Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Theater Should Not Be a Hackerspace

Harsh words. And surprising for this blog. But hear the full argument.

I've been thinking about this for a while, and from a couple of different directions. The first is that theater -- theatrical procedures, and much theatrical technology -- is conservative. First and foremost, you are performing live. There isn't much room to fail and re-try. You are also performing to the public, which means you have that public's safety to consider. Theater, especially at the school and community theater level, runs on volunteers, outsiders, non-experts, part-timers; all sorts of people who should not have to (and often won't) learn complex new technologies just for a single show. And theater is also steeped in the arts. Most theater people are more comfortable with a paint brush than with a line of code.

The latter is changing. There are more and more artists working with technologies and seeing them as simply another tool. But, again especially with the school and community theater circuit, many of your people are going to be across the generation gap and genuinely uncomfortable with technology.

Or, shall we say, technological CHANGE.

The core technologies in theater may seem arcane to the outsider, but they are often on the order of hundreds of years old. The basics of theater rigging was worked out by Elizabethan sailors. The workhorse lighting instruments have changed in form but functionally would be quickly understood by someone who had learned lighting in the 1930's.

This reaches pervasively and surprisingly. Sound and lighting, for instance, is thought of in terms of events, which are triggered by cues. Even if you have some non-linear actor-triggered multimedia effect going on, it will almost certainly be contained in a wrapper that allows the running crew to interact with it as a single event; as a cue.

Theater is conservative the same way aerospace is. When a bad opening night can cost you thousands of butts-in-seats -- at forty-five bucks each -- and bad sound can even lose you part of your subscriber base, you really don't want to be using untested technology.

The pressure of rehearsal and tech time is so tight, and so many different activities are trying to coordinate, you really do not have the luxury of problem-solving new ways to do things.

We've all been there, of course. We've all been there two days before opening, with the cast, chorus, full running crew, twenty-piece pit orchestra all standing around while someone tries to fix a video projector connection. New technologies are being introduced constantly. And each brings with it new teething pains. But there's only so much one show can stand. This is why whenever possible you don't re-invent the wheel -- even if the old square wheel runs slow and makes a loud rattling sound.

In short, the existing methods are well-understood and well-integrated, and there is considerable risk in changing them. So you don't change them without good cause.

And then there's the other direction to be thinking from; an expansion of the age-old kit-build caveat -- you will never be able to build a cheaper one than you could buy.

Theater is always strapped for money. And effects -- heck, key elements! -- are always scavenged and re-purposed. I don't think there is a theater person out there who has never gone dumpster-diving. So we are already in firm Maker mode here, where we access the functionality of something without regards to the original packaging. Old home stereo speakers propped up on a chair for band monitors. Sockets pulled from an old Christmas Tree light strand to use inside an illuminated bar sign.

I think the important distinction is that the more technical you get, and the more show-critical that tech is, the less applicable this method is. You can scavenge an old floor lamp and re-wire it. You can sort of cobble together a working lighting instrument out of a Par lamp and a coffee can (what we used to call the "tin can fresnel" -- but they don't work that well. On the far end of this scale, I've seen very, very few people make their own lighting console.

What we are talking about specifically, though, is one of the subjects of this blog; geeky bits of mostly electrical engineering to achieve integrations that haven't been seen before. Such as allowing a percussion player to trigger a lighting effect, or putting a doorbell sound under control of the actor, or sweetening the sound of a gunshot on stage and integrating that with a falling plate (or a squib!)

And I'm going to get very specific here.

One of the problems that comes up over and over is a phone ring on stage. Lately I've gotten away from caring so much about placement and complete sonic believability -- I just play a recorded effect out of the nearest speaker and call it good enough.

The cool way to do it -- and I've done it many times in the past -- is to cause the actual phone to ring.

Old period phones with bell ringers are expecting a 90V AC signal at 20 Hz (US). If you supply something similar down the lines, the original bells will ring. Many theaters have a "ring box" lying around for just that purpose.

You can create a nice, conditioned signal, or you can do a hack like half-rectifying raw wall current; this gets you about 60 volts RMS with a half-wave occurring at about 30 Hz. Not right...but it sounds pretty decent anyhow.

That hack also means you are, basically, running wall voltage down a zip cord into the set and on to a prop that will be handled by an actor. If you must do this, at least include a GFCI!

A better version uses a transformer to step down the voltage to about 50 volts, then rectifies it, then sends it through an H-bridge driven at 20 Hz by an oscillator. An even better version starts with a (much safer!) battery and steps the voltage UP.

In the actual Bell design, in what we call "POTS" (Plain Old Telephone System) there is an imposed 40v DC line battery on top of the ring signal. When the phone handset is removed from the switch hook, DC current begins to flow, and in some 200 ms the local exchange detects this and stops sending ringing voltage.

If you connect an old phone to any of the ringer boxes described above, it will probably ring. But if you lift the handset, however, you will observe the following; a nasty buzzing sound from the speaker. A popping sound and perhaps a brief flash of light. Then the distinctive smell of magic smoke.

So if you really want to build a good ring box you want to include switch hook detection circuitry as well.

At which point I need to point out you can purchase a ringer box from various theatrical supply outlets for about $200.

See, this is the point. You can hack a ringer box; many of us have done it. You are taking risks with wall current and with the actor's safety and you also risk the phone getting zapped if someone isn't fast enough on the switch. So you are, in the simplest terms possible, putting the show at risk.

Or you can spend the time to try to do it right. But by the time you've gone through breadboarding, tests, multiple iterations, various parts runs, etc., you've spent over $200 in supplies and a lot more than that in hours. And the commercial product still beats yours -- because it has been tested in hundreds of theaters, and was assembled by engineers who knew how to achieve UL certification.

And had access, too, to economies of scale. To assembly methods and tools that you don't get when you are doing a one-off project. Although that is changing more rapidly than anything else -- with 3d printers and fab houses and shop bots and Maker Spaces and the growing Chinese economy it is getting easier and easier for a small company or an individual to access professional-level technologies.

Almost anything you can imagine probably already exists as a pre-built solution. And in most cases, by the time you get you hand-rolled wireless DMX or floor sensor MIDI input working dependably enough to WANT to hang a show on it, you will have spent as much as you would to just get the commercial version.

So when and where does it make sense to hack?

At the more experimental end. If you are doing performance pieces, gallery spaces, experimental works, things on the fringe of established theater, then the technology may not be there, or may not be appropriate; in this case the robustness of the existing commercial solutions works against you as it will take as long to make it do the thing you just dreamed up as it would to build your own.

In the smallest spaces. When you simply can't afford the commercial box, but volunteer time is there. And when you are in a situation where some risk is absorb-able -- where the audience will forgive some technical failures.

Because you want to. Or because someone wants to. The pay is bad, most of us on this side of the stage don't get to take bows, and sometimes what keeps you excited is doing things in a way that is fun for you more than it is of benefit to the theater.

Every designer has had the experience of putting more into a set or a costume than the show required: because they wanted something exciting in their portfolio, because they wanted a chance to learn a new skill, or even because they wanted to take it home at the end of the show.

And the geekery is the same way. We do it because it is fun. In some spaces, the hairy nature of the improvised circuits -- the "Stone Knives and Bearskins" even becomes something we share with the audience. I have in my current show a bucket of water at the FOH position with a microphone sticking in it. As a sound effect, it ain't much. But as an audience attention-getter....worth it.

But, lastly, in the words of Tim O'Reilly, innovation comes from the hackers. Yes, there will eventually be a commercially-made box that does the thing smoother and safer and at a lower cost. But in many cases the idea was first tried out by crude hacked-together experiments in a dozen shows.

Oh, yeah. And these days, the division between hobbyist and small business is hardly there at all. That robust, well-designed, well-tested box with the surface-mount components and the custom-extruded case may come from a business that runs out of the garage of the tech who first got that prototype working on a show.

Especially if one goes the kit route. But that's a subject for a whole other post!


  1. Well, "Brian", I'm confused.

    You take a quote from my program teaser out of context, like you're going to disagree with me. But then you basically spend your entire blog entry explaining why we should hack things.

    And, you can listen to my entire talk online with the slides here:

    John Huntington (using my real name, as in everything I do online)

    1. You're right and I'm sorry. The context I was writing about is very different from the context your quote came out of, and I should not have appropriated it in that manner.