be standing, what their movement needs are, and whether any of the design plans will need adjusting.
#TonyCanYouHearMe (Sound Designers at Rakvere Theatre, via Wikipedia)

#TonyCanYouHearMe (Photo: Sound Designers at Rakvere Theatre, via Wikipedia)

The Flip Side: Marketing Design

You want everything on stage to be pretty, of course, but you also want people to come see the prettiness unfolding on your stage. Hopefully your marketing efforts are paying off, but in this media-literate and highly visual era, if you want to be taken seriously you need to have good graphic and web design as well as production design.

It’s tempting to slap together an image for promotional materials in Microsoft Paint and to make your show/company’s website your kid brother’s first HTML project, because you’re working so darn hard on everything else you need to do to put on a show, but join me in a thought experiment:

If you didn’t know anything about this show, would this image or this website or this Facebook event graphic make you think it was worth getting off the couch for?

Friends, acquaintances, and the mysterious Theatre-Going Public have a lot of demands for their time and attention, and can certainly tell the difference between a poster that says, “I put thought and effort into this!” and one that says, “I’m an afterthought!” Not knowing what you know, namely, that this show will change their lives, they need the promotional materials to convince them to give you an hour and a half of their Friday night.

You’ve planned your logistics.

You’ve hired your production and artistic team.

You’ve cast your show.

You’ve started rehearsals.

You’ve marketed the heck out of your show.

You’ve made the design work.

It sounds to me like you’re ready to tech and perform.

I wish you the absolute best of luck.

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