I directed a show last year that opened in a new theater two days after we received the occupancy permit. Or was it one? I've blocked it out. I can remember it as being terribly stressful, but making the best of it with a wonderful cast who were forced to try to recite their lines over the sound of power tools even as the stage was being built around them. I remember rehearsing in January while wearing gloves inside the theater because the furnace was broken and we were freezing. And those were the good nights. Somehow it all worked out, and The Murder Room was a funny show with a successful run.
I guess some people have more confidence in things automatically working out than I do. You often hear things around the theater like, “Oh, it will all come together,” or “It will be fine, you’ll see.” Well, maybe. My personal view is closer to, “It will happen one way or another, and while we may not crash and burn, I expect a lot more than just not being terrible!” I temper any Pollyanna tendencies with a healthy dose of experience based reality. While the show will go on - the show must go on - it will be a better show if you aren't relying on luck.
I have noticed, many times, that as opening night approaches, the cast gets a little bit nervous about any holes in their personal preparation. This can be a good thing, as it motivates them to focus, and improvement can be dramatic in just a short time. I’ve seen dancers suddenly ask for extra help to learn the steps, actors who finally begin to develop their character once they put on a costume, and back stage logistics smoothed and polished.
Often the curtain goes up for the first time to reveal an adrenaline fueled cast who manages to make it all work. But I believe that if you want to be able to expect it to go smoothly, you need to rehearse until it is smooth. I will spend an entire rehearsal going through set movements until the cast is comfortable. I try to create a realistic rehearsal schedule that will have the company ready ahead of time. I will try to break down a difficult dance or scene or effect and work it until all are confident enough that they could do it in the dark.
For The Murder Room, we did exactly that. Literally. One scene has a series of blackouts. Each time the lights come back on, the cast is in a new comic tableau. To shrieks of “Get the gun!” and “Get the lights!,” the cast scrambles in the dark to their new position. After seemingly endless rehearsals with my hand on the light switch, they were comfortable enough that even when technical problems during performances threatened to throw off their rhythm, they made it work. Lucky? I like to think we made our own luck by everyone working hard, under very difficult circumstances, until they were prepared. They knew they were ready, which is a world away from simply hoping they were ready. "Get the lights!"