Friday, December 24, 2010

A Freight Train's A' Coming

I am going to try to have a blog entry every day.  Some may be very long.  For a while, some are going to be historical, transferred over from a previous journal.  Like this one:

There's way too much going on right now. I'm getting back from work with about enough strength left to eat something then fall into slumber. In the morning, check emails and its off to the races again.

Well, today maybe I'll snatch a few minutes to talk about the freight train we theater folk call "tech."

A play is a complex mechanism. A musical is even more so. So many different elements need to come together, so many interlocking parts. But this is almost never a contemplative process, of slow discovery and experimentation.

Instead it's a fully-loaded freight train. The wheels start rolling the day the season is planned -- even before the scripts are selected. And from that moment on, that train is in motion, heading for that Opening Night. There will be 2,000 bodies in seats, paying ticket holders, at 8:00 Friday the 21st, and even Casey can't stop that runaway train.

So at every step through the process you are aware of that countdown. There is never quite enough time. Always, you juggle what you want in the show against what you have time for. And, always, you are guessing. Experience and paperwork help. But basically it comes down to a series of judgment calls, projecting how long an idea is going to take to implement and checking it against that iron-bound schedule.

It is, as I said, a complex engine. By the time you hit Tech Week that train is a juggernaut. There are so many different people and so many different processes that are also on this "just in time" arc of completion, if one department fails the whole thing comes apart like a house of cards.

If the set ain't ready on focus date, the lights can't get in. The painters can't complete their work. Rescheduling lights means someone else needs to be kicked off -- but the choreographer needs those last four dance rehearsals promised to her, the orchestra needs that sit-sing, and the running crew is going to be there to start moving scenery on Tech Sunday, regardless of whether lights are ready or not.

If someone or something stumbles really badly the wheels come off the contraption completely. It is a place where only the really good theater people shine; the people who can brainstorm a new solution that gets the thing back on schedule (while still preserving some semblance of artistic integrity.)

Only very early on can you jump off the train, jog along your own footpath of discovery, and swing back aboard with whatever wildflowers of inspiration you may have picked. As you get closer to Tech Sunday, the speed of the train ensures that you stay with it, clinging on the sides, as it charges towards Opening Night like the Silver Streak heading for the Chicago and North Western Railway Terminal.

And that is perhaps the saddest aspect of the whole process.

At every stage (as it is with every project) you have to pick one of the many possible paths. As you get closer to completion, all those early choices will either support you or haunt you. But unlike a painting, you can't step back, scrape off the canvass, and try again. Opening Night is going to hit whether you are ready or not. And too often, that means you open with the stupid idea you had six weeks ago, before you even saw the blocking or met the costumer or heard the music, and not the great idea you got just as the crew was starting to hang the plot.

Like the movies, most of the people involved sign on in later parts of the project. Just to give a basic perspective, here's about how it goes;

Back a year prior or so, the theater needs to plan a season and get the brochures out. Theaters are largely dependent on season subscribers, and that program is what tempts them into signing for a season's worth of tickets in a year that hasn't even started yet. You might have Producer, Artistic Director, a hand-picked Director or two, and in some theaters a liason to new playwrights, at these meetings.

When the shows are picked this small team then negotiates for the rights. And right here is the first big switch point that can throw a train, when it has just left the city and is on open track. Because there is always the possibility that some bus-and-truck show will come into one of the big union houses around you and pull your rights. Apparently, a production of "Gypsy" at a High School in Alameda threatens ticket sales to the massive remount coming out of Broadway and playing down in Union Square.

Anyhow. The show is picked and the top people look for directors and designers. There is usually some effort to construct a team; to look for people whose styles match, or whose personalities don't clash too badly. You hire a composer if you want a through-composed sound design: an engineer if it is more like a musical. You don't put a Kubrick and a Hockney in the same production, but team a neo-realist with a neo-realist instead.

Designers in the theater world are very busy folk. At my level, I get from $500 to $1400 for a design. My process from first meeting to Opening Night spans as much as six months. Which means, like the majority of us, I'm working on half-a-dozen shows at the same time. (For some reason, a good half of the lighting designers in this area are also Master Electricians for some other theater. Which is to say -- they also have a day job to make that rent!)

(Which also means, considering the relatively small number of people in this end of the industry, you run into the same guy on opposite ends of the ladder; one day you are a day hire hanging his plot, another day, he's hanging yours!)

That first two-to-six months is meetings. These are, when things go well, when the basic show gets conceptualized. In general the big staff meetings are just touch-base, how's progress sorts of things. The real creative ideas get hacked out in one-on-ones, usually involving the director as one of the ones.

In what I think of as the perfect model, the first "person" to speak is the script. Well, that should go without saying. The next up is the Director. From the Director comes the overall concept of the show. It is expected that the Design staff will come up with creative ideas far beyond anything the Director had conceived. But the Director still has the final say.

The Directors I have loved working for were those that had a concept they could express in a single sentence. The wonderful Aldo Bozzonini was one of these. The first meeting for Lillian Helman's "The Other Side of the Forest," he said "I see this family as a pit of vipers." We took that theme and ran it into the ground, delivering a steamy, creepy, and bitterly poisonous production.

Personally, I feel that for most shows lighting designs are deeply dependent on, and should follow after, the scenery and blocking. As a Lighting Designer I see myself as largely helping the set to be what it wants to be to best support the Director's concept and the needs of the play. Other designers see it differently; they want to lead off with a concept and force the other departments to support them.

This does amplify part of what makes the train take so long to come up to speed and so impossible to slow when it gets there. As a lighting designer, I am largely dependent on the shapes and colors of the scenery, and the blocking of the actors.

Back to that schedule. From as long as eight weeks or as short as five weeks before tech, the cast meets. Call-backs were probably just a two weeks prior to the First Reading, and it is not unusual for a key role to be cast literally on the first day of rehearsal.

It takes a cast a minimum of a week to get off book. The first week, and often the second week, is over before the show is blocked. Which means, depending on the particular theater's schedule, by the time you've actually got the entire cast in the hall doing the play in some semblance of how it is to be done on stage, you have from one to three weeks before Tech.

It takes from two to five days to hang and focus a show. Depending on the show, it can take 24 hours or more to set the looks and write the cues. This means, in a typical small theater setting, the lighting designer is looking at under a week from the first full rehearsal they've been able to watch to the moment they need to hand completed plot and paperwork to the electricians.

If you are lucky you've conceptualized already. You've had a look at swatches from costumes and chips from scene painting, and you've met privately with the director to hash out general ideas. But this means you have, basically, a mere handful of days to do the largest part of what a Lighting Design is. To break down concepts into angles and colors, to work out how to stretch the inventory to give you coverage and options, and struggle through all the compromises of available hanging positions and desired angles (whilst simultaneously juggling in your head a minutia of details of circuit runs, pipe space, dimmer capacity -- it's like trying to write a program from the bottom up, dealing with all the details simultaneously instead of being able to divide the problem into manageable chunks).

That train is in motion. In five days, the Master Electrician and the lighting crew get added to the team. In another five, board operator, follow spot operators, and your cues are in the hands of a Stage Manager who intends to be calling that show.

And here is where you do the most creative part of your work: in the horrible pressure of that too-soon deadline. It won't be physically possible to make up for anything but the smallest mistakes. There simply isn't enough time (or the over-hire budget) to scrap the plot and hang another. When you hit focus, it either works (with some adjustment), or it doesn't.

When you start writing cues -- and when you get into tech and you are on headset to the booth, staring at actors on stage who look like walking dead (when they aren't in the Valley of Shadows), and you've got a panicking Director yammering in your ears -- all of your art comes down to what you can do with tweaking a few knobs. All the important decisions are behind you.

(Not to say it doesn't happen. I've been there. I've been the Master Electrician when we had to re-hang half a plot, or swap out every single color. I've been there when lights couldn't make Tech, and we had to catch up during Tech Week and only a day or two out from the first audience. Those are the days when you aren't just riding the train; you are running pell-mell along the top as it hurtles towards a low tunnel.)

The choices narrow and the consequence of veering from the path become greater and greater. Not just for your own efforts and that of your crew, but for the cascade effect to every other department and person. The well-prepared but edgy actor who has to stop in the middle of an intense scene so Lights can fix a cue. The costumer who is trying out a new fabric and needs to see if will work under the lights. The photographer who is picking up the pictures that will be in the local paper and on the lobby display.

When it does well, it is a wonderful kind of artistic collaboration under intense pressures. You are inspired by what the other people are doing, and by their ideas, and they in turn are inspired to new creative choices by what they see in yours. It is the closest thing I know to a jazz combo jamming before a live audience. Because all that interplay is happening, all those ideas are coming together, being built by everyone present.

And if anyone slips, it all comes crashing down in a moment.

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