On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language

I had a few comments last week that the theatre jargon I toss around sounds… odd to my non-theatre friends and readers. I’m forced to agree. The terms for things in the theatre can sound like we live in an opposite world. Like to “strike” means to work really hard to tear down the set, not to refuse to go to work. To “block” something means learning how to move on the stage in a specific way, not to be an immovable lump preventing forward movement.

Tech week, or hell week as many dub it, falls closer to being what it sounds like. It’s the time when the lighting designer, sound designer, and props designer move to the front of the line in terms of priority. Hopefully, your set is already done, although usually it is not. I’ve been in many productions when the last bits of paint are still wet when the curtain goes up. (And yes, these days there are rarely actual curtains going up – it is more of a move of lights going down on the house (the audience) and then to a blue or black-out and then the lights up on the first moments of the play.)

Those lights are hung, gelled (colored film that changes the colors of the lights), focused, and refocused during tech week, and gosh I hope you like heights. If you are in a fancy theatre, much of this is done via computer and you get the fun LED lights that you can program to change colors. If you work in community theatre, someone’s going up on a very tall ladder to wrench things around so that the stage is lit properly. Sometimes there’s a big grid that floats way up above the stage, and you walk around on that to fix the lights. Lighting techs are among the bravest people I know.

The mp3 sounds and incidental music are programmed into the cues (not pool sticks, but alerts that a new sound or light change is about to happen, or someone’s line (not an actual drawn line, but a string of words you’d say… a sentence to anyone not in theatre)). Then the person running the board (not like a board of directors, but an actual board that is in most theatres programmed, but still needs a human hand to make sure things happen in the correct sequence) needs to find the flow. In my current production, I have scenes that float between various locations on the stage, and we use sound and light to direct the audience’s attention to the correct spots. It would be jarring if those transitions were sudden. The design will reflect the flow, and the board operator makes sure it happens on time and that way every performance.

As ladders are climbed, holes drilled for cords, and the music stops and starts, the props people are decorating the set and building odd things that are in the script.

In my current play, a stick model of the Eiffel Tower is called for. Writers, you just can’t trust ‘em… wait, I wrote it…. The play I am directing right now* also has a lot of food in it, so the props people cook that each night. Biscuits, green bean casserole with potato chips on top, chicken and gravy, apple crisp… all prepped and then the dishes washed afterwards. The cast tells me it is all delicious, so score one for our props team.

All of the above is going on while at the same time, backstage cords are being taped over so no one trips, special blue lights hung backstage so actors can see while dashing from place to place and changing costumes in a blackout (when all the stage lights go off, signaling a change in location or time or that it is intermission.) Prop tables are set up, as well as baskets on either side of the stage so that the actors can grab their hand-held props with ease, and the prop folks can set them back later.

The costumer is in on this we-open-in-less-than-five-days action too, as the clothing the actors wear gets pinned, hemmed, and switched out for different choices. They make sure the actors can move in the costumes, and that there is nothing that can get snagged during an argument or a fight sequence. (The fight choreographer has been in long before this point, but sometimes they come back for a visit to make sure the actors are doing all their moves safely.)

The production photographer will come in at some point in this process as well, and you just make space for them to get the snaps that will (hopefully) go into the posts, articles, and reviews of the show that have been set up.

There is an entire many-hours-long rehearsal devoted to just tech, with lots of starts and stops as all the moving pieces start to come together. At this point, there are maybe four or five more rehearsals before the show goes in front of actual paying people. If you have a good director, there is very little yelling in this phase and they or the producers will hopefully feed everyone a nice meal and have snacks and water available. If you have a bad director, or if the show is woefully under-rehearsed, tech week can, indeed, be a hellish experience with lots of yelling and perhaps the tearing of hair and rending of garments. In either case, it is at least two eight to twelve-hour days in a row and a lot of getting home at midnight or later the next few days after that. You learn to take your vitamin C and that sugar and caffeine are your friends.

Yet, at the end of it, in spite of all the last minute jammed-in corrections, awkward fixes and jury-rigging… you have a beautiful, magical, ephemeral show. Like a duck or a swan, there may be an awful lot of paddling going on underneath the water at this point, but for the audience… magic.

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The photos in this week’s blog are by Steven A. Bracey. This last pic is my pic of him taking a pic… He was our production photographer.

*Like Kissing Moonlight at the Mesquite Arts Theatre in Texas. Come see the show if you can, runs June 10-26th on the weekends. Tickets: https://mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets

On Doing Script Coverage for Cannes and Letting Go

I’m dragging.

It’s been a wonderful week of creativity, celebration, and healthy goodbyes, and I wouldn’t have traded a moment of it.

A play I directed ended its run, and as per usual, the cast and crew did the strike immediately after the last show. While it sounds callous to simply rip it down like that, the practice allows for catharsis.

For those not in the know about theatre lingo, a strike is when you tear the set down, taking the stage back down to expectant emptiness. You also put away costumes, props, and clean up dressing rooms and the green room. It takes a big truck, lots of charged electric screwdrivers, closed-toe shoes, the ability to pick up heavy things, and a willing bunch of hands.

We had all of that at the end of this last show. I always try to be one of the last out when I’m the director, giving the floor a final sweep before I go. I usually drop a few salty tears as I do so, and Sunday was no exception. It’s done now, for good.

I’ve already started working on the next one.

Our oldest and youngest children also set off on wonderful new adventures this past week. Our daughter has been out of our house for a while, but it was great to finally give her a party and send her and her fab husband off on a delayed honeymoon. They went to San Diego, and I’m jealous. It’s one of my favorite cities in the USA. It’s certainly one of my favorite climates, nice and cool nearly all year ‘round.

Our son has headed back to DC with his partner. I think DC is more of a home than anywhere else to him after he spent four years there at GWU as an undergrad. As I dropped him off at the airport at 4.30 in the morning, his cat in a carrier protesting the travel, I was emotional. It’s not like we haven’t said goodbye many times before. This one felt different, though, a true next step. A moment we’ve been headed to since meeting in the Glendale Adventist delivery room nearly 24 years ago.

Ooof.

The balance to the waves of emotion the last seven days was being busy. I like to stay busy, but whew howdy, this past week was an exercise in time management and taking things one thing at a time while also strategizing possible roadblocks. You can’t catch them all, of course, but I inevitably try.

I’ve had the pleasure of being a reader for many years for agencies, production studios and private clients. This past week I got to work for a distribution company that was at Cannes. Basically, my job is to read and then give my thoughts as well as a synopsis of scripts for completed or nearly completed films. I give it one of three ratings: Pass, Consider, and the rare Recommend. Then the distribution company decides if they want to take a meeting with the producers of the film. (On board yachts at Cannes, by the way. I’m glad that a bit of ooo-la-la still exists in this business.)

I’ve gone out on the limb with that Recommend for only about ten scripts in the past twenty-five years of doing this odd but fun job. I’ve read thousands of scripts and books. The key to being a good reader is to have a moment of excitement before you open the first page of a script. If you aren’t excited by the possibility in your hands, you shouldn’t do the job. In general, a good reader will know what they have in terms of a visual story in the first ten pages, but we always keep going, even when it becomes dreadful, as sadly, so many do.

I want to add something here: I don’t know how YOU can become a reader. The journey to become one is weird and different for everyone. For me, I always loved reading, had taken a script writing course, had one of my film scripts made, and the wife of one of the actors in that movie was a reader for a big talent agency, and asked me to fill in for her when she was on vacation, and I got hired from there. I quick ran out and took an extension course on being a reader (this was before YouTube or google) so that I felt confident.

It’s been a great gig over the years and allowed me to meet a lot of artists I truly admire.

Here are some things that indicate you might like the job: 1. You love to read. 2. You understand story, script structure, character arcs, what constitutes good dialogue. 3. You see things visually in your head/imagination. 4. You loved doing book reports in grade school. 5. You have excellent grammar and spelling. 6. You can read until your eyes bleed and then turn around and type up 2,500 cogent words to meet a deadline. 7. You have good time management skills and don’t tell people you’ll do something when you cannot. 8. You love movies and television and can give several examples of what a script is like/not like off the top of your head, as well as a good handle on who the current bankable stars and up-and-coming actors, directors, and writers are.

I can also tell you that reading and covering five scripts in a twenty-eight-hour period will absolutely take your mind off of anything else going on in your life. You get to write sentences like; “The snake was the best-developed character in the script.” I mean, come on.

And then you sleep like a rock, your mind completely drained of all thought.

Balance achieved.

On Directing Community Theatre

In the film “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a wonderful moment when a theatre owner (Henslowe) and a ruthless moneylender (Fennyman), to whom he owes a great deal of dosh, tiptoe down a London street awash with all manner of foul things, as the sewage systems aren’t up to snuff in this part of town. The play they are trying to put on has experienced one disaster after another. The divine Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, while the always sincere Tom Wilkinson is Fennyman. Script is by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, both of whom know a thing or two about plays.

Phillip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So, what are we to do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

A fictional exchange, yet oh-so-true in all theatre, really. I just know more about the community theatre level. I think of this quote every time I reach what we know as “tech week” in the theatre, a moment when (hopefully) all the moving pieces come together, and you start to see what the show is going to look like.

Being a director is delightful. Theatre is already the ultimate collective of artists working toward a singular goal: to delight an audience, transport them elsewhere for a few hours, and have fun doing it. Being the director for this collaboration means that you get to shape it, and be in a constant state of delight as you see little black words on pieces of paper bloom to life as your cast embodies them.

It also means you’re the one to blame if it doesn’t.

Ah, art!

There are always, always problems to be solved. They change with every show. If the set is ready ahead of time on one show, the paint will still be wet on opening night for another.

If props are easy for one show, they are a nightmare collection of weird things to find on the next. (I’m looking at you, full-on working printing press for “You Can’t Take It With You.) Sound effects can be daunting to unearth even in this day and age when you think you’d be able to find anything. Sometimes the lighting board Just. Doesn’t. Work…. And the poor person operating it has to scramble to work what can be up to several hundred cues manually. On time, and in sync with the actors who just have to hope that the light turns on when they put their hand on the fake switch on the wall. They do it though. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Heaven forbid you have fire or fireworks on your set—you need to get the fire marshal to sign off on it. Sometimes they just… don’t. Then you need to find a way around it.

I will say, there is always a way around it. You just may spend a few sleepless nights coming up with it as the director.

You can count on actors forgetting lines, always. My job is to prep everyone for that certainty. Knees bent, stay in character, know the point of the scene and navigate it. Nothing is certain, except that everyone is working towards the same end, a great show. For me, I also want to add value to the actors themselves. Show them a new way into a character that they can take with them to the next project. Show them their greatness, how talented they really are. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the ‘ah-ha’ bloom.

I’m also extremely partial to sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience laugh, cry, or jump at what we’ve all created together. It’s kind of like sitting with someone who’s never seen Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding is coming. The anticipation of their reaction is just as rewarding as the actual moment on stage.

For me, there are two moments in every show that I’ve had the privilege of directing that make all the worry and work worth it. The first is the hush just before the lights go up. Then, boom… we are in a new place, and a bunch of strangers in the dark suspend their disbelief and go on the journey.

The second moment is the second hush, as the end tableau settles, just before the applause. The moment of letting go of the ephemeral experience that existed only for those people, in that theatre at that time. Not recorded, never to exist again in precisely that form, ever.

There is always a collective inhale from the audience, that happens just as the actors exhale. A final shared breath.

It’s beautiful.

It’s why I direct.

If you’re in the Dallas area, come see “Wait Until Dark” at Garland Civic for a fab thriller. We open April 29th – May 15th on the weekends. Tickets and info can be found at www.garlandcivic.org

Or, if you’d prefer a funny, touching, original work, I’m directing my own play “Like Kissing Moonlight” in its Regional Premiere at Mesquite Arts Theatre June 10-26th. Tickets and info at www.mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets

Wait Until Dark production photos credit: Steven A. Bracey

ON KEEPING KNEES BENT AND BISCUITS

Being a community theatre director is usually fun. You get to meet new people, create some art, laugh a lot during the rehearsal process, add value to your actors, and the best part—make an audience “have all the feels” as one of my friends delightfully says. It’s a good fit for me, as I have zero problems telling people what to do. (My family and good friends are laughing so hard right now. Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself. Stop.) I also like it because I like puzzles. There are always issues to be solved, from juggling schedules, to finding a “safe” switchblade, or how to create a small, controlled fire onstage. It’s akin to an excellent jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully, you have all the pieces, and you can put it together so that it looks like the picture on the box.

It’s not so fun being a community theatre director during a global pandemic that has legs.

My first show to fall to the pandemic was only two days away from opening when the city closed all the theatres. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a delightful play that also has legs. Kaufman and Hart knew how to set up a joke. Our cast had bonded, the chemistry was fantastic, the set and costumes and off-stage explosions were ready to go. I’m sad that only I got to see what those actors created. It was magical. We were holding onto the hope that we could bring it back, but now two years later, we’ve been told the theatre will not produce it. Here is a fun picture of our set and a moment just before end of Act One. Love all of the cast reactions! Great set, too.

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The second one halted production this past Saturday, right before we started building the set. “Wait Until Dark” is an excellent thriller, and again, wow, do I have a great cast. We were rehearsing in masks in the rehearsal hall, taking precautions, but the darn thing got us, anyway. It swept through the production side of things. It was the right decision to postpone, no doubt. “Wait Until Dark” has moved to a later date. All I can do at this point is hope that the wonderful cast, design crew, and production peeps will be able to do those dates. It’s a volunteer gig, and while folks set aside the time to do the show in early Feb, early May is a different matter.

It’s not a puzzle I can solve/fix/control/bend to my mighty will. It’s a keep your knees bent and give people grace situation.

I used to be terrible at keeping my knees bent and giving others grace, but life has insisted on giving me lots of practice, so now it’s not hard to do.

I’ll tell you a secret; knees bent/dollop of grace is an easier way to go through life vs. fighting for every bit of what you perceive should be yours and/or go the way you want it to. I know this outlook might sound weird, especially if you were raised by parents who expected you to get all A’s, win trophies, never get pimples, and be happy all the time. You know who you are. We are a mighty tribe.

Saturday was an emotional day, as I contacted the actors (17 in one show, 8 in the other) as well as the design teams and crews personally to let them know what the situation was. In every case, those lovely people responded with grace. That’s the silver lining, you see. If you give grace and friendship, you’re likely to get it back nearly every time.

I was still feeling blue, despite the kindness, so I defaulted to doing something that always makes me happy. I baked. I made biscuits. (Side note, I never ever spell biscuits right the first time. I always want to spell it bisquits. Anyone else do this?) I was tired, so did not attempt my normal I-make-all-the-things-from-scratch, Great British Baking show biscuits. Nope. These were Bisquick biscuits (ah, I may have just solved why I spell it the way I do; I’ve spent years of looking at the cleverly named Bisquick box. Score!)

They were delicious. They really are quick too, just “two” ingredients, the mix from the box and milk (almond milk in my case, but it doesn’t matter). 15 minutes to flakey butter-and-honey delivery devices. I would have taken a picture for you, but alas, they are eaten.

Here’s hoping your week is easy, and that if you run into a situation that needs some bendy knees and grace that you find it tolerable, and that people do the same for you. Or that someone makes you biscuits with love.