Monday, January 20, 2014

Death march

Charlie Stross recently blogged* about the industry practice known dysphemistically as a "death march." It is an institutional habit, endemic in the gaming industry...and in theater. I'm in the middle of a rather crunchy double show (four casts, two directors, two weeks to tech and perform) myself.

*(Or to be precise, his guest blogger, Machinima wizard Hugh Hancock, did.)

Theater -- particularly small theater -- regularly schedules 80-hour tech weeks. There are some good reasons for it; for one, theater spaces don't come cheap, so there is strong inclination to get tech done with in the shortest possible time. I also suspect in the very small theaters your volunteer staff and other people with day jobs can't spare two weeks off from work, and have to try to get things done in a long weekend and change.

But it is also there for less intelligent reasons. It is there because they've always done it that way. And it is there because the people who set the schedule are those who suffer least for it. Even when you have a producer/director who is right there in tech along with the cast and crew, there is a difference between sitting in a chair having coffee brought to you, and balancing on a rafter holding a heavy lighting instrument with your stomach growling because you can't afford to buy fast food (and the schedule doesn't permit you anything else).

(And then staying four hours after that director has gone home in order to fix things you couldn't get to during the rehearsal).

And of course a difference between being the one who is setting the schedule and the one who is having it set for them.

Crunch time is a bad idea. It is a worse idea to schedule it as a regular process; because when you've scheduled the things that must happen to take up 14 of the available hours in the day, there is no place to go when you need time for surprises; for the things that didn't work or took longer than planned or were just plain late.

And the crunch descends mostly on the grunts. On the tech staff, and yes, also on the designers (which in a small enough theater are the same person anyhow). The game industry may sometimes ship late, but only the rare Broadway show refunds opening weekend. As a freelance tech, you may be from day to day in a space that only crunches twice a year for their big show, but this is your "day job." You go from one crunch to the next, the only time to rest being the time searching for the next gig.

Quality suffers during crunch. People don't think clearly, don't take time to do things right. They also put off decisions, according to some studies. In theater, this often frames out as directors or producers not actually making a smart decision (that will save time and labor) but instead making a weenie call like, "Why don't we try it anyhow" or "Show me what you were thinking and I'll tell you if I like it," or "Could we have the singers louder but without all that the feedback?"

Which is to say, no decision at all -- just an illusion of having managed the problem.  And the reality of the poor designers having to pull yet another all-nighter trying to find a technical solution for what in the end is an artistic problem, or a production problem (aka, the problem is trying to make a broke body pack keep working anyhow, because the proper solution -- to purchase a new one -- is stymied by the non-decision maker at the top.)

What I've blogged about before is how the artistic quality also suffers. Because tech is the time when all the different design elements come together. It is a time when ideas should strike sparks off each other. Where a choreographer can realize something different and exciting the actual set as built offers him. When a lighting designer sees a way to push the pallet offered by the actual costumes and scenery in a more exciting direction than the color choice she made from swatches. When a sound designer has a chance to explore the sonic spaces and find the actual holes to weave effects into.

Instead there is no time, no time to fix, barely time to finish, certainly no time to adjust. At my current theater, we don't even have tech meetings. Sure, we sit down after each tech rehearsal, but the format is restricted to the director presenting a laundry list of demands. The artistic give and take, and the ability to coordinate between different departments, isn't there because there just isn't time.

Every design, every production you proceed on guesswork. Sometimes the data is relatively good. Other times the staging changes utterly between the first blocking rehearsals and the final designer run (when it is too late to alter the plot), the mixed paint in the buckets doesn't even resemble the chips and swatches, etc. etc.

For me, as often as not I find I've misread the production concept. Probably because the concept doesn't exist as such. There isn't a firm draft that lays out the key ideas. Instead there are a bunch of loosy-goosy verbs that don't even really fit together. And when a gestalt arises from the work of the other designers (even a false gestalt, seeming connections that weren't actually designed into it) it doesn't come close enough to what I imagined to allow me to save most of my pre-production work.

More often than not, I have to throw out my working files and create a fresh design right in the middle of tech. Because this is the first time I get the actual sound of the band, instead of verbs about what they were intending to sound like, and the actual choreography (instead of what they hoped to be able to do before crunch stole all their dance rehearsal time).

And I'm getting pretty tired of having to slap up a half-assed design. Especially when I'm doing it in the wee hours between fourteen-hour shifts at the theater.

(The show I'm on right now has the disease, but the symptoms are not as marked. I'm almost getting enough rest to recover from the nasty bug I came down with.)

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