Timing is Everything

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

I recently read an article that stated “Time is a very interesting concept” and that really got me thinking about how each individual moment in a play or musical has to be timed to the second with entrance exits. Key lines must be delivered with military preciseness in order to gain the laugh of a funny line or the jaw dropping surprise when we all figure out who did it.  Things need to be timed right or the magic of theater will no longer be that; magical. We want the audience to believe the story and if something does not happen at the right moment and the story gets interrupted you may lose your audience. Certain things can be recovered from, like a dropped or missed line but other things can't be and here’s why.

About a year ago, I worked on a production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Games Afoot or, Holmes for the Holidays”.  For this production I was both the Assistant Stage Manager and the Props Designer., which didn’t prove to be too much of an issue until tech week. But that is a blog post for another day. The most important part of my job was (spoiler alert) conducting the fake stabbing at the end of act one, in a blackout and to get the audience to believe that one of the characters committed the crime. Sounds simple enough right?

Well here comes the biggest example of timing I have faced in theater so far. 10 seconds in a black out, that’s all I had, 10 seconds to get down the stairs, grab the knife off off the weapons wall, hit the actress in the back with a fake hit (connected by magnets in her dress), and get back up the stairs before the lights came up. This all done on the cue of the stage manager because I couldn’t see what was happening on stage. Even at final dress rehearsal, the timing was not right. 

Imagine how nervous I felt on opening night? Literally shaking in my boots. We rehearsed it several times before the curtain went up and when the time came, it went off without a hitch. Well, that night it did and for all but one of the eight performances. During the second performance, the lights went down and I heard my cue. Then right in the middle of the action, the fake hilt slipped from my hand and I couldn't see it in the blackout. All I could hear is the stage manager on headset counting down until the lights came up. I was scrambling to find it and somehow at the last second, the hilt caught my eye and I picked it up to attach it to the actresses’ back, then ran up the 3 steps. Just as I got behind the wall, the lights came up. I missed being seen by all of 2 seconds! 

This is why timing is interesting and is every bit important when putting on a play. Two seconds can be the difference of whether or not the audience would have seen me and the show would be ruined. If I didn’t see the hilt in time and without my ten seconds of theater magic, act two wouldn’t have made sense nor would it have been fun trying to solve the big “who dun it” aspect of the play. 

Photo: Cascade Community Theatre