Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Show Must Go On

My Goddess should be pleased, I have named a blog post after a Queen song.

I am, at present, 2 performances into one show, and regularly rehearsing two others, one of which is in a couple of weeks time. So this post is about shows in general, rehearsals, and issues which can be had.

So, an observation I've made - it's surprising how much a show can come together in the last few rehearsals. You have what seems to be a total shambles in one rehearsal, but the next rehearsal, or the one after that, it's all running smoothly, just with occasional hiccups. But how? How can it be that everyone has so quickly learned everything, when you know them to be as lazy as they are?
The thing is, it seems to me you reach a sort of critical mass of people knowing vaguely what they're doing, or knowing some of what they're doing. So, in that state, they will not put on a particularly good show, because they're not entirely sure of themselves, so they'll do things tentatively, at the wrong time, or not at all, or they'll remember to do some things but not others, and before you know it two essential props are offstage and everyone's just standing around asking each other when they're supposed to pick up the drinks again and then the song finishes and no-one moves because the lead actor has forgotten he's supposed to be leading everyone off. Sounds terrible, right? But, if the critical mass is there, it only takes a little push from one or two people who know exactly what they're doing and will do it confidently, because people who were uncertain will have their confidence boosted, and people who remembered some things but not others will have the gaps filled in, and everyone will follow the people who know what they're doing. And they learn by doing. Once they've done something a couple of times by copying someone else, they'll do it just as well on their own. The critical mass has taken effect, and the momentum carries it through to a remarkably good show, which would greatly surprise anyone who saw the rehearsal a few weeks prior out of context. Things can go from shambolic to good surprisingly quickly.

Of course, this only applies to the chorus. The principals must put in the effort to learn their stuff, through a mixture of personal practice and sufficient rehearsal time. Though a similar sort of thing can happen - more goes in than you realise, so one time you need to be reminded of everything, the next you need a few reminders, but once you've gotten going from those the rest just flows naturally from them, and then the next you just know it.
Likewise the orchestra must be properly rehearsed - this can be particularly important, because if the orchestra aren't quite up to scratch, that can have a knock-on effect to the cast, because if the piece is suddenly the wrong speed to accomodate the fact the orchestra are having difficulties, you're thrown, you can't fit in the moves properly (You might think it'd be easier to remember them if things were going slower, but that's not necessarily the case if you're accustomed to the faster speed). I have no idea if the critical mass thing can happen to the orchestra as it's been years since I was in one and we didn't so much have this sort of problem.

It just ocurred to me that an alternative way of looking at it is a discrepancy between doing something and knowing it. When it comes to doing the moves, that's basically a binary thing - either you do the moves or you don't. But when it comes to learning them, that's more of a continuous scale. So you might, say, have 96% learned the moves. In which case you probably still won't be doing them (OK, you'll probably be doing something, but not the whole move and it probably won't look quite right - the binary view is just a simplification). But then you learn that last 4% - not that big a task - and suddenly you go straight from not doing the moves to doing them - a massive difference.
The same principle applies to learning music, but I thought of it originally in terms of moves and found it easier to explain that way.

You know, when I originally thought of making this post I thought it'd come out a bit harsher. I thought I was going to be ranting about how the principals should put in the effort to learn their stuff, and the MD should make sure the orchestra know theirs so they don't disrupt the rehearsal process. But it seems I've come over all optimistic again.

One thing I am going to complain about just a little bit is costumes. Now it's one thing if you're just piecing the costumes together from whatever you have or can find and making the rest yourselves, as in a university production. Then you don't expect everything to be perfect and you take what you get because you're not getting anything else. But if you're hiring costumes, being a bit more professional about it, then be properly professional about it. Which means, as I reach the point of my complaint, if you have headgear as part of the costumes, make sure it'll fit. I mean, you already took measurements to make sure everything else fit, would it have been so difficult to apply the same principle to the hats? No. No it would not, and I wouldn't then be struggling to force a too-small hat onto my head (I am big-headed literally as well as figuratively).
OK, so since this has drifted into a specific issue I have with the production of Iolanthe I'm currently in (Which is going rather well actually, and I have managed to sort out the headgear to the point of being passable, if uncomfortable), I will bring up one more thing: makeup. When I turned up to the dress rehearsal on monday, after getting into my costume and waiting a little while, the makeup arrived. Big box, containing makeup stuff. We were just expected to do it ourselves. More to the point, we were expected to just know what we were doing automatically.
Now, the makeup required is not that complicated, and certainly I'm not sexist enough to say men can't do their own makeup. They can. But that doesn't mean it should just be assumed that they all can, and that no alternative need be offered. And even assuming that, or assuming we can figure it out, how are we supposed to know specifically what makeup we need without being told? Well, yes, we can ask one of the more experienced members, or just watch and copy them. But I don't think it's unreasonable of me to feel that to give a brief explanation would have been courteous of them. Also this suggests that we have basically the same makeup in everything? Which bothers me. You'd think there'd be some variation at least.

Returning to generalities, though still inspired by Iolanthe, random comments on: ad-libbing. That great phenomenon. Now, of course some people are better at ad-libbing than others. I once saw a production of the play of Guards! Guards! in which part of Colon's helmet fell off while onstage, and Vimes proceeded to ad-lib a tirade about the low standards of helmet production nowadays while Colon fixed it, before returning to the plot. Moving away from professional productions, one friend of mine once sang the wrong words in a song, and proceeded to invent a new line to follow it, on the spot, which maintained the rhyme (By an odd coincidence, it's apparently her birthday today. If you read this, happy birthday! Congratulations on being great at ad-libbing, and please come back to England).
But regardless of our ability in this regard, we all do it. The chorus member who's supposed to kneel at this point is on the wrong side of the stage? Someone else will jump in and do it. You sang the second line first? Sing the first line second (Unless that wouldn't make sense, in which case, invent something, or repeat yourself). You forgot an important bit of a line? Slot it into the next line. You started a line wrong? Paraphrase. You paraphrased the cue line for a song? Say it with an air of finality and pray the MD is paying enough attention. Lead characters fail to come back on at the end? Continue the scene naturally as you can, but in such a way that you say their cue line again. Your co-star falls off the stage? Jump down, help him back up, retrieve his hat, and do not stop singing.
Now, obviously it is better not to break the audience's suspension of disbelief, but if there's a really serious issue, I'm pretty sure they'd understand you having to stop and start again, certainly on something as simple as a single line which you got wrong. But we don't. I don't think we consider that point as we do it. It's just ingrained in all of us somehow that The Show Must Go On. And I wonder why.
If you're wondering, all the above mentioned examples did in fact happen in productions I was in. In two cases I was involved covering up the problem.

So there are some thoughts on things. And now here's a video, to mark the occasion of me making five blog posts. Which may not seem like much of an achievement to you, but it is nonetheless a landmark, and it's more than I really would've expected myself to be capable of a few months ago.



  1. Not a bad Vir... i'd rate 8-9 out of 10...
    i really Do like that line, what amuses me more is that it is arranged for Vir, and he does wave... like this

    you should get a vuvuzela,

    and i bet you do have your suspisions about my Identity... it's the reason i left a clue. i thought quite an obvious one too.

    Finally, what are you doing up and on your blog at 04:30?

    i wish i had a "V" mask now.

  2. I know it's an awesome queen song but the moulin rouge version is one of my favourite songs! If only for Satine's lines (yes they're in the queen version but I like her singing them):

    Inside my heart is breaking
    My makeup may be flaking
    But my smile still stays on

    (because I'm a huge emo =p)

    I might watch Moulin Rouge again at some point now that you've mentioned that title... although my dvd is not here so it may be a while... maybe I'll just put on Les Mis
    Oh I'm going to msn you... oh you aren't on! =(
    Msn me next time you are on and I am on as I wish to discuss with you the merit of Les Mis!

  3. Yeah, I was surprised how good my Vir impression was, though it seemed to drift a bit during the last line.
    You left a clue? I just thought "I know someone who talks like that and likes Babylon 5..."
    And I was on my blog at 4:30am because this production I'm currently in is quite far away, so I don't get home until gone midnight. Then take a while to relax, and then write the blog post... it gets late. It's fortunate that I don't have anywhere to be in the mornings.

    This then has the knock-on effect that no, I'm not on MSN, or even out of bed, at 11:48am usually.
    And haven't we already had that conversation like twice at least?

  4. Yes but I... actually I probably won't be awake when you get back in after the show. The conversation of awesome music will have to wait until we are both available!

    and are you saying you DON'T want that conversation again?

  5. "Your co-star falls off the stage? Jump down, help him back up, retrieve his hat, and do not stop singing."

    I just LOLed so much that I may have woken up the neighbours. You maintained your composure far better than I did then, and all I had to do was sit on a bench and look worried and elderly!

  6. You make some interesting points about show week, but I have the following comments to add:

    1. General instructions were issued for anyone unsure of makeup to ask Susan.
    2. Hats will never fit. Just like how skirts will never be long enough. That's stage life for you, and we wouldn't like it any other way!
    3. We are all annoyed when someone else hasnt learned their lines, but I dont ever recall a time where it was mere lazyness that hindered them...usually people just have jobs and children and other shows and busy lives!
    4. I wish I had been there the day said co-star fell off the stage.

    That is all.

  7. I think we need to remember that most of us have been in a position where somebody has been cast over us that we feel we are superior to, or could've done a better job than - but bloody hell, we really need to get over it at some point. As for 'prinicpals putting the effort in'; an amateur production is never going to be perfect, most of us have jobs and lives outside of the show which means we cannot focus all of our attentions on it - it's meant to be fun, it is not meant to take place so that people can rip it to shreds and tell us they would have done it better.

  8. 1. I don't remember getting those general instructions and that's still assuming people will by default know what makeup they need - would one more explanatory piece of paper stuck on the wall have been too much to ask?
    2. Speak for yourself, personally I would prefer hats that don't physically hurt when I put them on.

    And yes, amateur productions should be fun. But there's not a great deal of fun to be had in watching someone standing umming and ahhing like a deer in headlights because they haven't learned their lines even well enough to bluff their way through. I doubt they enjoy it much either. I don't mean they should be spending hours a day learning everything, but if the principals don't put a certain amount of effort in, the show won't be fun so much as embarassing. Humiliating. Terrifying. Or cancelled.

  9. Perhaps next year you should arrive on time for the costume fitting and thus ensure a better fitting hat. I am curious to know who you heard so copiously 'umming and ahhing'? I must not have been there that show night...

  10. Did you miss the part where not all of this was about Iolanthe, or even about any specific show? That comment was mostly hypothetical, though I have seen it for occasional scenes.

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  12. Anonymous person, you will note your last comment has mysteriously vanished, this is because I'm weird about having my real name attached to things on the internet to which I did not attach it myself.
    I think you need to read this post again and accept that I did not 'slag off' any show I have been in (Or that I haven't been in, for that matter). I complained about hats and makeup, these are minor quibbles, the show in general was fine.
    Everything else was generic, and also positive, since my point was that 'The Show Must Go On', and that in fact, it tends to go on rather well, even if some things only really come together in the last few rehearsals, or end up getting ad-libbed.

  13. Oh this is totally late: but I feel honored to have been mentioned as a fantastic ad-libber, and thank you for the birthday wishes!

    (I am sorry I am not in England. I miss you. Maybe it's time you simply come to the US.)