Creating pre-show rituals and routines is so helpful for students. It clears their minds and gets them into their “theatre brains” – the mindset needed to leave their personal issues at the door and concentrate on the task at hand: performing to the best of their abilities and create a fabulous show. Pre-show routines and rituals create a sense of calm and focus. They pump students up and energize them, without getting them to a point of silliness. It’s a focused energy, and a way to bring the cast and crew together as a cohesive unit.
One of my favourite and most effective pre-show routines is very simple. First, I get the cast and crew together for a physical and vocal warm-up. I try to leave enough time between this routine and opening of the house for the students to also do their own warm-ups and pre-show preparation as they desire.
During the group warm-up, I let the students choose a song to listen to (lately it’s frequently been Disney songs or songs from the Hamilton soundtrack), and we stretch out and dance. This helps the students to warm up their bodies, shake out their nerves, raise their energy, and get the “sillies” out. Sometimes a student will lead the warm-up, which is a lot of fun and gives them the opportunity to grow their leadership skills.
After the physical warm-up, we run a vocal warm-up, which can involve humming, scales, and arpeggios for musicals, and tongue twisters and breathing exercises for plays – or even a combination of the two. Then we gather into a show circle for a little pre-show chat.
For my last two productions, I had the cast choose three key words to focus on that would drive us forward as a cast. These three key words would then be part of our pre-show ritual during the show circle. For my production of Disney’s High School Musical 2 Jr., we chose the key words patience, teamwork, and confidence as our focus.
During the show circle I lead the students in a simple breathing and movement exercise (almost like a set of yoga moves) to help us focus our minds. We included a triangle hand gesture that the students decided would represent the three key words. This pre-show ritual was great because it calmed the students while energizing them at the same time.
For my production of Peter and the Starcatcher, we chose the key words volume, diction, and tell the story. Starcatcher is a fast-paced, text-heavy show, and features a lot of storytelling techniques with actors quickly switching roles. Focusing on theatrical basics helped the students to concentrate on making the story clear and the jokes land. We kept the show circle ritual simple – a quiet chat and review of the key words was all this cast needed.
Each show and cast is different, and through the rehearsal process it will become clear what your students will need from you, the director and leader, to succeed as a team. Some casts need reassurance and a boost of confidence; some casts need to be pumped up with a burst of energy; some casts are already wired with energy and need calm and focus; and some casts can be cliquey and need to be brought together as a group.
Whatever your cast needs, try selecting three key words (or short phrases) to help steer your pre-show routines and create special rituals just for that particular group. And be prepared to change and adapt from show to show and group to group – what worked for one cast may not be right for another.
Whatever your group uses to get them in the theatrical mindset, having a special pre-show routine will help bring the students together as a team – and that’s what they need to succeed in the theatre.