Tech week for A Christmas Carol began on Sunday, and I missed the read-through for Beauty and the Beast, which opens in January at Pittsburgh's Gemini Theater. In fact, I won't be able to make any of the Beauty and the Beast rehearsals until next Sunday, after our matinee.
Directors are sometimes willing to put up with these kinds of conflicts, especially when they've got a role to cast and there's only a small pool of actors available or something limits the actor pool, like the Christmas season. This is a time of year when most people (and actors are people—in spite of what some would think) are more likely to want to spend buying presents and house decorating than learning lines and rehearsing. Me? The only reason I am willing to rehearse is on the outside chance that visiting grandchildren will be able to come and see me on stage. So, one show is getting ready to go up and the other is just getting started.
Tech week is when all the bells and whistles are added to a show. The lighting designer hangs and focuses the lights and orchestrates the cues for each lighting change. The cues are charted for a lighting board, which controls all the lights on stage and is operated by a lighting tech in a control booth during the run of the show. Each cue is called by the stage manager and entered on the board by the tech. Sound cues are usually added at the same time. If there are a large number of sound effects, there may be a sound tech to run them; otherwise the stage manager may run them herself. There are new computer-operated systems currently available, but they are usually beyond the budgets of the smaller theatres.
At least one run during tech week is devoted to rehearsing the stage manager and her crew alone and is not meant for the actors at all. In some theatres, they don't even run the whole show during this run, they simply move from cue to cue to make sure the right cue is called at the right time and everything happens the way it's supposed to. For example, just before Marley appears to warn Scrooge of the coming of the three spirits, bells begin to ring. When the ghost appears on stage, the stage darkens. There will also be a small fog machine added for atmosphere. (There had been talk of a microphone for an echo effect, but, as is often the case, the talk never turned into action.) Actors will start a few lines before the cue for the bells. They will place themselves in their blocked positions on the stage, and advance to the cue. The cue will be called, and the director will make sure everything worked the way it was supposed to. If not, we all go back and do it again. If everything is fine, we move ahead to the next cue.
Scene changes are also run. Any scenery that needs to be struck, moved, or brought on stage has been assigned either to crew members or to actors, if the theatre is unable to afford a stage crew. Again, we begin a few lines before the end of the scene, and when we get to the end, everything begins to move off stage, on stage, upstage, downstage – and all in the dark. Placement of set pieces will be marked (spiked) on stage with tape. If things have gone smoothly, we go on. If not, we go back.
Gradually, through the course of the week, props will be added. Many actors will have been using surrogate props during the rehearsal, but now the real pieces to be used in the show will begin to appear on the prop tables in the wings. Marley's chains, for example, showed up on Sunday. Feather quills for Scrooge and Bob Cratchit showed up as well, as did a music box for Fan to give to the young Ebenezer. On the other hand, coins and a coin purse for Old Joe are not here yet. They will come; otherwise there are always pockets.
Costumes come late, sometimes because the costume designer is overwhelmed, in this case because the costumes are being rented, and the shorter the time you use them, the cheaper the rental. The only thing we can be sure of is that costumes will be here on Thursday for dress rehearsal. If so, one can only have faith that they will fit. If not, we make do. "Are there no safety pins?" "Are there no needles and thread?" Makeup, if any, is usually added at dress rehearsal.
By tech week actors are expected to know their lines. Until then, they are able to call for lines if they are having a problem, a mental lapse. During tech week, actors are expected to work through dropped lines and any other screw-ups that might occur, and it's good practice, because in live theatre there are going to be screw-ups and one had better get used to dealing with them.
Curtain calls are usually blocked the night before dress rehearsal. We run through them a time or two and make ourselves ready for the standing ovation sure to come on opening night.