by Leslie Jacobsen Meister

(reprinted from the Dinner with Friends program, August 22-September 13, 2008)

Although it may sound like the last week of final exams, Hell Week is actually an ‘affectionate’ term for the week before a show opens, and was likely given the name due to the fact that it can be a busy and stressful time for cast, crew and director.

Most directors will encourage actors to be off-book (to have memorized their lines) well before Hell Week. If the actors have not been studying hard, however, this is the week that push comes to shove. No more asking for lines when the memory fails. (This can lead to some rather entertaining unintended pauses and improvising.) And while some costume pieces and hand props may have been used here and there, or in some cases improvised until the actual prop can be located, Hell Week is when actors will begin to rehearse in costume, and to use all of the actual props and set pieces that will be used during performances. This may mean that actors are actually drinking or eating onstage for the first time, or suddenly find that the three-piece suit they must wear doesn’t give them the range of motion they thought they had.

While actors are busy adjusting onstage, the crew and director are facing their own challenges offstage. A full week before the production opens, the director, the technical director and the lighting designer participate in a ‘light hang and focus’. If they are fortunate, there will be one or two volunteers to assist. During the light hang, all of the lighting instruments that will be used during the show are put into position, and the colors that will be used are selected and installed. It is usually an evening-long process that involves lots of going up and down a ladder. (Look above your head to see all of the instruments, cables, etc. that are placed for each show.) All of the lighting cues and sound cues are set, including special effects (disco balls, strobe lights, gunshots, doorbells, etc.). Most shows average 30 – 50 individual cues, but some shows have had well over 100!

Traditionally, the Sunday before Opening Night (or Day 3 of Hell Week) is reserved for ‘cue-to-cue’. This is usually the first day that the light & sound booth operator will be ‘at the controls’. The first part of the day is spent running through the entire show with hardly any dialogue. The actors will walk through the show, and give cue lines for lighting or sound cues. Adjustments will be made to the lighting instruments to make sure that the actors are well lit. Each cue will be run until the actors and the booth operator have a good sense of how it will work in production. Sometimes cues will be run literally dozens of times. This process requires the actors and crew to stay focused, and to be very patient.

Once the cue-to-cue is completed, the cast and crew may take a dinner break, and then return to the theatre for the first dress rehearsal. This is also the last rehearsal where any ‘kinks’ can be worked out – any cues that need additional clean-up, props or costumes that need to be adjusted, etc. It is usually the first time that actors will practice their curtain calls, as well. The Monday and Tuesday before opening night will be full dress rehearsals as well. If the production is in good shape, the director will usually give everyone the night off on Wednesdays, to relax (and see their families).

The Thursday before opening night is reserved for a free preview. Friends, family and theatre members usually come out to lend their support. This is a good opportunity for the actors to get a sense of how the audience will react to the performance. I can be especially helpful for comedies, when the audience will (hopefully) be laughing, and the actors can fine-tune their timing.

So, although Hell Week can be a somewhat arduous time, both the audience and actors benefit from all of the attention and polish given to the show in the last week of rehearsals. By the time the lights come up on opening night, the cast and crew will be confident and comfortable, and able to give you their best!