Backstage: How is a Live Theater Show Created?
By: Srishti Bansal
Have you ever seen a play in a live theater? What about a musical? These types of shows have existed for hundreds of years (long before movies or TV shows) and are enjoyed by people all around the world. However, although you may love watching the acting and singing, there is a lot more than you may think that goes into creating the finished performance you see in front of you.
The first thing that needs to exist before anything else can possibly be done to prepare for a performance is the script! A script provides the narrative of the performance through a list of all the dialogue of the actors. This framework is not just important for the performers, but is also essential for all of the other individuals involved in preparing the show for you to see. Most of the time in school theaters, the script that the actors usel already exists. This is why if you hear that a production of Annie or The Lion King is going on, you might already know what is going to happen. On other occasions, however, especially in professional theaters, the play has an entirely new script that someone writes just for that particular performance. Playwrights are people whose job it is to write plays. This is a job that has been around for an extremely long time, and many scripts are used again and again for many years. The subject of a play can be anything, but the playwright has to work to make sure it will be understandable to the reader with just the dialogue. You may have heard of William Shakespeare. The books of his that people read are actually mostly playscripts!
When the script is finally ready, it’s time to find those who will actually be performing it! However, there is still a lot to do before rehearsals start. First of all, finding actors and actresses who will be performing in the show. The Director is the one who decides how they want the show to look and feel, because even though the playwright has provided the plot of the production, that is not all that goes into how a play is performed. Directors are also usually the one in charge of casting (deciding who is playing certain roles) which is normally conducted through a process known as auditioning.
Audition processes are very different depending on the kind of theater putting on the play, but these processes generally involve a small group of people (including the director) that evaluate auditioning actors who perform short sections of the script, also known as slides. After auditions are over, the director and others involved in the audition decide whose performances they liked the most. In large productions, there may be a round of callbacks, where a few of the most successful actors are invited back to perform again. At the end of this process, actors are offered the roles that the casting committee decides are best for them, and once every role is accepted by an actor, production work can begin!
Behind the scenes of any show, there is far more at work it may seem while watching a performance. The vision of the show may be created by the director, but various designers or directors (not the same person as the main Director) work to make the show the best it can be. This may include a Set designer, Costumes designer, Props designer, Hair/Makeup designers, Light/Sound directors, Music directors and more. Not every show will have all of these roles in place, and they may have slightly different titles in different theaters, but these roles are the ones that help develop the play into something ready for you to see. The supporting roles for each of these positions are often known as crew.
One of the most visible aspects of a theatrical performance involves not the actors themselves, but what you may see around them. The set of a production may seem fairly simple at first glance, but in fact there is a lot that goes into making a production comprehensible (easy to understand) to the people who will be watching. The set of a show can involve backdrops and pieces that have to move around, interact with the cast, and be easy to understand from all different angles of the audience. In addition, any props that are necessary for a performance will need to not get in the way of the cast, and also be realistic enough to be believed. Especially in cases like food, this is often difficult, and props workers may have to become creative.
Although it’s important to make sure actors’ surroundings are as nice as they can be, most people would find it a bit difficult to fully immerse themselves in a play that was supposed to be set in medieval times if all of the actors were wearing jeans and t-shirts. Costumes are a vital part of the audience experience for a production, and there are a large number of things that a costume director may need to pay attention to. Of course, everything must be the right size for each particular actor, and must also fit into the general costuming theme of the show. However, another aspect that must be considered is how the audience will view the performance. For example, plain black is rarely used onstage for costumes because it often is difficult to see due to lighting. Additionally physical constraints such as quick costume changes are important to consider as well. If an actor only has 30 seconds to switch costumes, neither costume can be very difficult to change into and out of.
Beyond what is physically onstage, there are a variety of things that aren’t visible in the same sense, but without which the theatrical experience would be impossible. Lighting directors make sure that the spotlight is on the main character during their big solo, and sound directors make sure that the music starts on beat and doesn’t cause the character to stand in the spotlight before it’s time. If there is live music for a musical, music directors will work with musicians to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
Because there is so much to put together, large or professional productions may have a designated person, known as the producer, who works to make sure all of the other elements of a show are running smoothly. This person will usually book venues for the performance, obtain permissions, make sure members of the production are well informed of any new changes, encourage deadlines to be followed, and much more. Depending on the size of the production, this role may be supported by a technical director who handles all of the things that go on backstage, as well as Treasurer or Business Manager, who might work to ensure that the show stays within budget.
As you might be able to see, there is a lot more that goes into making a theatrical show come to life than you might imagine when watching a live theater show. If you ever get the chance to see one yourself, hopefully now you'll be able to spot the work of some of these different roles!