Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"We Could Use the Barn!"

So you are a student union, or a club, or a dance group, or someone else who has come up with the cash and the expected audience to rent a hall. Now, sure, you can put on a show the same way they did it in that old Mickey Rooney vehicle, Babes in Arms (from which the above quote comes.) This may in fact be exactly appropriate for your venue and your expected audience. There is a certain charm in a low-key, honestly amateur production.

But assuming you've went and spent money on a facility that can handle a professional production, and especially if that facility comes with (or you have hired) a professional or two to help, there's a couple of things you can do and think about that will allow them to help you get the best show possible.

First off, though, put out of your mind the need to speak their language. You wouldn't expect to have to do that to get good help from a doctor, or a mechanic (although a mechanic may be nicer to you if you seem to at least have a sense of what is under the hood).

Trying to use an unfamiliar terminology is like insisting on ordering in French at a restaurant when you don't speak a word of it. You end up exactly defining things you didn't mean to exactly define, and you actually restrict the ability of the technical people to understand you and to help you.

What you need to do is imagine as concretely as possible what it is you want to see and hear. Don't try to imagine the technology that will accomplish that; that is our job. Think instead about the emotional feel you are trying to accomplish and, if you have the artistic training, describe as concretely as possible the elements that make it possible.

Telling a lighting person "I want the back to be blue" is not as useful as telling them "I want it to feel like romantic moonlight." And if you have the artistic background to know how moonlight falls and how it is often used to cast long shadows and rim people with light, you can describe that.

Telling the sound person "I want a microphone on that" is not as useful as saying "I want that to sound rock and roll." And if you have the ears to define it more closely, "I want to hear the fingers tapping but not so much of that thudding." These are ways of communicating to the tech that are useful.

Anyhow, here's the list of things that really do help in planning and communicating a show:

1) Have a plan. And I don't mean an idea, or a loose-leaf binder full of information. What I mean is an overview; as close as you can get to a single sheet of paper that lists every significant element of the show IN ORDER.

Say you are doing a dance show. You want to have a piece of paper that lists every dance/group in show order, intermissions included, and if you have your MCs doing skits between dances, or a raffle after intermission, include those too.

Theater people are used to having a single document. For us, it is the script. Everything of significance that happens from curtain to curtain can be located to a specific page and line of that script. There's no shuffling of papers trying to remember if the speech comes before the dance or vice versa; the order is implicit in the script.

In a perfect world, all of these events would be on one piece of paper with generous margins, so the technical people could scribble in the necessary information they need to make all those technical things happen at those stated moments; the track number and name of the CD that should play, the number of the light cue that is saved on the board, the positions of the microphones for the band.

I've often ended up cramming these notations into the corners of a program. It works well enough for a show that is simpler technically.

The important part here, though, is that you are trying to avoid anything that is undocumented, or that you have to drop one piece of paper and pick up another just to figure out what is going to happen next. It should be possible to just glance at a sheet and know "Okay, the MCs are going to announce the next act while the band sets up behind them, then they play fifteen minute set and then it is intermission."

And this segues into:

2) Plan the whole show. I can not list the number of shows I've worked where the question "how do we know when to start?" never came up. Your show begins the moment the doors are opened to let the audience in. Do not omit from your planning what the audience sees when they walk in, who is going to give the fire exit speech, who decides when the show is to begin, who cues the MCs to enter, and so on.

Like boxing, it is all about the transitions. It isn't enough to know the microphone needs for Jim's Jazz Band and Kai's Rock Band; you need to think about where the microphones will be when neither is playing, and how the microphones are going to get from Jim's setup to Kai's setup.

The idea here is of the total show. A "Show" isn't just what happens within the frame of the proscenium arch. The audience experience begins outside the building. It includes their interactions with the ushers. And every element of lighting and sound and set decoration for what happens BEFORE the band plays and AFTER the band plays is as much a design element as what is happening DURING the band's performance.

3) Lines of command and communication. We don't know you. We don't know your internal politics, who is in charge, who handles the money, who is a girlfriend of the guitarist and shouldn't be giving anyone orders. And when the House Manager closes the doors and the audience is getting restless waiting for the show to start, we don't want to push through a dressing room full of dancers and taiko drums trying to find someone who knows if the first act is ready to go and if we can turn the house lights out and raise the curtain.

Establish a clear point of contact. Have a stage manager who is available, who can be on headset, who can find out if the dancers are dressed yet and who can tell the MCs they need to stall for a few minutes longer. And who can make the tough calls, like deciding not to wait any longer for a missing drummer and to move the next band up and if the guy finally shows up, we'll slot that band back in later.

There are few things more frustrating than working for a hydra-head client, where fifteen different people each have a different story and none of them can make up their minds. Or when a parade of people come into the sound booth one after another; "Turn the guitar up." "Turn the guitar down." "Turn the guitar up." "Turn the guitar down."

And like a good officer, there are times you need to make the tough calls, but it always pays to listen to your NCO's. If your tech advises you that the audience is getting antsy and if you don't start the show in the next two minutes, they are going to start getting up to go to the lobby and buy snacks and make phone calls, pay attention. They've seen a lot more audiences than you have. And their advice is almost always based on helping you create the best show possible.

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