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Countdown to Curtain! How to Prep for a Production

Timothy Thompson details the behind-the-scenes goings on at his schools production of Detective Story.

(© Timothy Thompson)
The third year drama class at UNC School of the Arts will begin performances of Detective Story tomorrow. This drama, directed by Carl Forsman and written in 1949 by Sidney Kingsley, comes with cops, robbers, detectives, and crooks—an ensemble totaling 29 actors (virtually, the whole third year class). I wondered how much preparation was needed to make a show with so many characters run smoothly. I showed up to a dress rehearsal to better understand how the stage manager, designers, technicians, and actors prepare to make this mammoth show work. Without further ado, I present to you the preshow countdown for Detective Story:

Peyton Becker, the stage manager, arrives at the theater before actors and crew. As a stage manager, some of Peyton's many responsibilities include developing, writing, and submitting daily rehearsal and technical schedules to the creative and technical teams, keeping the channel of communication among the cast and crew open and clear. Becker also sets up the rehearsal space, is in charge of clean-up, and the safety and well-being of everyone on set. Everyone on deck—be it actor, technician, or designer—reports to Peyton with any issues or technical concerns. She calls the shots once performance runs begin. After every performance, she then types up a report that sums up what occurred that evening. "This is one of those jobs where I hope nothing exciting happens," she says. Everything must run smoothly.

When a show begins its run, it's the stage manager's job to call the light and sound cues. For Detective Story, there are a few dozen lights cues and a whopping 144 sound cues for Peyton to call. She showed me what she referred to as the stage manager's console, a device she used to communicate every single cue.

Actors arrive, sign in, and begin a full vocal warm-up with Mary Irwin, head of the voice/speech department for the School of Drama. Professional companies rarely schedule time for their actors to warm up, so it's definitely a wonderful thing to have a warm-up built into the pre-show agenda. The run crew also arrives and begins the job of sweeping the set and setting up the props at the top of the show. In Detective Story, there are close to 225 hand props! Every single one of these must be accounted for and placed correctly at the top of the show.

Cast members Miles Duffield and Elizabeth Lail lead a fight call. Any actor involved in a moment of ‘violence' that occurs on stage, have the opportunity to run through that moment before the top of the show. This can be as little as a shove into a chair or a full on fight involving a gun.

Kai Ravelson is the wig and makeup designer for Detective Story. She and seven wig and makeup artists have turned the green room into a makeshift studio. Due to the show's large cast, there is no studio large enough to handle what this team needs. This room, with all of the lights and people working in it, can reach temperatures in the high eighties.

There are a total of ten wigs, one mustache, and a tattoo. From this moment up until a half hour into the show, the wig and makeup team will be busy adorning the ensemble with these wigs.

Peyton makes a call that the house is now open. The stage is completely cleared of cast and crew as the audience begins to enter and take their seats. At some point between now and when the show begins, the actors will put on their costumes. Actors must remain in dressing rooms or backstage and out of sight until Peyton calls for "places."

AND IT'S SHOWTIME! After a long rehearsal period and grueling hours, the lights come up, the show begins, and the audience is wowed. Though packed and sometimes stressful, preparation is truly everything in this profession and EVERYTHING gets accomplished somehow in that heavily concentrated hour and a half before the show begins. Every actor, designer, and technician hits their marks with precision and grace on the set of Detective Story, which makes for a truly wonderful evening. I am very proud of the third year class. As I was observing their pre-show ritual, I could not help but feel that contagious excitement and anxiety during those moments before "places." The collaboration and love devoted to the work everyone does—that shared effort to put a show together—is another reason why I love the work I do.


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