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Walls, windows whipping in from the fly space

Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, the production staff and the actors of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 5–21, 2008) have had a pretty busy time. So busy in fact, I’ve not had enough time to keep this blog up to date. Without further ado, then, here’s the first part of what’s been going on.

Friday and Saturday, we had a couple of lengthy rehearsals known in the trade as “dry tech”. No, not because the Deco Lounge at the FAC was closed while we were rehearsing, but because the rehearsals were all about the tech stuff: the flying in of sets, the setting up of props, the lighting, and the sound. All of the technical things that wrap and enhance the actors’ performance. In general, for a musical, there’s lots of different scenes in various sets and hence lots of scene changes. When you’re watching a show, you’re hardly aware of this — unless we’ve done our job badly — and the sets seem to fly in and out almost magically. That magic takes a great deal of rehearsal of its own to make it seem smooth and effortless. And so that’s what happened Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, time after time, we’d reset a scene and then rehearse whipping it out and bringing the next one in.

So, for example, in Act II, when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge his relatives celebrating Christmas Eve, there’s a scene change from Scrooge’s bedroom to Fred’s drawing room, Fred being Scrooge’s nephew. The bedroom has a four-poster bed, a fireplace and mantel, and a window with a small balcony. These all have to disappear and Fred’s drawing room windows, little occasional table (with drinks and glasses), and four chairs have to come in. Over and over we did this change, making sure that everyone concerned knew their place and what they were doing. It the end it was quick and flowing. Ditto for the next scene change: Fred’s drawing room slips out and the Cratchit’s house comes in.

Another aspect to this is a concern with safety. These walls and windows come whipping in from the fly space above the stage. They are heavy and the tech crew member doing the flying is doing this blind (the ropes have markers at the exact point where the fly operator should stop). They can’t see the stage from where they’re at and so can’t see that someone happens to be standing just underneath. And so we have to ensure that anyone who is on stage is well away from the flies. And repeat to make sure. Several times, until it’s drilled into people’s heads where they should be during the scene change.

The problem for the actors and why a dry tech all seems to take so long is that these scene changes are not about them, they’re about the tech crew. The actors are just standing in their respective places or are coming in as the scene changes. The repetition gets to be a little boring and tiring. But, as I said, it’s all absolutely essential.

We also had some fun on Saturday afternoon, during the dinner break, when some of the cast recorded their voices for Scrooge’s nightmare scene. In essence the scene happens at the end of Scrooge’s interaction with the Ghost of Christmas Past, when he remembers in a swirl of half-forgotten memories all that she has just shown him. There’s a crescendo of voices all overlapping as the characters all swirl around Scrooge. So our Sound Designer was recording certain phrases from the script with the actors concerned, and he needed a certain je ne sais quoi to the way they were said, with a different speed or timbre or inflection. So, it was kind if fun to listen to actors say that same phrase over and over again, a bit like the old exercise of how many ways you can say “I knew him well” or similar. (“I” knew him well, I “knew” him well, I knew “him” well, I knew him. Well! And so on.)

But in the end, we had some smooth efficient scene changes and it wasn’t often that something was left on stage inadvertently. Then Sunday, it was the first dress rehearsal. Or to give it its true weight and importance, the First Dress Rehearsal. But that’s for another blog post.

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present