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 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