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

Wednesday (2/11/15) 10:02pm - ... wherein Peter writes about how to be nice to tech.

Introduction


This past summer, I wrote this post about getting more people involved in technical improvisation in the AIC. This led to further discussions of the topic with stage improvisors, improv directors, and especially technical improvisors.  One of the main conclusions of all those talks was that the better we treat our techs in the AIC, the easier it'll be to get more people involved.

That seems obvious in retrospect, right?  But it occurred to me that if *I* were to direct a show, I would have no idea how to make my techs happy.  I wouldn't know what they wanted.  I wouldn't even know what they might have preferences *about*.  And I figured if I didn't know, other people might not know, either, and that's an obstacle to the "treating techs well" goal.

So I started talking to the techs about what their 'ideal show' would look like: how it would be run, how notes would work, how they'd work with the director, and so on.  Now, if I were to direct a show, I wouldn't follow this 'ideal' to the letter.  Every production involves compromise, and no production is going to be the perfectest thing possible for everybody involved.

But I gathered this information, and I wrote this document, so that we could make these compromises *consciously*.  If I'm working with someone in *any* capacity, and I don't know what they want, everything I do is sort of a wild stab in the dark.  If I piss them off, or if I make them happy, either way it's by accident.  And I have no way to deliberately make the project as rewarding as possible for everybody involved.

So this post talks about how to make tech happy, but nothing here is a hard rule, nothing here is an ultimatum, things can be ignored, and there will be times when every one of these provisos *should* be ignored for the good of the show.  But hopefully we can get to a place where we at least know what we're doing, and our default state is to make every contributor feel good about the show and their involvement in it.


Inviting Your Techs


Currently, directors cast tech for their mainstages by asking techs, via private messages, if they'd like to tech their shows.

As a whole, the tech community would like this process to be more open.  Ideally, when you put out your call for auditions, you would also put out a call for technical improvisors: "If you are interested in teching this show, please email me at director@theater.com with your qualifications."  Then, after further considerations and discussions, announce your technical staff when you announce your cast.

Now, the current strategy -- secretly placing people in tech positions in a Kremlin-like fashion -- is not a disaster, but it has some clear drawbacks.  Let's try a thought experiment: say Jordan and I are both experienced sound techs.  Let's say I am obsessed with 1960s jazz. Let's say you announce an old-school James Bond spy show that will be scored with 1960s jazz.  I'm so excited!  I contact you about sound-teching your show and discover, oops, no, you've already signed on Jordan for the job.

At this point, it's a question of 'which awkwardness do you choose?'  Do you go with the awkwardness of 'firing' Jordan from the production and hiring me on?  Do you go with the awkwardness of keeping Jordan on with the production, even though 60s jazz isn't really his thing?

Meanwhile, for the sake of argument, there's a show that will be scored exclusively with minimalist composers, which (let's say) Jordan loves. That director invites Jordan to come on board the production, but Jordan has to turn it down, because he's already signed on with the spy show.

It's a mess.

In economic terms, what we have is a market that's trying to match up employers (directors) with employees (techs).  But it's a market with "incomplete information" -- the directors don't know anything about which techs want to work with them, and the techs don't even know which positions are available.

Making the process public fixes this.  Let's try re-running this using the "announcement" method.  You start in on your spy show.  You put out the call for techs at the same time you announce auditions -- hooray! all the techs know that there's a sound-tech spot available for the spy show.  Jordan feels 'meh' about the production, ignores it, and goes on to happily tech the minimalist show with all his favorite Steve Reich tunes.  I put in my application for the spy show and get my dream gig.

Everybody's happy!

Also, the current "middle school prom" method of secretly asking techs to do shows inevitably produces drama.  This makes sense, if you think about it: imagine if[1] *all* the current shows were cast not from open auditions, but by secretly contacting and gathering up the actors you want.  When "everyone who wants the gig presents their qualifications" is not a step in the casting process, it foments a feeling that the whole process is just a big game of "who is best friends with the director?", and that the process is unfair.  Lord knows, there's *already* a lot of drama around casting -- casting in secret would exacerbate that problem terribly, right?

Well, that's basically we're at *right now* with hiring tech.

Yet another problem with the current setup is that directors often "pre-reject" techs who seem 'too experienced' to do relatively simple shows.  "Wouldn't <x> get bored teching this 'lights-up, lights-down' gig week after week after week?"  That's an especially bad outcome, for reasons I'll get into in a bit, and it brings me to my next point.


Staffing Your Show


Currently, the default way to staff a show is to have one person serve a tech role for the entire run of a show.  Continuing in our alternate reality where Jordan and I are competent tech improvisors, you might have me as the sound tech and Jordan as the lighting tech, every show, eight Saturdays in a row.  Almost every mainstage works like this.

But this is not always the right way to tech a show, and as a director, you should be open to other options.  For example, many shows require *three* techs: one for lights, one for scoring, and one for sound effects.  (This is true for many shows that require scoring and sound effects at the same time.)

At the other extreme, take the relatively simple, "lights-up/lights-down" show I mentioned above.  In that case, the best outcome is to bring on an experienced tech as your technical *director* -- the person who works with you to come up with the tech logistics and the overall look of your show.  Then your tech director employs several up-and-coming techs to do the actual teching on the show nights.  You get an experienced tech happily helping you out, and the tech community gets to mentor newer techs into their first mainstage production -- everybody wins.

Shows that are in between those extremes can split the difference between those strategies.  For instance, you can have relatively inexperienced techs handling the show, with more experienced techs coming into rehearsals occasionally in a consulting capacity.  Or you can run a show with an experienced tech and an 'apprentice' tech splitting up the responsibilities.

Another possibility is to bring on *two* techs for a role and have them split up the show nights between them.  This has some disadvantages: for instance, now there are two people to keep apprised of any sudden changes to the show.  But there are also advantages: two lighting techs can collaborate and trade ideas; often techs just don't have the bandwidth to do your entire show run, but would be happy to take on half of it.

There's also a question of how much input you think a technical improvisor should *have* in the show.  Do you need someone to turn the lights on and off? or do you need something more akin to an assistant director, like a musical director for improvised musicals?  Needless to say, if a director and a tech have sharply incompatible opinions about the size and scope of the tech's role, things... get awkward.  It's great to have that discussion early on -- even before casting your techs -- instead of locking horns later in the process.

Some techs love to split up a show -- others prefer to take on the whole show run themselves.  Some like the arrangement of being a 'tech director' overseeing a crew of newer tech improvisors -- others detest it as tedious cat-herding.  How do you know what your technical improvisor likes?  You ask them!  Ideally, one of your first conversations with your first tech improvisor should be what kind of staffing arrangement you should go for.  Any experienced tech will have strong opinions about the arrangements that would work best for your show, and about what arrangements they themselves prefer.  Draw on that experience, and get the best staffing setup for your show right at the start.

The point is, there are many, many choices for how many people take on a tech role, and in what arrangement.  When the overwhelming default is "two people do everything", we banish all of the other possibilities.  And that's a shame, because the other possibilities are often better.


Rehearsing the Show


So: you've put out a call for techs, you've brought in a talented tech staff from that pool of applicants, and now it's time to start in on rehearsals.  You're doing great!  Fortunately, through this stretch of the process, working with tech is not rocket science.

Going into the rehearsal process, you may be wondering, "When do I bring tech into rehearsals?"  This may be very unclear.  You don't want to waste your techs' time by bringing them in for rehearsals where they just twiddle their thumbs, and yet you don't want to bring them to too *few* rehearsals, leaving them stressed and underprepared when the show goes up.  The default 'director response' has often been, "I don't know yet.  Just keep your next fifteen Wednesday nights free."  From a tech's point of view, this is not ideal.

Fortunately, the better option is actually very easy: talk to your tech early on.  (Spoiler alert: we'll find that this is the right answer to many, many questions in this document.)  If you have even a vague idea of what you want the show to look like -- "it'll be a narrative set in the old west" or "it's a game show with questions and answers projected onstage" or "it'll be music-themed short-form games" -- your tech will have detailed, well-informed ideas of how much preparation that will require.  You can quickly sort out a default start date for "tech shows up to rehearsal", with the option of starting, say, a week later or a week earlier as events warrant.  And maybe they want to be at the first rehearsal so they can touch base with the cast and with the director as you're starting out.

Note: skipping this conversation is a *really* bad idea.  If you think, "Whee, teching this show will be a breeze!" and you're wrong... well, then you need to *know* that you're wrong as quickly as possible.

So at this point, you start your non-tech rehearsals.  After each rehearsal, give your techs a heads-up as to what happened (e.g., "we did character exercises and watched Blade Runner together") -- this way, your techs can track the rehearsal process, and could advise, "hey, we should probably involve tech earlier" if the process seems to warrant that.  Also, if you make *any* decisions, however tentative, about tech during a rehearsal -- even something as simple as "we're frequently doing chase scenes, so we should have some kind of tech cue for that" -- your techs would *love* to hear about it.  There's even a chance your techs may want to drop by and watch an early rehearsal, just to see how the show is coming together.  This can help guide their own preparations.

The whole point to these "pre-tech" measures is to help your techs hit the ground running when they show up for their first rehearsal -- they'll know what the show is, they'll know what your tech needs are, and they can immediately help you realize your vision.

But how do you communicate your vision to the techs?

First off, explain what you're going for at a high level.  If the techs understand the overall artistic vision of the show, they can support it much more strongly.  They can come up with ways of using sound and light to achieve your goals that you would have never even thought of.  It's like, if you were hiring on an architect, you'd want to tell them relatively early if you were commissioning a design for a house or a hospital or a skate park.

Then there's the more specific stuff: how do you communicate with your tech about individual light and sound cues?

With light cues, it's especially important to lean more on "here's what I'm going for" rather than "set light <x> on setting <y>".  Unless you have considerable experience with lighting design -- as well as with the theater's current lighting grid -- you won't know what lighting options you have, and you won't know what effects those particular settings will have on your audience.  So ideally, you'll talk about the effect you want ("I want this scene to feel claustrophobic") or, if you have a particular cue in mind, you can suggest both the cue *and* what you're intending with it ("I want this to feel violent -- could we try a red wash?").

For sound cues, the same guideline applies -- it's always helpful to get across what you *generally* want, if you can put that into words.  Also, musical examples are *incredibly* helpful.  If you tell me, "I want music that's cool," that could mean literally any music on earth.  But if you tell me, "I want music that's cool, like Sketches of Spain or Chet Baker Sings, then I'm far more likely to give you musical selections you like.  If you want "indie pop", that can mean anything from Belle and Sebastian to Passion Pit.  If you ask for "indie pop, like the Decemberists or Neutral Milk Hotel", I've got a much better bead on what you want.  (Spotify playlists are your friend here.)

Also, keep in mind that there are many, many helpful ways to describe music.  "I want very cinematic orchestral soundtracks."  "I want uptempo, danceable music."  "I want instrumentals with lots of 80s synthesizers."  Be as hyper-specific as you can, and there is likely *still* a ton of music that fits within those narrow criteria.


Show Warm-Ups


Okay, rehearsals went great, you have some amazing sound and light designs in place for your show, and now it's opening night.

What now?

Keep in mind that warm-ups should include your technical improvisors. If there are any complicated tech cues in your show, it's great to run them at least once before the show itself.  And ideally, when your techs run through their tech cues, they should do so with the cast on stage and attentive -- many a tech cue has been blown because the cast got confused or surprised by the light and sound.  Get everybody to run through the tricky tech ahead of time, and you'll have smoother sailing in the show itself.

At this point, you may wonder, "Wait, what *are* my complicated tech cues?"  You may not know offhand all the tech that your show requires -- and even if you do, you may not know which of those constitute something difficult for either the crew or the cast.  Again, the easiest way to handle this is to check in with your tech sometime before the show -- either at call, or sometime before then.  Your techs will likely have strong and well-informed opinions about what needs practicing.

And this is absolutely the place to tell your techs about any changes to the tech you'd like that night.  Granted, you've ideally already told your techs about changes.  If something came up in rehearsal, you hopefully told them about it right after rehearsal.  If you had an idea to change something outside of rehearsal, you hopefully told them about it ASAP.  But at the very least, you need to let them know if something new has cropped up before the show starts, as we'll see shortly.


During the Show Itself


Imagine you're playing a video game.  It's a very complicated video game.  It requires a giant-screen TV, and you have to pay attention to every part of the screen all the time, because even a split-second delay in your response can ruin everything.  Also, your controller has fifteen different buttons.  So you're busy with this, and you're just about to line up your gun to shoot the red dot that's appeared in the top-left part of the screen...

... and suddenly somebody jumps in front of the screen, whisper-shouting at you, "WHY HAVEN'T YOU SHOT THE RED DOT YET?!  SHOOT THE RED DOT! SHOOT IT NOW!"

You can see that this is unhelpful in several ways.

First, it forces you to do a massive context switch -- one moment, you're head's in the game -- the next, you're slowly piecing together "wait, what's happening? someone is talking to me? why? what? what are they saying?"  Second, it causes a delay -- by the time the person has jumped in front of you, the game has moved on (maybe the red dot has disappeared), and by the time you've worked out what they're saying, you may have missed things catastrophically.  Third, the whole thing is disrespectful and upsetting.  Nobody likes being addressed like that, and it implies that the whisper-shouting person doesn't trust you to play the game effectively.

This is what it's like when a director jumps into the booth to give tech notes *during* a show.

The same problems arise.  There's a massive context switch from "teching the show" to "talking to this person who's randomly snuck up behind you".  There are massive delays involved.  The tech misses what's going on onstage while sorting out things with the director, and by the time the message is communicated, odds are, its moment has already passed. And finally, it's upsetting.  And it's hard to get your head back in the game when you're upset.

So the executive summary is: "tech would be happiest if you never, ever gave the booth notes while the show is happening onstage."  But as with every part of this document, this is neither a hard rule nor an ultimatum -- every tech realizes that there may come a time when, for the good of the show, the director has to come to the booth mid-performance.

So let's consider the situations where this might arise, and explore how to make this interaction go as smoothly as possible.

First: equipment failures.  You're in the middle of your show, you've hit the part where somebody has to speak on a mic, and the mic is dead.  During an equipment failure, tech is in a panic.  Trust me, *they know* that the equipment has failed.  They're working frantically to fix it however they can.

At this point, you should only go up to the booth if you can help them fix the problem.  For example, if you go up to the booth and tell them, "Channel #4 on the sound board is dead.  Switch the stage-right XLR input to channel #5 instead, and reduce the gain to compensate for it," then hey! you're the hero of the day.  If you read that last sentence and thought, "There's no way I would ever know anything like that," then odds are you should just stay put.

But let's say we've hit that rare edge case: there's been an equipment failure, and you actually have the one piece of information that will make everything right.  What should you do then?

Ideally, you'd ask yourself two questions.  First: "Does this need to be fixed at all?"  If the performer has noticed the mic is dead and just projected at a really high volume instead, then your problem is solved.  It's not solved perfectly, but it's much better than barging into the booth and wrecking tech for the next minute or two.  Driving over a plastic cup is bad, but swerving all over the highway to avoid it is worse.

Second: "Can we fix this in time?"  In our example, if your show includes only the one on-mic speech, and it only lasts thirty seconds, then by the time you've addressed the equipment failure, the moment has passed, the speech is done, and you've thrown off tech for no good reason.

Okay, so now we're at the edge case of the edge case: the mic is broken, you know exactly what the techs can do to fix it, the show is *broken* without a working mic, and there are several on-mic speeches later in the show.  Now what do you do?

First off, be professional.  When something's gone terribly wrong, you may be angry, and you may be frustrated, but if you bring those emotions into the booth, you are hurting your show.

Second, you are there to help.  In fact, the first thing you say, in this case, should be "I can help you fix the mic."  Whenever you can, establish the *context* for what you're helping with, so that your advice doesn't sound like random nonsense.  Then, follow that up with what you want, presented calmly, succinctly, and precisely.  "Switch the stage-right XLR input to channel #5 instead, and reduce the gain to compensate for it."

And finally, once you've got the message across, exit the booth.

All that said, even in a show where all the equipment is working *perfectly*, a situation may *still* arise where you'll want to enter the booth.

For example, your show may include a complicated set of tech cues -- say, when the adventurers enter a cave, we should go to a blue wash and play the "cave ambience" iTunes playlist -- that you have neglected to tell the tech about.  Let's be clear: this should never happen.  If you have a complicated set of tech cues, you should tell your techs about it in rehearsal, and you all should practice running it before the house opens.  So regardless of how this turns out, you'll owe your techs an apology for falling down on the job.

In any case, say your adventurers are just now entering the cave, and it suddenly hits you that, oops, you never told the techs about that cue at all.

Ideally, you'll consider the same questions we talked about for equipment failures.

First: "does this need to be addressed at all?"  If you have experienced techs in the booth, they'll often improvise another way to handle the cue that works perfectly well.  Maybe, instead of the blue wash and "cave ambience", they use a faint yellow backlight and a heavily reverbed "dripping water" sound effect.  It's not exactly what you had in mind, but it works.  In fact, if you leave the techs to their own devices, they will often come up with a cue very similar to what you had in mind.

Second, "can I sort this out in time for it to be meaningful?"  If there is only one cave scene, and it'll only last a minute or so, then odds are, by the time you've gotten your advice across, it's no longer useful.  In that case, you might as well stay put.

There are also two new questions to consider in this situation.

For instance, "Will fixing this look awkward?"  If your tech has defaulted to a yellow backlight and dripping water, then switching it over to a blue wash and a different soundscape will read really weird to the audience, basically creating a tech problem where none existed before.

And finally, "Can I succinctly explain what I want?"  If it would take you two or three minutes to explain how the tech cue works, then you're really just out of luck.

And again, let's consider the edge case of the edge case: there's a complicated set of cues that you've forgotten to tell the booth about, the show will be fundamentally broken if these cues don't happen, the booth couldn't possibly improvise an acceptable substitute, correcting the tech mid-scene won't be weird and awkward, and you can succinctly explain what you want.  In this case, your behavior should follow the same pattern as before.  Be professional.  Say what you're there to help with: "I can help you do the correct cues for the cave scenes."  Tell them, concisely, what you need: "switch to a blue wash and play the 'cave ambience' track on iTunes."  And then, once you've got that across, leave the booth.

Honestly, those two situations -- equipment failures and information failures -- should cover almost all the situations where you'd want to enter the booth for mid-show notes.  Pretty much all the remaining cases fall into a catch-all "I want the sound and/or lights to be different at this moment."  And again, the same questions apply.  "Does this *need* to be fixed?"  If the show's getting by with something slightly different from what you want, it's probably not worth sending the tech booth into a skid.  "Can this get fixed quickly enough?"  If it's just something transient, happening in this moment, you'll never be able to correct for it quickly enough.  "Will fixing it seem weird?"  If so, maybe let this miscue slide.  "Can I communicate what's wrong?"  If not, then going to the booth solves nothing.

And again, let's say we're at the edge case of the edge case.  Your tech is playing 60s jazz in your Regency England period production.  First: as with the previous section, odds are this means you've failed to communicate something very important to the tech before the show.  (It also means that your tech is likely crazy.  This is a very silly example.)  The same behavior applies.  Be professional, tell them what you're there to help with ("I can help you play more appropriate music for 1805 England.") and tell them how to fix it ("Switch to tracks from the 'Jane Austen' playlist.")

Ideally, you've prepped your tech so well that you'll never need to booth-jack things.  Ideally, in the edge cases you can trust your tech to do what's right (or at least what's good enough).  And ideally, if you absolutely have to enter the booth in a show, you do so in a way that conveys respect and generosity.


After the Show


Notes after a performance, either in person or via messages, are great!  Techs are keen to do work that's in line for your vision for the show, and the more they can course-correct, the better.  Obviously, it's better to provide notes *before* the following performance.  Something like "Could you find some ominous calypso music for the opening?" is an easy note to sort out given a couple of days to research it, but it's hard to turn that around when it's sprung on you in warm-ups.

But the main takeaway is that keeping tech in the loop on what worked and what didn't will be welcome feedback.


Final Remarks


And so that, according to the tech community, is how you get from one end of your production to the other while keeping your techs perfectly happy with the process.  At this point, I'd really like to get feedback from directors -- what are the most difficult sticking points here?  Out of these guidelines, what's tough to implement? what's easy to do?  It seems like the way forward from here is to collectively do the stuff that's easy, find decent compromises for the stuff that's hard, and, as always, trust that each show is its own beast, and will vary from the defaults in significant ways.

And keep in mind, treating technical improvisors well is a noble goal in and of itself.  Making your friends happy to work with you, and making artists happy to create their art, is always a good thing.  And beyond that, there's the tactical goal: if techs are treated better, it's easier to grow the tech community.  And if we can grow the tech community, the whole AIC is healthier.

_______
[1] ... or, if you've been in the AIC long enough, "remember when".

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