September 3, 2009

Thoughts on the Deck

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:16 am

Late this afternoon I was doing some crap on my computer when the phone rang. My reaction was something like, “Oh what now?” for about 2 seconds until I actually looked at the phone and saw the happy little mask and text saying “Phantom SM Office.” Cautiously optimistic, I answered. At 4:00 I was put on hold for possibly doing the show tonight. I immediately started getting ready because I haven’t called the show in six months, and haven’t done the deck in probably a year, and had no idea where I might find black pants, black shoes, flashlights, deck notes, etc. A half hour later I got the confirmation call that I would be going in, though no specifics if I would be decking or calling. I decided to assume that I would be decking, as I felt more prepared to call.

I spent the remaining time at home walking through the deck track in my head (while I review periodically to remain ready to call at all times when I’m in town, I tend to completely ignore the deck until the day I get booked and then do a quick refresher).

I arrived at the theatre and found out I would be decking, which was good. Craig suggested I look around. I made a meandering path around the stage and trap room, saying hello to the stagehands doing their preset, making sure nothing had been moved since I’d been gone. Everything looked exactly the same. The same, but really, really clean. I don’t remember the place being a mess in the past, but I was really struck by how clean everything was. The white walls backstage were white, not white and covered in 20 years of grime. They looked like they had been washed last week. As I was mentioning how tidy everything looked to the head carp, he said they were due for a paint call on the deck soon. Now the deck has been painted every 3 months for the last 22 years. When it’s just been painted, it looks like a glossy black mirror. When it needs a painting it looks like a dull gray pitted mess, with large sweeping scrape marks showing where all the scenery gets rolled across it, where chandeliers crash on it, etc. It looked like it had been painted maybe a week or two earlier. I was very impressed.

Anyway, doing the show was a lot of fun. No one can quite remember when the last time I decked was (though we have a database to answer questions just like that, and nobody thought to look it up), but it’s possibly been over a year. Whenever it was, I haven’t decked any other show since then either, so it was kind of a weird experience.

Since then, I’ve been very used to sitting at my comfy calling desk (including at Phantom) and just watching a show happen around me. Being away so long has reminded me of the differences of doing the deck.

First of all, by intermission I was getting kind of claustrophobic. The Phantom stage management office is always crammed with way more people than it should be, but even doing the show itself, there were just so many people everywhere. Tons of stagehands, dressers, hairdressers, a decent number of actors, there are just people everywhere. Personal space is often very strictly regulated, like your track is allotted this square foot-and-a-half for this scene change and that’s where you go. People often say that the backstage traffic on the show is far more complex and exact than the onstage choreography, and it’s true. It’s the main reason I worry about doing the deck. Calling the show is kind of a solitary pursuit in some ways. You interact with other people, but basically you know what you’re trying to do, which is to put on this show, and you have all these cues to work with, and you react to what other people are doing, but basically your butt is in a chair and you make things happen with your voice and flipping some switches that turn 10-watt light bulbs on and off elsewhere in the theatre.

Doing the deck is kind of like the difference between playing a video game on your TV or computer, and playing paintball or laser tag. You are IN the game, and you’re right there, on stage, above the stage, just off stage (Monsieur Reyer pointed and screamed at me tonight, “This is a disgrace! Who is this!? She’s back!” during the chaos in Hannibal). You have to fit yourself in and out of the backstage ballet, and even if it’s been a year and you don’t know half of the people around you, you need to hit your allotted spot, not have your elbow sticking out, or be a half-step out of your track, because that’s probably somebody else’s space.

Calling the show, my focus is ultimately on what the audience sees. I feel I’m responsible for reproducing the stagecraft that people have traveled from across the world to see. I am also concerned about supporting the actors with a well-paced show, and keeping everyone safe, but ultimately all of that is a subset of calling a perfect show for the audience.

Backstage, I don’t really care what the audience sees. I mean I care that we don’t screw up, but I don’t think about it during the show. I’m not really aware of them, or of the story being told, or who cries when the Phantom is left alone. All I can see is that we are all like little hamsters in a giant machine, and I am for some reason tasked with being ultimately responsible that all the hamsters get where they are going, and nobody gets crushed by the machine, and the machine doesn’t get jammed up, and performs its functions perfectly. It’s really quite a responsibility when you step back and look at it from an outside perspective, as I have from being away so long. Just being ready to do an average performance is not that big of a deal. Having the level of comfort that I could make the right decisions in the event of a serious problem is what causes most of the stress. Everything that happens, I am thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen and have my responses planned.

The one thing I enjoy about the deck is the idea of traveling around and seeing everyone. It’s a much more social way to do the show, especially if you’ve been gone a while. As you do your track you pass by and interact with various actors and crew, and have either a few seconds or a few minutes to say hello and catch up. Sometimes it means you meet new people. Tonight I reached the point in Hannibal that is generally “the spot where you say hello to Madame Giry.” Except we had never met. So we shook hands and introduced ourselves.

Then there are the other random things that I never thought too much about — like you’re on stage, in the dark, and five actors are about to climb down 20ft on a giant metal fence. They attach their safety cables in the dark. You check their cables — twice — in the dark, using only the sense of touch. Once a year.

The general idea of darkness is something I had lost appreciation for. The story goes that when the show was in tech Hal Prince had a policy that the stagehands were not to use any flashlights. The show is very dark, and he didn’t want any spill from offstage breaking the illusion. Nowadays flashlights are used occasionally, but the general theme remains that most of the time, people have just adapted to doing everything they need to do with very little light. I was looking around during Music of the Night, and realized, what I always knew but had never thought of — there are no running lights backstage. The prop tables have the teeniest, tiniest accent lighting (which is fairly new) highlighting just a few items, mostly the detailed ones like the letters.

The only thing that might be considered light for the purposes of seeing where you’re going are the ropelights that run up the ladders on each side of the travelator, the ropelight on the sides of the bridge that spans the traproom, allowing a crossover through the basement (which is good because the bridge has a little ramp at either end), and the ropelight on the angel bridge which is really dark, really narrow, and really high in the air. There’s a little bit of glow from other areas that are lit with normal lighting, like the hallways and the fly floor, against which you can see more things, and during much of Act II there are full-blown worklights on upstage for the big transformation from the Masquerade stairs to the mausoleum, but for much of the show, the only backstage light is spill from the stage. Some edges of things not visible from the audience are painted bright white, but even that is fairly recent.

It’s quite impressive how well everyone gets around in such a crowded environment, in the dark. Which maybe is why I tend to be incredulous when people ask for more running lights on other shows. I was brought up to learn where things are in the light, and to use that knowledge not to run into them in the dark. Anyway, I have a newfound appreciation of the special navigational skills of the Phantom cast and crew.

And P.S. watching Raoul jump in that trap when there’s so much fog that I can’t see the trap myself is always the most stomach-churning thing ever! I mean I know he won’t jump if he can’t see all the landing lights, but I always like to catch a glimpse of the hole myself and verify that it’s fully open.

Well thanks for reading. I know this post is kind of rambling, but I was filled with many random moments of discovery tonight and just wanted to share, cause if I waited to make a really carefully constructed post I would completely lose the point.