Sunday, January 22, 2017

Kudzu Plot

Just opened another show.

Actually, "kudzu" is used of literary plotting, and it means lots of bits left dangling. That's actually a good thing in a lighting hang. Learned that myself from a tech named Steve, who had been Production Manager at a regional theater I'd worked for, was getting stress-related illness and took time off from that, meeting me at a smaller community theater as the outgoing Master Electrician. He taught me the value in leaving tails (dangling cords) on any instrument that was in indeterminate state (to be moved, to be decided, not circuited, etc.)

What I found when I went in for this show (my first "Earnest," actually) was more like cruft. All wiring develops cruft. Under the time pressure of Tech Week, and later during the run, stuff that breaks or is changed gets fixed with a fast band-aid. Then in adherence to Joe Ragey's First Law, what you opened with, stays up for the run.

More than that, those unlabeled, poorly routed, barely dressed cable runs are still there when the show closes and get used again and again until no-one knows how power from here gets over there or which of two dozen identical dust-covered bits of wire in a huge tangle are actually carrying the audio to the house mains.

And it can be built on for a while. The story was told from the first Myst game that there were so many cables linking the computers of the render farm, when something died they'd just purchase a new piece of Cat-5 and drop it on top of the pile. Trouble is, in budget-strapped theater, if a free dimmer is showing up there, even if it is impossible to trace how it gets there, someone will grab another length of cable, plug it in to where the dimmer showed up, and run it out to where the new light needs to be. Eventually there are cable runs that literally circumnavigate the grid to come back two hundred feet of cable later to a couple of feet from where they started.

The term in software is Technical Debt. And it follows a similar path. Every now and then someone will spend the effort to trace one or two critical leads and will stick labels on them. But those break, change, are re-purposed, and in time there are layer upon layer of old falling-off obscurely written and mostly wrong labels as well.

And finally you just have to refactor. Which is what I did over about two weeks. Tore out almost everything and then hung from scratch. But I couldn't touch the giant tangle that is the primary run from booth to stage; a huge bundle that contains audio, DMX, power, Clear-com, and who knows what else that at one point someone put in and if we knew what it was would be very useful.

The other lesson from this particular show was how to handle a dishrag cyc. See, in some sets you will have a cyclorama, a big seamless usually pale blue piece of fabric stretched across the stage in front of the back wall. And they are a pain to light smoothly, with a variety of speciality instruments designed for that purpose that still don't do the job well.

Thing of it is, there's a big John Cage element here. If you don't light a cyc, it still has color. The color of all the stray light, bounce light, etc. Which means it usually looks like a dirty dishrag. And this is a problem if the act is set in, say, the interior of a flat in London. Because the back wall shouldn't be bright glowing daylight blue.

So what I tried this time was the same trick I've used on set walls where the coverage is spotty and the wall itself has wrinkles you are trying to hide. Stick patterns in. Unfortunately, I only had one 50-degree instrument to work with and even that was a little small. What I needed was a bank of four. But, still, throwing an intentional pattern on the cyc -- even if it is run low and pulled slightly out of focus to draw less attention -- looks vastly more intentional than the spill light which is also falling on it. So it looks better.

(I could get away with a lot of patterns on this show because the set concept was period posters and postcard art. The pattern I used most was GAM's "homespun." Which is now in my list of favorite patterns along with "Summer Leaves" and "Construction A, B, C, D.")

So the show is finally open. I begged off the gala and went home shortly after the Act II curtain, slept ten hours and spent a very quiet Saturday.

Now it is Sunday. I have hopes (but faint hopes) of getting a couple things done I've put off during this long show. Practice the violin (and post up another progress video), clean up the place a little, assemble holocrons (with more documentation photographs to go into the assembly instructions), complete and order the next run of PCBs, and do paperwork for some of my various jobs.

Reality is I'll probably take a short walk, listen to NPR, and read backlogs of archaeology blogs.

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