Thursday, October 23, 2014

Poppins_02: Development

In a show that went through a proper development process, I would have had a concept meeting with the Director, firmed up some ideas, and consulted with the Music Director about whether some of the cues are pit-generated or pre-recorded effects.

The next step would be a proper spotting session. I've done this on my own, and with the Director. The best and simplest is just to talk through the entire show with scripts open, and mark each moment with a bit of colored tape. I'd insert a picture here ...but my Poppins script is at the theater.

As a lighting designer, I'd underline the actual line or action in the script, with a line pointing to a circle within which appears the number of the light cue. Sound is more fluid; unless I'm charting for someone else, I just mark the approximate line. Often as not, these days, I don't even use cue letters. I just name the cue in QLab.

After trying a few options I've settled on colored plastic tabs from Post-it. They're pricey but I get a few re-uses. I follow an arbitrary scheme where one color is background ambiences and scene shifts, another color is spot cues, and a third color marks vocal processing and live improvisations.

With this in hand, you sit down at the Paper Tech. This is where Sound, Lights, and Stage Manager sit down to hammer out their cue numbers, with the Director there to keep the concept of the show's flow intact. Or so goes the theory. Practically speaking, a musical is such a huge lighting beast (250+ cues is typical) the entire 4-6 hour meeting is taken up with the Lighting Designer talking as fast as they can while the Stage Manager scribbles the data down in their script.

If sound is called cues (aka, if they are taken by an operator on headset) or if the Stage Manager is taking the cues themselves, then you need your cue list to go to them during this meeting.

There's been a bit of a pendulum going on with this of late. When I started in theater, large crews were the norm. Stage Manager would call. Light Operator and Sound Operator would run the boards. Then budgets shrunk, and the standard began to put the Stage Manager in charge of running light cues or sound cues. Sometimes both!

But then, lighting grew steadily more complicated. The standard for musicals these days is for a new look on almost every measure of music. And the smaller theaters are adding more rails and other moving scenery -- which also have to be called by the Stage Manager. And video, not infrequently; yet another set of buttons to press.

So sound is moving away from being one of the many tasks of the Stage Manager. Yet, with the shrunken budgets still in effect, this means sound cues get dumped on the plate of the already overtasked FOH mixer.

In my own design evolution, I think of many parts of the soundscape in increasingly musical terms. For Poppins, in fact, a majority of the sound cues are not going to be cues at all. They are going to be a performance.

Again, when a show is going smoothly, you can program in rough cuts of cues at this point. In some shows there may be a dry tech (set movements, lighting, and effects all without actors) but the usual is to go direct to Cue-to-Cue. This is where every part of the show is done all together with the exception of most of the dialog and singing. Or most of the costumes.

Cue-to-Cue is called this because that's the literal process; you go from a few lines before a scene change or the start of a song or a flight sequence, and keep going for a line or two until the Stage Manager yells "Hold!"

For all practical purposes, you don't do much in sound for this. There's a lot of lighting, and a lot of set movement, and of course all those annoyingly fiddly practical effects, to get through. I tend to blow off most of my cues except for those that are needed by the actors, and spend the time building sound effects. The most important thing I do all day is make sure the Stage Manager has a god mic.

But that is jumping ahead.  Speaking effects, some shows really are bread and butter. Phones ring, OS toilets flush, there's a train station announcement. But I've discovered the majority of shows seem to have a distinct flavor, and that is often systemic in how it changes the effects and frames the entire conception.

For "A Little Princess," all the "Doll Magic" -- basically, anytime something mystical and unexplained happened, from the food appearing to the Timbutoo dream sequence -- was done with African Percussion. There was a lot of that palette in the orchestra anyhow, but specific effects moments I did with pre-recorded sounds (largely marimba and rattle).

For "Mulan" I executed almost all of the sound effects as if performed by a Beijing Opera orchestra; with gongs and bells and wood clappers. Some of the effects were sweetened a little or used more sampled material -- a little wind noise, a little fire crackling, the scrape of a sword.

In two very different directions, "Starmites" was largely synthesizer effects, and many of the spot cues were manually triggered from a MIDI keyboard instead of being played off QLab in strict sequence. "Charlie Brown," on the other hand, was standard spot cues -- created, however, largely from recorded children's voices.

"Poppins" has been incredibly hard to conceptualize. We've been going around for three or four weeks on the concept of wind. BERT keeps talking about the wind as he Greek Choruses his way around the outskirts of the plot, and MARY of course enters at least once with wind.

My problems with the idea are two; that the orchestration is so dense and so continuous, and yet really wants open textures and silences; and that I'm getting really tired of wind cues (I had wind playing through entire songs of "A Little Princess.")

Well, we did the first Set Rehearsal last night. This is usually done with running crew, and on larger shows is scheduled before Cue to Cue because figuring out how to move all that scenery takes up many precious hours. Idiot theaters will try to figure this out during Cue to Cue, and the really bone-dead stupid ones will try to run changes for the first time in black-out conditions, screaming "Go faster! Go faster!" all the while. Fortunately this company knows better than that!

In any case, the whirling scenery as it moved (relatively!) fluidly from location to location finally sold me. Sold me big time. I haven't even mentioned it to the Director yet but I know she's going to support me here.

I'm going to perform the wind. Rather than try to time out the set changes (which will change through the run) and create pre-recorded cues to suit, I'm going to set up a variety of hand-rolled wind patches on my keyboard and improvise, live, whatever the wind seems to want to do from night to night.

As part of the hybrid nature of this show, it is very nearly through-composed (the music practically never stops) and many of the magical "moments" are specifically underscored. I have a few crash boxes and thunderclaps, and I'm going to do something in environmental sounds to set up the Park and so forth, but these are all in the nature of sweetening.

In "Tarzan" CLAYTON is supposed to fire on a specific beat in the music. In "MULAN" the final fight scene is also set to four specific moments in the music. This show, pretty much everything except ROBERTSON AYE's kitchen accident happens in the score, on a specific musical beat.

Which makes it natural that the bulk of the "effect" for MARY doing her magic is something done by the keyboard player. My only part in these will be to add a little general sound effect to sell what it is her magic accomplishes, whether awakening a statue or rising up a chimney.

And that means, even more so than the usual musical, I can't write any cues yet.

I can not write sound cues without hearing the orchestra play -- any more than you could write light cues without seeing the painted set, or design costumes without knowing what the cast looks like.

Since sound is a multi-hatted job, I'll follow this post up quickly with one about the development of the wireless microphone plot, and the issues with orchestral support and monitors.

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