Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Theatre Director's Checklist

I have been asked to contribute my checklist for directing plays to the 11th edition of Stage Management. Here it is.

By the way, three weekends remain in the run of the wonderful play I'm directing, Neil Simon's Broadway Bound at Chanticleers Theatre, in Castro Valley, CA. I also play 1940s and ragtime songs on the piano during the half hour before the show. Tickets are at

The Checklist I Use in Directing a Play

Of course, I'd vary these, depending on the theatre, play, cast and crew, etc.

A year before opening

Pick the play YOU want to direct. Find a theatre company willing to let you direct it.

Cast a wide net to recruit the best possible cast and crew. Good people are hard to find--especially in community theatre, where cast and crew usually are paid little or nothing. Of course, consider people you've successfully worked with before.

Four months out

Read the script a number of times.

Meet with the set designer. Discuss opportunities and limitations of the space. Have a ground plan ready for the first production meeting

Purchase a script for each cast member (usually required in the playwright's licensing agreement.) Then scan the script into an editable Microsoft Word file and add your draft blocking and business. (Use the ground plan and chess pieces to help you envision it.)

Three months out

Hold your first production meeting. Present your artistic vision to your set, costume, lighting, and sound designers, and prop master. Solicit the theatre's artistic director's input. Invite crew to auditions.

Hold auditions. Distribute a draft rehearsal and show schedule (including any possible extra midweek fundraising performance dates) and have auditioners note all conflicts. Make casting decisions both on acting ability and how easy the actor is to work with, whether s/he is likely to contribute to or detract from esprit de corps. Before casting someone, call directors they've acted for.

Consider inviting or even requiring casted actors to get offbook by the first rehearsal. Their having received the scripts with the first-draft blocking should make that easier. Requiring them to get offbook fast enables the rehearsals to focus on creating great theatre, not memorizing lines. Most actors will still need some line calling but it will be minimized.

Email the tentative schedule, of course, taking into account all actor, stage manager, and director conflicts.

Two months out

Meet with your public relations person. Identify angles and copy to use in pitches to patrons and the media.

Meet with your group sales person. These are often critical to filling houses. That person may also pitch organizations buying out the house for a special midweek performance. Include offering organizations serving low-income people free tickets to the preview performance.

Write copy for the website, show program, third-party ticket sellers, etc. Get it approved by the PR person.

Six weeks out

Hold first rehearsal. (You may wish to start earlier, especially if it's a musical.) Establish your rules. Mine are rehearsals start on time, the schedule is subject to change, input is welcome, the draft blocking is cast not in stone but jello, most notes are communicated by email, and unless an actor objects, I may send actors notes during the run. Rather than having them do an in-the-chair readthrough, I have them read while walking the draft blocking. After that first rehearsal, have a bonding party.

As soon as possible, get the cast solid on lines, blocking, and business.

Retain a videographer to make a trailer and -if the script licensing agreement allows--to record a performance for the theatre's archive and-for the cast and crew to have as a souvenir.

Four to five weeks out

Work the scenes. Each rehearsal focuses on two or three five-to-ten-minute chunks (usually French scenes,) each usually worked three times. Catch them doing something good: When I see something I like, without stopping them, I say "Good" or "Keep it." If it's something I don't like and I can say it in a pleasant word or two, I may do so but most notes are communicated by email when I get home from rehearsal.

As needed, coach actors one-on-one. If it's an actor who needs a lot of work, I often invite them to my home for coffee and homemade scones before we work. That sets the stage for a pleasant, constructive coaching session.

Meet again with production staff to get progress reports and provide feedback. Meet with the set builder to gain final agreement on the plan and reaffirm the deadline for the completed set.

Meet with prop master to decide on how to decorate the lobby. Get headshots from actors to hang in the lobby.

Two to three weeks out

Dress the set. (furniture, walls, floors)

Costume parade, publicity photo shoot, trailer shoot.

Post trailer on the theatre's site, third-party ticket seller sites, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Introduce and revise props, ensuring their efficient placement.

Run acts and then the full play. Focus on acting and pacing issues.

One week out

Cue-to-cue with sound and light operator.

Tech Saturday or Sunday: Full runthrough with tech, no stopping if possible. Give notes. Take a pizza/salad break, then another full runthrough with tech, no stopping if possible. (Costumes may be optional if not necessary for lighting adjustments.)

Dress rehearsals.

Preview performance.

Opening night.

The 2nd-to-last performance

Record the performance to create the archival DVD.

Final performance

Cast/crew strike party.

Dr. Nemko is a director and President of the Board of Chanticleers Theatre, Castro Valley, CA.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Come see the play I'm directing: "The best play of the '80s."

I am directing a play that I believe will provide a remarkable experience for all who attend. It's arguably Neil Simon's best play, Broadway Bound. Time magazine called it, "The Best Play of the 1980s." It's funny, touching, and offers food for thought on how to live your life.

In addition, this production, which runs from July 23-Aug. 15, features a multi-award-winning cast. And, at the risk of tooting my own horn, the previous play I directed at this theatre won Goldstar's Roar of The Crowd Award as the San Francisco Bay Area's #1 audience-favorite entertainment.

Speaking of the theatre, the play is being performed in an intimate setting (98 seats,) in which everyone has a great seat. And it's not even expensive: just $18 adults, $15 for students and people 55+.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'd encourage you to come see it. I do believe that some performances may sell out, so it's wise to buy your tickets now: Here's the link for information and tickets.

A Moment of Patriotism

I'm hardly an American patriot. Indeed, I don't believe in patriotism: We should take pride in that which we have created, not an accident of where we're born or moved to. Too, I feel as much solidarity with a person from Ouagadougou as I do with someone from Oakland, where I live.

Yet in preparing for my KGO radio show tomorrow (July 4,) in which I'll start each segment playing a piece of patriotic music on my portable piano, I came across this version of God Bless the USA by an American Idol contestant and I was somehow moved to tears. Irrational but real.

So as we approach Independence Day, perhaps you too will find it moving.

Advice to the parent of an Ivy-aspiring kid

I often get inquiries from prospective clients, which in essence say, "Get my kid into a prestigious college."

Here's how I responded today to one of those queries:

The path of least resistance: Let her be her designer-label self--get into the most prestigious college she can but you be very savvy about filling out the financial aid forms. Use this great book. She'll probably get as good a deal from the Ivy as from MegaState U--the prestigious privates have beaucoup bucks. Negotiate hard with those villains.

I haven't found many kids who say "I've worked so hard to get into a prestigious college" be open to often smarter options such as deferring college for a year or 40, doing interesting things in the real world. Then, if needed, she can return to college. Girls are especially likely to be enamored of the straight-to-college plan, which is erroneously perceived to be the low-risk approach. Most high-achieving girls also love the structure of school. Alas, too often, those choices are not in the kid's best developmental interest let alone long-term career interest.

Parents too are subject to the "I'll do anything for my wonderful kid" mindset-- "How could I deny her Ivy when she's worked so hard?" It's fallacious thinking but pervasive and nearly impossible to dissuade from.

Where I can, without too much resistance, add value is helping her choose a career, teach her how to maximize her chances of achieving career success, and importantly, teach her how to make the most of college. Colleges don't want to tell you how, because if more students used these techniques (e.g., get course credit for customized one-on-one courses) it would cut into universities' profit.

Today's Anti-Boy Schools Are Unfair Even to Gifted Kids

Here's a report from Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute on how boys are being manipulated out of programs for the gifted.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Important Note to My Readers

Because of a technical glitch, all subscriptions to this blog have been deleted. So, if you'd like to get my blog posts emailed to you, just enter your email address in the "Subscribe" box on my blog:

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Of course, thank you for your continued interest in my ideas.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Career Counseling Reinvented

Many people are disappointed with career counselors: Clients too often fail to identify a career goal and/or to land a good job. Here's why:

To help clients pick a career, career counselors help them identify their skills, interests, and values. Unfortunately, that too often results in:
  • too few or too many career possibilities,
  • an ostensibly good-fit career that turns out not to be,
  • an ostensibly poor-fit career that works out fine,
  • or a career with lottery odds: You like performing and look great, so you want to be a movie star. Good luck.
To help people land a specific job, career counselors guide (or too often write) resumes, cover letters, and urge networking and cold contacting employers. Those strategies too often fail because the pool of people who use career counselors, disproportionately don't have top-of-the-stack backgrounds, have weak networks, are lousy networkers and/or are too shy or not-quick-on-their-feet enough to successfully cold-contact employers.

Another problem with the career counseling profession is that, in the same way as having a hired gun write a student's college admission essay, I believe it is unethical for career counselors to write or heavily edit resumes and cover letters and teach clients how to hide their weaknesses. A resume provides employers with evidence of the candidate's thinking, writing, and organizational skills. If s/he hires someone else to write their resume, it deceives the employer. If candidates felt that using a resume writer was ethical, I wonder why none of them add, "This resume was written by Sally Smith, professional resume writer."

Unless the candidate is truly worthy of the position (and if they were top-drawer, they're less likely to need a career counselor,) the employer will thereby be saddled with an employee inferior to the one s/he'd otherwise hire. That not only makes life difficult for the employer and the coworkers, it's unfair to the superior candidate who lost out because he didn't use a hired gun to make the candidate look better than he is in real life. And ultimately, that's unfair to society because hiring the not-best candidate results in worse goods and services for all of us.

Thus the field of career counseling is ripe for reinvention. Here are things career counselors could do that would yield a far higher rate of success while being completely ethical:

1. Because it's so tough for the typical person who sees a career counselor to change to a more rewarding career, especially in this tough job market, help clients make the most of their current job: Renegotiate their job description to match their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, learn how to get along better with their boss and/or change their boss, improve their skills (technical, communication, whatever,) manage their supervisees better, and even incorporate their creative side into their work. For example, for some clients, I play an improvisation on the piano with the client as the trigger for my improvisation--It actually helps gets some clients unstuck.

2. Because non-stars are having a hard time landing decent jobs, show clients low-risk/high-payoff self-employment ideas and tactics. The problem is, most career counselors are not great businesspeople so they may not be the best teachers of entrepreneurship.

3. Help clients replace their anger at incompetent bosses, coworkers, and poorly run places of employment with a wiser, more circumspect approach: gratitude that the client has genetic and environment-caused gifts that make her superior, the perspective to realize how important or not important certain decisions are, a recognition of one's own limitations, the empowerment to try to improve their workplace or leave it if it's too unethical and/or treats that person poorly.

4. Help people improve: procrastinate less, manage their anger, communicate better, manage their time better. A less obvious example: educate clients on the dangers of being a dabbler, a generalist. It's fun to dabble but except at low levels of employment, success usually requires depth of expertise, which usually requires years of focus. That's the core contention of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, and something I've found to be true, except for truly brilliant people, who become expert quickly.

5. In helping people land jobs, teach them how to use the internet to find truly well-suited job openings and then use a two-column cover letter to demonstrate that good fit: On the left side, list the main requirements listed in the job ad and on the right side, convincingly explain how you meet the requirement. Note that this is ethically solid: you're simply helping to match an employee with an appropriate employer. That stands in contrast to career counselors who write people's resumes and cover letters and do interview coaching, which often make a prospect look better than s/he really is.

6. Help the client develop a philosophy for living. For example, mine is that the life well-led is not about balance, nor about happiness, nor about material acquisition beyond a bare middle-class living. I believe balance is overrated. The life well-led is about being as productive as possible, being kind where possible, tough where necessary. To avoid long work weeks burning you out, work slow and steady, and where possible, do tasks that are not too difficult for you and in the field you've taken the time to become an expert in.

Dear readers, your thoughts?