In the theatre, the “Pre-show” is a show before the show.
It is mainly a Dinner Theater custom where
the waiters and waitresses become performers
and sing a few songs, tell a few jokes or put on a skit.
It occurs while the audience finishes their meal
while the dishes are cleared and everyone settles down
for the evening’s main event.
A “Pre-show” can happen on any special evening where,
for instance, there may be an author to launch,
a charity to fund, a dignitary to honor,
a grand opening or a world premiere.
Whether it’s entertainment or honor, it all happens
before the main show—as a warm-up to the main event.
Here the “Pre-show” takes on a slightly different form.
Instead of speeches or jokes or songs . . .
we will begin with a little "how it all began" story
which will explain the reason this book was written.
So . . . may I have the house lights dimmed to half,
and my follow spot, please?
The idea for this book actually took root around 1980 when I was visiting my hometown in
“What are you working on now?” asks one cousin.
“Well, nothing at the moment,” came my embarrassed reply.
“Aren’t there any auditions? You were always such a good actor.”
"Yes, there are always auditions," I explained. “Unfortunately there is also, always, a lot of competition."
"What do you do, just go around to each theater to see if they are auditioning?"
“Well,” I smile, “there are several trade papers which list audition notices and, in
Seeing the question marks all over his face, I tried to explain. “You see, in
“So you need to see the producer, then? Where do they have the auditions?”
"Well, the producer doesn't handle casting. Not directly. The director or a casting director does. And auditions can take place in the casting directors office or, very often, in a rented rehearsal studio.”
And so it went, again—the explanations. I tried to be as simple and concise as possible. I tried very hard to use words that were easily understood—because I am well aware of the fact that I can lapse into a familiar “theatre-ease” dialect which many non-theatre people still don't quite understand. But, invariably, no matter how cautious I attempted to be; no matter where I started my explanations, there was always something missing. There was always some little tidbit of background information, not explained, that was crucial to a current explanation. And so things would usually get confusing as I would go back and explain something else which would result in my losing track of what it was that I began to explain in the first place.
And to complicate everything, each year I was coming home with new stories about new experiences in new areas of the theatre that I was getting involved in. Early in my career, when I wasn't finding much work as an actor, I was also taking work as a stage manager as well as backstage as a stagehand—hanging lights and building scenery. So each year, with every new experience, my explanations began to get slightly more confusing. This usually prompted the most frequent question—the one I’ve heard more times than I can count. It is my all-time favorite:
“What is it, exactly, that you do?”
“I am a stage manager,” I answered, chest held high (when stage managing was my main area of concentration).
“Oh . . . I see . . .” a polite lie. “I thought you were an actor.”
“Well, I was . . . that is, I am . . . I mean . . . I started as an actor, when I first went to
There were several years when my varied resume was a splendid source of total confusion.
“Why don’t you do a TV commercial?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that one. Or . . .
“Why don’t you get a part on one of those soap operas? You could make a lot of money doing that.”
“To tell you the truth, I wish I could. But it’s not that easy.”
“Oh . . .”
And so it went: questions, followed by explanations, followed by confusion, followed by more explanations. It became terribly frustrating and sometimes even a bit exhausting. But, undaunted, I endured. There I was, year after year, trying to explain the crazy, mixed-up life that I had chosen for myself. And I usually got nowhere fast. The explanations were too brief, usually outdated (since I was always doing something different) and they happened only once a year. No wonder I got so many blank looks. My poor family . . . I don’t blame them.
I had to figure out a way to make the explanations better—more current, continuous and as complete as possible. But that was a tall order. I could make more frequent trips home with updates. But that would become prohibitively expensive. Frequent long distance phone calls would also add to my already overburdened budget. Not a good idea (this was before cell phones with free long distance). Maybe I could write letters (before email), constantly updating my career and life with lengthy explanations. But thoughts of words like “constantly” and “lengthy” made my hand hurt.
And then it hit me! Wait a minute!
What about one lengthy explanation? What about writing down everything I could think of that related to the business I was in, and all of the jobs I have had, and make copies of it for everyone who wanted them? I could share my experiences, with all the peculiarities and manifestations, and hopefully be finished with all the repetitive explaining—once and for all!
What a great idea! Simple enough.
And as I thought about it, the solution became simple too. A book! I'd write a book about the theatre and then, on the next visit home for Christmas, I'd give a copy of the book to everyone who asked any questions.
The aim of the book would be to explain what everything was—what everyone in the theatre did and how all the aspects of the theatre related to each other. A simple, concise, general explanation—a kind of reference book, so to speak, with terms defined, job descriptions explained and relationships and methodologies explored. The book would translate the language of theatre into the language of family and friends—so that everyone would understand.
This book would not be a “how to” book trying to explain how to do theatre; nor would it be a “where to” book, telling people where to find various jobs or careers in the theatre. Many other people have written books in these areas already.
My book would simply be an insider’s view of the theatre, relating, through my own experiences, what I saw, what I did, what I learned and accomplished. Part biography and part explanation of the fundamentals of theatre so that any reader can begin to see and appreciate the life that theatre people live. There are probably thousands of people all over the country—my fellow theatre people and their family and friends—who are experiencing similar communication difficulties when trying to understand the life and the business of theatre. Maybe my book can help explain things for them.
And as I thought further, I realized that there are tens of thousands more college students contemplating a career in the theatre—each semester of each year. A comprehensive and practical book outlining the scope of professional theatre would be a helpful and maybe even necessary addition to every Intro-to-Theatre course in the curriculum. I wish a book like this existed when I went to college.
Was I biting off more than I could chew? Was I thinking too big? I thought not. After all . . . people with far less practical experience in the theatre have written shelves of theatre books. Why couldn’t I? And if people could benefit from my sharing what I have experienced—why shouldn’t I give it a try?
It took me over 30 years to write this book because first I had to live it and experience it. And as I publish this book I am passing my 34th year in
So here it is. A first-hand comprehensive compilation of what I have observed, learned, experienced and accomplished while working in the theatre business. It’s organized into chapters and sections that will help anyone who reads it understand the intricacies of the theatre. It explores the language, the jobs, the venues, the training, the relationships, the activities, the sweat, the toil, the stress, the fun, the people, the camaraderie, the good times and the not so good times—all about what we do working in the theatre.
I’m sure I have forgotten or missed a few things—or been occasionally redundant. And, since the business is always changing, there may be things I did and ways I did them that may seem antiquated to future readers. So I will probably update the book from time to time. But it is my intention that this one, long, detailed explanation is basic yet universal enough that everyone who reads it will get something out of it—whether they are coming from no knowledge or from an already established career. And hopefully it is concise and informative enough so that anyone either in the theatre, planning to go into the theatre, or anyone who knows someone who is in the theatre, can begin to communicate with knowledge, understanding and appreciation.
It is in this regard that I have set about this curious task. It may at times be personal—with anecdotes from my life and my experiences—but it is every theatre person's life and every theatre person's experiences. We all want you, our family and friends, to know what we do. In fact we need you to know—so that we can share our experiences and enjoy them together.
So relax and get comfortable. I hope that you enjoy what you are about to read as much as I’ve enjoyed living it for you.
Does everyone have a program?
Follow spot fades to black.
Hopefully, there is polite applause.
The house lights fade to black.
A hush of excitement and anticipation
wafts over the crowd.
A few people take one more glance at The Program.
The main show is about to begin!
SCENE 1: THE WRITER"And what would it be like if an actor got up on the stage and had nothing to say? Even the great mime Marcel Marceau has a story idea for each of his pantomimes. And even improvisational actors have outlines that help guide them through suggestions from an audience. Without the idea, and some sort of script, the actor has nothing to work from—nowhere to go.
If there is nothing for the actor to do, there will be nothing to see.
If there is nothing to see, there will be no audience.
If there is no audience, there is no theatre.
And without theatre...well, for one thing, I wouldn’t be writing this book.
No matter how long it takes to write, whether it is produced on stage or not, or how successful it is—it always starts with an idea. And this idea becomes theatre thanks to the Writer."
(More on Writers in the book).
SCENE 2: THE PRODUCER
This allusion to other well-known almighty activities is not accidental. In the professional theatre, the Producer is the big man, the top banana, the boss of bosses, the one who hires, the one who fires and the final last word. He is the person who makes everything go and he can, likewise, make everything stop—at any time.
Along with all of this power comes a great deal of responsibility. Not only is the Producer responsible for making sure everything goes well, he is also responsible for when things do not go well. He can take all the praise when his show is a hit. And he must ultimately take the blame when his show tanks and closes opening night. This is a tremendous burden and the main reason for the fact that there are very few successful Producers.
Technically, anyone can be called a Producer! It’s true. Your uncle can be a Producer. Your mother’s beautician can be a Producer. Your brother-in-law’s golfing partner can be a Producer. Anyone can be a Producer as long as they possess two things: 1) a show and 2) lots of money."
(More on Producers in the book).
SCENE 3: THE DIRECTOR"Usually, before every member of the staff is hired or the cast is chosen, the Director and the writers can spend weeks engaged in lengthy discussions regarding the story, characters, relationships, emotions, intentions and meaning of the script. It is the writer's work that the Director must translate to the stage and, therefore, the Director must understand it thoroughly. Because the script inspires every facet of the show, the Director immerses himself in the world created by the writers. The story is broken down in terms of dramatic content as well as dramatic action. Characters are analyzed and interpreted based on their significance to the story, their relationships and their emotional effect on the dramatic action. Scenic approaches are discussed, and dialogue is analyzed and, in many cases, even changed. Through all of this it could be said that the Director almost becomes one of the writers. And it is rather commonly accepted that a script that was optioned one day will undergo many changes due to a Directors input before rehearsals begin 6 months or a year later." (More on Directors in the book).
SCENE 4: THE STAGE MANAGER"Taking every job and every position into consideration—from beginning to end—from before auditions until after closing night, the position of Stage Manager is probably the most unique and critical position that exists in the theatre. Because of this immense responsibility there is never only one Stage Manager on an individual show. The minimum number is two and with some larger musicals there can be as many as five Stage Managers—headed by a Production Stage Manager (PSM). Each Stage Managerial team handles the responsibilities of a particular show in a fluid and unique way depending on the people involved on the team. Individual responsibilities are delegated according to the working relationship of the team. The only consistent factor from one Stage Managerial team to the next is that the PSM is the “go to” person with final authority on the running of the show."
(More on Stage Managers in the book).
SCENE 5: THE DESIGNERS"Just because there are three visual elements does not mean there has to be three Designers. Very often a Set Designer may also design the costumes. And, on rare occasions, one Designer may design everything. Shows with small budgets try to streamline the scenic elements and one way to do this is by hiring fewer Designers. Conversely, sometimes the scenic elements are so overdone that they overshadow the actors and may even get better reviews.
Producers (especially on Broadway) hire Designers based on background, proven expertise and even preliminary design suggestions. Producers may have a certain group of Designers that they frequently work with because they are familiar with and trusting of their work. Scenery, lights and costumes can be the costliest upfront aspects of a show and if a producer is unfamiliar with a Designer’s work there could be disastrous results."
(More on Designers in the book).
SCENE 6: THE ACTOR"As stated before, a play exists only as a literary achievement until it is presented in front of an audience. True theatre happens when a living Actor personifies a writer’s idea, guided by a director, in front of an audience who will, hopefully, be affected by what is seen and heard. The Actor is the instrument through which the written word is carried to the listening audience.
Without the Actor the writer's words are just arrangements of letters—just a story to be read. Without the Actor the director has no one to direct. Without the Actor there is no one to wear costumes; no one to stand in the light; no one to walk on the set. Without the Actor . . . well, you get the message. The Actor is the one fundamental required element of the dramatic art form. Every other element depends upon the Actor for its existence.
Without the Actor there is no theatre. (More on the Actor in the book).
SCENE 7: THE CREW"On each Broadway show there is a Production Crew (or Show Crew) and there is a House Crew. The Production Crew consists of department heads in the carpentry, electric, prop and wardrobe departments who are hired by the shows producer to maintain the show. The House Crew consists of a head carpenter, head electrician, and head prop person who are hired by the theater owner and who are responsible for maintaining the theater itself and for hiring the general Crew members who work on the shows in the various departments. There is no house wardrobe head. The show’s wardrobe supervisor, hired by the producer, hires the wardrobe Crew.
All Broadway carpenters, electricians, sound and prop people are members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The members of the House Crew are all members of I. A. Local #1 while the Production Crew can be members of any of the National Locals (including even Local #1). Broadway wardrobe personnel are all members of the I. A. Wardrobe Union – New York Local #764. These Unions have signed collective bargaining agreements with The League of American Theatres and Producers which is the general negotiating group that represents all Broadway producers and general managers. All Union salaries, health insurance, pension, annuity and working conditions are negotiated every few years. Payday is every Wednesday for the House Crew and every Thursday for the Production Crew and Wardrobe department."
(More on the Crew in the book).
SCENE 8: THE SHOW"Up until now it’s all been about preparation and getting ready—setting up the business and hiring the personnel. Once the cast is chosen, the Show goes “into production.” For the next several weeks all the focus is on putting the Show together in rehearsals with the cast, and in the shops with the technical elements. When it is time to move into the theater, all of the elements and crews will come together in the same place and work like dogs to get the Show ready for opening night!
Generally, rehearsals don’t begin until the full cast is hired and signed to contracts. But sometimes rehearsals begin with one or two cast members still to be determined. Since everything is on a tight schedule, with studios and theaters rented and opening night set, rehearsals begin with any last minute cast additions filling in as soon as possible.
A rehearsal period can last anywhere from 10 days to several weeks or months depending on how big and complicated the Show is. Many Dinner Theaters and Summer Stock Theaters rehearse for as little as 10 days. But these theaters generally produce well-known Shows and in many cases hire casts who have performed in the Shows before.
A new Show, especially a Broadway musical, needs much more time. Six to eight weeks is an average rehearsal period. Big musicals will rehearse longer, smaller non-musical will rehearse less. A producer who doesn’t schedule or can’t afford adequate rehearsal time, may be opening his Show before it is ready, and may be cutting his own throat." (More on the Show in the book).
MUCH MUCH more on Everything in the book!
Check out the Table of Contents to see the entire outline of subjects covered.