Theater is going through some growing pains. Seattle-based actor, director and teaching artist Sunam Ellis, who played key roles in both “Mrs. Caliban” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” at Book-It Repertory Theatre this year, has seen up close how changes to rehearsal schedules aimed at eliminating a culture of overwork can be wonderful for artists while also being “its own bundle of stress.”
Like many theaters around the country, Book-It has reduced its previous six-day rehearsal schedule to five-day workweeks, and shortened lengthy technical rehearsals at the end of the schedule. These technical rehearsals are where all of the design elements like lighting, sound, costumes and set are put in place and finalized on stage leading up to the first performance. Previously, tech rehearsals would include days that saw actors called for 10 hours, pausing only for a two-hour meal break. The standard was so common that those rehearsals are referred to simply as 10 out of 12’s within the theater community.
But as theaters made these moves toward more humane work schedules, the question became, how do you make up the time? The budget will take a hit if you add a week or two of rehearsal to the schedule, but if you don’t add time, the work on stage may suffer in return. Caught in the middle are artists and artisans hoping to put their best work forward while finally achieving a work-life balance that has eluded theatermakers for generations.
As Ellis reflected on her two shows at Book-It, she recalled thinking that “Mrs. Caliban,” in which she starred across from Quinlan Corbett’s amphibious man, was a tech-heavy show. But when she stepped into “Bonesetter’s,” where she played two characters, she said it felt like they had more cues (triggers for technical elements in a theater production) in the first act than the entirety of “Mrs. Caliban.” When it came down to technical rehearsals for “Bonesetter’s,” Ellis said, they started to feel the time crunch, adjusting plans to make sure the show was ready on time.
As theaters try to create better standard practices, Ellis said she and her friends have been bumping up against attempts that wind up trying to fit the same amount of work into less time.
“You need time, as an artist,” Ellis said. “If we are shortening how many weeks we have, or shortening the hours in the space to play, absolutely less creative things are going to come out of that.”
Still, she added, “I’m so glad that we’re trying to find a way to take care of the artists who can get run down.”
Behind the scenes, the toll of overwork on designers and stagehands has often gone unseen. Laurel Horton, 5th Avenue Theatre’s head carpenter who has been in the industry for decades, has seen stagehands work up to 14-hour days six or seven days a week. And lighting designer Chih-Hung Shao said there have been shows where, in order to find crucial alone time in the dark theater, he’s found himself working overtime just to make sure things are ready for the next rehearsal.
“That is when I feel like I am abusing myself,” said Shao, a local designer whose recent lighting designs have brightened plays from Pork Filled Productions and Taproot Theatre. “I try not to work those long hours because I know the efficiency will drop at some point.”
If you’ve never been in a theater production, walking into a rehearsal space to find a new set piece or new technical element that wasn’t there the day before can feel like magic. But as Horton described, it used to mean that work calls — times when stagehands could work without actors present — happened every morning, allowing the 5th Avenue team to get as much done as they could for the next rehearsal. With the changes, they’re seeing longer work calls, but they’re now every other day, or sometimes even less frequently.
“We really have to be a lot more careful about how we plan to get stuff done,” Horton said, meaning that if there’s something they need to fix, their next opportunity may be a day or two away. “The work time that we have around rehearsals has drastically changed.”
But the scale of these shows has not. Though there’s a bit less time and a bit more stress, which Horton said is something everyone is working on and feeling their way through, Horton added that these schedule changes have received incredibly positive responses for allowing theatermakers time to rest and see their families. During tech rehearsals for 5th Avenue’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” this year, Horton found time after rehearsal to go to a concert or a play, “and I can tell you that, in my whole career, that has never happened before.”
“I think we’re less exhausted,” Horton added. “We can work safer. I would say that more skilled workers are interested in working for us at this point because they can see that they can have lives and go home and see their families.”
Bill Berry, 5th Avenue’s producing artistic director, has heard the same as 5th Avenue also moved from six- to five-day rehearsal weeks. Applicants, he said, have been citing the new schedule as the reason they’re applying.
“As a director,” Berry said, reflecting on the old schedule, “I often found myself on the sixth day of rehearsal exhausted, not making good decisions, seeing everyone else exhausted and spending a lot of energy trying to figure out, ‘Can we end rehearsal early? Can we just get out of here, because this doesn’t feel productive anymore.’”
As 5th Avenue adjusted its rehearsal schedule, Berry said the main concern was making sure they didn’t lose the total number of rehearsal hours. So 5th Avenue added the lost time through expanding the schedule by one to two weeks. It initially costs more than the previous rehearsal schedule, but Berry said that a trade-off has been less concern about overtime pay later in the process.
“It’s caused us to look more closely at the amount of time in between productions,” Berry added, thinking about the capacity for limited staff when putting one show up while another is in rehearsals. “I will say, we’ve been a little sloppy the first go ‘round, because we let things overlap a little more than we should have.”
What was tough, said Book-It Artistic Director Gus Menary, was trying to install these changes while still feeling the effects of the pandemic. Book-It reported a drop in income from around $2 million for the 2019-20 season to around $1 million for the 2020-21 season, but Menary said they’ve been able to add over $100,000 this season in its effort to increase wages moving forward for staff, contractors and artists. It’s a number he said the company is working to continue improving in the coming seasons.
Book-It’s 2021-22 season, which started with audio works before the company made its way back to the stage in early 2022, included opening three shows between late March and late July. In comparison, the 2022-23 season will see four shows take the stage between late September of this year and early June of next year.
“We’re trying to move away from that,” Menary said of how this past season played out. “We’re instituting longer development processes for new plays, things like that. We’re trying to learn from every mistake we make, just like always.”
Menary said he’s already locking in productions for the 2023-24 season while making plans for workshops of plays that could hit the stage in 2024-25. As Menary is able to look ahead a bit more confidently, he said he’s looking to add more time between productions, which will allow folks like their technical director to get started on technical elements of the show earlier.
“We’re really seeing the benefits, in terms of preplanning,” Menary said, “knowing what we’re going to do ahead of time, being able to have a set schedule and knowing who our team is going to be. Hopefully that’ll only increase and grow and then will just become the new standard.”