Centerstage

Tech Soul
Artistic vision isn't worth much in the dark

by Tina Stanley

Editor's note: The story you are about to read is quite true ... much to the author's chagrin. The names have been delicately sidestepped to protect the innocent, namely the author herself.

It's been my experience that there are two types of people in this world: theatre people and everyone else. Or, if you prefer, theatre people and the others. But since the others don't really count, there are only two types of people in this world that matter: actors and techies.

I've met people who can do both successfully, but essentially, a person is either one or the other. The classification goes beyond simply what they do or how they think; it's what they are. A techie can act and an actor can tech, but the crossover is always a grudging one. More to the point, you either have the soul of a techie, or you don't.

Notice I don't bother stating the converse. Speaking as a true techie, I prefer to believe that actors don't have souls.

Let me illustrate the difference. A local theatre has a charming custom regarding the T-shirt printed for every show. The cast gets together and chooses a quote from the script to be printed on the back of the shirt. Last year, during that theatre's production of Marvin's Room, the cast chose the beautiful, heartwarming sentiment, "I am so lucky to have loved so much."

If they'd asked the techies, we would have voted for "I'm really sorry I burned the house down."

The nice thing about being a techie is that you never lack for work. Swing a dead cat in a theatre and you'll hit ten people who are willing to expound upon their artistic vision. But you'll probably only hit one tech person, and that's the one taking a nap after working for 72 hours straight. (You'll only hit one because the rest are in the shop building a litter box for the cat, which died because the actors forgot to feed it. You'll notice that no one told the crew about the untimely passage of the feline. The artistic staff will expect the crew to turn the litter box into a coffin on the morning of the funeral.)

[One Editor's note: How many tech people does it take to build a litter box? (That editor is of the performing persuasion.)]

In any event, after doing a string of six or seven shows back to back, I decided I was long overdue for a break. Six months, I swore, six months off before I would set foot in a theatre except as an audience member. I stuck to this resolution for all of three weeks. Then I got a call.

The call was from a local director, who was desperate for a stage manager. "I need someone right away," she pleaded, "and I wanted someone really good, so I thought of you immediately."

I'm as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I stood fast. "I don't have time," I said, and I explained that I really needed a break. But as usual, the lure of a new production proved too strong to resist, and I found myself leaving a door open. "But if you need help with the lights, give me a call..."

What I meant was that I would be willing to come in and hang or focus lights, or even run the light board, should the need arise. Imagine my surprise when my phone rang the next day:

"You're designing the lights!" chirped an actress friend of mine who was in the show. "Fabulous!" (Only actors use the word "fabulous.") Evidently, the director had shared this misconception with the cast at the previous night's rehearsal. Possessing the soul of an actor, she didn't realize that there is a difference between helping with the lights and designing the lights; a difference that, to my overworked mind, was mondo importante. But my friend was excited, I was technically available, and I'm a sucker. And now that the director had told twenty-odd people, I figured I was committed.

I should have been committed for agreeing to do it, but you know what they say about hindsight.

Dutifully, I called my mother for the requisite I-told-you-so that I get when I say I'm taking a break and can't do it. Surprisingly, she seemed interested and asked me what sort of production it was. "It's, um, alternative theatre, Mom," I said tactfully. That set her back, but only for a moment. "Isn't that the kind of theatre where people run around naked, hiss like snakes and throw things at the audience?" I just laughed.

Obviously, Mom had heard of alternative theatre.

I couldn't possibly explain to Mom what the show was really about. She wouldn't have understood. Mom was a theatre person in her youth, and you guessed it: she was an actress. She just wouldn't have understood my terror in undertaking a show that was all about things like "art," "high concept," "metaphors," and "poetic imagery." This fear was borne out at the first rehearsal I attended, where I heard the director exhorting her actors to use the space, experience the power of the playwright's words, and, worst of all, spend some time doing their "internal work." I can only be grateful they didn't do this in front of me. There's only so much I need to see to come up with a light plot.

The next day, I had lunch with the director and her husband, who was acting technical director. At last, I thought joyfully. Someone who speaks my language! Imagine my despair when I realized that he was literally the "acting technical director."

He was in the show. Figures. An impostor.

No matter, I thought briskly. It was time to adopt the "make it happen" attitude that is the stock in trade of all good tech people. "Can I see an equipment inventory?"

They looked at each other uneasily. "I don't think we have one," the director answered slowly.

Seeing my concern, her husband leapt into the breach. "Don't worry about it. I can have one for you in a day or so." Then, under his breath, he muttered, "Shouldn't take very long. There's not much."

That didn't sound promising. "Okay. How soon can I get a blueprint of the theatre? I'd like to start roughing out the dimensions..." I trailed off as I regarded two blank expressions facing me over my fettucine. "What's wrong?"

"I don't think we have a blueprint. Do we?" They looked at each other and shook their heads.

I swallowed. "Do you have a layout of the lighting grid?"

"No."

"Do you have a ground plan of the set?"

"Uh, it hasn't been finalized yet."

I blinked again. "When do you open?"

"Three weeks," said the director, consulting her book.

"Do you know what color the costumes are going to be?"

"Who's designing those again?" They shrugged in artful confusion.

"Can you at least tell me if there's going to be a backdrop or a bare wall upstage?"

"We haven't made that decision yet."

I turned to the waiter and ordered a vodka martini.

We can close the curtain of charity on the rest of this luncheon meeting.

The days passed, and after numerous cancellations and scheduling changes, I finally managed to attend my first run-through. The show wasn't really my thing, but even I had to admit that the final product was going to be a powerful piece of theatre. The acting was strong, the direction was clear, and everyone spoke with accents that sounded reasonably consistent. I was feeling better all the time. Then the director came bounding up to me. "I have a ground plan for you!"

Confused, I took the piece of ragged notebook paper out of her hand and considered it. "What's this?" I asked, pointing at an amorphous blob on the right.

"It's a platform."

"And that?" I indicated a hastily drawn rectangle on the left.

"It's a bench."

I squinted up at the stage. "When do you open again?"

That night, I stared at my lighting design textbooks from college in consternation. Not for the world would I let anyone know that I hadn't done an original lighting design from scratch in six years. I consulted my calendar. Following the usual production schedule, I wouldn't have to come up with a complete design for a week and a half. Plenty of time to do see four or five more runs and do some research, I thought bracingly. After all, they didn't seem to expect that much.

The phone rang.

I picked it up to hear the caffeinated, cigarette-smudged voice of the stage manager, who I soon discovered is a frustrated actor roped into the job because she hadn't been cast. My heart sank. "You've seen a run-through," she barked. "What did you think?"

"Well, I--"

"Great. Let's see. It's Wednesday. Can you have your light plot to us by Friday? We'd like to hang everything on Saturday."

Dumbfounded, I stared at the phone. "But...I have to work on Saturday," I stammered.

"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Well, I suppose we could hang on Friday morning and afternoon, as long as we're done in time to clear the stage for rehearsal. I just wanted to make sure you had enough time."

I must've resembled a deer caught in headlights. "I work a day job, remember? Why do you need to hang this early? We don't open for two more weeks."

There was silence on the other end of the line for long moments. Then: "Didn't they tell you?"

"Tell me what?" I asked in trepidation.

"We actually open a week earlier, on the road. The date you have is the week we actually open in the theatre."

"I may regret asking this, but who's doing the lights for the road show?"

"Well, we were hoping that you could just adapt your design. That way you wouldn't have to do two complete designs."

I hung up the phone and poured myself a vodka martini.

There is, of course, more to the story. I haven't begun to discuss the lighting board that shorts out every time it rains, the actors that refuse to stay later than 10 p.m. for the one scheduled rehearsal with full lights, set and costumes, and the fact that the theatre does not possess a wrench. Nor will I discuss the day the artistic director walked in after the lights were hung (all thirty that I could find that were still in working order) and said, "What are you trying to do, blow the six good dimmers we've got left?" As a matter of fact, tech week (or, more properly, tech day) hasn't even begun. I'm still gearing up. How, then, do I find the time to write this?

The director has given her cast three days off from rehearsal. She says they're stressed out and need a break.

They need a break...


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