December 15, 2014

Life Lesson Time: Being Too Clever

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 3:34 pm

Hi all! If you haven’t been following on Twitter, I’m up in Ogunquit right now, just finished re-mounting (or “mounting” as I think of it, since I didn’t do the “pre-mount”) Mary Poppins at the very historic and beautiful Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.

Because it was a quick holiday re-mount of a summer production, we rehearsed from Dec 1st-9th and played from the 10th-14th. You can imagine my terror at PSMing Mary Poppins as one of the few new people (the music director was the only other person in a leadership position who was new, and we’ve been pulling each other along in our efforts to learn the show). But with the expertise of all the returning actors, creatives and production staff, as well as existing paperwork and an ASM with an great grasp of what needs to happen on the deck and what all of our many crew members are doing, it’s actually been quite a nice process. I basically made it my business from day 1 to focus on running rehearsals efficiently and teaching myself to call the show, and didn’t get bogged down in learning things that I knew would be of no use in a 10-day process.

And I want to give a shout-out to the many benefits of being given access to an archival video. Yes, I do consider it cheating, but if it’s the difference between giving an audience a better or worse show, for that I am grateful that Equity has in recent years made more allowances for reference recordings.

But let me tell ye about something that happened at one of our first performances:

Picture it, Portsmouth, NH, 2014. The curtain has just gone up. Figuratively. Then like 10 seconds after the overture, the curtain goes up literally, and we see revealed on the stage, that these sliding tree masking pieces have been preset in the wrong position, too far offstage. There’s a gap between the wing and the sliding flats making up the facade of the Banks home. It’s a smallish gap, revealing a slice of the interior of the house beyond. It’s not really ugly, just not how it’s supposed to be. Frustrated that we all missed the incorrect preset, and feeling the pressure that it’s our official opening night, and 10 seconds into the show we’ve done something wrong, we decide that by golly, we’re going to make up for this by fixing it like the slick professionals we are.

We spring into action, assign a crew member who’s near the traveler lines for the trees to get ready to move them to the correct color spike, and I light the green cue light (which is used exclusively for moves of the several traveler-based pieces) as his standby. In less than 16 bars of music, we have put our plan in place and have time left over to revel in how cleverly we’re about to recover from our mistake. The correction will be subtle, and done at an appropriate transitional moment so as to appear completely intentional.

The moment comes, and with the next light cue I throw the green cue light. The trees move on to their proper position gracefully, and then we all watch in horror as the walls of the Banks house open. Over a full minute early. The actors who are inside on the set took up some sort of tableau of household activity and arguing. Apparently something like this had happened before in the original production of this remount, so they weren’t exactly caught off-guard.

After sputtering something profound along the lines of “w-w-why is that moving?” I gave up and said rather cheerily, “Well, we’ve made enough of a mess, we’d better just stay here. Happy opening!”

Lessons Learned

Now let’s talk about what happened here.

The technical reason that things went from bad to worse is that the crew member who had the next cue on the green cue light (a minute later) didn’t have a headset. The two travelers are operated from opposite sides of the stage for reasons that I’m going to assume make sense, and although a lot of the deck crew knew what the plan was, the poor guy dutifully waiting for his green light didn’t get that information in the few seconds between when we came up with the plan and when we executed it.

The main lesson to take from this (which should have been incredibly obvious to me) is that inventing cue light cues when you can’t communicate with everyone who takes cues on that light opens up the possibility of someone wandering into the situation unawares and going on who-knows-what cue.

If we had been less concerned about getting the problem solved on the fast-approaching next opportunity, we would have taken the time to communicate and double-check more thoroughly. I didn’t know offhand which crew members were on the travelers, so I put it on the cue light because a) all the traveler moves are on that light, and b) I didn’t know if the crew member was on headset. It seemed the most flexible solution. But since the chosen operator had a headset, and it was going simultaneously with a light cue, we could have just as easily made it a verbal cue, and eliminated any chance of the cue being misinterpreted.

I still think it was admirable of us to try to fix the problem at the most appropriate moment, even if it was fast approaching, but a verbal cue would have been the safer way to go. Pretty much the worst thing that could happen would be that the operator didn’t get the message in time, and nothing would happen, or it would be slightly delayed if the message had to be relayed. That’s definitely a better outcome than the completely wrong piece moving. In this case, there was nothing that cue light could accidentally trigger that would have posed a danger to actors or scenery. Had it been, for instance, a fly cue, more precautions would have needed to be taken to ensure there wasn’t anyone in a position to take something by mistake (although on the rail that’s a lot easier to ascertain than our situation on the deck where the lights were on both sides of the stage and viewed from a variety of operating positions).

After this single embarrassing incident, we began to notice the pattern that when we tried to fix small problems, they had a tendency of causing a worse problem. The remote-controlled lights on a single unit were malfunctioning and the troubleshooting caused half of our moving lights to be accidentally disabled. That kind of thing. It became a running joke on the deck, that was not just a joke but often a good reminder to evaluate the risk vs. reward of our solutions.

Ultimately it’s a universal truth that every little change you make to a show has the potential to cause unforeseen problems, and sometimes those problems may be much more detrimental than whatever you were trying to fix or improve with the change. Of course you can’t stop improving and fixing your show just because something might happen, but it’s a good idea to evaluate all the possible ways it could go horribly wrong, and who might be affected by it that you haven’t thought to inform.

1 Comment »

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