In late July, Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra initiated some big steps to change her theatre’s practices in line with some of the anti-racist demands leveled by the We See You White American Theater movement, among them eliminating “10 out of 12” technical rehearsals—a practice that generally saw actors called to start rehearsal at noon, then released from rehearsal at midnight, with a two-hour dinner break in between—as well as a move to a five-day rehearsal week instead of the traditional six-day week and a commitment to pay playwrights for their time in rehearsal, among other changes. These, according to a press release, were steps intended to “dismantle the systemic exclusion and oppression of BIPOC artists, administrators, producers, and executives in the theatre industry.”
But Ybarra is quick to give credit for these changes to others: to a groundswell from her staff, and to the commitment of her artistic producing team and production department to creating an anti-racist culture by improving the theatre’s practices. As the WSYWAT document points out, the inequities and unhealthy practices built into the theatrical status quo disproportionately affect and exclude artists of color, so that working to disrupt business as usual—though it would benefit all theatre workers—is an important step in the direction of a more equitable theatre field. Even prior to their announcement, Ybarra noted, the theatre had been experimenting with such practices as paying artists to attend donor events.
“When we saw the demands come out,” Ybarra said, “we basically went from tiptoeing to just running headlong into this shift. We were in the process, but the demands really lit a fire under us. We asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t we just call this policy?’ And we didn’t have a good answer for why we couldn’t do that.”
These are changes Ybarra hopes will be a signal to BCS’s stakeholders—artists, artisans, crew, staff, donors, ticketholders—that they’re committed to making those who work with them feel safe and welcome at the theatre, including at moments when they may need to advocate for themselves and their communities or to critique BCS. The spirit of these changes, Ybarra said, “is to not push productivity at the expense of humane work conditions.”
The diminishing returns of long rehearsal hours was a steady drumbeat I heard from other theatremakers in the field. This is especially true for veteran lighting designer Kathy Perkins and her fellow designers, for whom the phrase “10 out of 12s,” she said, isn’t exactly accurate. These long days can easily turn into 12 out of 14s, or more, for other technicians and stage crew—and that’s not including times when scheduled breaks become necessary opportunities to plow through notes.
“I rarely take a two-hour dinner break,” Perkins said. “I’m always working at least one hour of my dinner break, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”
“I don’t remember the last time I was in a tech process and we got serious work done at 11:15 p.m.”
Steppenwolf Theatre Company director of production Tom Pearl recalled working with a director well before this current movement who would jokingly tell his crew to write down the page they were working on at 10 p.m., knowing that they would probably need to revisit every page covered after that point, because “we don’t do our best work between 10 p.m. and midnight.” Steppenwolf, Pearl said, has recently started the process of moving away from 10 out of 12s in favor of 9 out of 11s. While that slightly shorter tech period is required on their second stage because of its Chicago Area Theatre (CAT) contract, the theatre, Pearl explained, is inching toward making that the norm across the board. It’s a change that is welcome for a sector of the field that routinely puts in unseen hours heading into opening night.
“It would certainly be a more healthy thing work-wise for all of us,” Pearl said. After all, “10 out of 12” refers to an allowance in an Actors’ Equity contract, and if that seems like a long day for performers, spare a thought for the rest of the production team. As Pearl said, “If you think about the production crew, who are typically called at 8 or 9, and some of them, especially the supervisors, might not leave until 12:30 or 1 in the morning when they’re done with the production meetings—that’s an awfully long day at work.”
Evan O’Brient, New York Theatre Workshop’s producing manager, looks at these long hours and openly wonders, “What can you actually get done when you’re operating on so little sleep?” Still, he understands the thinking behind the long, hard push. If the tech hours are cut back, he said, “The thing you may end up sacrificing is momentum, and the ability to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take this long day and we’re going to really knock out these big, arduous parts of the piece.’ Sometimes it feels good to get things out of the way, and sometimes the way to do that is to really concentrate on it and use the momentum that you’re building without having to cut yourself off at a certain point.” On the other hand, he said, “That has to be weighed against the sustainability of the artists involved. I don’t remember the last time I was in a tech process and we got serious work done at 11:15 p.m. Usually by that point in the night, everybody’s like, ‘Are we done yet? Can we go home?’”
O’Brient acknowledged that making changes along these lines will require complicated conversations among stakeholders at all levels of an organization to get buy-in. O’Brient also pointed out that many theatres take a very prescriptive approach to their seasons: If there are a certain number of shows to be done each season, and a finite number of weeks in the year, a particular time frame starts to form.
“It’s this process that we have spent decades, centuries developing in theatre,” O’Brient said, “of how much time it takes to make the thing. In my experience, the process will expand to fill as much time as you give it. So we’ve put ourselves in a place where we say, it’s going to take this many weeks to rehearse and this many hours to tech, and we take that as gospel now.”
At NYTW, O’Brient explained, they try not to be so prescriptive about how long a rehearsal process or tech process will be. Instead, they work to include the generative artists in deciding how to set up the process, knowing that some artistic ventures simply need more time than others. He’s found it important to be clear with all involved on how changing one aspect would affect other aspects of the rehearsal process: Does moving away from 10 out of 12s mean the traditional tech week becomes a week and a half? Do you adjust the whole rehearsal process to get the production in the performance space sooner? O’Brient emphasized that flexibility is crucial.
“Saying that every show is going to go through a four-week rehearsal process with six days of tech, which is sort of the traditional New York Theatre Workshop process, is not always helpful,” O’Brient said. “Some shows will want more tech, or less. Sometimes you have to add weeks.”
The potential of adding weeks to the rehearsal schedule has led to some concern over the financial viability of moving away from a six-day rehearsal week, Steppenwolf’s Pearl conceded. Replacing these long weeks and hours could potentially make a play 20 to 25 percent more expensive to rehearse. What’s more, if a five-day rehearsal week results in an additional week or more, an extra burden could be put on a theatre’s physical space availability, with many theatres scheduling their physical theatres as well as their rehearsal halls with fairly tight turnarounds.
“It could be, both financially and logistically, a pretty difficult thing to imagine,” Pearl said. “But on the flip side, these are things that speak to what makes it hard to maintain a life in the theatre. You see a lot of attrition over the years. It’s hard to raise a family in this scenario—any time you’ve had to explain to a loved one why you’re going to disappear for a month to go into these processes. Some people from the outset see the kind of work that we put in for the kind of money that we’re able to pay people and think, ‘That’s crazy, why would I do that?’ So I would hope that maybe changes would open up the business to more people, because it would just be a more humane way of working.”
This mindset—that the financial challenges and other logistics can and should be figured out in order to better working conditions—is echoed by BCS’s Ybarra, who said she has been fielding questions about whether the adjustments her theatre is making will result in added rehearsal weeks. Ybarra responded by saying that she and her theatre will continue to use these structures as baselines, while putting together unique production processes tailored to the needs of individual productions. In the words of East West Players’ artistic director Snehal Desai, rehearsal and tech schedules “shouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all.’”
“We really have to start to question how this became the model.”
Desai and EWP are already a few years into adapting their rehearsal and tech process based on the needs of each specific production. The example Desai uses is that a 90-minute two-character play doesn’t have the same schedule requirements as a two-and-a half hour musical. So, he explained, EWP has taken to finding proposed performance dates and working backward from there to establish the show’s individual timeline based on need, instead of basing that timeline on a standard four weeks of rehearsal and one week of tech.
As part of their tech process, Desai explained, the theatre tries to introduce technical elements gradually and earlier in the schedule. While the process remains grueling, he said, he’s at least able to see daylight, even when he’s in production. Implementing these changes has meant that Desai winds up leaving more space between shows, rather than scheduling packed seasons. In addition to allowing more flexibility for elongated rehearsal and tech schedules when necessary, this space also leaves the door open for the theatre to extend successful productions.
Desai also made the point that 10 out of 12 rehearsals can be a strain on designers who may have multiple shows across the country, and thus may have weekend after weekend of these long techs. One benefit of EWP’s flexibility and adjustments, Desai said, has been the theatre’s ability to hold onto their workers longer, whether because the schedule is easier on an artists trying to accommodate a side job (which, Desai conceded, is directly tied to theatres figuring out how to pay livable wages), or searching for the work-life balance that allows room for parenting.
“If you’re a single-parent household, it’s really hard to work in a schedule that is six days a week with 10 out of 12s, particularly if you’re working all the time,” Desai said. “The existing structure has limited who can engage, because, as we know, most theatre artists don’t rely just on theatre for their income. Often artists have to make a choice between their day job and their passion. And sometimes, they have to choose their day job and career, because they need that to be there on the other side of a show that’s only going to be open for four or six weeks.”
Desai admitted that theatres looking to adapt their practices may have to plan for hidden costs. For EWP, this has meant taking into account California’s AB 5 law and noting how much additional set-up and teardown time comes with more tech days. The theatre has to maximize what’s left of rehearsal time while being cautious to avoid going into overtime. Still, Desai said he sees value in this moment of pause, in which theatres are adjusting and revamping their 2020-21 seasons and beyond to accommodate the uncertain future of a virus, to rethink these ingrained standards.
“All theatre structures right now are Western-colonized formulas and structures,” said Desai. “So we really have to start to question how this became the model. And then, what is the alternative? If we were to start from scratch, what would it look like? The reality of it is, if this model were working, then we wouldn’t have the issues we’re having.”
Perkins, who has worked internationally, sees the American theatre as unique in its pressures, saying, “It’s almost like, in this country, you’re forced to be creative.” She compared an experience on a production in South Africa where the show simply wasn’t ready to open as scheduled, so they postponed a week—a distinct shift from the way Perkins sees American theatre scheduled, where dates tend to be set in stone, and the pressure to squeeze perfection into a short amount of time is accordingly amped up.
“It is incumbent on every single one of us to interrogate status quo practices,” said Ybarra. “There is always an alternative. Always. Making different choices is not a bad thing. The wind has changed. This call to a more just and humane American theatre is here. The change is happening. These will be the new normal.”
Creative credits for production photo: 10 out of 12 by Anne Washburn; direction: Jeremy Wechsler; set design: Adam Veness; lighting design: Diane Fairchild; sound design: Joe Court; costume design: Izumi Inaba
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