The first time I shot a Broadway show's photo call, someone from the publicist's office said, "I don't know who the photographer is, but I think the assistant is W. Eugene Smith."
Actually, you don't need an assistant to shoot pictures of a play. Gene had been going the same way, helped me carry some camera bags and probably stuck around to see if I would fall on my face. More importantly, you don't need a Broadway show or something as elaborate as a union-sanctioned photo call to produce good theater pictures.
What you need for any production in any theater is the extra time it takes to familiarize yourself with the cast, crew and play so you don't show up after a tech-dress that is laden with technical problems, script rewrites, blocking changes, general exhaustion and, then, foolishly expect people to respond warmly to the stranger with the camera.
Show up at a few rehearsals, camera over your shoulder. Make a few snaps. Get to know the players; that's the important part. I've seen actors who could do the most intimate love scene with the stage manager four feet away, but be shut down by a stranger standing at the back of the room.
And the rehearsal pictures you take will have a use. Obviously the pictures are part of a story on the creation of the play that can be made available to a variety of print and Web publications, displayed in the theater, even used in the programs. This is particularly true of national, regional and seasonal stock theaters that present a season of work using the same folks for a variety of productions.
It's difficult to say which is more important, documenting the process or becoming accepted as part of the process. Fortunately, they go hand in hand. The more you work, the more you are accepted and the more you are accepted the more you are able to do good work ....
Long before the tech or dress rehearsal and the official "picture call," there will be a need for promotion and publicity pictures. Ask the costume designer if they can come up with something that will approximate the final costumes from the waist up – jackets, blouses, scarves, hats, what have you. And ask the actors to make sure that their hairstyles, beards, etc., are as they will be on opening night. Shoot tight two heads using the leading actors against a seamless or plain background and make it dramatic. They can do their most dramatic scene, reblocked so they are nose-to-nose or they can discuss their own personal views on national politics. The camera has no ears. But it does have an eye; so, make sure the moment looks dramatic.
Because these pictures are simple and dramatic, they do well in the small sizes that images are reduced to in papers, magazines and on the Web. Because they are simple and dramatic, they do well as part of the large posters used to promote the production. (In fact, although it's journalistic heresy, if you are also working for the production company, run some of the images through Images > adjustments > posterize in Photoshop, and your image plus a little text may become THE POSTER for the production.)
Before the actors hit the stage, the designers, the electricians and the carpenters hit the stage. If you are doing a story on a theater, they are a huge, often neglected, part of it. See if the stage manager or a designer will introduce you to the crew and create a situation where everybody is comfortable with your taking pictures while they work. Make sure that some prints get back to the folks you have photographed. They may be invisible to the audience; they shouldn't be invisible to a photographer.
There's another part of the backstage process that is fascinating visually. It's obvious in Kabuki or a production of "Cats." Someone comes into a dressing room, sits down at a table with theatrical makeup on it, stares into a mirror and changes into something else.
But it's also something that occurs when the physical change is less obvious. A 21st-century civilian whose just had a pleasant conversation with a friend, sits down in front of a mirror and turns into a Civil War soldier afraid for his life.
Sometimes the process of change is visible, and it makes a fascinating series of pictures. Sometimes the change is not so obvious, but that last picture, that tight head shot that is a mirror image of an actor staring at himself, is a hell of a portrait.
Which brings us to one more set of good pictures that can come out of a play: studio portraits of the characters in play – not the actors; the characters they portray. Will the period of the play, the nature of the characters in the play, effect the style of the photographs? Your call.
It depends upon the production company, the unions, etc., but as the production goes into dress rehearsals, you will quite often have two official picture calls – a candid call where you shoot a tech-dress rehearsal from the audience, and a call where you are on stage and the sole purpose of the call is to allow you to set up specific scenes and photograph them. It is not unusual in this call to reblock the scene so it is tighter for the close-up camera and to raise the level of the lighting if the actual stage settings is too low or creates problem shadows.
The candid call presents no outstanding problems if you know the play and have an idea of what you want. That's a little bonus you get from attending rehearsals. Bring your tripod, your very long lens and be very grateful that modern digital cameras operate at very high ISOs.
The call where you are on stage after a tech-dress laden with technical problems, script rewrites, blocking changes, general exhaustion .... See why we said it was no good to be a stranger with a camera. But you're not a stranger. Everybody will pull together, and there will be some good shots. Everybody is too tired to go home right away. Coffee, drinks, ginger ale for the old folks (it looks just like Scotch and water) .... You'll burn the best shots onto a CD for your editor, your agency, the production publicist, whatever and try to get some sleep before you deliver it in the morning.
I remember going backstage during intermission on the opening night of a play I had photographed. The lead came up to me and said, "Don't you like the play?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"No clicks; I didn't hear any clicks."
"I can't shoot tonight. There's an audience in the house."
"Oh, of course."
I suddenly realized my shutter clicks were my applause.
This month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column" actually does have something to do with the column. Looking into the mirror is actor Ted D'Arms making up for the lead in "Sgt. Musgrave's Dance."