Considering having a show adjudicated for possible presentation at Thespian Festival is often a daunting undertaking in itself, but what happens when you get the nod and really have to think about actually taking the show "on the road" and remounting it in a limited amount of time? Taking a show to Festival can be one of the most stressful OR most rewarding experiences your students can imagine. We'll concentrate on the rewarding elements by discussing some things to avoid, but first I'd like to share some of my experiences in having brought many shows to Festival as far back as when the Festival was held at Ball State University, to our last production, "The Drowsy Chaperone," which was my swan song at International as I retired after nearly forty years as a theatre educator.
Those MANY years ago when I brought my first show, an original black light production, I was teaching in a very small school. We had very little money and certainly no extra money to rent a truck to transport the set pieces. The solution came about when a parent who raised horses offered an extended horse trailer. Let me tell you, we were just as excited pulling up to Emens Auditorium with our horse trailer as were the schools with the rented semi trailers loading in. On another occasion, while teaching in the large school I would call home for my final decades of teaching, Floyd Central High School, through either elation or madness, we brought large shows five years in a row. Having the load in process down pat, I foresaw no problems with our set for "Dames At Sea." That is to say that we had designed the ship portions to come out of the semi and into the loading dock down to the inch. Unfortunately, new padding had been added to the loading dock reducing its size by two inches. The tech crew sized up the situation and with the help of several circular saws we got the set in and then reattached the pieces. Life is always interesting when bringing a show to Festival.
So, what are some common truths and wise words to consider when bringing a show to Festival? Well, there are many, but I'll attempt to offer some advice that hopefully will assist. Of course, experience is the best learning tool you'll acquire after having brought a show to conference, but if you can avoid some of the stress that comes with taking a show to Nebraska, the experience for both you and your students will be so much more enjoyable.
I know you've heard time and time again that "the play's the thing" and that's true. Large, extravagant sets are wonderful in your home setting, but if it is your first time attempting a show at conference and you haven't planned your technical needs to the slightest detail, then the experience will be a nightmare. Granted, most shows I've taken to Festival had complex and intricate sets and tech, but as mentioned before, experience and a strong technical program made it doable. I will admit that the simple set we brought for a production of "The Diviners" was about as stress free as one could imagine with the set up taking only an hour, but the two semi load in for "Titanic" was nerve wracking to say the least getting completed within minutes of the curtain going up. Some directors look with disdain when the tech elements of a show are extensive, but as a once young director attending Festivals, I gained so much from seeing set designs and how tech elements were handled. I also am a firm believer that techies are the oft forgotten component and their hard work deserves to be seen as much as the actors presentations.
So, you've been invited to bring a show. First, don't panic. Think it through once, twice, a hundred times if necessary to be sure you've gotten all the bases covered. Of course you'll have the task of coming up with the finances needed to get a show to conference, but don't try to handle that task alone. Parents, volunteers, community businesses and professionals will pitch in to help if you do a good PR job of expressing the honor it is to have been selected.
The next task is to think about all tech elements and exactly how the sets, costumes, props, lighting, sound requirements, etc. will work within the space to which your show is to be presented. Remember, set up time at Festival is extremely limited so if you practice taking it down and putting it back together (as you certainly should) and it takes ten hours, it's not going to get any faster at Festival. This is the point you need to rethink your set pieces and perhaps redesign elements that will allow you to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle quickly....AND.....safely. Remember, because you design a light plot that has a zillion cues and specials at home does not mean you'll be able to be that complex at Festival. You and your tech staff most likely are coming into an unfamiliar space so don't make it unnecessarily stressful by designing tech that simply can't be accomplished within your time limits. The WONDERFUL thing about the technical staff at Lincoln is that they are there to see to it that you have as successful a presentation and experience as possible. The tech staffs at the various facilities will be more helpful than you can imagine, but they will also be totally aware of any dangers that your staging might create. For instance, if you plan to fly anything, don't come in with some twine and household wire and expect that to meet muster. Proper rigging is the only way you'll fly anything at International. Be sure your set pieces are constructed in such a way that when put back together they are solid. After all, who wants to have a piece fall down during a show? Remember...safety first.
Another very important thing to remember is to delegate responsibility. When it comes time for your load in you simply can't oversee or do it all. Your set crew should be able to unload your sets and move it into the waiting area, while your lighting crew is working with the theatre staff and the sound crew is being instructed on the theatre system, while the props and wardrobe crews are unpacking and getting things to their proper places. Again, delegate....you can't do it all. If you don't have a large number of tech students and have to use actors to help load in, that's great....but.....remind them to keep on task. Time to be in awe of the space will come later.
When it actually comes time to physically put your show in place, the more you have mapped out and practiced the set up, the better it will go. Will you have hiccups to your plan....perhaps, but go with the flow. When we did "Suessical" we had lights embedded in the six twenty foot leg panels and the techs assigned to reassemble them couldn't get one of the legs to light properly. Time was ticking, but the kids working on them insisted they could get them to work. The stage manager made the call that the lights on the legs would simply not be used if the one panel in question didn't work. The crew continued methodically going light to light and with the show being introduced and the house lights going down, the panel was fixed just as the curtain rose. I mention this because the more trained your kids are to handle problems under pressure, the less panic will ensue before curtain. Stay calm.
Once your show is underway it's time to simply let the kids do what they do best. I have made it my practice to never be backstage during a production. About my second year teaching, I did stay backstage during the shows and was always flittering here and there to see that everything was going as planned. One of my kids came over to me after one particular show and said, "Look, we love you Mr. Bundy, but we've got this. Let us do what you've taught us to do." That's exactly what I've done ever since. Let your kids and those assigned to tasks do them. There is no greater joy as a director than to sit in the audience at Festival and watch your kids experience the thrill of performing before their peers which, by the way, is an audience like no other.
When the show ends, you can take a sigh of relief, but the task isn't over until the sets, props, etc. are quickly dismantled and returned your truck.....THEN.....you can really relax.
When you return to your dorm and finally get to bed, I'm sure you'll replay the day's events over and over asking whether it was all worth it? That answer is simple.....yes! Anytime you can provide your students with an experience like performing at Festival and sharing their work with kindred souls it is definitely worth it. Sure you're exhausted, but I pretty much guarantee you'll be thinking about the next show you'll hope to take to this amazing collection of people who understand the special magic of theatre.
Addendum... If you're thinking about bringing a show to conference, it's always good to attend a conference or two and to speak with those who have brought shows. You might also consider bringing a piece for the marathons before attempting a larger show. If you do wish to bring a show to conference, selecting a show with limited tech and minimal set will help make your first experience less stressful, particularly if you do not have a solid technical theatre department. If, however, you are chosen to bring a production that is of greater scale for your first production, surround yourself with those that will help you master the task.