Thursday, July 21, 2011

I Dreamed a Dream

I guess everybody has anxiety dreams.  There are the classics, like dreaming of being in school and not being ready for a test, or not even knowing what the subject is. There's the dream of realizing you have no clothes on.  Ha!  These are for amateurs!  I have compared notes with other performers, and we seem to have our own particular brand of panic inducing gifts from Queen Mab.  

I find myself onstage, stuck in the middle of a scene that is vaguely familiar, but totally unrehearsed.   There is an audience, of course, so I can't just leave.  I'm not sure if others around me know what they're supposed to be doing, but I do my uncomfortable best to fake it.  Now, even at my most awake, I'm not very good at ad-libbing.  I have friends who can make up lyrics on the spot - rhyming, no less - and never miss a beat. Not me.  I wish I could.  No, I need a script, a specific plan.  Once that plan is in place, I can adjust and adapt, but in these dreams there is no plan.  All I am really aware of is the need to entertain and the inability to gracefully get off the stage.  I know no lines, I have no blocking, I am stuck.  And I am quite sure the audience isn't buying a moment of it.

I have a show opening next week.  Six days.  I am confident it will go well.  The cast is strong, the support crew experienced and reliable.  Nevertheless, I rarely make it through an opening without a crazy dream or two reminding me that things can go terribly wrong if there is a lack of preparation. 

Tonight we do a costume check.  In a couple of days we move into the performance venue, bring in the set and set the lights.  We’ll check out the sound system, work with the mics, adjust our blocking as needed.  I’ll position myself in the orchestra pit, hoping the choral members can actually see me from the stage.  I’ll send six skirts off to be hemmed by a much appreciated volunteer and get the eight borrowed hooped petticoats out of my back seat.  Details, just details, but all important ones – all things that someone needs to attend to so the audience can sit back and enjoy the performance.

Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live fame, was loosely quoted as saying, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.”  That could be the mantra for all live theater, not just live television.  The lights go down, the curtain goes up, and there you are, ready or not.   It’s enough to give you nightmares, but it is also the stuff of dreams.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I Feel Pretty

Time flies when you're having fun.  Or when you're up to your eyeballs in theater projects.  It has been so long since my last post, so this one is a bit longer than usual.  I've been too busy doing to write about doing!

One of the tasks that often falls in my lap, sometimes by default, is costuming.  I am currently in a familiar mode.  Costumes are in various stages of completion and scattered all around the house.  I found someone willing to hem the 6 full skirts that are yet to be completed, but I have more work to do before I can get the skirts to her.  The tops are mostly done - mostly.  I've saved the hardest for last, probably because the progress is slowest with the more difficult pieces.  

I have a love hate relationship with costuming.  I am glad I know how to sew.  I would never go back to not having a serger and am loving my new dress form (since I am not the same size as everyone I sew for and trying things on repeatedly gets a bit tedious). However, I am not a confident designer, so I second guess every choice until a garment is completed.  Endless combinations of fabrics, patterns and trims swirl through my brain like a mad scientist trying to develop some magic elixir.  But the magic I seek is visual.  And since I can only dream what it would be like to throw down a piece of fabric and attack it with just imagination, scissors and a french curve (that's a design tool, right?), I am limited to using tissue paper patterns that I adapt and combine with an odd a blend of mathematical precision and reckless abandon.   I've developed a somewhat misplaced confidence in my ability to make any length of fabric somehow be enough for my design.  That means I've also developed some interesting skills at piecing together scraps.

I am learning as I go, however.  I have to fight my natural tendency, when costuming, to make clothing that is too street worthy.  I have come to realize that the best costumes are often a little bigger than life.  Wilder colors, extreme shapes, fanciful trims.  It depends upon the theme of the show, of course.  There is a place for understated and true to life, but an outfit that will likely be seen from a minimum of twenty feet away often needs to pop, needs to look like a costume.   Everything doesn't need sequins and beads, but there are certainly appropriate times to go for a big impact.   

The show I am currently costuming is set in middle America in the 1830s - 1840s.  It is still pre-civil war, pre-Victorian, but not prairie or frontier clothing.  Wedged somewhere between  the elegance of a feathered chapeau and the down home casualness of a calico bonnet, I've found skirts, blouses, vests and bodices that I hope will all appear unique, interesting, and fairly true to the period - or at least what is perceived for that period.  Oh yes, did I mention it all has to be done within a budget of less than $40 per outfit?  

What would theater be like if we had unlimited budgets, throngs of skilled and willing volunteers and (while I'm dreaming) endless queues of  patrons with bulging wallets? I'll probably never know, and don't have too much time to worry about it.  I've got sewing to do. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Music of the Night

One of the tech tools I like is Power Point.  Yep, the go-to software for sales presentations and school reports.  I found an unconventional use for it in the theater - sound effects for a play I directed last year.  It had dozens of sound cues, many of them very short and critically timed.  I created a PP presentation, one slide per sound, and it worked out beautifully.  I plugged my laptop into the sound board, and the sound operator was able to advance the slides, each with the appropriate sound attached, according to the cues which were also written on the slides (“cue for next sound …”).  The sounds can be set to play automatically when the slide advances, so one click, and the sound effect is played.  No struggling in semi-darkness for the stop button on a CD player, no rapid advancing of tracks when cues are spaced closely together.  I also created a video for the preshow music, embedded in a slide (visible only to the light and sound techs),  so it would indicate exactly when the lights were to dim, when they should go to blackout, etc., during the music.  Not that I’m particular …

I hadn’t initially planned to use it that way.  I set it up for rehearsal purposes in a new theater when other equipment wasn’t readily available (and when I was curious to see if such a plan would work).  Then I discovered it was easier to insert or edit one slide at a time than always burning a new CD each time there were changes.  And I make lots of changes!

I’m sure there is software out there specifically designed to work this way, but I already had PP, knew basically how to use it, and was able to clearly indicate cues for sound techs who may not be too familiar with the show.  For shows with typical songs and underscores, it would not be any better than standard methods (CD, minidisc, MP3 playback, whatever), but for this one, it was a great option.

I also used Power Point for a choral program, presented on a small stage that was little more than a white (yes, white) box.  Instead of using it for sound cues, I used it as a slide show behind the performers.  One wall became the screen, and a musical presentation that would have otherwise been fairly static, became more visually interesting.  There’s nothing novel about using PP for a slide show, but it was a simple way to add an interesting backdrop in a casual theatrical setting when resources were limited.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Make Believe

I spend a lot of time with music editing.  It’s a strange hobby that has fascinated me for decades.  In my last post, I talked a little bit about some of the kinds of things I’ve done.  Since my purpose in this blog is partly to share ideas that others might find useful, let me dig into some of the techie aspects of theater and performance that I find so interesting, and which I realize may cause someone else’s eyes to glaze over.  Sorry.

I've been interested in sound reinforcement and editing ever since college, when I took a course in “theater sound” as part of a short lived dream to be a recording engineer.  I remember sitting in a lab with a reel to reel (ask your grandparents) trying to splice something in just the right place.  Now I do it with such ease at the computer.  I can’t count the number of people who I’ve worked with on recording projects who have been amazed with how easily sound can be manipulated.  It’s why we have popular singers who can’t actually sing, but that’s another story.

Fast forward several years, to when I took a community college class on recording techniques.  When a friend of a friend, who happened to be a professional sound engineer, came to class with me one day, I got the gold star for best show and tell.  Since he had worked on the Salt Lake City Olympics, they wanted to know how they managed to get teeny tiny microphones on the ice skates in the opening sequence to pick up the sound of the blades gliding across the ice.  The teacher of the class was quite disappointed to learn that the sounds had been prerecorded.  Yes, even live TV uses theatrical tricks.

When I directed Jane Eyre a few years ago, several of the chorus members were used as narrators.  With limited resources (not enough body mics) and a large theater to fill, I wondered if they could be heard while speaking over a musical underscoring.  I prerecorded all their dialogue and put it on the track.  Then they spoke along with their own voice during the performance.  I don’t think anyone suspected it, and the narration could be clearly heard.

Another time I was running sound for a very casual musical review.  This was a lighthearted church production, with an enthusiastic, if not terribly well trained cast.  When they repeatedly struggled with knowing where to start singing after an extended narration (a twist on the song “Tradition” from Fiddler), we cheated.  I recorded them singing the first few words and blended it in with the track.  Since it was their voices already, no one was the wiser, they had more confidence, and it sounded like they knew what they were doing.  Yes, sometimes theater is all about the illusion!