June 11, 2015

The God Mic as Gunshot

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:03 pm

sm58Yesterday’s matinee began like many others — not much going on. With a full and efficient crew, my preshow basically consists of making coffee and pouring myself a cup or two and sipping it from the wings, spending the next hour socializing and watching other people mop, before I do the half-hour stuff (calling half hour, announcements, checking the sign-in sheet, and opening the house), doing pushups and planking at our Crew Workout between 20 and 15, and then generally getting ready to start a show. The purpose of being there for most of that time is that if something goes wrong or anyone arrives with a question, I’m there to handle it.

Not much happened. I got the daily report on which moving light was misbehaving for the day. I don’t really need to know details, but I always joke that if I know the moving lights’ names, it’s a bad sign, so I started learning. Today it was 12, which, of the usual suspects, was the one I knew by name but still couldn’t point to. I recalled it was on the SR box boom somewhere. Since I can’t see it from my calling position in SR2, or on the monitor, its failures are more of a mystery to me. Our AME pointed in its general direction, and shielding my eyes from the other lights on, I found the one mover over there, and now I know who 12 is. In case I had any doubt, it immediately started making an angry mechanical noise.

A group of us had driven up to Maine State Music Theater the night before to see their production of The Full Monty, because it starred two of the actors from Mary Poppins, as well as Kingsley Leggs from the Broadway Sister Act (who had come to visit his former castmates in our show the week before), plus an assortment of other individuals that people in our company knew from other shows. So we got home a little after 1AM, and were kind of tired, and that, along with continued discussion of the show we saw, constituted most of our preshow concerns.

Because we’d had a long weekend, and an outside event in the space over the days off, I started my check-in 4 minutes before curtain time, just to catch any issues a few minutes early, such as unplugged cue lights or broken comm. Our conductor was still booting up his keyboard and computer, which was normal, especially given that I was checking in early. Then something was weird and our A1 (Ashley) suggested rebooting. Which was also within the bounds of normal. Our A2 (Parker) begins the show next to me, ready to hand off the handheld mic to the preshow speaker, and together we watched on the conductor monitor with only mild concern.

When the computer rebooted and still there was no sound, Parker handed me the mic and took off for the pit. Which is also still within the general boundaries of normal. A minute or two of checking cables and whatnot, and maybe we start a few minutes late. I won’t bore you with an account of the next 20 minutes, but eventually Ashley joined him at the pit, and nary a keyboard was to be heard. Except the other one. Which thankfully was Keys 1.

Eventually they had to give up, and Ashley comes offstage to report the situation. We’ll have to do the show without that keyboard. I don’t know all the details of which parts of the orchestration we’ll lose, but I know the other keyboard is the primary one, and I figure they know what they’re doing down there and will make it work. The one thing I know is that Keys 2 has all the special effects. Church bell gongs, and most importantly, gunshots. There are two types of gunshot cues in our show: ones triggered with Qlab at the sound board, which I call, and ones which happen on specific musical beats in the middle of the two chase sequences in the show, which are played on the keyboard. It’s the ones during the chases that we’ll be missing.

Back in the day, we didn’t know for sure if our keyboard would be fancy-shmancy enough to trigger sound effects, so I started learning the gunshots. And I had to yell “bang!” in the rehearsal room, so I’m well acquainted with the chase scores. I still call the first chase off the score because I didn’t know it that well when we teched. It’s only 2 pages. The 2nd chase is very pared down in my book to allow me to spend more time watching the stage and less time flipping pages of the score (it’s loooooong). It’s just got the few lines of dialogue and there are only counts right before cues. The gunshots aren’t indicated at all. But because I’ve been doing this long enough to know better, the full score for the 2nd chase has been sitting at the very back of my calling script the whole time. For what, I had no idea. But it’s always been there ready to be flipped to in the middle of the scene if necessary. And those are the only two things in my book: the calling script itself, and the score for the 2nd chase.

As we’ve gotten more comfortable with the show, and closer to our transfer to Gateway, I’ve started asking myself, “What if something changes and I have to call the gunshots at Gateway?” Last week I put a little pencil bracket around where the three gunshot cues would be called in the first chase. At the last show of the week I tapped my finger on the desk where I would be calling them, with a little up-finger for each rewarn. It’s busy, but I did it, and that made me feel better. I was planning to start thinking about the 2nd chase this week.

Anyway that’s the deal with the gunshots, cut back to yesterday:

It’s now about 23 minutes past curtain time, and we’re about to start the show without our gunshots. I was like, “Um… I could hit the God mic.” Ashley says, “Yeah, we thought about that possibility.” So I shrugged and said, “I’ll try it. What else are we gonna do?” And then we started the show.

I was lucky that I was in a perfect frame of mind for this kind of thing to happen. The show has been running 3 weeks, and I’ve been feeling more and more free to pay attention to things other than my cues and the things I have to watch. Maybe it was getting out to see Full Monty the night before that opened me up to doing something new, but I just so happened to be in the mood that someone could have come up to me and told me to change anything about my performance and I would have welcomed the challenge. If they’d said, “today you have to call all the light cue numbers backwards” (like 321 is 123) I’d have been like, “Oh, fun!” It was just that kind of day, and that was a wonderful thing.

Once we got up and running through the opening number, I used the two pages of dialogue in the first scene to flip ahead to the first chase and put a triangle over the beats with the gunshots (as opposed to the brackets, which are on the beats before, for where I’d be calling the cues).

I assigned our stage right PA, Erin, to guard the mic during that sequence — to keep people away from it, and shush anyone who was talking offstage near it while it was live. I warned our board op that I would be calling the cues in the chase as quietly as possible. When the chase started I flipped the switch on the mic, and on the first gunshot gave the mic a fairly light smack with my hand. It was almost inaudible. For the last two shots I gave it a hard smack, which made a noticeable sound, but over the yelling and music playing, was hardly impressive, or at all suggestive of a gunshot. Somewhat dejected, I turned the mic off. My always droll ASM, Daniel, said it sounded like the gun was farting. I wasn’t looking forward to Act II. I started wondering if Ashley would have time to program more gunshots into Qlab at intermission, or if she even had enough time while mixing to take the cues.

During my slower moments of Act I, I flipped to the back of my script and started studying the 2nd chase. I put two of the gunshots that were near other cues into my regular script pages, but the first one I didn’t know all that well, so I marked up the score very clearly with counts and using a series of post-its, made a giant tab that would allow me to flip from the page I was on, to the relevant starting page in the score, and then back.

At intermission, Ashley came down and said they’d be working on the keyboard and maybe could get it working. By the end of intermission they gave up, having eliminated some troubleshooting steps, but not all the way there. Before heading back to front-of-house, Ashley said, “Just go ahead and really bang the mic on the desk.” I was hoping she had some advice of how to improve the sound, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so violent to her gear. But I was desperate to make these gunshots sound good, and she seemed confident that it would give us the sound we were looking for, so I tried to do exactly as she said and not chicken out. Before we started I adjusted the cable to get enough slack to get the mic comfortably in front of me with room to swing it freely, and away we went.

During the 2nd act I started figuring out where on the desk I was going to bang the mic. Originally I was picturing banging it on the script, since the script takes up the whole desk. But I imagined that, while being kinder on the mic, it would have a very muffled sound. I needed to hit something solid. I also needed to have the mic in my hand, and have my other hand free for cue lights, while still being able to see my script. I thought about the wooden lip that holds the script on the desk, but it was very solid and didn’t seem all that resonant either. The main plywood surface of the desk seemed like it would make the best noise, so I decided on moving my script to my left a little, opening up a narrow strip of the desk on my right-hand side. Quietly and gently, during other scenes, I practiced banging the mic like a drumstick on the desk. When the metal ring around the windscreen hit the desk it made a nice sharp sound. I decided that’s what I was aiming for. I liked having the mic in my hand, since it meant I could turn it on right before the shot and off right after, and be mostly clear to not have to worry about cues or offstage singing/speaking/screaming getting in it.

Proper mic-gunshot striking position:

I spent the whole 2nd act just wanting to get to the chase, not because I was nervous about it, but because I was so excited that the rest of the show just seemed to be in the way of this once-in-a-career opportunity. I was going to get to bang a live mic on a desk to music. In a professional stage production at a highly-respected summer theatre. And I had no idea what it was going to sound like, and I had never even tried to think about the gunshots while calling the show before. The sheer ridiculousness of it made it completely stress-free. There was no better solution, and no time to be more prepared, so whatever happened would be the best we could do under the circumstances.

Just before the chase began I took the mic from its holder and pulled all the slack towards me, and held it in my lap until we got closer. Luckily the first shot happens in a section with no cues nearby. I flipped to the score and followed along towards the shot. Since this was the one I didn’t confidently know, I was a little more nervous. But it went fine, and more than that, it made a sound that, from backstage at least, didn’t sound very much different than the normal gunshots! This might actually work! The mic didn’t break, or squeal, or do anything bad, and I could tell I could hit it a little harder for even better effect.

I flipped back to the regular calling pages, and tore my post-it page-flip contraption apart with my one free hand and threw it somewhere into a dark corner behind the desk. My next gunshot was coming up fast. For this one, I call a cue that lands on the shot, so it was easy: “GO, thwack!” I gave it a hard, confident bang, and it sounded like a gunshot! One of the guys ran by me and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up on his way out to his own gunshot.

The third one happens shortly before a cue, so I was very familiar with it musically because I’m waiting for the little gliss a few counts after it. At this point I was completely enjoying myself and wanted to keep going. But sadly that was my last one. The final shot of the chase, when Curtis comes in, is triggered from the sound board, and I had a cue light lit and waiting for that. I turned the mic off and put it on my lap, and once the chase was over, reluctantly hung it back up on its hook.

I’m hesitant to say this was the most fun I’ve ever had while calling a show, because some crazy stuff has happened in my life, but I can’t actually remember having more fun calling a show right now. It was just the right mix of things being crazy, but not so crazy that we weren’t delivering a high-quality show. I called my usual show and had all the elements I normally have working properly, and on top of that, I got to bang a mic on a desk.

Things were fixed for the evening show, and although we were all exhausted, it was a little bit of a letdown after all that excitement to go back to a normal show. We missed watching our conductor get to conduct, like we were on the Broad way. And I missed the greatest opportunity for permissible audio equipment abuse since Audra dropped the mic on the Tonys.

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