It Takes a Community to Put on a Play

Many scoffed when the world was introduced to the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In time we’re learning that Mrs. Clinton was probably more attuned than most of us, and in fact it can take a lot more than just a village to successfully raise a child. So it goes with theatre.

To properly grasp the analogy, understand that to those that conceive of a show, the property becomes much like a newborn infant. All the hopes and dreams attached to our children are also ascribed to a new production. “This is the one … from here we go to Broadway….I’ll finally be recognized…” the dreams are as diverse as the dreamers that begin the process. Yet, as with children, nurture is as important as nature. Just as a brilliant and or talented child needs attention, a magnificent script requires dutiful care, or it can become not so magnificent. Conversely, a child without remarkable assets with proper care can grow to become valuable member of society. So too a lack luster script can still provide ample entertainment if all the elements to the production are given the proper care.

What are the elements that can so deeply affect a show? Obviously script and performers are a significant part of the process. Yet it is all the other influences that can really make or break a show. It is the collaborative efforts of the individual designers that help transport us to the world conceived of by the playwright and interpreted by the director.

There are set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, prop masters, sound designers… the list is nearly endless. In a fully conceived show, many of these people are employed. Each is assigned the task of combining the visions of the playwright and director with there own interpretation of the show, limited by the budget imposed by the producer and coming up with something that will wow the socks off the audience without bringing notice to that particular element. That folks is where much of the magic of theatre lies.

It is the collected works of these unsung heroes, the folks the work late into the nights hanging lights, creating and fitting costumes, building and painting sets, pointing speakers, checking colors and going back to do the same task time and time again till it is just right – therein lies the magic of theatre.

A hint at the complexity of these efforts can be gleaned if you should happen to enter a theatre late at night during what is called Hell Week. This is the final week before opening. For much of the day and evenings, the actors occupy the stage polishing the final little bits that make their performances brilliant. In the dressing rooms, the costume designer is often buried deep in mountains of fabric that all seem destined for the scrap pile. In the shop, bits and pieces of indistinguishable junk are being painted and glued. Skeletal structures suggest what might be a set, and around the apron, the front of the stage, the floor is often cluttered with hundreds of lighting instruments and thousands of feet of wire and cable. The mess is unmaneuverable, and yet everyone manages to get where they need to be.

Once the actors leave the stage, all the elements that have been piled in storerooms and shops flood onto the stage where a whirlwind of activity is punctuated by moments of “heads up” and “that paint is wet.” In the crucial moments when the carpenter and the painter are putting on that all important final detail, when the costumer is just about to thread the needle, when the fight choreographer is measuring off the new approach for the latest stunt, the stage is filled with blackness as the lighting designer tries to focus the newly installed lamp. Pandemonium and anxiety seem to fill the space, with the deadline for everything to be completed rushing in faster than the tasks are being completed.

It’s a ballet of sorts, a comedy, a study in chaos, and at the end of the week, if everybody did their jobs, the curtain rises and the audience responds with their approval. All of the people that have worked so diligently “behind the scenes” pack up the tools of their trade and move on to the next assignment, leaving the accolades or criticisms to those that revel in the limelight.

These artists, the ones we don’t see, are the village. It is the exhaustive efforts of these people who have committed their talents to make theatre great. Make no mistake, there are many. Next time you look at the program, take a look at the tech and crew listings. Often they outnumber those on stage. These theatre participants are in many ways the real heart of theatre, because they do it for the pure love of the work. Seldom you will find a designer working independent theatre that is there to be seen by producers or agents. They present their work because they know how important it is to make the whole package complete.

In a village, you have many types, from the farmer to the chief. So to in theatre, there are many types. Note them, applaud them, they too deserve a hand.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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