Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ninja Blues

I'm tired of being ninja. Oh, I don't mean the killing-people part. Or even the cool weapons part. I mean the wearing black and sneaking around part. I mean always having to be invisible.

I've spent most of my working life in theater. (I was also spending a LOT of time in theater through high school and college). During an actual show call, that basically means wearing black, hiding in the dark, being careful not to make a noise or shine a light. It means walking softly, carefully, on the balls of your feet (there's a lot to trip on anyhow), putting down tools carefully so they don't make a betraying sound, using hand signals when possible so not even a whisper will carry to the audience.

And even if I'm not on shift crew, I'm often having to get up to the grid or sneak out into the house in order to fix something, check on something, or otherwise do the work I need to do without making enough of a noise or light to distract the audience from the play.

It is more than just walking slowly, on tip-toe, balancing on every step. It is more than moving deliberately and thoughtfully, thinking out every move. It is being invisible. Being cellophane. Fading into the background.

Even under worklights, with no audience there, the same habits appear. Theater working spaces are often cluttered, cramped, and fragile; you have to move with the same calm deliberation of a rock climber to prevent injury or scenic disaster. And they are ill-lit, too. So even during the height of the work day, on a Sunday afternoon, you are still creeping with cat-feet by the light of a flashlight, feeling your way along with your toes and trying to avoid the festoons of electrical cables, aircraft cable rigging, trick lines and so forth.

And it seems a truism that being a stage electrician -- whether you are doing sound, lighting, or rigging motors to move scenery -- will inevitably require you to wriggle under a platform with barely enough room to draw breath. As well as to, of course, scale the building and hang head-down from the catwalks high above the stage.

Working theater means working the evening shift. I come home tired and dusty and starving, but I have to putter around cleaning up and eating and trying to unwind from a gig with that same ninja care. I can't just drop my tools on the floor, clomp into the bathroom, chop up some veggies for a late-night dinner, then turn on the telly. I'd have the entire apartment complex banging on my door to quiet down.

So from the moment my car turns into one of the quiet streets of the residential neighborhood, it is back to stealth mode; walking softly, talking in a murmur, taking care to put things down softly instead of dropping them.

When I listen to music or news it is on headphones. If I cook, it is done with the same deliberation -- no clattering of cutlery allowed. Little things like laundry or vacuuming are of course dead out. All of that must wait until daylight -- those few short hours of day I have before it is back into a darkened building again, not to emerge (or break for food!) until after midnight.

I like the night. I wouldn't go as far as Sky Masterson and say it is "My Time of Day," but I am comfortable in it. But I also like the day, and I see so very little of it.

The ninja aspect of invisibility appears one more time, in a more abstract way. And that is a principle of engineering. The problem becomes quite obvious with sound design. There are only two kinds of mention of sound in a review. There is mention of problems with the sound. And there is no mention at all. No news is good news for us. The best review is the one that talks about how lovely the singing voices were and how good the blend of the orchestra was and never, ever thinks that none of that happened by accident; that someone like me was up there with flying fingers, making artistic choices and quick improvisations and desperate gambles in order to provide that seamless illusion of "merely" listening to the show.

Like the ninja, good work is invisible work. The job is done and no-one saw you.

This is an aspect of good engineering, I believe. Often, a good engineering solution fits so well that in hindsight it looks obvious. (This goes well beyond the idea that a good bit of engineering does the job and doesn't fail!) Good engineer has elegance. It also, often, has a look of inevitability, and that brings with it the illusion that anyone could have thought of it.

I try for something similar in my lighting and sound design. For me, those design tasks fall in chronological order behind directorial and scenic designs. Most of the task of a lighting design is to make the set look like the set. Again, not attracting attention to itself; just seeming to be a natural part of the on-stage environment. And this is HARD. It is very hard. But if you do it right, it looks like you didn't do anything. The lights are just right.

The same for all those parts of a sound design that aren't sound effects. But even sound effects have this. People who haven't attempted sound design have this illusion I call "The sound of a train." To them, things have a sound. You find a recording of that sound, you play it.

Well, many things do NOT sound anything like what they think they sound like (take, as a Hollywood instance, gunshots or a fist to the face!) Secondly, the sound of a thing is modified by its environment; distance, "liveness," and so forth. A recording of "A cat" will in all probability be completely unbelievable within the context of that particular play, that particular cat, that particular set of speakers and so forth.

It takes a lot of library searching, a lot of tweaking, and a lot of looking deep into your own mind and understanding the difference between the perception of sound and the physics of sound, to find that "cat" that when played is simply accepted by the audience as being, actually, the cat they see.

If you do it wrong, the director on down will complain. "That sounds like a baby!" "That cat sounds like he is dying!" "The cat is too loud!"

If you do it right, however, then no-one comments.

And that's the real pain of this. From the point of view of director, as with the reviewer, and as with the people who will be eventually cutting your check, the "cat" you worked so hard to find seems, in hindsight, so obvious that any one of them could have picked it out.

In fact, you will often find that several shows down the road, this feeling that it is as obvious as it looks in hindsight has infected the management, and instead of hiring you they turn to their nephew with an iTunes account. Because of course anyone can download "The sound of a cat."

I'm staring that in the face with a company I've been with for four years -- someone has volunteered to design their next show for free. Which is well and good and I can't begrudge this cash-strapped company from jumping on the offer. But whatever this person's competence, they inherit systems and choices and a maintenance history I invested several years in. If they walk in the door and do, basically, nothing, what I have established will largely get them through the show intact. And, thus, they can walk away with the kudos, and I risk losing the gig completely.

Invisible work doesn't get you respect (outside of other professionals). And it doesn't get you paid. When all is said and done, I can take wearing black and speaking in a whisper for my entire working life. What I can't stand is being unemployed because I did a good job.

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