Getting your cast and crew to stay focussed and productive during set build and especially strike is always a challenge. Although it can seem like inaction on the part of your actors is purely a matter of laziness or disrespect, many actors simply don’t know how to help or be useful. If you want to keep everyone active, some small steps on the part of the director can help.
Keep your goals clear and visible.
Make sure your team is clear on everything that needs to be done for the day, and make these goals visible. If you have access to a large whiteboard, write out every individual goal for the day. Otherwise, print out sheets of paper and post them somewhere they may be easily referenced. Check off tasks as you go. When everything that needs to be accomplished is clearly established, no one can claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. It also lessens the amount of questions you’ll have to field– everyone has an easy resource to consult should they complete their task and find themselves seeking another.
This also makes it easy to keep track of what you’ve accomplished and what will still need done. I’ve been to many set builds where the day’s goals are only clearly enumerated in the TD’s head, and things are easily forgotten. Posting a list anyone can see keeps everybody on track and knowledgeable about the total progress.
Assign specific tasks to specific people.
Don’t just assume your cast and crew know where and how to be helpful. Give everybody a specific task, from your previously established list of goals! If you have enough people, create teams in charge of specific areas. This is especially useful at strike, where you likely have a large cast available to help and a lot of work to get done. For example, you may establish a “dressing room team”, who clean out the dressing rooms, a “costume team”, who gather and store all costume pieces, and a “tear-down team”, responsible for the heavy work being done on stage. When one team finishes, they can find another team to assist.
Teams are a good way to “divide and conquer” when it comes to your goals for the day. This allows several tasks to be reliably undertaken at once. If you establish teams, make sure you group people who are liable to work well together! Otherwise, teams may wind up being less productive than individual work.
Establish leaders besides yourself.
You may find yourself quickly swamped with questions if a lot of people are approaching a lot of different tasks. To take the pressure off of you and keep the work flowing smoothly, make sure everyone knows who besides you they can report to with questions. You can also appoint leaders for each “department”– for example, establish one person as the authority on costumes, one as the authority on props, one as the authority on construction/tear down. Ideally, this is your costume master, props master, and TD, though in small theaters or school settings, all of these titles may belong to one person. Dividing the responsibilities keeps things moving and increases accountability. With many authorities, it is easy to supervise lots of work. Actors are also more likely to ask for help if their authority is easily available to help, and not already helping several other people.
An especially useful authority figure is one who can show people how to do things. For example, if many of your cast don’t know how to use necessary power tools or don’t know the theater’s organization system for props or costumes, having people who can explain protocol to others in invaluable.
Always be ready to assign further work.
Inevitably, a time comes during strike and build when one group is accomplishing a particularly difficult task that all the rest depend on, and the rest have nothing to do but sit and wait until this task is completed. There is always a surplus of things to be done in these settings– if only you know what they are when the time comes. Be ready to hand out lots of odd jobs, even if they’re not directly related to what you wanted to accomplish today. For instance, there is always something to be organized, cleaned, or prepared for future rehearsals. Keeping a list of these “nonessential but helpful” tasks ready in case the opportunity arises will keep everybody busy.
This is especially paramount if you’re working with young actors– downtime can become dangerous, especially minimally supervised downtime!