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  • 1.  Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-03-2021 12:04
    I've been scoping out a new article for my blog ( and wanted to see what some of your experiences have been on the topic.

    For years now, I've often heard the expression "everything always happens at the last minute in theatre." I've heard it in community theaters, I've heard it in the two high schools I've designed sets for, and I've heard it from audience members who've heard it from someone else and just accepted it as fact. In a few cases, this mindset has been so deeply engrained in the company's culture that it was pointless to even talk about it. 

    My experience at the university level and in professional theatre has been completely different, so I'd like to get some of your input. Do you encounter this mindset? Do you find it's accurate? What do you think causes it? 

    Thanks so much.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 2.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-04-2021 08:59
    While I haven't exactly used that expression, it certainly applies in my case.  I wish it didn't, but I can't say it's a part of my mindset either.

    What do I think causes it?  I'm an English teacher with a couple of sections of drama though I prefer to say I'm a drama teacher with a couple of sections of English.  My point is that we are often overwhelmed with responsibilities that all that "last minute in theatre" stuff are the small, but important details that have more nebulous deadlines.  For example, I am horrible at promotion.  I often try to get a student to design the promo poster.  I had one totally drop the ball on that so we didn't have a promo poster for Almost, Maine until about a week before our show. (They often have great ideas, but the follow through or execution leaves something to be desired.)  Sets, props, and costumes...anything needing to be purchased must have a PO approved in advance.  Don't ask how many times I've spent my own money on something for a show simply because I didn't want to deal with the paperwork or wait for the paperwork to go through.  We have an awesome bookkeeper at our school who gets things done, but it's the district level person that is iffy.  Even when they are on top of things, it's still a process that takes time.

    Did I mention that many of us are a one-person show?  I do have an assistant (essentially paid a stipend like a coach), but there are gaps between the two of us.  Set design and tech issues are neither of our strengths, but he's tries to take on more of those responsibilities since that is definitely my weakness.  He's not a certificated staff member, so he's not always aware of all the protocols we have to follow or the why we have to do things the way we do.  He does not have his own keys to our stage or the school, so I (or another staff member) have to be present at all rehearsals and performances (or at least on the school premises).  Regardless, he is invaluable to me and my program and would help more if not for all the bureaucratic hoops we have to jump through.  Don't get me started on how many times I have to answer a question that starts "Why can't we...."

    As an ASB club, we also have to make sure that the club is student-driven.  I have to be reminded of that frequently, but there's a lot the students don't know and it falls on me to make them aware of the rules and what options are available to them.  I try to give them more responsibility, but the ball gets dropped because they are kids.  Sometimes I let the ball stay (not prepared for student-directed one-act), but sometimes it falls on me to take on the task if it's a must do, like the AM promo poster issue.  Most of them had never heard of ITS before when I proposed us getting our troupe reinstated.  Thanks to the pandemic, very few have even gone to Thespian events.  It's not that I don't try to get them involved, but I only have so much energy.

    Have I mentioned budgets?  Community and educational theatre budgets vary greatly.  We recently did a big purge of our "prop closet" (for reasons I won't go into beyond covid + bureaucratic BS that will have me violently throwing things).  Most of our costume pieces had come from the local thrift store.  I don't have access to a local seamstress, so we eliminated 75% of what we had.  "If it looks like it came from the thrift store, it can go back to the thrift store."  We're trying to costume Dracula (Victorian era), and if it weren't for the fact that I have a whole slew of emo kids who are loving the look and buying some of their own costume pieces, we could bust our budget with this show.  Luckily/unluckily due to the pandemic effects, we have some extra room in our budget to put into the show (no field trips).  Even when the students provide parts of their costumes or props, we have to wait to see what we get and then there's a last minute rush to get some item that's critical to the show.

    Which brings me back to your question on why does everything happen at the last minute in community and/or educational settings.  Kids (i.e. nonprofessionals) + educational bureaucracy + stretched thin teacher (volunteer in community theatre) = "Everything always happens at the last minute in theatre".

    Melissa Gibson
    Drama teacher
    Oak Harbor High School

  • 3.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-04-2021 11:05
    Well, this is an easy one for me. I am the only one in my department and have been my entire career. That means that I am the one designing the programs, printing the tickets, directing the show, building the scenery, while still teaching 200 students, grading papers, and doing all of the fundraising as well. I wish that mindset would go away, but I have only had one or two shows in 35 years where I felt that the set was finished. Part of the problem is that we all over-design, are probably perfectionists, but things come up in life that keep us too busy to get everything done. Most recently, I had planned very carefully for our production of Little Shop of Horrors but we had three set work days to do finishing work planned over the Thanksgiving holidays and my father-in-law took a turn for the worse and passed away on Tuesday. Life goes on and you do the best you can. I don't think it's so much of a mindset as it is a reality. I have friends who teach in the college community, but every one of them has a staff of at least two others. I am not happy with the situation, but I can't beat myself up for it, especially now that I am 60 and am feeling every ache and pain in my body. Great question, though. Makes me want to do better.

    Bruce Taws
    Mosley High School Drama Director

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  • 4.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-05-2021 10:45
    I've encountered that mind set in university, community, and professional theatre. It seems to be a close cousin to, "I'm more creative when I'm under pressure."  
    Teachers are so overworked and under resourced that they have abundant reasons why things happen at the last minute. That they still create wonderful productions under those circumstances is a credit to their dedication and perseverance. My hat's off to all of you!

    Linda Apperson

  • 5.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-06-2021 11:01
    Thank you for your considered and thoughtful replies. They certainly help put the "why" in perspective and will be very useful information for my blog post.

    I can't wait to read the next few responses!  :-)

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 6.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-06-2021 14:35
    Great question, George! 

    I agree with what others have already said regarding being a one-person department with too many balls in the air. This has been a major cause of stress for me heading into tech for every production I've directed where I work. I think it's not so much that everything gets done at the last minute. It doesn't. I set a calendar with clearly marked deadlines for every item on the production to-do list. I think it's more a matter of other people saying to me, "everything will come together. It always does" in response to my stress level. They also often add in the "at the last minute" bit. Because they see me scrambling to get items done that are normally (read: professionally) done by other people.

    For example...

    I direct my shows. And I design the set, the props, the costumes. I also shop for any needed props/costumes - whether purchased, rented, or built.  And I oversee build. and paint. So while I'm fitting costumes, finishing props, and - oh I also edit sound (though I am getting a larger number of students who can do this) - I'm ALSO fretting over students getting their lines memorized, making sure their character choices are good ones, making sure the show is running as it should and that student cast members are keeping up with their homework/grades. AT THE SAME TIME, I am also producing the show while serving as a business manager. SO, I'm finalizing poster designs, announcements, tickets, organizing ticket sales, overseeing ticket sales, keeping up with the show website, soliciting donations, etc. etc. etc.

    This is all aside from teaching and all of the duties that lie within.

    So, no, it doesn't all get done at the last minute. It's that the deadlines are all back-to-back which can make us look like we're drowning in last minute details as we navigate the jobs of ten different people by ourselves. 

    Kaila Schwartz
    Theatre Arts, Director
    Milpitas High School

  • 7.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-07-2021 08:09
    I feel your pain.  I am not only a one person department for theatre, but I teach advanced Cambridge English courses as well.  It's A LOT to manage when you are talking full scale musicals, showcases, competitions, etc.  It is compounded by the fact that our "stage," and I use that term loosely, is in a multipurpose space like a cafetorium.  Unfortunately, a study hall with 18 students gets priority to use it daily and I have a maximum of 32 days total for the year to access the space for after school rehearsals and auditions.

    Nobody understands what goes into a production unless they work with one.  Our administrators need to be educated on the work load that goes in to staging a production.

    Amy MacCord
    Musical Theatre Teacher
    Westwood Middle School

  • 8.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-07-2021 09:10
    The idea does pervade in my community, but it's not a bad thing, just a misinterpretation.  Those unfamiliar with the rehearsal/production process may interpret theatre as a "last minute" event, there is so much that happens over the weeks leading up to the show that often goes unnoticed.  Even in the "one person" departments that so many of run, the uninitiated are clueless as to how it works.

    To deal with this, I often refer back to how a sports team or band program work.  For example, for those of us that never played football, watching a weekday, afterschool practice seems chaotic: different small groups of players are running various drills, plays, while several dozen coaches instruct, teach and yell.  How does this become an offensive drive?  How do the players know what to do in a game?  Every player isn't laughing or smiling, so they must hate this, right?

    But those that are familiar understand that watching film of opposing teams, gym workouts and the various other components of practice all matter.  It all seems to magically coalesce on Friday night.  What is not seen is all the prep work.  Also, the team usually has ALL of the equipment, uniforms, and other elements in place as they practice.  In theatre, we usually don't have our sets, costumes, and other tech elements together until tech week (if then!).

    Another component is that so many young performers are "money players."  These are people that never give 100% until the audience (the paying audience) actually show up.  In sports, if you don't give 100% in practice, you're benched or off the team.  In theatre, especially those of us with a very limited talent pool, we don't have this luxury.  So we never really see the show until the last rehearsals or (gasp!) opening night.

    Mostly, the idea that "theatre happens at the last minute" is a function of ignorance - both by the uninitiated observer and/or inexperienced students.  How do we solve this issue?  Keep doing theatre.  I've been fortunate to work with many people who are essentially "Pied Pipers" and know how to attract non-performers into their programs.  I've stolen their techniques, philosophies, and even ways of interacting with kids, parents, and administration in order to get as many people involved as possible.  Having a non-cut program, in which every kid that auditions is in the show, has proven essential.


    Josh Ruben, M. Ed.
    Fine Arts Head
    Northwest Whitfield HS (dba, The Northwest Theatre Co.)
    Tunnel Hill, GA

  • 9.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-07-2021 12:37
    Thank you again for more great responses!

    The pattern I'm seeing from you is that the "last minute" perception is mostly from people who are not involved (or involved for the first time), heard about it somewhere else, and just took it as factual. This has been my experience in non-professional theatre too, although, as I said above, this perception is so ingrained in some community theaters* that there's no getting thru it. The sad thing is that people who are not involved can easily assume that this goes for professional theatre too -- which may even lead to their not having any interest in it.

    And this seems to tie right into comments I've seen from many of you, to the effect that administrators often do not support theatre because they don't understand it: they seem to accept the "last minute" idea as factual, which can lead right into not perceiving theatre as a legitimate career field and just seeing it as "the school play."

    Looking forward to more responses!


    * From my own experience with some of these community theaters, it mostly stems from laziness and lack of planning.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 10.  RE: Help with a question, please

    Posted 12-08-2021 16:39
    As a one woman department, I feel your pain!  I was fortunate enough to have a strong Thespian troupe and build up student technical expertise.  Some of this was in part due to my technical theatre background, the CA State Thespian Technical Workshops and a wonderful resource book which I left with the department when I retired.  (I can't remember the name, but it was a white loose-leaf notebook with a red outline on the cover.  Purchasing it gave the owner permission of copy ALL of the pages, which I did.) Every department/crew head of a show had a copy of the section that pertained to their crew and was expected to file reports at production meetings.  Students were able to take over and complete MOST of the jobs in a timely fashion, and I wasn't stressed out like I had been.  Sometimes, we achieved perfection (3 nightgowns for Wendy, each dirtier and more ragged than the next)  and sometimes we didn't.  I learned to let go if something didn't quite turn out as planned; it was on their heads, and not mine. Since all of my actors were also on a crew, an added bonus was that they came away with a deeper understanding of the process and an appreciation for those who made the show happen.

    Good luck!!

    Marilynn S. Zeljeznjak 
    "Life is Brief - Art is Eternal"