Into the Woods (& Floods) Director’s Diary
Director Kimberley Shaw thought she was out of the woods when Covid-19 restrictions eased in Perth during the final rehearsals for the musical Into the Woods in July 2021. Then came a dripping sound as the heavens opened. Was their production alright on opening night? Read on to find out.
Into the Woods had a conventional rehearsal period, or at least a Covid conventional rehearsal period.
We auditioned in January, had an excellent turn-out that saw about 200 people audition over four days, and were thrilled with our chosen cast.
Planning to start rehearsals the week before Easter, Perth’s February lockdown had little impact on our production.
April’s lockdown affected us slightly. The Stirling Players’ production preceding ours, To Kill A Mockingbird, was shut down on its projected opening night, costing us three early rehearsals. Mockingbird opened a week later, extra performances were added within their scheduled run, and they closed only a day later than originally planned, meaning just one extra rehearsal in an alternative venue.
Rehearsing in masks was tricky - but not impossible - especially relatively early in the rehearsal process. With a flight attendant set designer and another flight attendant in the cast, there was always a risk that one of them might have to go into isolation. Ironically, during this period, our Rapunzel’s Prince, flight attendant Zac, was forced to skip a rehearsal while waiting for test results, but it was because he shopped at Coles at the wrong time.
In the theatre on the morning of Sunday June 27th, we received the announcement that masks would become compulsory within the hour. I ran to the chemist (thankfully only a couple of doors away) to pick up a packet of masks (and inform the pharmacist that she may be in for a busy afternoon). Actors, crew and orchestra members who arrived without having heard the news were handed a mask, and we did our best to do a masked sitzprobe.
The next evening we were in rehearsal when our phones started pinging with messages that Premier Mark McGowan was about to hold an unscheduled press conference. I sent stage manager Mollie out to listen, then paused rehearsals to tell the cast that we were going into a four-day lockdown from midnight. We completed that rehearsal, knowing it would be our last for the week, and hoping desperately that we would be clear to rehearse properly for ‘Hell Sunday’ (tech, dress and orchestra) the following week. We had a Zoom rehearsal midweek – but as many know, time delays make rehearsing a musical on Zoom only moderately helpful at best.
Our set was almost complete, save for a small amount of painting on the stage floor – a specialty job that our set designer Wayne had planned to do himself. Having returned from Northern Queensland, Wayne was thrown into two-weeks isolation, meaning that not only would he need to make other arrangements to get the floor painted – but sadly, he would miss opening night.
News came the following Friday that lockdown was ending, but there was now a limit of twenty people inside a venue for the next three days. We had planned a full day rehearsal for the Sunday – the first time that we would properly combine cast and orchestra, implement sound, do full lighting, and have full dress. With eighteen in the cast, an orchestra of fourteen, a crew of three, stage manager, lighting designer, sound designer, and costume designer, even operating without committee members and any other helpers we would be well over the limit.
We determined that we could make it work. We started with a crew rehearsal, using the time to set up the sound, rehearse quick set changes such as manoeuvring grandma’s bed, trying out our flying (Cinderella’s birds, her dress drop, and the growing beanstalk) and rehearsing only actors that had tricky stage business involving the crew.
The crew and sound designer went home, and the plan was then to run the show twice with the cast (using Rehearscore) and then send most of them home and rehearse the orchestra. Stage Manager Mollie was keeping a careful tally of the number in the building, calling cast members in as the crew departed. It was raining steadily, so she had people wait in their cars until called.
Running a little late, we ran Act One and decided to break for lunch. We had just given the five-minute call to resume when Mollie queried, “Can anyone hear dripping?”
Our band was to be housed in a craft room just to the right side of the auditorium. Sound designer Aaron had spent the morning session laying microphone cabling, so the floor was covered in cabling and orchestra seating nicely laid out.
We suddenly had two major leaks in that room’s ceiling, one beneath a join in what was once two rooms, the other in a skylight. Cast scrambled to find containers to catch the considerable drips and I climbed up to remove the black masking from beneath the skylight (getting very wet in the process). Suddenly we realised that flood water was coming through the two external doors to the room.
“Rip up the cables!” Mollie cried, and within seconds two hours of Aaron’s careful work was yanked from the floor.
“It’s coming in the foyer!”
Actors rushed to find fabric or towels to try to block the flow of water now pouring into both our orchestra room and the foyer. We opened the costume storage area to find that water was coming under the door there too.
Suddenly actors were everywhere, stemming the flow and getting things off the floor in the three rooms now affected. Phone calls were made to Aaron, the club President and the Rangers (it is a council building). Outside the foyer doors, water was five or six cm deep, and drains were not coping. Actors ran out into the rain to attempt to clear drains, with others building a makeshift dam across a path down which water was cascading like a river. We managed to keep the water out of the auditorium, while the stage and dressing rooms, being on ‘higher ground’, stayed dry.
The rain flow slowed, and about two hours later we had the orchestra room mopped out and sort of dry, an industrial dryer “on the way” from the council and rehearsal resumed – albeit with actors who were still literally dripping. We only managed to complete the one run.
Due to the restrictions, we had to rearrange our tech week rehearsals slightly. We skipped our Monday tech rehearsal, then moved everything back a day. By Tuesday we were allowed full rehearsal capacity although actors needed to be masked when not on stage, as did crew and non-wind orchestra – and we finally managed our first tech and dress.
Council workers worked on the roof most of the week, and we were assured that it was repaired - that the previous weekend had been a ‘once in a decade’ occurrence and that we didn’t need to worry.
After a successful preview that went as smoothly as we could hope, we were looking forward to Opening Night.
Ever the nervous director, I arrived at the theatre in the early afternoon, just to do little jobs and offer any help to front of house.
Around 3pm I was helping committee member Elaine prepare the auditorium. It was raining, so we were occasionally checking the band room ceiling, even though the roof repairmen had been at the theatre when I had arrived and reassured me that it was watertight. Suddenly we heard a familiar dripping.
Rushing to find something to catch the drips, there was flooding under the doors once more. Within seconds the band room was flooded and although I attempted to get everything off the floor, this time it was simply too fast, especially with only two of us in the building. We managed to build walls to stop the water entering the auditorium, but the band room flooding was deeper, extending through the foyer and toilets. I had sent an urgent message to the group chat – I think it was simply “Help, flood!” - and within a short time we were being inundated by cast, Stirling Players members and their friends.
Despite the efforts of many, we were unable to open that night. We couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t flood again, the foyer carpet was completely sodden, we needed to make arrangements to ensure that our orchestra would remain dry and we had managed to drown (and kill) the power source to one of the keyboards.
Thanks to the generosity of others, we were able to open, albeit a day late. Stirling Council found us two large industrial driers to dry the foyer and sent a magic machine that sucked the bulk of the water from the carpet. The orchestra was kind enough to squeeze into what was essentially a large cupboard on the other side of the auditorium (not at all comfortable), and the Roleystone Theatre (whose own temporary theatre space had flooded that weekend) lent us curtaining to dampen the echo in that space. Having spent the day on an unsuccessful search for a new power source, a plethora of Perth theatre people offered us keyboards, with Taui Pinker driving his beautiful and precious keyboard to us an hour before curtain.
While we remained nervous for the rest of the run, and a team of actors led by our Cinderella, Grace, flood barricaded the theatre between every show, we were lucky enough to enjoy a successful, well received and completely sold-out run.
I am very thankful to have a cast and team who smiled through adversity, laughed instead of cried and remained kind to each other through a very stressful last couple of weeks. To miss multiple rehearsals and face such major upheavals would break many shows, but this team was simply awesome.
Into The Woods was eventually awarded the Robert Finley Award for Best Musical in WA for 2020/2021.
Director Kimberley Shaw is also Stage Whispers’ tireless Perth reviewer. She could not review her own production, which Breanna Redhead described as “delightfully charismatic” - www.stagewhispers.com.au/reviews/woods-15