Aaargh! I couldn’t believe it. I saw a show recently, a high school production. It was very good, but the scene changes made me cringe! So, here are seven steps to speeding up your scene changes so they don’t kill the pace of your show. (And this was the adults who were responsible, not the kids. Kids were doing a great job, which was the really frustrating thing).
- Coordinate with your lighting crew. How are they going to know when your scene change is done? You don’t want: great scene…blackout………scene change………change done ……………………………………………………. lights back up..play continues. Find some system: headsets, flashlights, cell phones, SOMEthing so that when that scene change is allllmost done, the lights start coming back up. In rehearsal, if you catch some crew on stage in the light, they’ll pick up the pace the next time around.
- Enter and exit “smart”. You do not want actors colliding with set crew. This takes rehearsal. You’ve got to work together. There’s no point in running all the way across the stage to pick up an item and then running all the way back with it. If you’ve got to come in from the far side, come in, grab the item and continue on out. Better yet, come in nearby, grab, retreat. Or you can come from the center of the curtain — you’re in darkness, right? –center curtain, grab, go!. That’s much faster than everybody running in from one side of the stage.
- In my opinion, dim light during a scene change beats killing the pace of the show every time. If you’re having trouble getting everything done in total darkness, bump up a little bit of light. People will know it’s not the acting scene, and you can get that scene change done ever so much faster. Much better.
- Better than that–and this could have saved a lot with the production I’m talking about–if you’ve got a scene that’s lit on one side of the stage or up on a level and the rest of the stage is dark where things need to exit or enter, do it during the scene. Keep it quiet, but we’re all watching what’s lit. Sneak in, grab it and go, or come in and drop it off, and by the time that’s done, you’re ready to keep going fluidly into the next scene. “Spill” is a great way to have enough light to see what you’re doing, and it really doesn’t distract the audience very much if it’s done efficiently.
- Another way to save some time is to use some actors who are already there when the lights go out. I mean, you’ve got people sitting there, the lights go out on them. If I’m standing right behind a chair, let me pick up the chair and go off with it. Much less confusion of bodies, saves time, you don’t have to wait for somebody to come on to take the chair. Rehearse it. Actors can do this (at least if they’re not Equity). And do flip chairs onto their nearby table, so only the table has to be struck (how to flip that chair in one swift move takes a bit of practice).
- Very, very important. I don’t know why people keep missing this: A lot of plays, especially musicals, are written alternating small scenes with large scenes (ok, there’s usually one exception thrown in there just to keep life interesting). So, alternate your small scenes by playing them on the apron so you can close the grand drape — even as the scene continues, if need be — and do your big set change behind there while everybody’s watching what’s happening right in front. At the end of the little scene, open the curtain, and you’re ready to bring up the lights and keep going. This works miracles. Do this. Forward, back. Downstage. Upstage. The audience can handle having the grand close while your actors are doing interesting stuff, and scene change noise will be somewhat muffled. You can put some light on backstage, too, as much as you need, so they can see what they’re doing, get it done faster so they don’t have to go crashing into each other. And then by the time that little scene is done, boom, we continue!
- Rehearse until your scene changes are in muscle memory. You have to work things out ahead of time very specifically, not just, “Go get the table,” but “John takes the down left corner, Mary takes the up left corner, Bigfoot takes both downstage corners”. Whatever you need, but very specific. This is as important as having spike tape or glow tape so people know just where to place things. Rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it until they just know, “this is the one where I rush out, take two steps upstage, let the other person go before me, and then follow them out.”
Oh, there are so many ways to make your scene changes go smoothly! Then, instead of watching scene changes interrupted by a play, you can watch a play (or a musical) that’s barely interrupted at all by its scene changes. End of rant.