When Kevin Hart stepped onto the stage at the Dolby Theatre during Oscar rehearsals Saturday morning, he couldn't resist a joke about the hot-button topic at this year's Academy Awards: race.
"Where am I sitting?" Hart said, gazing into the audience, where placards with pictures of the stars indicated the seating plan. "All the black people should be in the front row!"
Words like diversity and boycott were commonly used in discussions of this year's Oscar telecast, including speculation about how host Chris Rock — never known to shy away from controversy — will deal with the issue. But for the producers, presenters, stand-ins and others, there was a show to put on and lots of rehearsal business to take care of.
Hart was one of more than 40 presenters streaming through the Hollywood and Highland Center on Saturday to practice for their roles in Sunday night's telecast, a list that includes Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Pharrell Williams, Cate Blanchett, Whoopi Goldberg, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Garner, Julianne Moore, Common, Patricia Arquette, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Abraham Attah, Jacob Tremblay, J.J. Abrams, Jason Segal, Chris Evans, Olivia Munn, Chadwick Boseman, Eddie Redmayne, Sofia Vergara, Jared Leto, Kerry Washington, Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, Quincy Jones, Louis C.K., Morgan Freeman and Olivia Wilde.
The rehearsals are a chance for the stars to perfect their stage walking and teleprompter reading, while the Oscars show crew finesses its camera moves and set changes.
The goal is to produce a show that looks both spontaneous and smooth, but on Saturday, there were signs that cast and crew alike were still getting their footing.
In a stage move during Hart's rehearsal, a massive set piece crashed to the floor, breaking several glass lightbulbs and requiring more than a dozen crew members to right it.
"That's what rehearsals are for," Hart said. "All right guys, my part was great, though. Piece of ci-za-ke (cake)!"
Some actors had more elaborate tasks to carry out. Talking into camera while walking across the stage through pieces of set, Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett sought help from stage manager Gary Natoli about hitting her marks. "Is it here? Ish? And angled in what fashion?"
After a giant video screen lowered above the stage began to wobble, and Blanchett tried a more leisurely walk at the director's request, the "Carol" star said, "I don't know if I can walk any slower than that."
A voice boomed from the back of the room, "That's fine."
Blanchett, who was wearing the set of towering silver heels she plans to wear Sunday night, looked up into the crowd. "You can always recast," she said. "A couple of drinks, anyone?"
Last year's supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette negotiated with the teleprompter operator over the font size and went off-script, adding, "who's also very foxy" to a serious introduction written for a best actor nominee.
Some who were new to the Oscars took the experience in stride, including 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay of "Room" and his co-presenter, 14-year-old Abraham Attah of "Beasts of No Nation."
"Can you step that high up?" a stage manager asked Tremblay, of a stack of apple boxes held together with electrical tape. The tiny actor nodded.
Handed a water bottle that the crew were using as a pretend Oscar statuette, Attah let out a laugh.
Others used the opportunity to test out their presenting patter.
Former Oscar-winner Jared Leto, after delivering a joke a second time, looked out into the audience of stand-ins, saying, "Just a giggle, please?"
Around the stars, the show machinery churned. The smell of wet paint and coffee hung in the air, the stand-in actors delivered pretend acceptance speeches and the stage managers talked into their headsets and glanced at their iPads that listed the show's rundown.
"Are you Tom Hardy?" a stage manager called out to the stand-ins, preparing to rehearse the best supporting actor category. "Where's my Stallone? I need a Christian Bale, a Tom Hardy, a Mark Ruffalo, a Mark Rylance and a Sylvester Stallone."
In the audience, actors' publicists sized up their clients' ranks.
"I'm all right with that seat," one publicist said, realizing her client's proximity to Leonardo DiCaprio. "He's gonna be on camera all night."