No More Hell Week

July 24, 2017

Matt Buchanan, author of Directing Kids, as well as An Avalanche of Murder, Alice on the Other Side, One Smart Pig, and many other plays, discusses ways (and reasons) to make production week less frantic and stressful.

An axiom of mine is that while "the way it's always done" is frequently the best way to do a thing, it is never best because it's always done that way. Nowhere is this truer than in the school theatre "tradition" of "Hell Week." In nearly 100% of cases, there is no good reason for the last week of rehearsals for a school production to be hugely stressful or to involve long hours of extra rehearsal. And there's no good reason that the cast should stay up all night striking the set—and good reasons they shouldn't. "Hell Week" happens for two reasons—poor planning, and the ingrained assumption that it is going to happen because "that's the way it's done."

"Hell Week" is "the way it's done" in most professional and college theatres, out of necessity. You can't start installing the set and lighting until the week of performances because you've only rented the space for a week, or another group is using it. Sometimes you can't rehearse with costumes early because you've only rented them for a week. Maybe the lighting too. So the director and cast are confronted with all manner of extra challenges in the final week—getting used to the costumes and set (and sometimes re-blocking because the blocking doesn't work on the set), getting the lighting and sound cues right, etc. And afterwards, the set may need to be struck by morning because the rental ends or another group is taking residence. Since most school drama teachers are veterans of at least college if not professional productions, they've internalized the assumption that "Hell Week" is necessary. Worse, some have internalized the idea that "Hell Week" is a good thing—sort of a rite of passage. (This stems from the fact that many undergraduate theatre programs intentionally stress and abuse their students in the hopes of "weeding out" the ones who aren't tough enough for a life in the theatre. I hope I don't need to explain why that idea is inappropriate at the middle or high-school level.)

While any of the above reasons might apply equally to a school production, it is extremely rare for all of them to. That's where proper planning comes in. This means scheduling rehearsals with the assumption that you want to be fully ready before production week and building in plenty of time for unexpected contingencies. It means getting really good set plans and fully understanding them, so you don't block scenes that need to be re-blocked at the last minute. It means scheduling meetings with all technical people well in advance of production week. (You may not be able to hang and focus the lights or play the sound effects ahead of time, but you can make sure all the technicians know exactly what is required.) But it also means querying (well in advance) all assumptions about what happens when. For example, the "traditional" model has the lighting and set installation happening a week or less before opening night. But that may not be necessary, and if it isn't necessary, it's stupid. Some school drama programs do share the stage with other groups, of course, but many do not. There's no good reason those programs can't be rehearsing on the actual set weeks in advance. Even if you do share the stage with, say, the band or the chorus, you can probably hang and roughly focus the lighting plot, especially if you own the equipment, and you can design the set to be "pre-fab" so most of the construction and painting can happen ahead of time. If costumes are coming from home, there's no reason you can't set a deadline several weeks ahead, so costume changes or difficult costume pieces aren't adding to the stress in the final week. (Even if they're rented, it is worth at least asking whether you can afford to rent the difficult pieces for an extra week.) Every situation will be different—the point is, you ask the questions and, where departing from "tradition" in favor of proper planning can be done, you do it.

Which brings us to strike. This is another thing many drama teachers see as a "rite of passage," and some have trained students to look forward to it, but it is not only generally unnecessary but dangerous to make the whole cast stay until the small hours of the morning so the whole strike can be finished on closing night. (Exhausted, adrenaline-shocked teens and power tools don't mix.) It's fine to keep the kids for a while (I generally cap it at midnight) but choose those tasks that can be safely done by mostly inexperienced people and those that most benefit from the large numbers (such as cleaning, putting away props and costumes, etc.). And if it really is necessary to take the set and/or lighting down on the night, assign those tasks to the techies who know what they're doing, not the actors who are dying to get their hands on the tools. (Here, too, plan ahead. You should have a list of exactly what tasks need doing and who will do each one.) In most cases, it is not the end of the world if the drama teacher and (hopefully) some dedicated techies or parents have to come in the next day or week to finish the strike. (Probably means more work for the drama teacher, but that's a small price for not putting kids at risk.)

Bottom line, if production week has to be "hell," make darn sure it's necessary, and not simply a result of poor assumptions and planning. Your kids deserve it.


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Kristen Neander Neander
October 25, 2021
As we enter a new era of live theatre - and dismantle assumptions and prior habits with a focus on safety and positivity in theatre and in the world at large - this post couldn't be more apropos. There are safer and better ways of doing so many things, and thank you, Matt, for highlighting that!