The term “Devised Theatre” tends to elicit strong reactions from people - whether that be eyes lighting up in excitement, a shudder in remembrance of the ghosts of devised theatre past, or questioning looks from those who aren’t exactly sure what it means.
Essentially, devised theatre is a theatrical piece including any performance elements (dance, music, lights, speech, sound, movement, etc.) that was built from the ground up by an ensemble of people without a physical, linear-plot script.
Often these types of piece are made to be experimental and off-the-beaten-path, and audiences aren’t necessarily expected to feel a sense of familiarity in experiencing the performance.
But then, other times that’s exactly what they are meant to feel. And that’s where it gets super tricky.
Tonight is the official opening night of So Happy Together: The Music of the Swingin’ 60’s at Bristol Valley Theater - for which I am the Musical Director - and that’s precisely what this show was built to be: a devised musical revue show meant to be a delightful, familiar, and joy-sparking experience for the audience.
And folks…I think we did it?!?!
The 7 Day Crunch
The summer stock theatrical process is a crazy one on any given show.
Generally speaking, you have an extremely limited amount of time to learn, build, and stage a show in order to get it ready for a short run of performances in front of a summer audience. It’s fast and it’s furious, but when done well it can be some of the most fun and rewarding theatre around!
At the Bristol Valley Theater specifically, there are 7 days between the first rehearsal and the final day when the show must be finished for a run in front of the design and tech crews. To say that’s not much time is quite the understatement.
But for a devised musical revue like So Happy Together, it can almost feel like negative time.
“So how did it happen? What was this process?”
An excellent inquiry, dear reader!
Luckily, when you know you have a gigantic goal and quick process like this coming up, the production team has the ability to plan ahead of time.
Even without a script to go off of, if there is a basic shell, outline, or plan, this can often be enough to get everyone on the same page. And when you have a kick-a** director leading the charge - as we did in Katelyn Cantu, BVT’s Associate Artistic Director - the process can go even more smoothly!
Katelyn had done a great deal of research and planning by the time we had our first conversation, which made life so much easier getting into the major stages of the production. There was a basic plan to split the music of the decade into 6 sections, which we could then work into a set list and hone down together.
Additionally, we knew we wanted to include a sense of the current events throughout the decade without having an actual script, which gave us a problem to go forth and solve. The planning stage provided us things to tackle, and so the work began.
On my end, we knew there were some things we wanted to include that would have to be planned, written, or arranged ahead of time. For instance, to include as much of the Beatles catalogue as we wanted to, we whittled our list of songs down and realized we would have to put together a medley of our prioritized top 10.
So I spent days putting together a fully fleshed-out medley with soloists and transitions already set and taken care of - something that would not have been doable on the fly during the 7 day rehearsal process.
When all was said and done, walking into the rehearsal process for the show we ended up with an outline that we could fill in with music, and 20-minutes worth of pre-arranged medleys that we could place into the show where they would be most effective.
***Sidebar: I would like to take this moment to officially apologize to all of my middle and high school English teachers for rolling my eyes at the idea of writing an outline before beginning a project…they were oh so very right!
Well, we do have to meet everyone and say hello, since most of us have never worked together before and/or haven’t seen one another since the callback process in March. Some of this took place the prior evening, but there’s always a little hesitancy in diving into a project with people you haven’t really met before.
However! I will say that this group of people was enthusiastic and wonderful, and everyone gelled extremely quickly. It’s a phenomenal group, which I think is reflected in the show itself!
The first half of this day was planning:
What songs do we want to include?
What songs do we need to include?
Which section do they fit into the best? (Is it Rock or is it Psychedelic? etc.)
What’s the right order?
Who is going to sing this song?
How will we transition from one song to the next?
How about from one section to the next?
All very important questions, and some of these were extraordinarily difficult to answer.
It was a lot of table work, but once it was set we could all hit the ground running!
The remainder of Day 1 was all about learning the pre-arranged medleys that we had walked in with. It was a ton of music - and some of the most difficult music in the show - but the cast were all rock stars and plowed through the process with energy and great enthusiasm.
Wait…what did we do yesterday?
After a whirlwind first day, there was very little time to review what we had already learned due to the amount of material we wanted to include in the show. We snuck in a little review, but that was about all we could accomplish without feeling like we were moving backward.
The remainder of this day was about taking the sheet music that was being provided to us in a trickling fashion throughout the first few days, and to figure out as a group:
How much to sing
Which verses and choruses to sing
How to transition one song into the next
How to make the correct groove happen
And who was going to sing what parts/harmonies/etc.
This was often difficult, since we were re-arranging things on the fly. It was a lot of stopping and starting and changing of minds, but we made it through approximately two-thirds of the show on this day!
By the end, our heads were spinning! But also filled with music, ‘cause this era is CATCHY!
Finish the remainder of the music.
Then review the entire beast.
Oh boy, I can tell you that I was impressed with everyone and with their work, especially considering there are snippets of approximately 80 SONGS in this show.
And they learned it all in two days. What.
We begin staging!
The director jumps in and teaches choreography, blocking, and transitions.
As if learning new music, tons of lyrics, and bunches of harmonies weren’t enough, we added movement and physical spacing to the list of things to commit to memory!
I did say it was fast and furious.
Review Act 1 blocking and stage Act 2.
Also, the set list in finalized - hooray!
After months of planning, the thing is set in stone (well, sorta) and being filled out with real people, music, projections, sound, and lighting. Wahoo!
Clean up time.
With all the things that have been learned over the previous 5 days, some things have slipped through the cracks and need review.
Honestly, there was not a ton that needed reviewing. This cast really amazed me!
We were even able to do the first full run of the show! Unexpected, and it went suuuuper smoothly.
Run the show twice.
Not only does this allow us to make final adjustments and find out where the problem spots are/could be, but it gets the entire thing into the performers’ bodies and makes the show more comfortable.
Plus it was going to be a long tech process, and getting use to the exhaustion of doing the show twice is an excellent idea,
One final rehearsal run in the morning, and the official run for the designers in the afternoon.
What a WEEK.
To think that on Day 1 almost nothing existed on paper, and now it was a full show that we had been able to fully put together and run a total of 5 times is insane and amazing.
Oh, plus it was GOOD!
Day Off…Kind Of
A well-deserved day off for the actors follows the craziness of the first 8 days.
On the technical side, the work is really just gearing up.
On this day I finally get the opportunity to meet the band and begin sloughing through the entire show with them, teaching what we’ve done to make the songs and transitions work as well as figuring out what we want played by whom and when. ‘Tis a big day on the music side.
Meanwhile, the tech crew and designers get the set and theater ready for Tech Week with the performers, to begin the following evening.
Again, fast and furious.
Tech processes in theatre are generally too short and very crazy. At summer stock theaters, those feelings can often be multiplied by 10!
But this was one of the smoothest and most well-paced tech processes I’ve ever encountered in a time-crunch setting, and I am extremely grateful for the great professionalism everyone showed (led by our fearless and bad-a** Stage Manager).
For those of you not familiar, this is how tech goes:
Monday - Spacing rehearsal on the set (which is up and somewhat finished, but will continue to be worked on throughout the process). Sound is just getting started, as is lighting, and we’re all trying to figure out how to make the show in the rehearsal room become what we all envisioned throughout rehearsals. More tech work follows after the rehearsal and before the next.
Tuesday - From Noon to Midnight (with a two hour dinner) we slowly tech through the entire show, cue to cue. With the number of lighting and sound cues in a musical revue like this one, it could have been a painstaking process, but it was smooth and excellent this time around. Long and exhausting, oh yes, but very smooth.
Wednesday - Notes and running in the afternoon while tech puts final touches on the show (and makes it look amaaaaaazing!). And after dinner we perform an open dress rehearsal for a small crowd of enthusiastic locals. Hooray! We’re almost there!
Thursday - Daytime final touches, and off we go! The first performance takes place on Thursday night!!! (It went spectacularly, by the way - the town is already abuzz!)
So Happy Together
If you’ve made it all the way through this blog post with me, you’re probably feeling just as dizzy and exhausted as we all felt!
There are so many ways a process like this can go awry or be tough or beat you down, but I must say that this process has been wonderful.
And you know what?
The product is a stellar one. We have built a delightful show that makes me happy every time we do it, and now we only have 9 more performances to share this happiness with the world.
I do hope you will come join us! Not only are you very welcome to do so, but I think you will find yourself feeling “so happy” right along with us. :-)