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October 27, 2021

39 Steps to Presenting The 39 Steps


Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps (US/UK) is a fast-paced whodunit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre. A long-running hit in the West End and on Broadway, this rollicking comedy/mystery continues to thrill audiences on stages around the world.

So, what does it take to present this crowd-pleaser at your school or theatre? Here are 39 steps you should take to make your production of The 39 Steps a rousing success!

Homework/Preparation Steps

1. Read the book! The 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan is still in print and can be found on most e-readers.

2. Watch the Hitchcock film. This is an absolute requirement. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film departs substantially from the book, so you’ll want to know both versions.

3. Binge some 1940s Ealing Studio Comedies. From 1947-1957, Ealing Studios produced a wealth of celebrated comedies capturing Britain’s can-do postwar spirit. These films include: The Titfield Thunderbolt, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, Brief Encounter and Whisky Galore!

4. Check out as many Hitchcock films as you can. Once you’re familiar with Hitchcock, you and your cast and crew can play “Spot the Hitchcock references.” (For starters, you’ll find references to Strangers on a Train, Psycho and North by Northwest.)

Staging/Directing Steps

5. Make your notes careful and specific! The show should be a well-oiled machine.

6. Assemble a cast that fits your needs; the cast size can range from four to dozens.

7. Stage the show as simply as possible… but be precise. The fun is in the precision.

8. Embrace the show’s theatricality. Be adventurous & flexible in your staging.

Set Steps

9. Decide whether you’re being elaborate or simple and commit to it. Some productions feature elaborate sets with fancy apartments; others are only suitcases and trunks. Or you could go for backstage theatre look; show the back of flats instead of their painted fronts.

10. Get a sturdy chair or two – you might need a few, you might only need one.

11. Get a door that slams.

12. Use dry ice – this miracle invention covers a multitude of sins!


Sound Effect Steps

13. Get a train whistle.

14. Use tense, suspenseful music. Music is a huge part of the show, so make the most of it.

15. Show off your sound effects. Make them important! You could even present The 39 Steps as if it were a radio play, showing the sound effects person in clear view of the audience.


Prop Steps

16. Procure a good pipe! The pipe is a necessity.

17. Set up a coat stand for all your hats and coats. (Or use a single trunk/case as the onstage source of all your props!)

18. Acquire some sturdy handcuffs. But use a short chain, or all the humor will be lost.

19. Collect a bunch of brassieres. Bras are funny.


Costume Steps

20. Gather lots of Velcro for those quick changes.

21. Hire a creative costumer who can find simple ways to convey character.

22. Use simple costume elements to suggest characters. Capes are good!

23. Start collecting hats as soon as you can. This show requires lots of hats!

Tech Steps

24. Get yourself an on-it stage manager! This is critical. You’ll need a swift thinker who can oversee all of the shows quick-moving elements. And someone ought to know what’s happening at all times.

25. Enlist a brilliant and organized Props Manager.

26. Find a quick-witted and talented person to call the cues. This doesn’t necessarily have to be your stage manager. Just make sure they can think fast – but never rush anyone – as they maintain the show’s pace.

27. Hire a great lighting designer. The show’s most consistent award has been for lighting!

28. Employ a stage combat choreographer. The actors could really benefit from some professional guidance as they navigate through the show’s more physical sequences.


Acting Steps

29. Advise your romantic characters to keep a straight face and play it with sincerity.

30. Tell your clowns to make the most of those accents! Don’t be afraid to overdo them; they don’t need to be authentic.

31. Stay in shape. This show is very physical – it will require lots of rehearsal!

32. Assemble a close-knit group of actors. Encourage them to wear lots of deodorant. They’re gonna be working very closely together.

33. Cultivate teamwork!

34. Die with(out) dignity. This show has great death scenes, so practice those death moments until they are lived (died?) to the fullest.


General Steps

35. Keep in mind, your audience wants to laugh. They want adventure, romance, humor and escape. So give ‘em what they want.

36. Never let the audience forget they’re watching actors; sometimes the actors can even play the furniture.

37. Take every opportunity for spoof and satire, but also embrace the love story – add a dash of romance.

38. Remember you’re presenting a comedy. If things go wrong, that’s part of the humor! The
audience will love it. (If you can make it look like things go wrong, so much the better.)

39. Have fun!

For more information about The 39 Steps, visit the Concord Theatricals website in the US or UK!