I applied for the Production Assistant position in April 2017 and was confirmed by May that year. With opening night more than a year away, in June 2018, that gave me plenty of time to figure out the role.
The production company, Orpheus, puts on three big shows each year – one after the other. Mamma Mia! would be the final show of the season, which meant I would be able to work on both of the first two shows of the season.
Joanne, the PA for Shrek, and Gabe, the PA for Grease, were both happy to let me shadow them, and in particular to learn the two most daunting parts of the job: running auditions and coordinating show clothing.
The audition process is complex, but not for the reason you might think. It has nothing to do with picking the cast; the PA doesn’t even get to be in the room when the auditions are going on!
No, it’s complicated because during audition week, the PA needs to meet with 20 and 30 actors each night split into three groups) to make sure that their forms are fully filled out, that the production team has a printed photo of each actor, that they are clear on what is going to be asked of them, and that their music has the appropriate number of bars and is in the correct format for the accompanist.
That might not sound too tricky, but for each of the three groups of actors, it all has to happen in the span of about 20 minutes.
It’s a lot to keep straight in a short amount of time.
I was grateful that I got a chance to help both Joanne and Gabe with their audition process. It all happens very quickly and it can get pretty hectic as the time approaches for the actors to head in to learn the group dance routine. My head was a-whirl after the first night that I volunteered to help Joanne – but practice makes perfect, and by the time I got around to the Mamma Mia! auditions, I felt like a pro.
Promotional clothing is also complicated, but for a different reason. Orpheus doesn’t get involved, so there’s no safety net. The PA has to work with a supplier to figure out what pieces to offer – t-shirts and hoodies are popular, but sweatpants, messenger bags, and other swag can be fun too – and then collect the money and keep an accurate account of what’s been ordered and what people have paid.
With Orpheus leaving you to your own devices on this task, you don’t want to miscalculate costs because you could easily wind up paying a significant chunk out of pocket.
This task is project coordination 101, but Gabe let me do the show clothing for Grease, and with his guidance here and there, it all worked out really well, and I was in good shape by the time set the price list for Mamma Mia! (Hint: I used the same products I offered for Grease, but in different colors.)
I had a lot to learn beyond auditions and clothing, and both Joanne and Gabe were a big help in making my first production a rampant success, answering any questions I threw their way.
I was lucky to be able to pick their brains as needed and I hope I can provide similar guidance in the future as new PA’s come on board.
Production assistants gotta stick together! PA-solidarity.