In this summer’s Acting/Directing Workshop course at Catholic University, I have been trying to provide some authentic experiences for the graduate students. This goal has actually been easy to achieve in the summer since we meet for four-hour blocks of time and since our class meetings are during the day rather than the evenings. We have been able to work within summer programs and with middle and high school students who volunteer to help the graduate students by spending their time to do theatre with us.
Last week, seven generous students (6th graders through 9th graders) traveled to the CUA Drama Department and helped illustrate what I think is a critical piece of the rehearsal process: the cue-to-cue run-through.
Cue-to-cue run-through: Cues are practiced one by one by having the actors take their stage positions and begin a few lines before the cue/transition occurs. The actors deliver the lines, execute the transition to the next scene, and then deliver the first few lines of the new scene. The director stops this scene and directs the actors to deliver the lines just prior to the next cue/transition, which they execute—and so forth through the script. (In the video that follows this post, you can see the short cue-to-cue run-through we did with our student volunteers.)
I wanted to emphasize this kind of rehearsal because one aspect of educational theatre productions that I consistently find most lacking is scene transitions. Overwhelmingly, they take too long and are dreadfully uncreative. My guess is that this happens because time-crunched directors focus so much on rehearsing the scenes that the transitions receive only last minute attention. This is so unfortunate because plodding scene transitions disrupt the flow and pace of the scenes everyone has worked so hard to memorize, rehearse, and polish.
Rehearsing scene transitions with young actors is especially important because they really need to get their movements and positions into their bodies, into muscle memory. It’s not enough to merely tell them “And then you cross to the upstage platform and point offstage right.” They need to do it and they need to rehearse doing it on cue. It’s often easier said than done, so it has to be done.
In terms of a full theatrical production, there are a variety of ways to think about planning efficient and effective scene transitions. (Please note my assumption that all readers understand and agree that the Act Curtain is used to begin and end each act—not to close for scenery changes.)
When it comes to the set—Keep it simple! So many school theatre productions I see put so much work into creating furniture-filled realistic sets, multiple painted flats, and detailed scenery wagons that it’s no wonder the transitions consume so much time. Recent professional productions I’ve seen, however, achieve the same sense of setting far more simply: a small desk, chair, and typewriter indicated an office, a window frame with a window box of flowers let us know we were outside of the house, a panel slid open to reveal part of a metal bunk bed made it clear that the scene took place in a cell.
One of my MATE students came up with an exquisitely simple way to show that one area of the stage was the office of each of four different characters. The actor playing the character would attach a shelf with his or her “belongings” (trophies for the coach’s office, for example; a diploma and family photos for the principal’s office) on the upstage flat. All offices used the same desk and chair, but it was crystal clear whose office we were “in.” The same effect could be achieved quickly and effectively by changing something as simple as the work of art on the wall.
In their book, Notes on Directing, Frank Hauser and Russell Reich give this advice in Note number 129: Don’t hold the audience captive during a long scene change. “Give them a break. With any scene change longer than half a minute, bring the house lights up to half. It is better to have the audience rustling through the program than to have them wondering if something’s wrong backstage. Of course, something might very well be wrong backstage—all the more reason to bring the lights up and let them read to distraction.” So, bringing up the house lights is an option, but I think most audiences would prefer seeing the scene transition itself.
Let the stage crew and their work be seen by the audience. In his article, “Directing the Design,” Joe Deer, head of the musical theatre program at Wright State University, writes: “Since the audience is going to have to sit and watch the scenery move, no matter what you do, you might as well make some theatre out of it. You might even be able to use the transition to tell the story. This part of the show doesn’t have to be a burden. It can be an opportunity.”
Consider dressing the crew in costumes instead of the traditional all black. Maybe the actors could linger within the scene while the stage crew begins the physical movement of set pieces for the next scene. Perhaps the movements of the crew and actors as they prepare the stage for the next scene could be so carefully planned that they are close to as compelling as the action of the play…
Choreograph the scene changes. The scene change music in musicals makes this opportunity easier to visualize, but the use of mood-enhancing music or percussion in non-musical plays can offer the same creative opportunity. Consider what needs to be moved where, who is going to move it, and then block the scene transition as if you were a chorographer. Direct all movements to match the music or sound. Direct all movements to match the style and tempo of the production. Synchronize steps taken, lifting of pieces, and the carrying on and off of props. Have fun and think creatively and your scene changes can maintain visual interest as well as the rhythm and flow of the play.
If you spend time planning, directing, and rehearsing scene transitions, you will have a much tighter performance. I can almost guarantee it. And please don’t skip the cue-to-cue run-throughs!
Anyone with additional ideas for creative scene transitions, please share any ideas by leaving a comment.
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