The Art And Craft Of Production (#IWSG)

IWSG Or, more lessons learned from the stage.

One of the many valuable lessons my time in theatre taught me was the value of breaking down a massive undertaking into management bits, and then scheduling those bits into a Production Schedule that gets you where you need to be by deadline—i.e., Opening Night. Factors such as the nature of the production (complexity, cast size, genre, etc.) will determine the lead time. A small comedy, for instance, may only require six weeks of rehearsal while a big musical or Shakespearean work may need eight or twelve weeks. There are a lot—a LOT—of moving parts in any production, and the director and producer(s) have to keep all the plates spinning, hopefully without casualties.

There are almost always casualties, but that’s another post.

The nice thing about the theatre, of course, is that the material is already written. You also have a team of stage and production managers making sure their designating moving parts come off as planned. Costumes, props, sets, lighting and sound—a production is rather like a swan, graceful and serene on the surface, while there’s a great deal of mad paddling underwater. As writers we are in charge of All The Things, while at the same time creating the material. And of course the cast of characters all have their opinions on what their characters would and would not do, and what’s their motivation anyway?


A Production Schedule keeps you on a time budget and on point for the end game. Drafting—or rehearsing, if you will—a novel is a great deal more complex than a novella, so the time factor will be extended three or more times beyond that of a shorter work. If there’s a lot of action scenes, then it’s wise to choreograph those scenes beforehand, so you don’t stumble. In theatre you often rehearse the stunts (like sword fights) and the musical numbers before anything else. (I was never so grateful as when my director cut the 15 minute ballet dream sequence from Oklahoma!).

Even then you begin with an empty stage, and everyone in their rehearsal clothes rather than in costume. And you don’t begin with the opening scene—rather you workshop the more difficult scenes first, in order from most complex to least. Usually these are important plot points, or involving coordinating the movements of a lot of characters at once. There may be tape outlines of where the big set pieces are going to be, or marks the principals have to hit at certain points. There may be a folding table or a few chairs to simulate smaller set pieces. But the point is you’re in rough draft mode—you don’t have all the details quite fleshed out as of yet.

That’s where a second, or revision draft, comes in. Props start appearing like magic from backstage. You stub your toe on a set piece that wasn’t there yesterday. Someone’s sporting an elaborate hat that defines their character. The paint’s drying on the backdrops, and the jokers in the booth are blinding the actors with pin spots right in your eyes when they hit their marks—which may or may not still be taped.

That final draft—the polishing draft, is the dress rehearsal. Everyone’s in their costumes now, refining their line delivery and interactions. You stop every twelve or thirteen seconds, frozen in tableau so the light and sound guys can make adjustments to the board—adjustments in mood, in atmosphere. You’re nearly there, at launch. In you’re smart, at some point during this process you’ll have perform for preview audiences, test the waters with critique groups or BETA readers. Gauge response. Refine and hone based on feedback.

Now you’re ready (you hope) for opening night.

One of two things happen at this point. Either you’re going traditional, which means you start searching for backers—namely editors or agents. This is your production team, who handles the marketing campaign and distribution.

If you’re an indie, you’re an author-producer. The show runner. You shoulder all of the risk as well as all the reward. You’re either putting together the cover art yourself or paying some unfortunate soul to do it for you. You have to weigh the costs versus benefits of what to pay to farm out or to handle yourself, how/when/where to distribute, to launch, to market. On the upside, once you’ve launched you don’t have to share the celebratory drinks with ANYONE if you don’t want to. J

For me, the full production of a novella is usually around ninety days, whether I’m going traditional or indie—but if I’m going indie I have to budget time in my schedule for things like cover art, since I do it myself for shorter works. For traditional, I have to leave blocks of time open in my weekly planning for handling editorial revisions and putting together the publicity packet I get from my publisher. A novel, in comparison, takes at least ninety days just to draft, and another ninety for revisions and workshop time. Development time generally takes me about a month, either way.

I’ve managed to work my Production Schedule so I’m working on various projects in various stages of development—pre-production (development), production (drafting), and post-production (revisions and marketing/publicity). This requires a great deal of planning, preparation, and—dare I say it—discipline.

It isn’t always smooth. There are definitely hiccups, not to mention lack of sleep. But that’s okay—those are lessons I learned in theatre, too. And at least in writing I don’t get shin splints or have to roast beneath hundred degree lights in thick makeup and a corset.

That’s what characters are for.




2 thoughts on “The Art And Craft Of Production (#IWSG)

  1. David Stringer says:

    I can definitely see overlaps between your stage experience and how I plot (or try to plot and fail) my stories.

    I tend to plan the ‘big set pieces’ in more detail – the confrontations, the revealing character moments – and often don’t fully work out the smaller scenes until I get to the first proper draft of the story.

    At the moment I’m working on a short story and a short film, so I sort of understand where you’re coming from! I’ve found at times that the actors are bringing things to my writing that improves it above what I’d written, but there are one or two things that go in a slightly different direction than what I wanted… so there are positives and negatives to collaboration.

    Break a leg!

    1. catemorgan says:

      Stage and film are definitely more collaborative–and I love it when actors transcend the original material! I know I was always searching for ways to do just that–in writing I try to do it with subtext, but I’m not always successful.

      Good luck, David! It’s always good to hear from you. 🙂

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