Thursday, 13 October 2011

Yes! Yes! Yes! Time for the tech next

I am about to go to bed and I will no doubt wake a little tired, but extremely proud of the SMAOS team and confident we have one hell of a show (pardon the pun) ready for opening night this Tuesday at the RNCM in Manchester.

The final floor rehearsal before the technical rehearsal is what I term 'crunch time'. You expect everyone to know their lines, entrances and exits, costumes to work, props to be used, characters to be held even if lines are dropped and you are asking yourself the big questions like 'am I bored?' or 'is the main part of this scene compelling enough?', 'does anything drag?'.

I asked for pace and energy from the cast and got it in abundance. Hopefully everyone heard me laughing away - I expect my chuckling is what led to the endorphins that are flying round me as I type.
Yes, we have a show that makes sense. 
Yes, we have a show that is lots of fun and bubbles with energy. 
Yes, there are some cracking performances.
Yes, the newly polished original and whacky ending will be unforgettable for the audience.
Yes, it looks marvellous (mostly credited to fun costumes and Lisa's incredible choreography - if you read this let it be known I bow down).

I feel my normal hugely optimistic self after tonight's rehearsal, but I realise a technical rehearsal is a different beast so I'm not complacent. It will require changes and adaption to a set with various levels and there will be lighting, smoke, new props and a huge giant screen with projections!

Energy can be difficult for amateurs to give particularly after a hard days work and only a small  production team watching. Some performers (most amateurs and I am especially guilty of this) raise the bar and give you that engaged energetic performance when there is a real live paying audience. As such, I know come Tuesday the bar will lift even higher. But, tonight everyone really pulled together, paid attention and delivered the goods so thank you.

Pace is a different beast. It is not about delivering lines quickly. It is the feel of the show and filling dead air by picking up queues very fast. Sometimes it relies on a lighting change or the choice of entrance. Parts of Once Bitten rattle along like an express train and I am very glad. The show came in at 1h8m for act 1 and 47m for act 2. That is a sensible length and means a beer in the bar by ten to ten. Despite this I want the challenge to shave at least 4 minutes off the first act by opening night. 

I ask for two things now from the company:
Firstly, to really have fun and focus on the show (move into top gear and check your lines etc.) 
and secondly to ask themselves whether they could do anything else to sell more tickets. 

It is great to hear some nights have sold out. The hard work and quality performances deserve a lively first night so go forth and help us find those unsuspecting victims who fancy taking their first bite ;-)

Finally, I've added a selection of photos to hopefully inspire and sell the show. In hindsight I would have taken more and got the company in costume tonight and asked an actual photographer to help.

Bring on the tech!!!
A selection of the beautiful female principals

The boys rehearsing the start of the show

Lisa the choreographer giving notes to Mags who plays Cindy the bunny girl!

A slide to be used in the show of our geek hero Zac

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Last minute culture

In one week precisely the curtain will come down on the opening night of Once Bitten. I cannot wait for that moment as my job will be complete and I hope there will be excited applause as the audience have had a fun couple of hours. I fear a quiet theatre due to lack of ticket sales not lack of performance.

Most of my evening has been spent on the production side of the show hunting down sound effects and images whilst checking we have all props and sound effect queues covered. I also spent 15 minutes writing and rehearsing a pitch for the Elaine Page (currently Barbara Windsor) radio show. I am a huge fan of the show and hope we make it on. To be honest all publicity counts at this stage. Despite only having to sell a little over 660 seats next week over six shows we are struggling. I recall ten years ago being able to sell nearly 300 tickets a night for a week run. What has happened? On the Saturday night of La Cage aux Folles we sold out the six hundred seater theatre!

I believe our culture has changed. In the age of the internet, mobile phones and social media we are less planned. It is forgivable to be late for appointments, because you can call or text that you are running late. I completely disagree with this complacency that has kicked in. Likewise whereas friends used to book their theatre tickets in advance they now leave it till the last minute and many buy on the night. Could you imagine not replying to a wedding invitation and simply turning up on the day?

Perhaps it is a combination of poor planning and organisation by most people, a change in attitude in others trained by our new technologies and finally our societies should take responsibility as we rarely execute with the marketing force of a real company, but with wafer thin budgets how can we?

This is perhaps more negative than I'd usually like, but a topic that I am sure many amateur dramatic enthusiasts will have an opinion on. My focus is on producing a fangtastic show and ensuring all the ducks are now lined up - I hope the cast have all done their bit to ensure there are punters lining up too as they deserve a great audience.

Monday, 3 October 2011

2 weeks till bite night! Magic time!

In two weeks time the curtain raises on a stage of zombies and vampires as our new musical opens. Right now we are at that awkward stage where actors lines are a little hazy, some dance steps are out, chorus members are finding their entrances and we have a set half built and lots of empty seats each night. This is the reality of theatre.

This is the 40th show that I have been involved with so I know everything will now piece together ready for a burst of energy in 2 weeks when the company hits the stage.

I'd like to share with you some of the key steps that remain to take a show to the stage. Firstly, I just sent out a sheet of entrances and exits for the chorus (this will minimize issues), tonight I have to produce a directors script with edits for the production team and Nigel (our set designed and my mentor throughout this process).

Next, we have a principal rehearsal Wednesday night where we need to run things together and ensure the end of the show really packs the punch it needs. I expect to help actors with their actable verbs.

Thursday is a production meeting where we ensure we are all taking the right actions to ensure we have all the props, costume and sound equipment. We currently do not - not unusual. Following the meeting it is a run through with the whole company.

Wow! I've only got to Thursday. Beyond that is our launch party on Saturday night in Baa Bar (everyone welcome) and then more run throughs, painting of set, construction of set, lighting design, costume checks oh and finally the more technical challenges of making people disappear on stage!!!!

It is fair to say the next couple of weeks are going to be busy but we have an awesome team assembled and every ones focus is like a lazer beam at this stage. This necessary focus always ensures the ingredients come together to form a potent spell for the audience. Let the magic begin!!!

(The photo is of John and Ben constructing the swivel door used by zombies etc. - it will look so different once it's painted and no set. Watch out for it!)

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Back on it - twice shy?

I am sorry it has been 3 weeks since my last confession entry. It turns out I couldn't even figure out which username/account I was using for this blog so that just cost me an hour of time. It looks like I've somehow amassed 3 or maybe 4 google related accounts, which is either a result of my utter stupidity or a confusing product portfolio and interface. I'll leave you to judge. Ultimately the lack of entries is my own fault - note to director 'must try harder'.

3 weeks is a long time and we have made some fantastic progress. I've attached a 3D model of the set produced by mentor Nigel Machin. It reminds me of Scooby Doo and haunted mansions with a glam modern feel to it. In 45 minutes I am meeting Nigel and a dedicated group of volunteers to paint the various flats and floor that will make the set. Set building and painting etc like DIY is not a task I relish and neither am I good at, but as director the show is my vision and as the leader I am more than happy to roll my sleeves up and get mucky. The next photo you see will likely be of various set bits. I'm very thankful to Nigel for all his work because not only does the model look great, but it practically helps the actors and I visualize the space and the production team have discussions about lighting and other key elements.

Whilst my blogging has had a rest the show blocking and prop preparation certainly hasn't. There are already looking like some incredible performances by the principals. About 2 weeks ago I started using the word 'melodrama' more readily and very quickly Ed and Justine had turned Zac and Bella into a pair of likeable and believable (despite being melodramatic) leads. Bella pulls the most beautifully chosen faces throughout. I plan to big everyone up with some public notes nearer the show so each actors strengths are really praised and re-enforced.

With 6 rehearsals before the technical rehearsal tensions will start to rise and some imperfections and expectations will get left behind. That is theatre. Tomorrow I shall be focussed on ensuring the end of the show is cohesive and has pace. It is currently slow and all over the place with a chorus who don't have a clue what is happening. All this is completely my responsibility and within a couple of hours we'll have it easily fixed. I simply hope that the momentum is now building for regular blogs and most importantly an incredible show that will sell out. Lets hope that this second bite at Once Bitten is now met with shyness. Sales rely on everyones enthusiasm and energy to push it. So in the words of the title track Once Bitten 'once bitten, twice shy, three times is lucky, fourth time feeling so alive'. I feel very much alive and packed with hard work, talent and some luck this third run of Once Bitten will no doubt be a huge success.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

High 5

5 weeks and counting till Once Bitten premieres. I've performed in over thirty shows in the past decade and I can confidently say a lot can change in 5 weeks. Bows have been done at dress rehearsals, some scenes weren't blocked until a full run with a couple of weeks to go, I finally understood the plot half way through the run of a farce and the male chorus are often mumbling through the words till the opening night.

We are nearly fully blocked - 3 of the 21 numbers remain. Once everything has been 'organised' the real adventure begins. At the moment I enjoy the team work of orchestrating the movement and the meaning in the lines, but running scenes individually reminds me of watching a film on my computer without the surround sound, atmosphere and high definition of the cinema.

We are moving into the next phase of the show where the actors take more ownership. They have to learn their lines and moves and then flavour the scenes with real energy and character. It is a joy watching a show week on week as an actor suddenly inserts a new 'bit' building the scene. Today, our lead Bella played by Justine pulled a wonderful face at her best friend who berated the man she lusts after - the face said so many emotions with horrified and upset at the top of the list. You can't make actors do it and you can't always tell them you need it, but a picture can tell a 1000 words.

This show will live and die by it being taken for what it is - lots and lots of fun and energy. With 5 weeks to go I hope the cast are ready to high 5 each other and charge towards the show playing around and adding more and more spice and flavouring to their performances. A great curry and chilli always has more taste and a kick the next day. With the show blocked and connected together it is time for the flavours to really come out and spice it up to an awesome opening night.

Monday, 25 July 2011

My mate Nigel setting the scene

 A quick text message and two hours later I am sat in one of Manchester's most energetic restaurants - San Carlo on King Street facing one of my life's mentors. I first met Nigel Machin back in 2001 when I took to the stage in his version of Sondheim's Assassins. 38 productions later and I've still not had as many costume changes or been so nervous as that show!
Today I sit opposite Nigel sipping a fine bottle of Peroni whilst he starts sketching ideas for the Once Bitten set. 

Nigel is one of the partners in the AEW Architects firm and has directed me in countless shows. He is well known in the Manchester circuit for producing ambitious and eye dropping sets. For my first project "The Sorcereror" with Manchesters' Gilbert & Sullivan society Nigel kindly took my set ideas and with a couple of minor adjustments then built me a 3D model. This time I tell Nigel the gist of the story and my ideas and within five minutes with the excitement of a young child Nigel has sketched out a vision building on my initial concepts.
Suddenly my initial ideas have more colour in my minds eye and there is a growing excitment behind the evolving technical challenges. I specified one projector screen. Why have one when you can have three? I nod at Nigel and we start to explore the advantages of three screens. We can transport the audience into a starry night deep in a Translyvannian forest and later use it to frame the skylights in a modern apartment. Then we have a fitted kitchen, a lift, a garden!

The biggest thing that Nigel has done to the set for Once Bitten is push the boundaries of what I believed was possible. His vision, sense of adventure and experience has led to a design that I know will wow the audience. The beauty of a great set is similar to great costuming and physical casting. When used intelligently it can help tell the story by saving time explaining things with unrealistic dialogue and song.

After a delightfully light and tasty seafood linguine I polish off a chocolate desert with an espresso that reminds me of my trip to romantic Venice months before. I return to work after the most productive and satisfying 90 minutes for sometime. To summarise, I know that great food, friends and an enthuasiastic discussion in a relaxed environment leads to quick imaginative decisions. Thanks to my Nigel for setting the scene.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

"Feel Through"

After two audition days, hours of hard work and lots of entertainment we have a very capable full cast. There were some surprises as people stomped into the room with vigour armed with Eastern European accents and a fresh interpretation of the characters. Richard – the writer – sat with a huge smile as people brought his characters to a life in ways he hadn’t even considered. Apparently I was like a bumble bee buzzing around with energy as leapt out of my seat and asked people to try again taking on board some direction.

Weeks later we have now started rehearsing the principals, I've produced a production version of the lib and I managed a ‘feel through’ of the show with the full company. I would like to lay my claim to coining the phrase ‘feel through’. Bear in mind Once Bitten is a new show and so there exists no recording or definitive performance. The chorus and even the principals don’t know the story or how it connects. I recall my first few Gilbert & Sullivan performances, in particular ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ where I marched on the stage as a wooden guard and was constantly wowed as the story began to evolve in front of me during the show week. That show had characters impersonating each other which made it near impossible for me to follow!

When I present or train professionals in business I recall the timeless advice, tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you’ve told them. Essentially tell tell tell tell tell until people are sick of you telling them. Finally, the message clicks and it’s as if you knew all along. That is the purpose of a feel through. It is part of the journey of telling the cast what the show is about and how it works. It is about communication and getting people to connect to the story and energy of the show.

We read through the show whilst moving around a sign posted set of chairs. When we hit a song we played the demo recordings. As director I flew around the set and moved people about and told members of the chorus how they’d be used in a particular scene or number. The biggest winner was how it helped our awesome choreographer Lisa visualize and start planning the movement in the show. As I sit and pencil notes on my lib having done a ‘feel through’ I actually find it easier to visualize the actors moving around the set.

At the end of the ‘feel through’ there was a tremendous energy in the rehearsal room and some people may have felt they’d been hit by a tornado, but they better understood the show. Next time when we start a rehearsed run through everything should feel familiar. A company familiar with the piece, confident and bursting with energy will produce an engaging performance. That is all I want from the Once Bitten team. Fire yourself up and engage the audience while having lots of fun doing it.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Visualize to realize

I was delighted with the turn out for the Once Bitten talk night. My enthusiasm transferred into an energetic presentation that got me more compliments than any show I've performed in! The great news is how many people are now talking about the show and have a passion to be in it and have a leading part.

My focus is casting the show correctly or to use a business analogy - get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. This is a common challenge for many businesses and is equally important in a show. We are one week away from the Once Bitten auditions and already we've heard some great performances in practise. I was giving a friend some private help earlier this week and after running the scene about ten times we built the performance from no understanding or character to a performance fit for the stage!

The key to any good audition and show is preparation and ensuring you have visualized the end result. I asked my friend to picture how the character stands and we built it from there. Again and again and again ensuring there was some feedback each time. I am listening to the show songs on repeat at the moment as I visualize in my head how the song will look including the vivid colours and shadows cast on the stage. Only once I've visualized can I build a plan for the set and how to direct the company.

Once my visualization has reached its crescendo I shall move onto the practicalities. Eventually after lots of hard work by lots of people we all realize the reality as all the constituent parts are put together for opening night. I shall likely write on this synergy at a later date. Sitting at home the show process reminds me of designing and building a new car.

The actors and actresses who want to be one of the leading parts (perhaps the gear system) should have visualized how many gears the car should have? How does the gear stick look? Is it sporty or classic? The important thing is to understand what is expected of the gear system, practise building it and test it before finally executing the end result with confidence. If it doesn't work then be safe in the knowledge you can learn from it and try again.

If you have chosen to audition for Once Bitten then I have three simple pieces of advice:
1) Make a character decision and fully commit to it
2) Repetition is crucial - so practise and get feedback on what you are doing
3) It's only a show. I've had most fun being in the chorus! Don't let nerves defeat you. We all forgive mistakes so walk in and use your nervous energy and mix it with confidence to produce an enjoyable performance. Ella Fitzgerald once famously said when asked how she sings so well that God forgives a bum note - well so do audition panels.

Enough typing. I need to disappear into my minds eye and see how our leading lady Bella transitions from shy to sassy during the song 'My lips are on fire' - I am sure this will conjure many interesting and possibly controversial images ;-)

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

It all starts with the sell

Many months ago Richard and I embarked on a journey to rewrite his 10 year old Vampire musical Once Bitten and get our local dramatics society SMAOS to perform it. It shoots many yards wide of being a Twilight or a True Blood. It chews them up and spits in there face in a truly unapologetic British way. Enough on that though I'll save it for another day. I am going to use the power of blogs to tell my story as we take this new fangtastic show through the casting, rehearsing, tweaking and finally staging.

The show is written (some lib and music tweaks remain) and tomorrow night I face an audience of around 50 people as I present the show and effectively persuade them to be in it and audition for a lead role.

This is my third late night in a row as I've finished my day job and worked through the evening on tasks needed to get this new show on the road. In the past few days I've rehearsed the plot with a friend, recorded some vocals for the demo tracks, produced a PowerPoint presentation, read the script and chosen audition pieces, selected photos of potential costumes and built a fully functioning website with all the required content!

There are simply too many things to list that writing and directing a show entail. Being a director of a new show is akin to being the leader of business. Today I put on the hat of web developer, yesterday it was script editor and tomorrow it will be salesman.

I am ready to goto bed now and will lie restless with anticipation of what lies in store. I feel well prepared and that accompanied with my energy and enthusiasm are (I hope) enough to get everyone on board for one of the most exciting projects and adventures of mine and there life.