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Long Day's Journey into Opening Night

Here's the script for putting on a high school play.

Three Fairfax County high school drama teachers — Denise Perrino, McLean High School; Bob Smith, Fairfax High School; John Whapham, Herndon High School — helped outline the steps necessary to ensure a successful performance:

PRE-AUDITION PLANNING

* Show Selection. The first step to putting on a production is title selection. All three teachers interviewed said they choose the entire year’s season, ranging from two to three productions, the spring before. By the end of the year, teachers, who act as producer and director, finalize all shows and reserve the dates and rehearsal times on the school’s activity calendar. Perrino explains how she makes selections for each season: “Generally in the fall we do a straight play, like a comedy or a tragedy. I read through the school’s curriculum, look at recent Broadway productions, look at things with a relatively large cast, my community base, and what the community appreciates.”

* Secure rights. Once the play has been chosen and the dates reserved, it’s time to secure the rights. Each play is copyrighted and therefore, permission must be obtained to order copies of the script and perform it before a paying audience. To secure the rights, the director must find out who owns them, either the publisher or an outside agent, then negotiate a contract with the owner based on expected ticket sales, the ticket price and how many performances are scheduled. Because this process can take up to a couple months and scripts cannot be ordered until the contract is finalized, teachers must start the rights procurement process at least two to three months ahead of rehearsal start date. For fall production, that means either at the end of the prior school year or during the summer. Once the contract is executed, scripts are ordered.

* Select Senior Production Staff. The next step, said Smith, is to pick his senior production staff. Smith likes to choose his fall team in the spring to give them time to meet over the summer. “If a lot of people want to be one thing, like the stage manager, I have them put a resumé together and hand it in,” he said. Teachers like to make sure the students are getting a well-rounded experience in the drama department, learning both the acting as well as technical side. According to Smith, “Educational purposes make a lot of the choices for me.”

* Production Schedule. Smith takes the summer to put together the production schedule for the fall show. It must be ready to hand to students at the auditions. While Perrino and Whapham wait to finalize the production schedule, they agree that the framework must be in place the prior spring to reserve rehearsal space.

AUDITION AND REHEARSALS

* Auditions and Call Backs. While each director starts their auditions at different points on the time line, each reserves one week for auditions and call backs. “Usually I will do auditions on Monday and Tuesday, rest on Wednesday and do call backs on Thursday and Friday,” said Whapham. But there is more to think about than just ability when it comes to casting. Each student turns in a list of extra-curricular activities they are involved with so the director has an idea of how much time each student can commit to the production. Said Perrino, “If a student is involved in another activity, but wants to also be involved in the show, then they will be cast in a part that doesn’t involve a lot of rehearsal time. We want the students to experience a wide range of activities while in school.”

Whether they take a full week or just a few days, all the directors agree on one thing — post the cast list on Friday afternoon. “I don’t like to make them to spend the weekend waiting,” Smith said. Whapham and Perrino also take this week to select their production crews and finalize the production schedule.

* Crew Meeting. The following week, the director will have the first of many production crew meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page. “If the scene designer chooses all grays and blacks and dark colors, but the costume designer decides to make all the costumes in bright colors, it doesn’t fit together. We take this time to make sure that we are all working toward the same goal,” Whapham said. Each production crew will have a schedule and plan established by the end of this meeting and begin to work toward production night. The publicity crew will also begin work, promoting the play as much as two months out from opening night.

* Cast Meeting. The director will also hold the first cast meeting, early in the week, to do an initial read through and go over the different characters. If there are special character requirements, special sessions will be held.

“When I did Jungle Book, I brought in an animal movement expert,” Smith said. It is important to understand the characters and plot during this first week.

* Blocking. The cast meeting is followed by at least two weeks of read throughs in which students can read from the scripts while blocking (the plotting of character movement on stage) and character interaction is planned. These rehearsals eventually change into "work throughs," where the director allows students to go through the show as planned stopping them as needed with comments and changes. Depending on the time available, these work throughs are used all the way up until a month before opening night.

* Tech Check. At four weeks to curtain, the technical aspect of the production is coming together. Costumes are finalized as soon as they are available so that students become comfortable in them. Props are put in place and lighting and sound are integrated as much as possible. Smith expects his student to have half the show memorized although they are allowed to call for lines up until two weeks before opening night.

* Move-In. Most of the theaters in Fairfax County schools are used by other school departments such as band and chorale, and therefore a practice room is used until a few weeks before the first performance. Perrino usually has full reign of her stage by three weeks before opening night. This is when she does the move-in; sets are assembled and lights are hung in their final places.

CURTAINS UP!

* Run Throughs. At two weeks before the show, students should have their parts memorized and work throughs become run throughs. A run through is treated like a live performance. Students are expected to go through the show from start to finish and directors save their comments until the end. “This is when we do our cue-to-cue rehearsal,” Perrino said. “This gives the actors and technicians cues to follow to make sure each transition is smooth.” Timing is perfected during these practice runs.

* Tech Week. The last week is called Tech Week which includes dress rehearsals and final adjustments. This is the time when all the technical aspects of the show are put into place. Smith does what he calls a disaster rehearsal. “As directors, we tell them not to break, to ad-lib. So I make them experience it. We have a rehearsal where everything that can go wrong, does. I don’t want them to experience that on opening night."

* Opening Night. Under the stress of a live audience, missed cues, forgotten lines and audience distractions are covered by ad-libbing and quick-thinking actors and crew.

* Strike. Opening night comes and goes, but the job of the cast and crew is not over. On the last night of production, once the crowd disappears and the curtain falls, it is time to strike the set. “Most directors do this after the last show before their cast disappears,” said Whapham. Striking the set involves taking down the many built stage elements and putting away everything, from costumes to lights.

* Cast Party. The last order of business is the cast party where cast and crew come together to celebrate success. “Don’t forget the cast party,” Perrino said. “That’s the reason we’re all doing this!”

The following crews make up the behind-the-scenes staff that make a production run. The staff is mostly made up of students, but may be augmented by parents and professionals.

Production Crew

* Stage Manager

* Set Designer

* Set Builders

* Stage Crew

* Property Manager

* Costume Designer

* Costume Makers

* Make-up/Hair Artists

* Sound Technicians

* Lighting Technicians

Publicity Manager

* Posters

* T-shirts

* Program

Front of House

* House Manager

* Ushers

* Ticket Tellers

* Refreshments