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Christmas Production: Many Months Out, Planning, Procedures and Beyond

In this second part of this article, it looks at details relating to a production the size of "The Polar Express." The fact that your Christmas production might be of a lesser size, does not prevent you from employing similar planning and process.

Having taken the time to already figure out who your audience is that you are seeking to target as part of plans for an upcoming Christmas production, and the purpose behind the effort, as described in the first part that ran on Tuesday, the next step would involve planning , which ideally begins many months prior to the production.

Planning

  • “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” – Proverbs 16:3
Comparisons between professional theaters and church ministries, you might say, are unequal, because professional theaters – like megachurches – have more (fill in the blank). 

Beginning in late summer and continuing into the fall, increasingly so in October, posts began appearing on many Facebook groups for which I am a member, asking when was the best time, or if it was too early, to plan for Christmas.

Among the responses, a few admitted – with tongues firmly in cheeks -- to waiting as long as possible.

By mid-October, a cast of 60 for the Chicago production of “The Polar Express” was selected, beginning rehearsals the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The cast is slated to perform for an audience in tech – with the first preparation for 2019 – the next Friday.

Granted, you’re not likely to do this scale of a production at your church – few others will – however, you should grasp the depth of the planning involved. That is a process you must start rehearsing now.

The fact your Christmas production of last year is done, does not prevent you from employing the process used.

“(Starting with tech), I always have all our key staff keep a log of notes and any random thoughts they have, as we go through the production process of things that worked well, didn’t work well, and ideas for improvement,” noted May.

Come February 1, after all the shows have come to an end, May and his “key staff” begin reviewing those logs, plus comments by audience members responding to a post-show, online evaluation, and begin to dream anew, to start mapping out the calendar timeline for the next year.

“(We like to have) a complete and final operating schedule by mid-spring,” he said. “It’s a nearly impossible goal, because so many things affect it, but it is essential in planning the logistics of the project as a whole, not just a single event.”

The last phrase is why Christmas planning should begin early in the year.

One must view “the project as a whole, not just a single event.” Nor is the planning left to a single individual.

Point to Ponder: Determine Your Key Staff

Whether a single production or a weekly service, selecting volunteers representing assorted ministries who regularly communicate is critical for effective community witness and membership disciplining. The Polar key staff of seven includes the director, assistant director, stage manager, and lighting, sound and costume designers to be hired by June 1.

Who might your key staff include?

Action Steps: Even though your show is over from last month and you may not have kept a log relating to it, you should contact your key staff and debrief last Christmas’ programs – including the services of worship.

Make a calendar date with your financial, creative, production, outreach, hospitality, education, maintenance and pastoral representatives to discuss the Purpose, Planning and Procedures for your Christmas, Easter and Worship presentations.

Feedback is invaluable and creative from unexpected sources. A bonus for “Polar Express” was what May calls, “a more robust” lighting design that both engaged the audience before the show and unobtrusively signaled actor movement during the show.

With the Purpose and Plan in place, the last element is how to make it all work properly.

Procedures

  • “Go and make disciples…teaching them everything I have taught you.” – Matthew 28:19-20

A new addition for “The Polar Express” 2019, said May, will be a company management manual. “This will be an enormous help.”

The idea grew from production staff feedback and actually began being created while the show was in performance (as in, being typed in the production car by staffers while the actors were performing elsewhere.

Although the show was in its fourth year of operation, new production stage managers – who had vast regional theater experience – had few written instructions when they came on board to work on the show.

“This show needs a production bible,” explained an assistant stage manager, who was typing feverishly on a laptop while the train swayed. The “assistant” teaches stage management at a Chicago university that focuses in performing arts. From time to time, other crew members would be seen adding pages to the burgeoning booklet.

Each crew member had a backup, thus allowing the team to have time off. Key roles in the cast had understudies within the cast as contingencies for illness, a wise decision as several actors became ill during the run.

Like understudies, new actors to the cast were prepared to take on old roles (Santa, for example), first by the director and then by actors who were returning to the cast who shared nuances of things they had learned (breath mints, shoe gels, “Merry Christmas” in ASL).

At the first rehearsal when the entire cast and crew – from different backgrounds, ages and experiences -- -was assembled and introduced to each other, the director set the tone for a pleasant working atmosphere by explaining his expectations: Learn the lines as written, don’t paraphrase or ad lib; only the director would give actors acting notes; cellphones were not permitted in the rehearsal room; gossip was not permitted, and if anyone had an issue with someone or a procedure, directly speak with each other and not to grumble.

Any comparable scriptures come to mind?

As a result, the working atmosphere was among the most pleasant and collaborative this actor has been involved with, professional or ministry.

What’s the atmosphere in your production or worship rehearsals?

Action Steps: Teaching others is essential in performance and disciple-making. Many of the Facebook groups we see include concerns about managing grumbling workers, not having enough personnel, or burning out, because there are no replacements. This, again, is a step you may begin addressing now. Outline expectations and procedures for operating equipment. Who would do this? Choose a key staff.

Consider the possibility that the “worship leader” may be part of the team. Who might be your Mike May – a production manager?

Who coordinates rehearsals? If you had to remount the production on Valentine’s Day weekend, how long would it take you to hand an operations manual that shows each step that happens during a show to this person who has now stepped in as production manager?

If you don’t have that kind of manual right now, start creating one.

Prayer and Perspective

 “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” – Romans 12:1

We’ll assume that everything you do will be in prayed over, about and through. A specific request is to begin rethinking your approach to the holiday programs (Christmas and Easter) and weekly worship.

Comparisons between professional theaters and church ministries, you might say, are unequal, because professional theaters – like megachurches – have more (fill in the blank). 

What professional theaters have more of is organizational acumen and positive perspectives. You can begin transforming your holiday productions right now, by doing the same.

“I believe very strongly in open communication with the production team for the majority of the year,” noted Mike May. “Even if it is little updates here and there, I like to keep show details in the back of everyone’s mind. Some of the best ideas pop into mind midsummer working on other projects.”

Action Step: Eliminate from your thinking what you can’t do, and/or what you don’t have. Decide your church vision and how each production, and worship service, fits that vision and what’s needed; and continually pray for the Lord’s guidance for PROvision.

Merry Christmas.

Looking to establish a possible timeline for your Christmas production? Try this.

  1. January: Define your purpose
  2. February:
    1.  Evaluate last production: costs, personnel, outreach, equipment
    2. Decide audience (big scale, small scale), atmosphere (budget)
    3. Cut bait (dispense with a program that’s not compatible with your vision)
  3. March: Establish operation procedures
  4. April: Employ operations manual for Easter; keep production log
  5. May: Audition scripts and music (small, creative team)
  6. June: Map schedule to include casting, media, rehearsals, production team
  7. July: Select content (script, music)
  8. August: Audition
  9. September: Prepare and release schedule; begin media promotions
  10. October: Rehearse schedule
  11. November: Intense and tech
  12. December: Perform, keep log, evaluate for 2020 vision
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