Timelines of stage productions
August 20, 2018 7:26 PM   Subscribe

How long do stage productions take to manifest, from the moment there's an idea to when the show gets on stage for the first time? What are some specific examples of production timelines?

I've been working on my first full-length show for Fringe and the entire time people have been telling me we are super prepared and way ahead of schedule (right now it's less than a month to the show, our script is pretty much sorted and everyone's learned their lines, we have a couple of big prop things and some costuming to sort out but most of the rest is done - I'd say we're 75% there).

This baffles me - I keep feeling like we still need more time, and the idea that there are shows that are about to start the same time we are but haven't even started rehearsing yet seems unfathomable. HOW DO YOU LIVE?!

My issue is that I have no perspective: I haven't really done anything like this before. The bulk of my performance experience has been in making small numbers for a variety show - most times there isn't even a formal development process, you just make the piece in your own time and show up. The rare times where there has been a structured rehearsal & development process from start to finish it's been roughly 6-8 weeks, but again that's usually been people bringing in their own pieces rather than a full stage script.

The closest experience I have to the show I'm doing now is when I was part of a student theatre musical last year - we had inklings of an idea around January/February, a script was written in March, and we staged in May. Which I only just realised is a lot shorter than I originally imagined - it felt like it took forever! (For context, the show I'm doing now was first roughly developed in Dec/Jan, then when we got the opportunity to do Fringe the script was written from Feb to March/April, then it was developed with the cast until about May/June, then we've been rehearsing weekly till now. Props & costumes were developed roughly on the same timeline.)

I know of people who took years to take their idea into some kind of tangible format, but then the actual staging/rehearsal/production process was relatively quick. I also know of shows where chunks of it were developed over years, then it was all put together into one megashow. This is why my development process feels short in comparison. But I'd like to have more information about how other shows operate!

How long would shows of a similar nature of mine take from start to finish? When do props & costumes take place? What about script development, blocking, rehearsal, tech, dress?

Elements of my show:
- It's an hour long
- It's mainly me, but there are two other cast members who serve both as my stage assistants and as part of an overarching narrative, as well as an MC side character
- It's a combination of magic and storytelling (think Vagina Monologues in terms of style)
- The show is made up of sections that could stand on their own with a little adaptation (and indeed I have performed bits of it here and there), as well as an overarching plotline that ties it all together
- There are a few major props but not an elaborate set design/setup
- There are some lighting and sound design, but not live music or anything specially composed (the most sound editing that's happened is me putting some audio voiceovers together)
- One costume & one costume item have to be specially made because they also function as magic tricks, but most of the other costumes have pretty much been a combination of stuff we already have with borrowed stuff
- It's being debuted in a small black-box-ish theatre
- There aren't any auxilliary things like an ARG (though that is one of my dreams)
- There is a movement piece as well as a good amount of magic that has to be learned & practiced, but otherwise it's mainly talking - no circus stunts or anything of that nature
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think the most important thing in the timeframe, especially from the point you are at is not the amount of calendar time, but the amount of working time that goes on.

I had a script produced in an Equity showcase production off-off Broadway a few years ago, and the rehearsal started on April 20, with opening night May 7. I couldn't believe it - it was a full length with a cast of 9 in the style of Shakespeare, although the staging was fairly basic. But they were pros, working full time on it for the rehearsal period.

When we did the same show ourselves a few years earlier, we cast in January for an April production with biweekly rehearsals of a couple of hours each. If you look at the time taken, it might have been pretty similar - 80 or so hours. But as amateurs, we had to deal it out much more slowly.

In my (community level) experience, props and costumes don't need to come until very close to the end (the last rehearsal or two) - with the caveat that if they're unusual or important you need to get them in sooner so the performer can get familiar with it.

Tech rehearsal is a day or so, maybe 6-8 hours of loading.in and setting up lights etc, then a couple cue-to-cue runs that take a couple hours the first time, maybe an hour the second. In Canadian Fringes the tech time you have is very limited, like 3 hours per show, so you need to be very organized and know as much as possible what you want before load in. Not sure how it works down there, but if there are any documents around tech read and understand them thoroughly. If you are local and can see the venue, it's a good idea.

In terms of the movement and magic, I think that is somewhat personal - some people have better kinesthetic senses and memories and more experience than others. It also depends on the level of precision needed - in the magic specifically is it just working with a straightforward gimmick or does it require a lot of intricate moves? Is the audience misdirected or are they paying a lot of attention?

From what you describe, your show sounds fascinating and you sound like you're in a good place pending the complexity of the magic and movement, and how easy learning that is to you. Knock 'em dead!
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:47 PM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

So much of the professional theatre world is dictated by time (never ever be late for anything!) and trying to pack in as much as possible, and producers usually try to keep contracts as short as possible. Work before box office starts coming in, that is. And of course there is a balance between minimum rehearsal time and making a good show that the audience is going to like.

Depending on the Association or Guilds (which act like unions) you are working under will have a direct result on how long there is for things.

If a theatre company commissions a playwright to write a first draft, they might give you 6 months or a year, depending on their needs, and how much time the playwright has available. Not to mention things like how long the show is, how many characters, is there music, and so on.

A 60 minute play would probably get a professional rehearsal period of 2 weeks in North America. The very general rule of thumb for straight plays can be 1 minute of rehearsal for 1 minute of stage time. This can vary depending on cast size - a solo show is hard to rehearse for 8 hours a day, but anything over 3 actors and it's usually a full 8 hours.

Rehearsals props are usually there from day one if they'e been requested, and you start to see show props pretty quick after that (depending on many many factors, like what are the props, how busy is the props person).

Tech rehearsals can vary. Everything from a few hours as in the Canadian Fringes like Homeboy Trouble mentions, to days and weeks, depending on budgets and requirements.

The doing is the thing! You will learn so much for next time about how much time felt right, how prepped you felt, audience response and so on. The thing to do is is learn from it, and keep going!
posted by miles1972 at 10:13 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to the company side of it, but I've just been working as a technician for a venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. Fit-ups there (that's the one-off session just before your run where we figure out how the sound/lighting/set will work in the space) are usually an hour and a half or two hours, which is NOT VERY LONG. Most of the companies bring someone with them to run lighting/sound during the show. Some of them use a venue-provided show operator, but that takes attention to designing the cues and marking up the script so that someone who doesn't know your show can run the sound and lighting cues correctly with minimal familiarisation.

You can tell companies that have done many Fringes before, by their attention to simplifying the set and tech so the fit-up and later get-ins (often 15 minutes) are not a rush. Using umpty million gels and gobos, or covering the stage in feathers that you then have 15 minutes to sweep up, is just causing yourself trouble!
posted by quacks like a duck at 12:06 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been involved in many amateur and semi-pro productions (and produced some of my own) and I think the prep tends to expand or contract to fit the time available.

This can be a bit of a 'how long is a piece string' thing. It depends on the experience and availability of those involved, how familiar you each are which the others' processes, whether you begin with a script or develop performance and script together, and whether or not you can rehearse in the venue or stage in which you'll be performing. It's rarely perfectly plotted and you learn with each show where your personal tolerances for 'ready' sit for each element.

If staging is fully blocked, lines learned, direction communicated and understood, costumes fitted and finished, and you've had a couple of full run-throughs that worked for timing and stage management there's not much more to do other than prep lighting and sound design (you have cues plotted, tracks recorded and equipment confirmed) and check everyone knows where they need to be and how they are getting there.

If you had the above covered then yes, a month to go sounds like you are really ahead of the game but only because over-rehearsing can be a thing, and 'just enough' time can keep you and the performance fully vital. If that's the case maybe you can take some time to really hone a detail now, and then get everyone back together for the final push a couple weeks beforehand.

Also, good luck - sounds like a really exciting show!
posted by freya_lamb at 4:42 AM on August 21, 2018

When I worked in summer stock theatre, the schedule was basically:
1) week one, begin rehearsals, workshop begins planning for sets (the actors are probably performing a different show that night, and shop is finishing next week's set)
2) week two, rehearsals continue, workshop finishes set (actors begin a new "week one" for a show)
3) last night of week two: existing set taken down, new set put up
4) Two days with no public performances, for tech and dress rehearsals, actors begin a new "week one" for a new show in two weeks, and are into "week two" for another show

So, pretty much two weeks from actors and techs beginning their work to put a show on. The tasks of choosing a script, casting actors, designing sets and lights, does start earlier, but it's not a huge amount of time earlier (like everything else, they're actually producing/performing live productions at the same time, so time is a premium), and changes are still going on right up to, and possibly during Week Two.

The "we're so ahead of schedule" sounds like you're at the point for tech/dress rehearsals, but the opening day is a long ways away; they think the level of quality you're currently at usually comes only a couple days before public performance, not weeks ahead of time.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:45 AM on August 21, 2018

My sister is a professional in small theaters. In these cases, the season is generally planned out ahead of time, everyone shows up about three weeks before opening, they do two weeks of rehearsal and half a week of tech (Tuesday through Thursday for a Friday opening) and are ready to go. As Homeboy Trouble says above, that's with full time rehearsals; fewer hours per week means more weeks. And tech might be more longer or shorter depending on the space and complexity of the show.

One of the places she works is a "playwrights theater," where original and first run stuff is done. They are generally almost-finished plays, but there is a lot of workshopping done once the actors are involved. In those there tends to be a lot of changes and rewriting at the last minute, and for shows like that, they generally have about four weeks to work with instead. Again, the play is mostly written, but four weeks is when the actors come in.

For a one-person show (even just a mostly one-person show), I would expect a much shorter time frame, especially depending on the complexity of sets, props, etc. But I've seen them put together a one man show with no props in two days, once the actor had the script memorized.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:49 AM on August 21, 2018

* pulls up chair and sits down *

Hi! Former stage manager and literary manager here.

If you're talking about a professional production that is under an Equity union contract - and if you're doing Fringe it very well may be - the union often has VERY, VERY strict rules about how long the rehearsal process has to be, both in terms of the number of days you can rehearse for, and the number of hours per day you can rehearse. Most actors/techies/directors/etc. are very used to that schedule by now, so rehearsing for only a month before you get everything on its feet is par for the course (it's what the union usually dictates).

Also - you have a very short list of technical fanciness. Some lighting and sound, and a couple of specialized props. The people you're working with are used to constructing sets that look like entire drawing rooms, 145-cue light effect designs, and entire 3-course dinners for casts of 12 people, all of whom are in Regency England period costuming and five of the people have three costume changes. Technically, your show is a cake walk. This is saving your director loads of time and attention, which they are using to work with the actors and get them even more ready.

Personal anecdotes that may illustrate: I did two shows that were similarly simple technically, and that took a load off of both the director and my plates, so we could focus our attention on everything else. One show I did had a cast of about 10 people, where the only thing we needed for the set was a bunch of folding chairs, a huge flag and a ping pong table, and the only props we had were a scarf, a set of ping pong paddles (no ball) and some gym bags; there were some background-music sound cues and some lighting stuff, and that's it. With a prop list that short, procuring the props took me only ten minutes (hit up a sports store, then go to Goodwill for the scarf, done) and the set changes only involved tapping a couple people to move the table for scenes we didn't need it, and that got covered during rehearsal. So the director and I didn't have to worry about finding time to meet with designers and artists and anything like that and could just focus on working with the actors. We too were ahead of the game as a result (we had the show blocked out in 3 days, the "costume fitting" took about a half hour, and whatever technical meetings we had we only had to meet with the lighting designer so that made things much faster and easier to coordinate).

The other show was a one-man show where there the set was simply a table and a chair, the props were a stage pistol and a pitcher of water, and there were only two light cues. Our entire "production meeting" took three minutes ("do we have a card table? Great, done. I have a folding chair. What's the shirt the actor should wear? Perfect, that'll work. Okay, turn up the lights bright here, and then fade down again here. Mike, can we borrow your starter pistol? Okay, that's all sorted.") and that left the rest of the month to focus on memorizing the lines and focusing on the performance.

I know it feels crazy, but for everyone else involved it's an exhilarating kind of crazy that they're used to.

You really are ahead of the game. These people are pros and they got your back.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:01 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

First up: it sounds like you are way ahead of the game, and you will be fine! Your show is relatively short, with a small cast, and it's technically straightforward.

If anything, having just a little less rehearsal time than you want may be a good thing -- it gives everybody a bit of adrenaline and ensures that the performance has a bit of life and energy to it. Beware over-rehearsing -- it can make everything so predictable it becomes flat (especially if you're working with non-professional actors -- pros are much more likely to be experienced with keeping it fresh over a long run). A couple of things you can do instead of just running the show over and over again until it becomes stale:
- Invite a small audience of friends for a dress rehearsal so that you can get a sense how to play the audience.
- Spend some time on vocal work -- you could invite in a friend with experience in this area to do a short workshop.
- Take a week off from rehearsals & use that time to finalize props & costumes. When you come back, everyone will probably be refreshed.

About timelines -- I come from a background of community and semi-professional theatre, where I see a lot of variety in schedules. Here's one fairly typical schedule that I've seen for a full-length play:
- 3 months-1 year out: The show is conceived/scheduled. The venue is booked, rights are secured, funding is sought, key artistic staff (director, music director, etc.) are locked in.
- 3-6 months out: Intensive planning, casting, and logistics work begin. All the rest of the artistic staff are recruited. Design team will start planning props/costumes/set (though if they aren't very complex, this work may be delayed until later). If this is a new script, it will be mostly set by this point, with possible further tweaking later.
- 3-6 weeks out: Rehearsals start. They're held 3-5 days per week, and continue until show date. The first rehearsal is a table read with full cast. The next couple of weeks are spent on basic blocking and/or table work. If the show involves elements like dance, fight choreo, music, puppets, etc., then a lot of early rehearsal time will be spent on these. Design team will continue to work in parallel with rehearsal, bringing in key pieces as they have them. If it's a new play, minor text changes may still be happening here.
- 2-4 weeks out: Folks are fully off-book, generally by the time of the first stumble-through (aka, a very rough run-through). Rehearsal chunks generally start small & become larger and larger, until you're running full acts, and then doing full run-throughs.
- 1 week-1 day out: props & costumes are 99% complete (little details may continue to be finalized during tech week). Set will be loaded in & lights will be hung some time this week. Tech and dress rehearsals will happen. All of this will be scheduled around the venue: sometimes you've got a luxurious week to work in the space; sometimes you have to cram it into a couple of hours. If the show has lots of complex tech, it will eat up this whole week (and go late into the night). If not, this week may be a breeze -- basically just a dress rehearsal with a sprinkling of tech.
- Showtime!

However, real timelines vary widely, depending on the show requirements, team availability, budget, and costs. So...
- Using Equity actors? Paying market rate for rehearsal space? --> rehearsal for no more than 4 weeks, or less if you can't afford 4 weeks.
- Opera that requires you to fly in opera singers and hire a full orchestra? --> rehearsal for 1-2 weeks. In this case, everyone is expected to show up off-book and exquisitely prepared.
- Student show, where no-one expects to be paid and you have access to free rehearsal space? --> rehearsal period may last a whole semester.
- A one-woman show with a particular actor who is only available for 3 weeks in October? --> rehearsal is 3 weeks in October.

One more thing I've noticed: the more professional the show, the shorter the rehearsal period will be in comparison to a comparable community production -- in part because they can rehearse full-time, and in part because they're more prepared and experienced. In other words -- once you get through this, you'll find the next one comes a little more easily. Break a leg!
posted by ourobouros at 9:17 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

the more professional the show, the shorter the rehearsal period will be in comparison to a comparable community production


Pro style definitely rules. You show up ready, learn fast, support your castmates, and usually by the end of opening weekend, you have a show, damn it. I've been in full-scale musicals that went up in 2 weeks. It's only possible with dedicated pros who don't BS around, show up, pay attention and do their homework. This is not a bad thing, by the way. Endless rehearsal is not the luxury it would appear. If you have forever, you take forever. And you let things slide that should be nipped in the bud. When time is short, you work hard and it shows.

With non-pro shows, you are held hostage by everyone's scheduling conflicts. I've been in shows where we never had 100% of the cast/crew there until opening night. This is awful of course. It sucks to rehearse around people, and then again to re-rehearse when they come back. Which is why being somewhat of a hard-ass, or a control freak, or a taskmaster, is really a good thing. To enable overly lax rehearsal processes is to do a big disservice to everyone.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:42 AM on August 21, 2018

We're not a union/Equity production (this is for Melbourne Fringe): it's mostly been a ragtag group of friends & associates that have come together to put on a show. We did a WIP showing last week and have these two weeks off before the show starts, mainly because one of our main costars is away, but it sounds like it'll do us some good anyway.

Interesting to hear that pro shows take shorter than community shows, I'd have expected it to be the reverse but the explanations make sense.

I'm not really looking for advice on how to manage our timeline at this stage, more just wondering how other shows do it so I have some information. Thank you for sharing your timelines!
posted by divabat at 11:21 PM on August 21, 2018

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