“The Wedding Singer” – Dexter Community Players….or, how to make a community theater production look like a million bucks…

I’ve just completed directing and choreographing a weekend run of THE WEDDING SINGER, the musical, for Dexter Community Players in Dexter, MI. Not to toot my own horn, but the single most heard comment in the audience (besides what a fun show) was how professional the show looked and sounded. This is not a review. This is a blog entry about what goes into directing a show that looks and sounds as professional as you can make it.

1. Make sure you have great leads — in this case, Andrew Buckshaw (Robbie Hart) is a musical theater student, sure to be a future Broadway performer. Katherine Kujala (Julia Sullivan) is a recent graduate of University of Michigan’s Opera program, already an established performer. Almost all of the supporting cast are or were musical theater, or vocal performance majors.

2. Keep the set simple, fast to move, and streamlined. In community theater, unless you have a half million dollar budget, you can’t even come close to approximating the multi-million dollar Broadway sets. So you do elements of them: you make sure that they fly and move quickly; and you make sure that the show doesn’t stop to wait for set changes.  Use fades, not blackouts. Stack sets that fly behind each other. Have more than one person on flyrails so things can move at the same time. Enlist cast members in helping with set changes. Keep it moving.

3. Get the best orchestra and sound designer you can get. We had an 11-piece orchestra under the direction of John Tartaglia that was composed of a mix of music professionals and the very best students we could find. Nothing says “amateur theater” like a bad orchestra. So make sure that it is not. The orchestra was the single most expensive aspect of this entire production. It also sounded like a professional pit orchestra. You get what you pay for. Our sound designer (Patrick Schrock) is an expert in blending vocal sound on stage with rock music in the pit. If you can’t hear every word, you don’t have a show.

4. Simplify choreography. Make sure that you give the ensemble steps that they can perform — your show is as good as it’s weakest link. Your choreography can be brilliant, but if only a few cast members can perform it, you have nothing. Keep the steps simple, repetitive, and throw in some fun steps that they enjoy doing and will take the time to learn. In this case, I rewrote large portions of choreography before even teaching the steps.

5. Light it. Make sure you have a terrific lighting designer. Kent Sprague is a lighting design major at Wooster College in Ohio. Not only does he have an eye for good, focused lighting, but he has a playful sense of color and design. In a show where lighting substitutes for sets, at times, you better make sure that lighting looks fantastic.

6. Make sure you have the details right. If the show calls for a mirror ball, make sure you have a mirror ball. If water needs to cascade onto a cast member, make sure you have an effect that works on stage, and “reads” in the house. If a dumpster is your most important set piece, you better make sure that dumpster looks like a dumpster. If your leads need matching jackets, make sure they have matching jackets.

7. Expect to spend more money than you originally budgeted. Nothing comes in under budget. Ever. Build in a slush fund, or make sure that your design team has deeper pockets than your budget allows.

8. Surround yourself with the best staff you can get — from designers to techies, make sure you have the best people you can find to fill each important role. Have regular production team meetings. Even with the best intentions, expect some miscommunications and work together to resolve difficulties. Have a great producer (Francyn Chomic). Stay in communication with the Board.

9. Stay calm and enthused. Not every rehearsal is going to run as smoothly as you like. There will be plenty of drama that arises offstage. These are actors and “theater people” — expect it!…Stay calm, easy going, and confident.

10. Remember that this is community theater. People expect it to look and sound like community theater, based on their past experiences. When they see something that looks and sounds professional instead, you’ll stun them. In this case, the production really fell into the category of “pre-professional”, given the quality and experience of the staff and most of the tech crew. Pat yourself on the back for a job well-done, and hope the next production at the theater will maintain the same high caliber. Create a new benchmark with each show, and keep the quality up.

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