March 30, 2007

Creating a wireless network for the rehearsal room

I call this: computers,mac,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:37 pm

I’m about to start rehearsals for a new show, which has got me thinking about getting all my goodies set up to take with me to rehearsal. One of my favorite ways of making things more efficient in the rehearsal room is to set up my own wireless network for the use of the stage management team, creative team, or even the actors who want to use a laptop or other wireless device on their breaks.

Unfortunately, below a certain level, most theatres and rehearsal spaces don’t offer much in the way of internet access. If there’s wi-fi, it’s probably by accident, that the hotel across the street might has an open network or something. And it seems to be one of Murphy’s Laws that the signal never reaches to the area of the room where you have to set up your table. It’s even hard to find a phone line (or one you have access to) to use dial-up. Most of the time I use my cell phone as a modem, and connect by Bluetooth from my laptop. This gives speeds about the same as dial-up, but also wears down my phone’s battery, and can sometimes interfere with incoming calls.

Should I be lucky enough to find an ethernet connection somewhere in the building, that’s where I will set up my network. The key piece of equipment here is Apple’s Airport Express router. It’s not the most fully-featured router, but it’s tiny! At just a little bigger than the power brick of a Mac laptop, I can shove it in my bag — or as I usually prefer, in my printer carrying case — and forget it’s there until I need it. I also carry a retractable ethernet cable which likewise stays out of the way until it’s needed.

In a perfect world, the place I like to set up the router and printer is:

  • not in the rehearsal room, where the printer will make annoying printer noises
  • close enough to get a strong wireless signal through the wall (~50 ft.)
  • in a location occupied only by people who won’t steal stuff

Once I’ve found my location, I plug in the router and printer. Finding two outlets, one of which is big enough to fit the brick of the router, is sometimes the hardest part — stealing a power strip from somewhere is often the result. If the ethernet connection is a jack, I use my own cable to connect to the router. Then with the USB cable I carry, connect the printer to the router. The printer I use is the Canon i70, which is no longer made, but the i90 is the current equivalent. The only thing I really dislike about it is that it doesn’t have one of those little slots for a computer lock to be inserted. I leave the printer lying around unsupervised much more often than my computer, and yet there’s no way to secure it.

So now that everything is plugged in, it’s time to set up the software. Using the Airport Admin Utility, I create a network, which I usually call something very simple and easy for other people to remember. I always create a closed network, meaning that it won’t show up to random people as an available network. Each person has to know the name of the network and type it in manually. I generally don’t bother with encryption, as I have had more headaches trying to get it to work for everyone, especially when some people are on PCs or other devices. If I really want security I will set it to allow only the hardware that I specify, which means every time I add a new person having to get the MAC address of their computer or mobile device. If all has gone well, the router will be displaying its happy green light, meaning it has an internet connection, and everyone should be able to access it for internet and printing.

Being able to give reliable internet access to everyone in the theatre or rehearsal room makes everything much easier. The last two shows that I was PSM for were workshops of musicals in development. Every day, every hour, sometimes every half hour, there were new pages of text, new songs, new arrangements e-mailed from the copyist, and all of it had to be distributed to be worked on NOW. The musical director would decide to change the key of a song, the composer would transpose it on his Powerbook in Finale, e-mail me a new PDF, and I’d send it to the printer. The whole process could take less than five minutes, and nobody had to get up from their chair, except to go out to the lobby, grab the pages from in front of the printer, and hand them out. Theoretically the composer could have even sent the file to the printer himself, although I never bothered with the few seconds it would have taken to add the printer for anyone besides my assistant, and I would have needed the PDF for my records anyway.

Even in situations where internet access is not available, just having the printer on the network can be a big help. Being able to send print jobs out of the room and have them waiting whenever I feel like picking them up is great for spaces where the noise of the printer is too distracting, not to mention the ability to let others also use it. And the best part for someone like me who often works in many different locations and is not always given storage space, is that everything is very easy to carry. I bought an unfinished carrying case from the Container Store, and shaped the foam padding to hold my printer securely, with a little extra room for its cables and the Airport Express. Then I throw some blank paper on top of it all.

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