Anyone who works in a collaborative, creative field has seen this Venn Diagram. It makes its way through the Production Manager’s Forum about once a year, but I’ve seen the same diagram applied to graphic design, architecture, and e-commerce platforms.
Most often, these constraints help me communicate to creative roles (directors, designers, etc.) what a realistic timeline, cost, and quality will look like. Would it be nice if we had an unchanging list of what was needed for the show before rehearsal began? Yes! Of course!
Will that ever happen? No! Never! It’s detrimental to the process of creating a collaborative vision between many separate design elements. Creating art is a process where you are learning as you go. Often, your first instinct doesn’t wind up working out the way you imagine. Our artistic director is known for having a saturday night fever dream that changes huge elements of the set (she has about 50 years of experience, and is, frustratingly, always right).
TIME IS AN INFLEXIBLE CONSTRAINT
Opening Night is Opening Night, and there’s no changing it. From a production standpoint, that is when every single project needs to be complete. Generally, you can break any performance project into two separate deadlines: what needs to be completed for technical rehearsal (this is where we add design elements) and what needs to be completed by opening (when we stop designing and freeze the show).
To have a successful technical rehearsal, the lighting needs to be hung, focused, and under control of the light board operator for the lighting designer to do their work. You need a bulk of the costumes to be wearable in order to be looked at under lights, even though many changes will continue to happen before they are in front of an audience. We rehearse on our sets, so they are normally functionally done well before technical rehearsal, even if there are small aesthetic notes continue to be implemented.
In the 10 years I have been working professionally, we have only cancelled two opening nights. One, because a transformer blew on Spruce Street and pretty much everything we do relies on having power. The other because one of our actors needed to have surgery to remove a kidney stone and the understudies hadn’t been “put in” the show yet. Cancelling any show means refunding tickets to the audience, so we’ve done shows for 18 audience members in a blizzard. So have my friends on Broadway. Profit margins are thin, so no one cancels.
Since time is completely inflexible and scope/quality is set once designs are approved, you spend a lot of time managing departmental workflows, shared resources, and working the budget.
PROPS: THE AREA WHERE CHEAP AND GREAT INTERSECT JUST IN TIME TO BE TOO LATE
I cannot count how many times props have been cut because they arrive too late to be rehearsed with. The director, actors and stage manager often want the real thing and not a do-fer. The real thing, which needs to be great, requires time to make. That often means it arrives after the director/stage manager has already written off ever seeing it and moved on without it. This happens a lot with ideas that the set designer, but not director, is highly invested in. It generally never happens to objects that are essential to the plot.
In An Octoroon, you need an old daguerreotype camera because it takes a photo of a murder. Then it gets smashed, every single performance, into splinters. So you don’t need one, you need 40. And since early photographers built their own cameras, it needs to look perfect; the audience can’t suspect it will be destroyed by looking at it. But because you’re destroying 40 of them, they need to be cheap. In this case, we were lucky that our production apprentice was an extremely skilled carpenter, and she built them when our props person didn’t have the skills and tools necessary. Were they later than we’d like? Yes. Were they too late? No, because they were necessary.
We try to mitigate labor intensive props from being cut by establishing clear timelines early on, checking in often, and acting as a liaison between the props head and stage manager. The stage manager is in rehearsal with the director, and does what they can to stop a prop from being cut when it is about to be completed.
COSTUMES: WHERE THE AMAZING THINGS YOU’VE PAID FOR GET CUT BEFORE ANYONE EVER SEES THEM
Our wardrobe office has a shelf full of beautiful headpieces that were cut before rehearsal ever started. Because we needed them to be perfect, we gave the artists making them a long lead time to make them affordable. By the time they were done, the goddesses who were supposed to wear them were cut from the rapidly changing script. Sometimes you have time to stop production on elements like this. Sometimes you don’t, or there’s so little work left, that it’s better to finish it.
For Romeo and Juliet, Juliet had 4 or five costume options. Several needed to be made from scratch. What did Juliet wind up wearing? A tunic dress from Century 21.
SET: WHERE FAST MEETS CHEAP, THEN WE FIX IT
Budgets haven’t changed (or have gotten smaller), but the cost of materials keeps rising. We don’t have space to build, or our own shop. That means to keep the budget in line, we need to outsource elements to multiple shops, which means we have problems with where scenic elements meet up, or the general quality being lower than we’d expect (the “dipped in ugly sauce” constraint). The expectations of quality for the finished product remain high, which means we fix those issues as they arise in-house. The Simpsons totems on the right were built by a small shop, and needed to be reinforced after one broke as it was assembled.
Particularly in set, nothing beats having a highly skilled, experienced team. We are lucky to have several carpenters who have been with us for a long time. Just knowing the designers and the building helps them to alleviate problems that arise unexpectedly. It also means that early in the process, they know what quality is expected, so they take real pains with the work at the beginning to avoid issues down the road.
In my life as a freelance Production Manager, I’ve experienced a whole portion of a set being cut because of external constraints. NYC Fringe requires all elements to be flame tested before they will allow them into a theater, unless they are made of a naturally resistant material (PVC, Metal, etc). We had walls made of jungle camo netting. Paid for the flame test, which they failed spectacularly at. The material also wasn’t absorbent, so it couldn’t be treated.
LIGHTING & SOUND: THE MOST PREDICTABLE WORKFLOWS
Lighting, sound and scenery have to share all the same resources in terms of space and labor. There’s an ideal order of their install though, which helps to control costs. The lights and sound need to be hung before the set is installed. Sometimes, LED tape or other elements that attach to scenery need to wait, and we need to wait on rented equipment, but the bulk needs to be in place since the set often makes lighting and sound positions nearly inaccessible. Try taking a genie up the ramp on the left.
The lack of accessibility also makes these departments that need a strong timeline, including submission of designs. It costs more to make changes in these areas late in the game because of the labor involved.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO?
To me, managing projects with small budgets, shifting scope and priorities, and an inflexible timeline comes down to a few basic tips:
- TRUST YOUR EXPERTS! Do I know how long it takes to build a men’s shirt? Absolutely not. I only know that it takes longer than I think. There’s plenty of areas in construction, rigging, and lighting where I also have to defer to my experts. Sound and video? Basically, so much has changed in the last 5 years, that I know I don’t know anything. They need my trust so they can communicate their needs, especially when unexpected problems arise.
- PARTICIPATE IN PLANNING! How are the experts planning on doing the job? Why did they choose that path? Are there alternatives? We ask a lot of questions, even ones that seem dumb can have value. You might find that lighting is over thinking something, and that scenery has a good solution.
- UNDERSTAND YOUR DEPARTMENT WORKFLOWS! Our theater isn’t ideal; there’s a ton of issues that come with the architecture. Most of them our technicians can sport right away. We pay very close attention to when each department needs to work in the space and what their plan is. When a designer is late submitting their paperwork, it affects prep time, which can quickly affect the accuracy of the work being done. Working to understand different departments’ workflows also helps build trust in you as a manager, and that trust is essential to everything we do.
- DON’T GET ATTACHED! In the next month, we will be building several mic cables with LEDs that will fluctuate with the performers voice. We know 100% that they will never make it out of the first week of rehearsal, but we have to build it anyway. You have to know when to cut your losses and kill your darlings, which involves clear communication with artistic of the costs to complete.