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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (6/5/14) 2:19am - ... wherein Peter wonders how the AIC can reach out to the theater-tech community.

Back in March, the Hideout Theatre had their management retreat.  At that retreat, one of the topics we discussed was "greater tech involvement."  How do we get more people involved on the technical side in the AIC?  A few of us had a brief discussion about the topic and wrote up our conclusions.  Since then, I've given this a lot of thought, both because I got the chance to discuss the subject with some of our best technical improvisors[1], and because I watched firsthand as Lindsey moved to Austin and (after persistent effort) broke into the local improv-tech scene.


(Language note: in this post, I often use 'improvisors' to mean 'stage improvisors'.  But of course technical improvisors are improvisors too.)


Executive Summary:


There's a population of people out there who love teching.  Since improvisors don't like running tech, the AIC never attracts many of those people.  Furthermore, improv communities look down on teching, and actively repel techies who might want to join their community.  This isn't a critical problem for now, but it's putting a limit on what we can do, theatrically.  If we actively reach out to the tech community and take simple steps to make it easier for them to join us, we can create a much stronger community overall.


Longer Version:


1. Techies exist.
There are people in the world who want to do tech.  They don't want to get onstage.  They don't want to act in movies.  They want to handle lights and sounds for theater productions.  They study it in school.  They subscribe to its trade magazines.  They see an amazing play, and they imagine what it must have been like to run the sound board for it.

Lindsey is one of these people.  She studied theater tech in college.  More such people exist.

To most of you, this comes across as a patronizing, obvious point.  But many, many improvisors keep forgetting this simple fact.  For instance, when Lindsey applied to do tech at Detroit's Go Comedy, the staff were bewildered: "Wait... you... you *don't* want to be onstage?  You want to... be in the booth?  Whaaaa?"

So this is our starting point: techies exist.


2. Improvisors don't like teching.
Not only that -- it's stupid to expect them to.

Look.  Do our hosts say at the end of shows, "If it looks like teching a show is fun -- it is"?  Does the Hideout advertise classes about how to learn to tech improv shows?  Does the Hideout go to corporate gigs and teach business types how to run light boards?

No.

The Hideout trains people to be *stage* improvisors, not *tech* improvisors.  The host says, "You can learn to improvise on stage, too!"  The classes teach people to play on stage.  The corporate gigs teach business types how to do performance games.

And all of this is as it should be.  The business model makes perfect sense.

But we have to acknowledge that practices like this make the AIC a self-selected sample of people who are *really really* into being onstage, and who have no particular desire to ever be in the tech booth.  If we map out the Venn Diagram, the circle of "people who enter the AIC" and "tech enthusiasts" only ever cross over in a thin sliver.


3. We don't find a lot of techies.
Prior to Lindsey, that thin Venn-Diagram sliver has provided every single techie in the AIC.  Think about it: the entire technical side of this operation hinges on finding some meager fraction of the incoming performer population that just happens, by wild coincidence, to also be into running tech.

It's like you're attending a stamp-collecting convention, and somebody collapses of a heart attack, and some philatelist at the convention just happens to also be a cardiologist.  "What a stroke of luck," you think, "we really had no right to expect that."

And moreover, even when we *do* find people who are interested and capable techies... they're still people who showed up here to perform onstage.  Bridget Brewer, for example, is a very capable technical improvisor.  But she's also a brilliant stage performer, and soon she was getting cast in too many shows to be available in the booth.

At this point there are hundreds of stage improvisors, and there are shows running at four theaters, and there are troupes aplenty, but by my reckoning there are five techies currently working whom I'd trust with a mainstage show.

Five.


4. The AIC devalues tech.
This was a lot worse ten years ago.  Back then, we had a lot of people who wanted to be onstage, and *none* of them wanted to be in the tech booth, and *somebody* has to tech the shows, right?  So that meant whichever performer drew the short straw was teching that night.  And that attached a stigma to teching -- it was the boring, crappy job that nobody wanted.

This stigma has never really gone away.  We work very hard at the Hideout to fight that stigma -- we remind the hosts to thank the tech booth at the end of each show, we make sure to express our appreciation for our small, hard-working tech community -- but that's a conscious, deliberate effort we're making.  And we're making that effort because gravity is going the other way.  Lots of practices in the AIC convey that tech is something we look down on.

For example, in Maestro, we promise players that if they tech one week, they'll be able to play the following week.  I think this is a sound strategy -- it's finally given us a solution to the "nobody wants to tech Maestro" problem -- but it conveys to techies that what they do is just drudgery to put up with so we can do the *real* art onstage.[2]  Meanwhile, if you regularly throw in people who've never seen a light board before to tech non-mainstage shows, then that implies (whether it's accurate or not) that you don't think much of the training techies go through to effectively do their job.

Even in major show runs, where technical improvisors are generally given their due, directors sometimes don't give them the guidance or resources they need to do their jobs -- and that conveys that tech is something that's beneath the directors' notice or concern.

And to be clear: this stigma has nothing to do with the art itself.  Theater tech is fascinating, and expressive, and challenging.  Scripted theater always holds it in high regard.  Improv tech is every bit as improvisatory as performing onstage: you're still accepting and giving offers, you're still reaching for group-mind with the rest of the cast, you're still an active part of a performance.  And the tech community has absolutely no sense that they're 'settling' for doing tech.  No, this stigma is a direct result of selecting a group of eager onstage performers and forcing some of them to grudgingly sit in the booth.


5. The AIC repels techies.
Our community repels techies like Lindsey who might want to join up.

And the weird thing is, to some extent, this is *deliberate*.  In the meeting at the retreat, I suggested bringing in techies like Lindsey to tech non-mainstages at the Hideout.  The response I got was (verbatim), "But then what would the interns do?"  There's a system in place in the AIC that assumes techies don't exist.  If techies show up, that screws up our system.  So let's keep the techies away, shall we?

This isn't an *insurmountable* problem for a techie, provided they're determined enough.  When Lindsey moved to Austin, she had trouble finding chances to volunteer as a technical improvisor, but she persisted, and she had lots of connections through me, and she eventually became a valuable part of (and a 25% increase in) the AIC's core tech community.

But that wasn't easy for her.

First off, there is no clear path for an interested techie to get involved in the AIC.  When Lindsey first showed up in Austin, there was no online resource that said, "If you want to do tech for the AIC, talk to these people!"  There was no clear notion of "Theater techs who want to get into improv tech should start out by doing <x>, <y>, and <z>."  Obviously there are no tech classes or workshops, and tech is not a part of any improv curriculum.  There isn't anything like a mentorship or apprenticeship program for improv tech, either.

Compare this to the systemic knowledge that's available for performers.

Performers typically start out taking a free class, then taking classes at one or more theaters, then appearing in student-focussed productions, then forming troupes and auditioning for mainstage productions.  The Hideout ups the barrier to entry a bit, in that it doesn't automatically audition its graduating classes into teams or troupes -- but even then, the pathway is still clear: hey students, the next thing you want to do is try forming a troupe.

Second, like I said earlier, the AIC devalues tech.  If the community assumes that tech is something you "settle for", then techies will not naturally want to be part of that community.  When Lindsey first tried to contact people at the Hideout ("I am a theater tech, and I would like to volunteer to tech your shows."), the response was, "Sure!  If you want a discount on our performing classes, you can be an intern!"  It was very well-meaning and not-inaccurate statement, but again, there's that assumption: nobody really *wants* to do tech, right? -- teching is just something you put up with so that you can be on stage, which is what you really *want*, right?

If your community tells an incoming techie that their work isn't really valued, then that techie may well give up on trying to battle their way into the AIC. 

Now, sometimes there are jobs where you *want* a high barrier to entry.  For example, Roy doesn't actively canvas for directors for mainstage shows at the Hideout -- people have to take their own initiative and contact him with a pitch.  But those are usually the situations where you have limited number of jobs to go around.  The Hideout does six mainstages a year[3], so it makes sense to pre-emptively winnow the field down to the would-be directors who are willing to take the initiative.

This strategy does us no good in the theater-tech world.  We don't have far too many applicants for far too few volunteer slots.

Again: five people, keeping the whole endeavor afloat.


6. We're still getting by.
To calm the nerves of my more paranoid readers: I'm not saying, "Herp, derp, the AIC is sooo incompetent."  To the contrary, the community as a whole, and the theaters in particular, are doing a great job of business growth and artistic exploration. And frankly, if things continue just as they are with regards to tech, we'll be okay.  Nothing will go disastrously wrong.  We'll still have just enough dedicated techies to handle the challenging mainstage shows, and we'll have enough interns and more casual techies to handle everything else.  We'll keep holding on to providing really good tech for the mainstages, and we'll stumble through lights-up/lights-down for everything else.


7. There are still problems, though.
First off, burnout is on the horizon.  Cindy, for example, has already taken one sabbatical because of Too Many Shows.  All the dedicated and experienced techies are holding on for the moment, but that may not last forever -- and if one tech gets knocked out with burnout, the show-load goes up that much more for the remaining ones.

Second, any improvisor will tell you that tech is basically a crapshoot in the non-mainstage shows.  If you have heavy tech demands for a Threefer show, you're just out of luck.  And even if you have no particular tech needs, you can't always count on basic things like the house lights going down when the show starts or the stage lights going down when you wave them down.  And when an intern does have basic familiarity with the board, they'll often add too *much* tech, just to keep themselves from getting bored with their onerous position.

Third, running festivals is getting more and more challenging.  This is especially true of Out of Bounds, which seems to use more venues every year.  Once your number of venues exceeds your number of dedicated techies, show quality begins to suffer.

Like I said before, we're getting by, we're stumbling along in spite of these problems.  But they're still problems, right?


8. Things could be better.
What if we had more techies -- more people like Lindsey, people who were never interested in improvising onstage -- involved in Austin improv?

First off, there are obvious artistic benefits.

One example: improv tech has advanced to a point where it's very useful to have *three* people teching a single mainstage show: one on lights, one on soundtrack music, and one on sound effects.  The results of this are pretty damn impressive, but we just don't have enough experienced techies to make this happen for every show where it would work.  It's like a big pot of gold that's just out of reach because we don't quite have the personnel.

Even on this point, though, I suspect I'll get pushback.  Improv, as an art form, has gone without experienced tech for so long that minimal (or even non-existent) tech has become a perverse badge of honor.  Doing a good show *without* any lights or sound just proves what a badass you are, and proving how awesome you are is the important thing, you see -- much more important than creating a show that affects the audience.[4]

By this point, we exist in a world where audiences *expect* improv to be theatrically boring -- to rely solely on the improvisors on stage, with nobody else doing anything to make that show better.  I'm reminded of this video about Edgar Wright, which demonstrates how American comedies, by comparison, don't use the tools of cinema at all, and suffer greatly for it.[5]  We could be Edgar Wright; instead we're mostly Judd Apatow.  It's worth it to try to be Edgar Wright.

But let's even set aside the artistic goals here.  Yes, it'd be great if every improv show could use tech as much as scripted theater does.  But let's say that never happens.

I care just as much about what this would mean socially and culturally for the AIC.

Put simply, I want every improv production to be a show where everybody involved *wants* to be there.  And to that end, I never want the person in the booth to be a frustrated stage performer who's grudgingly pushing around faders to 'pay their dues'.

I've had the pleasure of performing in mainstage shows at the Hideout.  Those are shows that have, as a rule, experienced technical improvisors in the booth.  And it's wonderful to be in a show where the technical improvisors are just as excited and just as happy to improvise in the booth as the cast is to improvise onstage.  It's a great feeling of camaraderie -- a wonderful sense of teamwork.  It's exciting when the technical side of the operation is trying new things, exploring new facets of performance, or taking on tasks that seem flat-out impossible. 

It's kind of what improv is all about, really.

Everyone should get to experience that.  Hell, in a perfect world, everybody would get to experience that every time they get onstage.  We want to have that large, thriving tech community that's a mirror of our onstage community.


9. We can reach out to techies, and make it easy them to get involved in the AIC.
I admit, this is where I'm far out of my element, and people in charge of theaters and people in charge of tech can quite rightfully sneer at my ignorance.  But, pressing on...

The first and simplest thing: create clear online resources for would-be techies.  If you are a theater tech, and you want to volunteer with the AIC, here's how you do it.  Here's who you talk to.  Here are the sorts of things you can expect to do as a starting tech.  Here's how you progress to being able to tech mainstages.  You'll want enough on-stage improv training to understand <x>, <y>, and <z>.  This could just be a page on austinimprov.com, or even a page on the wiki -- just *something* out there for the Lindseys out there to start with.[6]

With that in place, we could reach out to communities of techies in Austin.  People studying theater tech at UT and the other universities in town would be the first logical place to look.  I'm sure the main techies in the AIC can offer further suggestions.

I've heard pushback against this idea, along the lines of: "Whyever would a UT theater-tech student volunteer to tech a show for free?"  Again, we see "nobody wants to do tech" rearing its ugly head.  "Obviously, nobody would tech a show unless they were promised savings on acting classes, because they really just want to be on stage, right?"  Never mind that the people performing on stage are doing so for free because they love performing -- that's *different*.  Because stage performance is *cool*.

*sigh*

Furthermore, if we can get incoming techies connected to the improv-tech community, that will help immensely.  If you are a Lindsey, and your sole contacts in the AIC are improvisors who think that "theater tech" is just half a notch above stuffing envelopes, then no, you won't stick around long.  But if you know other techies, and you see a path from teching a random Free Fringe to someday teching a mainstage, and you can work in a tech community where improv tech is valued, and discussed, and exciting, then why would you *not* want to do that?[7]

To expand on that point, once we *have* a new tech involved in the AIC, we would ideally have a clear system of mentorship for them.  Maybe we have introductory workshops for new techies every so often.  Maybe an experienced tech helps them out on their first few nonmainstage shows.  Maybe they then shadow a mainstage crew.  Maybe then they become eligible for mainstage teching.  And all the while, they're added to the AIC-tech facebook group, where the more experienced techs are always around to answer questions and offer support.


10. A thriving tech community helps us *all* learn about tech.
Theater tech and onstage performance are kind of like yin and yang: a good theater tech knows at least a little bit about onstage performance, and a good onstage performer knows at least a little bit about theater tech.  It's like any other collaborative business: if you understand what the other person's job is like, you have a better time working with them.[8]

In fact, one of the benefits of the current intern system is that, in the absence of any theater tech in any theater curriculum or any workshops about the topic, it's the only way incoming students learn about tech or try it out.  It's the only way they become aware of the whole team that comes together with the onstage cast to put on a show.

We don't want to lose this.  In fact, if we have a larger tech community, we want to *use* that community to make this instruction process even better.  A techie that isn't slammed with teching every show in town is a techie who has time to teach their skills to the larger community.  An intern who shadows an experienced tech gets to learn from a mentor instead of just getting thrown in to a roomful of cryptic buttons for a night of bewildered and frustrating stress.

When we bring more dedicated techs into the AIC, we *all* learn more about that art form.

This also better serves that "thin sliver of the Venn Diagram" I mentioned earlier.

Right now, we're even having trouble finding and helping onstage improvisors who are interested in learning tech.  This is partly because we have so few people to run the operation, and most of them are run ragged doing the actual teching.  This is partly because there's no clear path laid out for new techies: if I'm a Hideout grad and I want to do tech, I don't really know what to do or where to go.  Hell, I don't even know that there *is* a community out there who would be happy to welcome me, so I most likely give up before I even start.  And, again, it's partly because of that "AIC devalues tech" problem.[9]  Since tech is 'the job nobody wants', many newer improvisors worry that if they show *any* interest in tech, they'll just get shunted exclusively to the booth and will never be allowed onstage.

So there's a virtuous cycle in play: if we get more people into the tech community, that'll make it easier to bring more people into the tech community.


11. This might not even be that hard.
I think this is very exciting, and the thing is, it wouldn't require an impossible amount of work.  Honestly, it's mostly a matter of the theaters signing off on plans that the experienced AIC techies have already been kicking around.  And even when mentorship and outreach *are* hard work, it's work that our tech community is keenly interested in doing.  They've learned wonderful things, and they'd like to pass that knowledge on.

Perhaps the daunting thing is that we stage improvisors have to take a *mental* leap.  We need to realize, "Hey, techies exist!  And we should bring them into the fold!"  It's a simple step, but it's a difficult one.  It goes against twenty years of improvisors treating tech like an unpleasant chore.

But if we can do that, and if we can make this plan or something like it happen, then everything gets better.

I want the AIC to get there.


______
[1] In an unfortunate oversight, no techies were invited to the retreat.
[2] Again, I think this is an acceptable price to pay to solve the "nobody wants to tech Maestro" problem.
[3] Not counting student mainstages or the upcoming "Stargazer" series.
[3b]
[3b] And of course, all of those shows will require technical improvisors....
[4] Lots of people will point to TJ & Dave, arguably the best troupe in the country, who do shows with nothing more than lights up and lights down.  They say this as if the duo puts on such masterful shows *because* of the minimal tech.  And no, they put on such good shows because they are *better improvisors than you are*.  To chalk it up to anything else is narcissistic insanity.
[5] And the really hurtful (and possibly ironic?) thing is that the narrator describes the flat, non-cinematic style of comedy as "lightly-edited improv."  Improv is *so* theatrically dull, in the eyes of the general public, that it's become *synonymous* with 'boring stage pictures'.  We want to fight that, right?
[6] As for Lindsey herself, she only managed to start teching shows once she befriended the small group of techs the AIC relies on.  She got to know those people through me.  We cannot count on "Peter dates a theater-tech specialist" as a viable method for bringing lots of people into the community.
[7] Side note: Lindsey herself would have *killed* for an opportunity like that in college.  The simple reason: when you're studying theater tech, there aren't enough plays to go around.  So you might end up getting a whole degree in tech while only teching one or two productions, which makes finding a job in the field a living hell.  Basically, volunteering to tech improv can provide a way out of the "can't get a job without experience"/"can't get experience without a job" catch-22.
[8] My earlier stamp-collector/cardiologist metaphor was kind of off-the-mark, in this respect.  *sigh*  The things I do for rhetorical effect...
[9] Or more precisely, the AIC *tries* to value tech, but keeps subtly undermining its own effort.

[Many thanks to Lindsey, Cindy, Kaci, Roy, and Bridget for reading over earlier drafts of this post.]

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[User Picture]
From:Marc Majcher
Date:Thursday (6/5/14) 10:55am
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Here's a thing, about the stamp collector bit. There are *tons* of improvisers performing on stage who are (or could be) fantastic tech imps. Probably half the people who have been improvising here for more than, say five or six years - I'm pretty good up there, Jason Vines is another stellar example, I've spent time doing tech with half of Pgraph, and so on. Back then, it was more or less a requirement to do your time in the booth to get stage time at all, more or less. It was just something that we were expected to do. But something changed as more people started jostling for stage time - some people who were good at tech got "stuck" up there, and didn't get to perform on stage as often as they'd like, so they stopped volunteering to do tech, lest they get pigeonholed as "just a tech guy" or whatever. I'm not exactly sure when or why that happened, but I've heard it from multiple directions many times. It would be great to re-establish the culture of "hey, you're an improviser, and one of the things that improvisers do is to do tech for other improvisers. no, no, we're not trying to keep you off the stage, you're great, but everyone needs to know how to do lights and sound, just like everyone should be able to do good spacework or at least pretend to know how to improvise a song now and then." Or something. Just make it part of the toolkit that folks are expected to be able to do, and have people who are in shows all the damn time (LIKE YOU, MAJCHER), lead that by example. Anyway, that's my unedited braindump.
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From:Marc Majcher
Date:Thursday (6/5/14) 10:57am
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(Much of which was already addressed in points 2 and 4, but, yeah.)
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From:hujhax
Date:Thursday (6/5/14) 11:48am
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Thanks! -- this is all useful information.  Personally, I think your concerns are more closely addressed by point 10.  Clearly, every stage improvisor should know something about tech.  And if we have a larger tech community (and the easiest way to get there is to reach out to college theater-tech programs) then there can be a *system* there that can educate you.

Sure, it'd be great if all stage improvisors had a better attitude about doing tech.  But if step one of your plan is "wait for humanity to become more virtuous", then you've got a shitty plan, right?  And honestly, we've been hoping *really hard* for this prevalent attitude to shift for... five years? six years, now?  Instead, it's just become more entrenched.

And again, I don't think we're ever well-served by having a show's tech improvisor be a frustrated stage improvisor who's grudgingly "paying their dues".  If we can reach out to a community of people who actually *want* to be in the booth, then everybody wins.
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