This week is Tech Week. Monday is a travel day, and I put it off until the last minute because I hate packing. I finally throw some stuff into a bag and trek to St Pancras in time to be really early for my train to Sheffield.
The entire creative team is housed on a block of corporate flats. I arrive and instantly feel like Hugh Grant. My place has the feel of a bachelor pad with a nice big comfy bed and leather sofas. My neighbours on either side are director Jeremy and designer Mike, and the close proximity is really handy for late night or early morning note sessions. During the busy technical rehearsal week and preview period, the work day stretches from first thing in the morning to late at night.
Early Tuesday I am up and ready to go to the theatre. Jeremy's not arriving until later, around 11.30am. I head to the Crucible to chat with stage management about how the 'get in' has gone. The 'get in' invovles fitting the set and setting up the technical equipement. I want to see if any problems have appeared that need to be resolved before the first session of scheduled technical rehearsal at 2pm.
As I walk in, I enter from upstage left and the LED screen at the back of stage is being flooded with different bright colours and the blinds are being hung. The first thing to strike me is the floor. It's beautiful. Some elements of the set are mounted on a truck which is a wheeled platform that can be rolled into any position on stage. There are lines in the design of the floor that hide the function of the truck, so when the truck moves downstage it looks like it floats on its own. It is shiny and solid and very impressive. As I journey downstage, I say hello to Lucy the lighting designer, Tom the sound designer and Ian the video designer. They are all busy with their teams finalising sound levels and plotting the light movements so the lighting states are ready to go for the first technical session.
After a quick exploration of the set, I discovered the first setback: the steepness of the vomitory entrances that allow the actors to enter downstage right and downstage left. Going up them was like climbing a very small, steep hill. The ladies in the cast will have to exit down these entrances in heels in the dark, but at least they will have some time to practice this before tech rehearsals begin. The next setback is the time that it takes to journey from the vomitory entrances, under the stage, then back up to where the upstage entrances are. At a run, I could make it in 35 seconds but in reality it is a 45 second journey which has an impact on some of the blocking. That’s okay and easily solvable, but forewarned is forearmed.
Jeremy arrives and gets ahead by looking at lighting states and listening to some ideas for sound design before we break for lunch.
The rest of the afternoon and for three hours in the evening, we have our first two sessions of technical rehearsal. As stage manager, David Morgan has to run this rehearsal. He tells the actors when to stand by when they need to be ready to go from a certain place in a scene, which will be a few lines before a cue. David is working closely with deputy stage manager Jen, who will call the lighting and sound cues during the show while David is on the stage. David will be running the stage crew and controlling the movement of the blinds. Also backstage is assistant stage manager Alec, whose job it is to set up props, and reset props in what is a precariously dark area. He also has to change the set in the scene changes.
It was really exciting to see some of the clips of the video design. The green screen is so effective! There I am as Carole Kendrick, standing outside 10 Downing Street! George Malcolm and Bryden are really in the House of Commons. And Malcolm is on the news presented by Moira Stewart!
This is how the tech works for the creative team; the designers offer their work for each scene while the actors play it on the stage, and Jeremy responds with feedback. Feedback includes some tweaks here and there, working out the exact timing of when the blinds will fly in or out, how quickly the actors should leave or enter and when sound rises to lift us into a scene or fades out to leave us in a scene. This is a slow process since the level of precision required often means rehearsing each cue several times. But the tech week is really important part of putting the show on; the creative team finally gets to rehearse their work with the actors. There is a real team atmosphere in technical rehearsals.
After a long day, finishing at 10pm, we are running behind the schedule by a few hours. The first couple of scenes are very heavy with underscoring and atmosphere changes, so they have taken a lot of time. This meant we didn’t reach the target of act 1 scene 8 as a finishing position on the first day. In addition, as is normal with technical rehearsals, a lot of new questions and problems get thrown up, such as an actor not being able to do a very quick costume change. After a few attempts at elongating the scene change, the decision was made to cut the change and give it to another actor, which means a new costume and a new quick change.
On Wednesday, we work for three technical sessions, beginning the day at 9.45am and picking up from where we left off. Over the course of this day we are almost caught up with our schedule and the rehearsals hit a rhythm. The good thing with tech is that there is a lot of down time for the actors. As we wait for cues to be programmed and lined up, there is chance for us to work with them on stage drilling lines, changing little bits of blocking or giving notes.
By Thursday afternoon, we have reached the end of the play, which feels like a grand achievement. After a dinner break, we have our first dress rehearsal. The big note to come out of the dress is the audibility problems. The actors haven’t yet adapted to the scale of the theatre space, and it takes a lot of work to be audible to the people at the sides when your back is turned to them. Luckily, we took even more precious minutes off the running time and David Hare, who joined for this first dress, seemed really happy that we are landing the story.
We have time to work on a few notes Friday morning before the second dress rehearsal in the afternoon and the 'open dress' in the evening. The 'open dress' is a rehearsal, but it is open to the public, so we are treating it as our first preview. The joy of getting two run throughs in before the audience joins on Friday evening is that the actors have had a chance to practice all the lines and cues. It becomes muscle memory and they start to be more relaxed and fluid. From here on, they have a solid base from which to alter their performances according to the audience.
When the Sheffield crowd began taking their seats, the atmosphere was electric. Backstage there is a real bubbling of nervousness, excitement and anticipation. The cast shows a range of anxiety, from thinking “Why do I put myself through this?” before going on stage, to “I don’t get nervous at all. I just love it. Can’t wait”. Someone told me that the stress of going on stage is akin to the stress levels of being in a car accident. I wonder if it is true. None of the stress shows in their performances and the play lands really well. You could see the actors start the feed off the reaction from the audience as some of their lines get big laughs. The creative team is dotted throughout the audience, scrutinising levels of light, sound, timing of cues, positioning of people and the levels of backstage noise. They are readying for a debrief after the show where the notes are fed back and we discuss improvements for the next day’s show.
We join the actors and the team from the Crucible in the Crucible Corner bar just outside the theatre for a drink. I went to say well done to all the actors and the adrenaline is still flowing, showing that they clearly really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I felt very proud. They need audiences now to help with the next leg of the journey. Of course there is a lot of work still to do: working rigorously with the actors to nail every moment and honing the artistic presentation. There are still a few issues with sound levels, but already huge improvements have been made. It’s up. It’s open for business now. And with only five days until press night we are rounding the final bend.