Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting there... from day one to opening night

An audience of a thousand elementary pupils in one of
Open Space's performances in Candon, Ilocos Sur 
One of the biggest challenges that a community-based theater group faces is performing to an uninitiated audience. In the last decade or so, while we obviously love performing for Baguio's theater-going public, we have had to interrupt a few performances when the audience got to be too unruly thereby making it impossible for a performance to go on, particularly matinees filled with elementary pupils and/or high school students.

The late Philippine theater pillar, Rolando Tinio, a playwright, director and actor, was also notorious for interrupting performances. And when confronting the audience in such instances, he would essentially let them know that with all the hard work that artists put in a production, they deserved some respect.

Eventually, we found out that these unfortunate interruptions happened to other groups too in Baguio and wanting to avoid such confrontations, we racked our brains for ways to avoid them. We came up with a pretty simple yet so far effective solution: information. Before a play starts, we would have someone go up on stage to do a preamble that includes some background on the material being presented and basic theater etiquette (we must admit that the latter would also include a mild threat that anyone disrupting the performance will be escorted out of the theater). Then at the end of each performance, we would hold an open forum where the audience can interact with the artists and technicians – the director, designers, actors, stage managers, etc. Doing this somehow helped, for since we started doing it, we have never had to stop another performance.

In these open forums, one of the most asked questions is, “how long did it take you to put this play together?” I usually jump at this chance to let the audience know about our production process -

Musical Director Ethan Andrwe Ventura leading music
rehearsals in this 2006 production of  "Once on this Island" 
PRE-PRODUCTION – is basically the planning stage and making preparations before rehearsals begin. Once the script is chosen, the ball gets rolling. In our group, staging a play would basically involve two groups of people – the artistic staff and the production staff. The former is headed by the director and is made up of the creative team, i.e. the actors, designers, etc. and the latter by the executive producer, who leads the production team including the production manager, the marketing team, etc. The director and the producer would meet to discuss the feasibility of staging a particular play - the director would give the producer a general idea about his concept for the play, and based on that, the producer would then come up with a production budget. Sometimes it'sthe other way around – the producer presents the available budget for a production and the director would have to adjust his concept accordingly. With the amount of time, energy and money it takes to stage a production – a middle ground between artistic integrity and commerce is necessary.

Questions we usually ask ourselves when choosing a script, aside from its artistic values, are – does it fit into our theme for that particular theater season? Is it relevant to our target audience? Given our available artists, can we put together the cast for the production? Do we have the right venue for it? Can we afford to stage it?

But, though we know that commercial viability must be taken into consideration, one of Open Space's biggest folly is not letting this get in the way of staging what we believe is a good play. If the revenue projections aren't promising, but we believe that the play must be seen by our audiences, then we go ahead with it with eyes closed.
Once the director and the producer agree to go on with a production, a stage manager (who works directly with the director) and a production manager (who works under the producer) are hired for the production. The first production meeting is held between them – the two managers are briefed about the production – both on the artistic and financial aspects of the production. From there, the stage and production managers would work together to come up with a Master Production Schedule: from the next production meeting all the way to opening night. Also in that production meeting, the director would name his choices for the design team – lights, sound, set and costume designers (plus a musical director for musicals, and a choreographer if the play requires choreographed dancing). The managers would arrange a second meeting, this time with the designers, where the director can give them his concept for the play, which is going to be the basis for their respective designs.

From the time the script is chosen to this second meeting usually takes two weeks. A week is given for the designers to come up with their designs, and barring any revisions called for by the director, then casting and staffing begins.

The cast helping set up lighting and sound equipment in this
performance of "Tonyo/Pepe" in Candon, Ilocos Sur. (2006)

Staffing involves putting together the rest of the production team – the stage manager would usually get two assistants, and so would the production manager. If the director hasn't pre-cast the play, then auditions would be scheduled, which is organized and handled by the stage manager and his assistants. Auditions can run for a few days. The first part would be the general auditions where the director would narrow down his choices. The callbacks, or the ones who make it to the director's shortlist, would be asked to come back again for another round of auditions. An audition for a straight play usually involves having actors read a scene from the script, and one for a musical would have them singing a song. Staffing and casting usually takes a week or more to accomplish.

PRODUCTION PROPER - so roughly three to four weeks since the script was chosen, we are ready to go into the actual production of the play. We usually reserve the first day of rehearsals for the first general production meeting with everyone involved present. Here, everyone is introduced, so that everybody knows who they're collaborating with. The final set design is also presented to everyone. After that, a reading of the script is done. The director can ask for anywhere between one to five readings before going into the next phase of the rehearsal. So after more or less a week and several readings of the script, actual rehearsals begin.

We start with blocking where the director directs the movement/positioning of the actors onstage. In our production of Manifest Destiny, a one-act play with 12 scenes with a total running time of about 90 minutes, it took us about 3 days to block, then review, then polish each scene. So to block, review and polish all scenes in a one-act play may take roughly 40 days. In these 40 days, the following also took place:

1. Set and props construction (which, in our case more often than not, is also done by the actors and whoever else is free and willing).

2. Pictorials – for photos that will be used for publicity.

3. The lighting, sound and costume designers have watched the run-throughs (or rehearsing a scene or segment from start to finish without stopping) and have done their respective designs accordingly.

4. Costumes were put together based on the costume designer's specifications.

5. Public relations campaign is ongoing (traditional tri-media and online advertising, posters, flyers, etc.) and letters have been sent to various institutions such as schools, companies, etc. inviting them to watch the play.

Performer Rosaline Niwane getting ready for an outdoor
performance of Kafagway at the Rose Garden,
Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Once the play is blocked, the actors, with the director, can now work on making flesh and blood out of the characters they're playing – also called as characterization and internalization. It is also during this time that the actors get to wear their costumes for the first time, a couple of weeks or so before opening night, so should there be any piece of costume that needs to be adjusted, there's more than enough time to do so. More run-throughs are done after this, and after maybe another couple of weeks, everything is brought into the actual performance space.

Once rehearsals move from the rehearsal hall to the actual theater, the one thing that must be ready when everyone arrives for the first day of rehearsals is the set. The stage managers, together with the stage crew, usually arrive much earlier on that day to rehearse the set changes and transitions. Then with the actors, a set-adjustment rehearsal. Here, the actors get to move around the actual set for the first time, and they need some time to get adjusted. After that, a run-through of the whole play is done. While the lighting and sound designers have had their designs ready much earlier, this is also the first time that their seeing the actual set with the actors on it. The next day will be their day – technical rehearsals. Earlier on that day, the lights would have been focused and plotted. A sound check would've been done also. When the actors arrive for rehearsals later that day, everything must be ready for another run-through. This is usually one of the longer rehearsals to allow for adjustments in the lighting and the sound. This usually happens a couple of days before the actual performance.

The day before opening night is usually reserved for the dress rehearsal – here, everything that's going to happen on opening night, minus the audience, happens. Everything is rehearsed – from what goes on onstage and backstage, to front-of-house management, or ushering. This is usually the time when we invite the media, friends and relatives to watch so the ushers also get to rehearse controlling a crowd.

So, at the very least, for a non-musical, one-act straight play, from the time the script was chosen to the time you, our audience, showed up with your ticket, takes roughly three months of hard work, and lots of fun. Give another couple of weeks if it's a full-length play. Add another month if it's a musical to allow for music rehearsals. Another couple of weeks for choreography if the play calls for it.

It is definitely not a work in the park, so to speak, but despite all the hard work, the bond formed by sharing the same vision... the intensity of those 90 days... and the applause of a respectful and appreciative audience when we finally get to opening night... make it all worthwhile.

A scene from "Kafagway: Sa saliw ng mga Gangsa," Open Space's tribute to
Baguio City on its centennial year.

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