Monday, May 26, 2014

Why Called Cues?

I just finished a lighting design, and as I step back from it I'm feeling a little better about it. I think the overall concept worked but I got too dramatic in places where a subtler touch would have worked better. The problem of having no tech time; I wrote all the cues on a bare stage, and there wasn't really enough time to tweak the looks later.

Anyhow, opening went okay. There were a couple of late cues, though; the Stage Manager got distracted. And it got me thinking; why are we still calling cues for lights and sound? Is this a historical hang-over that needs to be re-thought?

Let me explain. In theater, the majority of technical elements in a production are timed to the action on stage by dividing them up (sometimes quite artificially) into discrete events named "cues." During performance, the Stage Manager, on headset, steps through each of these events via voice commands to the appropriate operators.

Traditionally, lighting events are assigned numbers, and sound events letters. Deck and rail cues are usually named but in complex shows can be numbered as well.

This only makes sense in terms of deck and rail cues; those operators are often where they can not directly see the stage. For safety alone, they need to commanded both from someone with a clear view, and a single authority who can coordinate multiple elements to happen simultaneously (or as the timing of a set change or other action requires).

And there is sense to the position that the flow of a show is an artistic choice; that the nuances of how long to hold a black out or when to bring in the show curtain benefit from being under the tight timing control of a (single) artist.

Except. Except because of how this system evolved, there are a surprising number of exemptions. The pit, for instance. The most that a Stage Manager will ever cue is indication that they are ready for downbeat. Sometimes this is a cue light, sometimes a shoulder tap, sometimes just a light cue. The Music Director takes it from there.

Actors also perform a great many actions on their own impulse. The major exception is a blind entrance; when an actor has to enter in the middle of a scene, they also may get a shoulder tap from a crew member on headset (in some well-equipped theaters, this is a cue light system. At the Rep we actually had a system indicating standby, and a way for the actor to return "standby received," in addition to the GO.")

(Incidentally, a courtesy during tech is for anyone who isn't the Stage Manager to refrain from using "the GO word." Spelling it out is common; the Lighting Designer will say on headset, "Can you take the Gee-Oh at the end of LISA's line, please?")

And this leaves us in a place where if a bicycle horn is a pre-recorded cue, it happens only when a Stage Manager says into a headset, "Sound cue T, GO." But if for that exact same moment in that exact same script, a production choses to have the percussionist use an actual horn, that percussionist simply hits the horn when he judges the time to be correct (the closest approximation may be when only the Music Director has a clear view of the stage, and cues the percussionist with a wave of the baton.)

There are cues that are recognized as being necessary operator actions. An actor flicks an on-stage (fake) light switch and the scene lights change. Typically, those cues are handed off in a oddly complex and careful procedure, as if they were passing an armed grenade. This appears to be a frightening situation for all involved; for the Stage Manager who hates losing control for even a single cue, for the operator who has been trained to desire nothing more than to hit the GO button on command like they were Ham the Space Chimp, and the Lighting Designer who hopes the thing will come off properly.

The default setting is called cues. So much the default I've had to fight many times to be allowed to be off headset when mixing the show from FOH. And, yes; I have seen many people "mixing" a show they could not hear, as the constant natter of the ClearCom was in their ear the entire show. I've even seen Stage Managers cue microphones on and off, and attempt to give notes about the volume of the reinforcement -- when over half of what they are hearing is open microphone leakage from the backstage intercom channels.

The compromise I have argued for is to have those cues that depend on outside information (aka, someone backstage informing the Stage Manager via intercom that the dancers are ready) be made called cues, and everything that can be taken off action (or dialog, or music) be executed freely by the sound operator. I don't think I've managed to have this accepted more than once or twice.

And yet even this example is a little suspect; because if the point is that the operator has to wait until word comes from backstage, and they need to be on headset to get the go-ahead from the Stage Manager, what (outside of the element of a single point of command alluded to earlier), requites a Stage Manager and a lettered and official cue event be part of the story?

I've worked a lot of dance, and a lot of the light cues there are taken when backstage says they are ready, there may or may not be an official go-ahead, but me and sound look at each other, nod, and take our cues (together if need-be, on the basis of action or the timing of the music if need be).

The theory of the Stage Manager as the single point of command is a good one, but it has two fatal flaws. One is that actors seem to be able to time their movements to each other without needing a single time-keeper. And bands do much tighter coordination than any technical event, mostly by just listening to each other.

The other is that the Stage Managers today are already overtasked.

When I started in theater, the Stage Manager called the show. Board operators ran the light boards, sound operator ran their board, deck chiefs organized the shift crews, etc.

Now there are frequently many less people in the booth. I rarely have an A2 (Audio Assistant) when I am mixing FOH. Often there is no light board operator; the Stage Manager takes all the lighting cues themselves.

While, often as not, also running projections, possible sound cues, and still giving out deck and fly cues. And they are also taking notes for costume issues, flubbed lines, unauthorized changes in choreography, etc.

The reality for a long time has been that a good Stage Manager can manage to juggle all of these elements and get through all of the calls in time. (And plenty of shows, I've had a critical sound cue played way too late because the Stage Manager simply could not talk fast enough to get through all the preceding lighting cues, and was either unwilling or unable to trust her people enough to set up an alternate or truncated call for those moments).

I am prepared to say that, outside of key transition moments (like the top of the show), the idea that the Stage Manager can coordinate the timing of all the disparate events the way that a conductor leads a symphony orchestra is, well, a myth. Worse, a harmful myth.

We started with tens of lighting cues, and sound effects were rare events. We are now in the realm of 30-40 lighting cues happening over a single dance number (I'm back to talking Musical Theater; modern dance goes way past this figure), and hundred of sound effects happening during the show. Plus video, plus electrically triggered special effects.

We've been trying to cram these increasing numbers into the old way of doing things. Hence innovations like multiple chained cues. And we've been dragging feet at the adoption of new technologies because they refuse to fit well into the boxes. If you have a prop on stage that allows the actor to directly trigger by radio link a sound and/or lighting event, it doesn't fit neatly into the schema of lettered cues commanded serially by a single authority.

I say let's change the paradigm. Let's recognize lighting operators and sound operators as semi-independent artists, just like musicians (or follow-spot operators). Let's develop a communications and coordination system and protocol that treats autonomy as the default, not the exception. Let's work out "armed/safe" protocols -- deadman switches -- that will electronically prevent cues from being fired when safety is an issue (or the show would be compromised by an early cue).

Lets find ways to communicate with these semi-autonomous operators that doesn't interfere with their ability to follow the action and listen to the stage; but something that is simple to employ and clear and unambiguous so when coordination is desired on a particular event or sequence, it can be dropped in with minimal impact to the crew and the process.

In the system we have now, Stage Manager attention is being taken away from more critical show elements to handle minutia like push-focus lighting cues or background sound cues. The "all cues have a number or letter" doesn't allow prioritization; important stage events are missed because multiple people's attention (and the bandwidth of the stage communication system) was tied up with increasing the level of the special on the chair 5% when RODDY sat down. And on the flip side, the cannon shot -- combined prop, sound effect, and lighting effect -- is nine nights out of ten a comedically uncoordinated mess.

Let's embrace the freedom of non-discrete events; of shifts in level that are operator-timed to ongoing action, following actor movements like a follow spot does. Let's look deeper into electronic coordination of multiple technical events, and integrate sensor technology more fully into the mix. Let's free sound operators from headset, and Stage Managers from at least some of the meaningless minutia so they can better serve the needs of actors and directors and the production as a whole.

We can change the communications systems. We can change the structure of cues. But the important change is the tough one; a paradigm change in how we cue a show.

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