What goes on behind the scenes of a production is far more important than most anyone outside the world of theatre realizes. I’ve spoken a little on the actors’ work with the director. I now want to highlight the often unacknowledged work of the carpenters, costumers, painters, purchasers, organizers, electricians, and board operators. So the next two blogs will focus on the absolutely essential work of our technicians.
At ETBU, our theatre curriculum is structured in a way that emphasizes the well-rounded student. We don’t believe that any one of our majors should be just an actor or just a technician.
In fact, I’ve come to loathe the word “just” as qualifier for any of the work we do. Our students are not “just” actors, nor are they “just” technicians.
Therefore, we immerse them in as many different areas as possible. No star-system here. Rather, you’ll find a group of students who work day and night in a myriad of specialized jobs. For example, we’ve had several instances where a student might play the lead role in a production and serve as master carpenter behind the scenes. Or, a student might be the director of one of our main stage shows but still be required to handle all the publicity for the play.
So, here are abbreviated descriptions of the different areas that support every production you see on campus—Part I.
(I thought I could fit all of this into one blog. Nope.)
The Scenic Elements
The scenic design, once completed, is given to the technical director. The technical director is in charge of taking the ground plans and elevations and turning them into working drawings. These are the drawings that illustrate the engineering behind the build—how a flat or platform is to be constructed, where the supports and braces will be mounted, where items should be rigged for hanging or fasteners added for attachments. It depends on the design, which could include all sorts of challenges like multiple levels, plumbing, secret trapdoors, or intricate detail. These working drawings are then passed on to the master carpenter who oversees, with his or her crew, the construction and installation of the set with all its working parts.
Obviously, most scenery is painted, stained, or treated. The scenic charge artist carries the responsibility of using the scenic designer’s elevations and perspective renderings to replicate a certain look on the set. It can be a very time-consuming effort when large drops or floor treatments need painting. Colors for the set are deliberately chosen with respect to the director’s concept and the choices made by the costume and lighting designers; this will keep elements from clashing or blending together onstage (unless, of course, that is the intention).
The lighting designer works closely with the master electrician. The light plot indicates not only what type of instrument will be hung, but where it is hung, how it is cabled, and if it is to be colored with a gel (incandescent lights). Technology is constantly changing in this field; LED and computerized lighting are gaining popularity, and they come with a whole new set of cabling rules and programming. We have to be careful, no matter what lights we use, that we don’t overload our circuits; instruments must be patched correctly into the dimmer and assigned appropriate channels in the board. Once everything is hung, the lighting crew has to focus each light on its designated area, give it a hard or soft edge, and add the color or gobo pattern if needed. Then each cue is built and recorded into the board for the show—an effort that requires an empty theatre and plenty of uninterrupted time.
A sound designer is not only in charge of the music for set changes and curtain call, but also for all ambient sound and scripted needs. Depending on the director’s vision and a play’s requirements, sound can heavily pervade the entire production or be very minimal. Shows with complicated designs require hours and hours of recording, timing, editing, mixing, and playback to make sure everything works cohesively with the final product. This is not a single software endeavor; there is usually one computer program used for editing and another used for playback. Crew members may also, according to a production’s specific needs, be in charge of amplification for the actors. Additionally, the sound crew must decide where the speakers will live and how to mix the sound. Finally, they must organize the edited files on the playback device (usually a computer); then, during performance, they have to know how to equalize the sound board and adjust the gain and volume as necessary. And for what it’s worth, live sounds made by crew members offstage are always an option as well.
Because the blogs actually come with length limits, I must end here. I promise the technician discussion will be continued in the next entry.
I would, however, like to conclude with this observation: studying these details and personally knowing the individuals behind the work makes me appreciate collaboration in all its forms, even those outside my discipline. It never ceases to amaze me what beauty human beings are capable of when we work together.