How to Put on a Musical
By John Kenrick
- Stage Geography
- Stage Terms
- Riot Act Time
- Fights, Special Effects & Flubs
Our suggest reading list includes numerous books that cover the art of staging a musical far more thoroughly than we can here, but I want to offer some basics to get fledgling directors started.
While the director of amateurs is not the cast psychiatrist, some basic psychology can come in useful. At all times you are dealing with human beings. Some of your performers have never been in front of an audience before, and are taking the greatest emotional risk of their lives. It is natural if they are a bit nervous about this prospect, and nerves can manifest in all sorts of ways. Some have diva tantrums, some lose their voices, some cannot memorize lines. Your best response is to be firm but compassionate, simultaneously supporting them and spurring them on to their best efforts.
It will be much easier to direct your performers if they (and you!) know the traditional descriptions for stage placement. There are six basic areas of the "stage map," with their abbreviations
|REAR STAGE WALL|
UP Right (UR)
|UP Center (UC)||UP Left (UL)|
|CENTER (C)||LEFT (L)|
DOWN Right (DR)
|DOWN Center (DC)||DOWN Left (L)|
Note that the rear area of the stage is referred to as "Up." When a performer speaks from that area, it forces any responding actor to turn their back on the audience the classic definition of "upstaging."
To get your actors from one area to another, these theatrical terms are time-tested time savers. They've been used by everyone from Fosse to Ziegfeld, and quite likely by Shakespeare too. Have your cast and crew learn and use them
- Cross - move from one area to another ("Cross from Center to Up Left")
- Dress the Stage - rearrange the actors to balance the stage picture
- Cover - block the audience's view of a person or object
- Full Front - face the audience straight on
- Closed Turn - turn one's back to the audience
- Open Turn - turn towards the audience
- Open Up - turn more fully towards the audience
- Profile Left or Profile Right - face completely to the left or right. You can also state this in fractions ("Half profile left," "a quarter profile right," etc.
- Move Off - leave the stage ("Move off Right")
- Move On - enter the stage ("Move on from Up Left")
- Give Stage - withdraw to a less obvious position
- Take Stage - move to a more prominent position
It may seem annoying to teach the cast and crew this vocabulary, but get it done during the first week of rehearsals. The days that follow will be easier for everyone, and using professional stage terminology gives amateurs a greater sense that they are taking part in a genuine theatrical experience. When they talk like pros, it is easier to get them to think and behave like pros.
In Victorian times, directors like W.S. Gilbert would plan out the placement of stage actors in advance, using small blocks of wood on toy stages. Movement on stage is still called "blocking." Most scripts describe some of the blocking used on Broadway, which you can follow to whatever extent you find useful. Some original blocking is crucial to the effectiveness of a scene, so give those printed stage directions serious consideration.) Before rehearsals begin, spend some time planning your basic approach to each scene. You can adjust these plans as needed, but it will boost your confidence level to enter each rehearsal with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish.
Obtain a floor plan from the set designer so you can envision the space available. Sketch some ideas for movement on paper. A few descriptive phrases in the margins of your script may do the trick, depending on how complex the action gets. Your notes can abbreviate all stage locations. (i.e. - "Crowd crosses from UC to DL, soloist stands & sings DR")
Your aim in blocking is to arrange your performers in ways that make it effortless for the audience to understand the action. Each three dimensional "stage picture" you create must help tell the story. This is easy enough in an intimate scene with two or three people, but musicals can involve dozens of performers and the added elements of music, dance, moving sets, etc.
Audiences hate visual monotony. The director has to keep the stage pictures as varied as possible, using different physical arrangements of actors in every scene. If you are dealing with well-written material, follow the natural emphasis of the material. Focus the action as the story demands. When a performer is fulfilling a crucial function, make sure they stand out. I saw a high school production of The Music Man where a massive chorus kept swallowing up the fine actor playing Harold Hill. This was not the performers' fault. The director had not kept the stage action in clear focus.
If an actor playing Hamlet improvises moves during one of his soliloquies, it does no harm. But in musicals, there are too many people involved to leave blocking to the whims of the moment. Make it clear to your cast that once a scene is blocked, that's it. There can be no shenanigans. If someone decides to take the wrong turn, you could wind up with damaged sets, props or (gulp!) people.
You may have to coach the actors, particularly young men, to walk and stand like the characters they are portraying. In an age of thick heeled sneakers and hip-hop, this has become a major issue. The simple act of crossing a stage can become unintentionally hilarious if Lancelot or Sky Masterson galumphs along like a wanna-be thug. And contemporary crisscross hand gestures look ridiculous if the King uses them with Anna.
In trying to get performers to stand up straight and walk with smooth movements, you may be up against some social pressures. Make it clear you are not dissing anyone's personal style the key issue is what serves the needs of the play. Most actors will make a conscious effort. The rest will have to face the audience on their own terms.
Riot Act Time
There comes at least one point (often several) in every amateur production when people misbehave and the stage and/or musical director have to communicate a few home truths. In others words, the cast or crew has been so thoughtless and irresponsible that you're ready to scream! Why do these situations always happen? Simple you are making major demands of people who are getting paid zero! It is instinctive for a small part of them to remain resentful that unionized workers get major bucks for performing the same tasks they are handling gratis.
Even so, there are times when a leader has to handle the less pleasant aspects of being charge. If only one or two people are causing a problem, correct them in private conversation. Like employees, volunteers to not appreciate being embarrassed in front of their coworkers. You goal is to fix a problem, not drive someone out of the show. When there is a general problem with lateness, misbehavior at rehearsals, learning material, etc., do not waste your energy with a screaming fit. The very people you want to reach will turn you off. Express your displease in a calm, firm tone get icy if you have to. Calm authority always commands more respect than a hissy fit.
If your sense of frustration ever overwhelms you and you wind up roaring like a stuck lion, be sure to apologize to everyone after you've calmed down so long as you don't make it a habit, its no big deal. Your goal is to create a production everyone can enjoy working on and be proud of. I do not believe that goal requires anyone to be either a superhero or a martinet.
Fights, Special Effects & Flubs
When a show involves fights, the use of weapons and other special effects, be sure to keep safety your foremost concern.
- Never use real weapons on stage. Swords, guns and knives should always be harmless rubber props.
- If a gun shot is required, use a sound effect. Some professional prop guns discharge blanks that can cause harm.
- Never use real fire on stage. A glowing light in a stove or some glittering foil atop a torch works just fine. This is make-believe, remember?
- Plan any stage fights with extreme care, and practice them until they are 100% harmless. A fellow college actor once got carried away during a rehearsal of Camelot -- I was in pain for days.
- Avoid or minimize smoke effects. Even professional stage equipment can generate mist that irritates performers and/or audience members. Let your actors act. That is the ultimate special effect.
- Be sure all sets and props are solid & safe. Anything that comes apart during a performance will be an embarrassment, if not outright dangerous.
During rehearsals, encourage your performers to improvise their way out of stage mishaps. If a costume comes apart or a set wobbles, working with it keeps the audience laughing with you, not at you. I once saw a community theatre production of Guys and Dolls where the mission set started moving just as Nicely Nicely was about to "testify." The actor playing Nicely allowed the audience to giggle, then said, "Now that's what I call being moved by the spirit! Hallelujah!" The audience roared, and the flub became a triumph.