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April 6, 2016

White Christmas Calling Desk

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:50 pm

It’s only April, right? So we’re gonna look at one of my favorite recent calling desks, which took a totally problematic situation and improvised it into an unbelievably comfortable way to call a show. This was at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH, which is also the subject of my Mary Poppins calling desk post. Same desk, very different configuration. We had much different gear to squeeze into it, and the always fantastic crew came up with a really creative way to arrange it that created an even better calling perspective.

So you don’t have to do any work clicking that link, here’s the Poppins desk for reference:
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Wow, those photos were dark.

The basic situation at The Music Hall is that the calling position lives inside what has been affectionately called a “jungle gym” or “cage” by actors and crew. It’s a metal platform structure with an integrated ladder, on top of which sits the theatre’s dimmers. This has both good and bad points: it gives the calling SM a solid zone within which scenery, props and actors can’t really come, so you never lose your basic amount of personal space. On the other hand, you’re in a cage. The Poppins configuration actually felt less cage-like in terms of the backstage flow, but didn’t have as comfortable a view of the show.

It’s hard to really show the whole arrangement, so let’s just jump in with the side view, showing the ladder and basic interior of the cage. This is taken from midstage-right, facing DS, with the stage off to the left. I suggest clicking to enlarge these pics, as they’re much easier to read!

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And here’s the view from the calling position:
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Further back, showing the chair and stairway to the ensemble dressing rooms.
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Needs and Challenges

Figuring out where to put all this stuff was a doozy. The tool box so uselessly crammed in behind the ladder (making the drawers near-impossible to open) is not really supposed to be part of the plan. The normal configuration of the desk is closer to what we did on Poppins. There is a desk that faces downstage, a chair that sits at that desk, and a music stand on the left-hand side that faces the stage. So I guess you put your script on the music stand and face the stage, and all your com and stuff is on the big desk to your right. I haaaaate music stands, and haaaaate not having my script laying flat, so the Poppins arrangement was more like a 45-degree angle in which I was neither facing the stage nor the monitor, but could turn my head a little to see either. It ended up being pretty comfortable under the circumstances, although it was a looooong way between the stage and monitor if I couldn’t see what I needed to see in the first place I looked.

The main difference on White Christmas was that we had this HUGE, beautifully-designed, but HUGE com rack (helpfully labeled on the top “The Karen Parlato Rack‚ĄĘ”). I have never felt so loved by a sound team. But the footprint of this thing was gigantic, and it was tall enough to block all view of whatever it sat in front of. It barely fit on the desk, and I was never completely sure that the desk wasn’t going to collapse under its weight.

While staring at the impossibility of all this, wondering if we needed to take the rack apart to distribute the contents more like they were on Poppins, we came up with the idea of adding additional desk space to fill in what would normally be the area where the SM sits, and shoving the SM to the narrow back corner of the cage (which, on Poppins was used to store furniture, as I recall).

But where would we get such a desk? Fitting a show like White Christmas or Poppins into The Music Hall pretty much uses up every available inch of space. I always say, finding a surface (to put your computer, or write on a piece of paper) is the hardest thing to do. I often used the kitchen table on the Poppins set, or Sheldrake’s desk for White Christmas, both of which were frustratingly cluttered with props.

Somehow we discovered this tool box (which hinges open — what you see is the open position) was exactly the right height to meet the desk. Despite the huge inconvenience of burying their tool box, the crew offered it up as an extension of the desk. Things started to come together.

Yes, the rack blocked a little bit of view downstage, but it was just a matter of leaning forward when it was important (the pic is taken from a little further back, it really wasn’t a big deal from the desk).

The additional desk space (and the fact that all the com was stacked vertically) freed up actually more desk space than we had on Poppins. We got our printer on the desk! Permanently!! USB cable right there! Re-printing paperwork has never been so convenient (aside from the lack of a decent surface to put your laptop on).

What made this layout so awesome is that you can see absolutely everything by facing the same direction:

  • the stage is straight ahead, with quite a wide view depending on what scenery is in
  • the monitors are all straight ahead, and a very quick glance from the stage
  • the script is dead center, a quick glance up to the stage or monitors
  • the cue lights are directly on top of the script, easy to reach with both hands without crossing over the script
  • the com buttons could have been a little closer, it was a bit of a stretch to get there (and why, why, can you not lock on all channels with one button????) so I found myself with my mic on more than I wanted because it was such a process to turn 4 channels on and off

Adjusting the volume on the audio monitor (which I turned off when the offstage singers were live right next to me) required standing on the rung of my chair and leaning way over, but I only did that 6 times in the show.

Let’s talk for a minute about the offstage singers: Poppins had them in the same position (with a bigger conductor monitor mounted up high on the exterior of the cage), but they sang off their own mics. Offstage singing on White Christmas is a little more serious business, mainly because of the quintet in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Rather than use their mics, it was decided to let their voices blend naturally into a single, fancy-schmancy mic that they would all gather around. There were like spike marks on the floor and stuff, and an A2 who would come over and set everything up and make sure everyone was in the right position. It was pretty cool to get to watch, and they sounded incredible. That mic was stored in the little nook between the onstage edge of the calling desk and the arbors that are positioned there like, “Oops, were you trying to look at the stage through all these ropes and counterweights?” If that mic hadn’t had to store there, I wanted to try pushing the tool box forward a little to get closer to the stage, a better view of the wings, and closer to the com rack, but alas: It needed to be there, as that was a very safe spot.

I turned off my audio monitor whenever they were singing, just in case, and had notes in my script about which cues to call quietly, and when to hold warnings until they were done (helpfully notated with the technical term “STFU”), and one in particular that said “have to do warns” in a spot where one might be inclined to say, “I’ll wait till they’re done singing,” and one would later realize that there wasn’t time elsewhere in the number.

The Cage

The main reason the desk felt more cage-like than Poppins was because I was shoved back into the narrow nook between the stairwell to the basement and the tall prop shelf. I literally had to climb over my chair to get in. Sometimes, no joke, it took me over a minute to get in or out. The prop shelf directly beside me blocked a lot of my view of most people stage right, unless I stood on my chair rung and leaned forward. When leaning, I could see all the way upstage, to the staircase running up to the 2nd-floor (principal) dressing rooms. I assisted with the places head count from my excellent vantage point being able to see most of the principals coming down from those stairs, as well as ensemble members coming up the stairs right next to me.

Anyone who wanted to visit with me basically had two options, both of which required a little more effort than a normal calling desk position: either they leaned over the “Blue Skies” canes and talked to me between the rungs of the ladder (my “ladder window” as I called it), or they came around my back and onto the top step of the basement stairs, where they would be on my right shoulder if I leaned back a little. This position was more comfortable for long or private conversation, but it required both of us to decide, “We’re going to talk now” and get in that position. When Daniel and I really needed to work something out he’d come around there, and that was the spot for more prolonged conversation with actor-friends on the couple occasions where we had significant mutual breaks. The ability to see what the show looked like on the monitors also attracted some visitors over there.

The “ladder window” was more popular for quick chats with people as they picked up their props or waited for entrances, and also was right next to a primary quickchange location, so I could keep tabs on what was going on based on the hurried reports of actors as they changed.

I had a much more open view of backstage on Poppins, the problem was the show was so busy and the scenery so crammed in the wing that nobody was ever nearby to talk to. If the prop shelf wasn’t there, the new setup would have been a lot more open and accessible. Now to find a way to relocate that 3 square feet of space for next year…

Monitors

I had a plan for the monitors, which our wonderful sound department bothered to implement between the two weeks of our run.

The usual issue is that in order to see “normal” scenes well on the color monitor, the light sensitivity is such that followspots or other super-bright lighting completely washes out whatever they hit (which, you know, is usually whoever or whatever is most important on the stage at the moment). This is not something that can be fixed by adjusting the brightness or other knobs on the monitor. It’s because the camera is sending white-white-white to the display. The only way to get it to display anything other than white is to reduce the light going into the camera.

So I suggested (begged?) that they try adding a neutral-density gel over the camera until it got to the point where someone in a followspot can be seen (at least, like, enough to pick out the shape of a human being), and if that means that other things onstage become too dark to see, hopefully that thing isn’t too washed out on the infrared, and between the two cameras I’ll be able to see everything.

It worked! The dressing room scene makes an excellent illustration of how this works, thus, I took pictures.
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So here’s the deal: we have a split-screen thing going on, with the boys SR and the girls SL. When the scene begins we see the boys in their dressing room, rather brightly lit (with practical sconces and mirror lights), and the girls’ room is initially inactive and barely glowing. With the camera filtered, we see the boys very clearly, including the position of their bodies, and even some detail on what articles of clothing they have on (which is helpful in a scene which is all about choreographed dressing).

You may be thinking, “Well, duh, you should be able to see the actors’ bodies!” but this is not how the view was out-of-the-box, with professional gear. One of them could have fallen over and crashed through the dressing table while putting their shoes on, and other than saying “what was that noise?”, I’d have no idea what was happening unless hopefully the board op or one of the followspots was watching the stage and could tell me. It should also be pointed out that in this scene, like the train scene, the set blocked 100% of the view from offstage, so the only way anyone offstage could know what was happening was via the monitors. So like, someone should be able to see what’s happening onstage.

So with our new-and-improved system, in the left-hand picture you see what it looks like when the boys are doing their scene: their room is clearly depicted. The girls’ room, which is in a near-blackout with some spill, is totally invisible. But that’s OK! To look at their room, glance down at the infrared.

When the scene shifts over to the girls, their room is brightly lit, yet very clearly visible on the color monitor. The boys are in half-light, as they continue getting dressed, with the practicals still providing a little light so you can just barely make out their positions from their light-colored sleeves. And down on the infrared, you see the girls totally washed out, as expected, and the boys slightly washed out (probably due to the bare bulbs on the mirror — not the most ideal situation to use the IR camera, but something of a rare case).

This is sort of an extreme case of how the two cameras work together throughout the whole show. Something that is bright can be seen on the color camera, and darker details can be seen on IR. And of course the IR can’t be dulled down too much, or it won’t be able to see in pitch black, which is the whole point. Yes, it requires looking back and forth sometimes. The first night with the new arrangement was a little bit disorienting. I was not, for example, expecting the projections during the overture to be invisible in color. I seriously thought the projections had failed, until I noticed they were clearly visible in IR (except sadly not in color, as some of the cues specifically changed the color of the projections). And by that point halfway through the run I was used to automatically knowing when to look at the stage, when at the color, and when at the IR, and I had to figure out on the fly where I needed to be looking with the new system, and then re-train my muscle memory.

But it all worked out, and nothing could beat being able to pick out actual people during the musical numbers. I found myself actually watching the show more than I had before, not feeling like I was wearing a blindfold, struggling to make sense of the shades of white swirling around on the monitor. I’m so glad I really pressed to get that change made, and eternally grateful to the sound guys who took the time once we were open to futz around with the cameras.

Considering all of this was figured out on the morning of our first-and-final dress, I think we came up with a fantastic calling position out of a difficult situation, and I can’t wait to apply what we learned to this coming year!


March 8, 2016

Calling Off an iPad

I call this: iOS,mac,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:58 am

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If there’s one area where I’m a real technophobe, it’s the calling script. I don’t want a script where anything can go wrong with it, short of it catching fire (and aside from one particular performance of Phantom, I’ve never actually felt that was a possibility).

Technology is great, but we make certain tradeoffs in reliability to embrace the latest capabilities. For the same reason we don’t want space ships and airplanes running Windows 10, I don’t want anything more complicated than ink and dead trees determining my access to the calling script during a show.

However, there are a lot of stage managers, some I respect very much, using computers and tablets to call their shows, even on Broadway. I’d like to spend more time shadowing these people on larger shows to see what hardware and software they’re using and study how it works and what the pros and cons are in regular use. But I felt no hurry to try it myself.

My booth on Silence! The Musical was so small and inconvenient that when I started I did experiment with using an iPad very briefly (my ASM had taken another solution, of having the script printed and bound in half-page size, so it fit on one of the few available surfaces). I don’t remember much about the iPad experience except that I didn’t like it and very quickly (like maybe within the same performance) went back to paper. I think in that case, it may have been largely because I was still becoming comfortable with the show and I didn’t like that the page is smaller than paper-sized and thus harder to read (especially since the booth layout meant the script couldn’t be right in front of me). Also, the whole idea of the page turn lagging for even a second was a huge turn-off.

Years went by, and although I’m curious how other people stand it, I’d never cared to try again.

This winter I was the PSM on Broadway and the Bard, a one-man show starring Len Cariou on which I was light board op, sound board op, A2, props, basically everything except (usually) wardrobe. It was pretty much the cleanest possible scenario in which to try something potentially stupid. The show, while beautifully designed with a good number of cues to keep me busy, was very contained, never too crazy. It was a guy on a stage with a stool, a bench, and another guy at a piano. Nothing really moved. They talked. They sang. Most important for the purposes of this experiment, I couldn’t kill anybody. And once we’d been running about a week, I was comfortable enough that I had sections of the show memorized. I started making an effort to test myself, thinking ahead to what all the cues were on the next page, checking, and then running that page without looking, all in preparation so that by the end of week 2 of our 6-week run, I could reasonably expect to be able to continue calling the show if I couldn’t access my script for, say, 30 seconds.

Once I felt confident, I charged my iPad that I never have a use for, and put the already-typed calling script on it. I used GoodReader as my PDF-reading app. I found it worked well enough, so I didn’t bother trying any others. The first time I used it for a show, I had the paper script open and was keeping it on the correct page. After that I put it off to the side closed, but someplace where I could grab it quickly. For reasons I never figured out, the later pages of the PDF got garbled where all the text boxes had rendered in the wrong place, which I didn’t discover until turning to the first of the corrupted pages. So I did get to experience the failure of the script and having to go back to paper, and on this show, it was fine. I also want to point out that the messed up formatting happened in the conversion from Word to PDF, and had nothing to do with the rendering on the iPad. But just so you know, I tried to open the Word doc directly on the iPad in a couple different apps, and as one would expect, it completely sucks at rendering text boxes with the kind of accuracy required here. If you type your cues in-line, you’d probably have better luck.

As I had thoughts about the iPad during various performances, I jotted them in my performance notes:

  • At this point I would never use the iPad on a show where not being able to see the script for a few seconds could get someone hurt. It might be very unlikely to have a problem, but it’s still not worth it. I was lucky on this show to always be able to format the script to avoid bad page turns. Any lag, or an unexpected popup taking focus when trying to turn the page, could cause a problem on a show that requires fast page turns.
  • One of my other big issues in the past is that I like to make pencil marks in my script all the way through a run. I would definitely want to be using a pencil through tech and the early part of a run where I was actively refining the call, but on a show like Bard, it did eventually slow down to the point where changes were few. Also the layout of the booth put my script binder above the light board, which made it harder to doodle in. Using the iPad actually allowed me to have the script closer, and easier to tinker with. I don’t use GoodReader all that much, but the few times I wanted to change placements or mark things I needed to pay attention to, I could, at the next gap between cues (even if it was 30 seconds), add some text or an arrow, and place and color it appropriately in the short time available. It’s actually cool in some ways to be able to have a red arrow or giant red-and-yellow text instead of a pencil mark. But I still think on a more complicated show, where there isn’t going to be time to do more than throw down a very quick pencil mark, it would not be as good. But that’s probably the same kind of show where I can kill people, so it’s moot I guess.
  • If I were spending time to actually format a script with the intention of using it in this way, I could’ve eliminated the margins so the text could be bigger and the white space around the pages wouldn’t be wasted.
  • I think part of the reason I wasn’t bothered by the size of the text or the difficulty in marking the script was that at this point I wasn’t actually reading the script to find out what the cues were. As a board op, I don’t need to say the cue numbers out loud, and as far as placement goes, it’s more of a visual thing. I’m not really reading the text like I’ve never seen it before. I can glance at the cue on the page and the only reason I need to see it is to go, “ah yes, that one.” A quick glance is all that’s needed, so a scaled-down PDF works just fine.
  • I had accidental page turns on occasion when I just brushed or tapped the screen with my finger on the sides. In at least one case I didn’t notice I did it until I looked back at the script and saw I was on the wrong page. On the other hand, the efficiency of motion needed to turn the page was great, especially on a show I was operating with both hands for much of the time. And although this particular booth was pretty isolated sound-wise, in a small house with audience close by, the fact that you can rapidly turn the page silently is a plus.
  • I hate glossy screens, in life in general. I understand why tablets need to be glossy more than laptops. Still. I had to cover some LEDs on the gear in the booth because they were reflecting off the screen.
  • I have an iPad 3. I can’t really comment on the later ones which are a bit thinner, but as a thing of limited usefulness, it’s kind of heavy. Maybe smaller and lighter than a paper script, but here’s the difference: I never bring my script home. Depending on the security of the theatre, I’d be less likely to leave my iPad overnight, which means I’m lugging it around. In this case, I did leave it at the theatre (hidden) because I refused to lug it around. But that’s not exactly smart. If you actually use your iPad for other things, and don’t carry your laptop every night, this probably isn’t a hardship.
  • Battery life was pretty good, especially when in airplane mode. And somehow it made me laugh (and shake my head) when I’d say to myself, “I should charge my script overnight.” Of course if I’d planned this from the start, I’d have the charger run to a position where it could be plugged in at the desk instead of on a table behind me, but as long as I checked the battery life every couple days it was fine. I think I only charged it two or three times in four weeks.

Overall, my opinion was that I quickly came to prefer the iPad on this show. I don’t know how much bigger a show could get before I didn’t want to use it, but I’m willing to figure that out, because it actually was very handy. My next show could be a good candidate for something more complicated but not too complicated. We’ll see.


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:
mic

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.


December 30, 2014

Calling from Backstage

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:15 pm

IMG_4899This is sort of an addendum to my recent post on how I chose my calling position on Mary Poppins. I was going to go into detail about the advantages I experienced calling from backstage, and eventually realized I had so much to say about it that it could really be its own post.

The most basic and practical advantage to calling from backstage is that you don’t have to walk far to get there. First of all, the stairs to the balcony were particularly exhausting in this venue, and the whole path went through the audience, so the travel time could be seriously delayed to get through the crowd. I’ve definitely started shows late because of a crowded front-of-house. Once situated in a booth, there are plenty of things that I might want or need from backstage that I would forego because it would take too long, or too much effort, to go back. And you don’t have to compete with the line at the ladies’ room if you can go backstage. I mean you still have to compete, but there are less potential pee-ers, and they will generally let you go ahead if they see you waiting.

But the most important thing to me about calling from backstage is that I think it’s better for morale because I get to spend quality time with the cast and crew as we work together to make a performance. Often when in a run I feel like I don’t see the cast enough. If they keep to their dressing rooms before the show, and I’m in the booth the entire show (maybe not even coming down at intermission if it would take too long to fight the crowds), then we never really see each other and it can feel a little distant. I always expect the ASM to get closer to the cast than I am, but I also don’t want to be a shadowy figure sitting behind glass who is only accessible by passing messages through someone else. Especially when I have such a fondness for a cast as I did on this show, I wanted to have easy access to them, and for them to feel like I was around if they needed to talk.

The Check-In

I made it a point — before every act, and at the end of the day or show — to set aside at least two minutes to make a pass through the 2nd-floor crossover where all the principals and most of the Equity chorus had their rooms. I usually made it to the ensemble rooms in a dead-end tunnel of the sub-basement, about once a day. I didn’t bother people if their doors were closed (unless I specifically needed to talk to them), but I made sure everyone knew I was passing through if they had anything to say, and our Mary and Bert generally got some kind of direct contact of at least a quick “Everything good?”, “How did your flight feel?” etc.

Sometimes it was nice just to say hi, and participate in the social life of backstage. There was one room in particular that I often stopped in not because I expected the occupants needed anything, but because I knew they’d probably have something interesting to chat about.

During one performance I was having a really frustrating first act dealing with technical issues, and found a gaggle of actors and musicians gathered in the hall, and joined in on their conversation with an “is everybody having a better show than I am?” This was a good opportunity to explain what the hell was going on and that it was fixed, and have a laugh about what the actors were thinking onstage, and totally unexpectedly I got a very good backrub through most of the conversation. I absolutely delayed places because I was getting a backrub and being entertained out of my frustration, so I was glad when I finally got to the calling desk to hear the house was requesting a 20-minute intermission. Seriously, knowing when your stage manager needs a backrub is a special skill, and if you’re calling from the deck there are dozens of people nearby, one of whom might possess that skill. It probably isn’t your light board op.

There was one show in particular that I thought was a fantastic performance but the audience was kind of lackluster, so I went upstairs when we came down, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and the cast felt as good about it as I did. They were glad to hear that I agreed it was their best show, even if the faces out there in the dark weren’t giving them a lot of support.

Artist's rendering of the audience in question.

Artist’s rendering of the audience in question.


I find that my mood can sometimes color my impression of a performance, so I like to have some kind of verification before I say something in the report like “This was the best show ever, and the other 900 people who saw it are wrong.” Being backstage removes a step from that process. A lot of the time I find myself asking the ASM, after everyone has gone, “how did the cast feel about tonight’s show?” and well, that’s kind of a lame way to do it. Also, I went up there selfishly looking for material for my report, but when I got there I saw the real benefit in the faces of the actors, who were genuinely thankful to hear that somebody noticed what a good show it was, and you don’t get that by doing it through a third party.

But when I wasn’t getting backrubs and giving pep-talks, I was doing the real work of keeping the show running: getting things done and fixing the show. Rather than avoid opening the door too wide to any and all complaints and requests, I welcomed it. My attitude was to put myself in everybody’s face as often as possible, in the hopes that they would tell me how I could make their show better.

I should note that this is not my usual M.O. It’s something I think I could work on, so I used this opportunity, and this lovely group of actors, to play with cranking my accessibility up to 11, to see just how helpful I could be. Part of what made this possible was how well-supported I was by management and crew. I had all the time in the world to take care of the cast because everybody else was doing their jobs. And the cool thing is, when you’re not stuck doing things that aren’t your job, and everyone else is able to do their jobs well and without much supervision, the PSM actually doesn’t have a lot to do, except be around to find out what else can be done better.

This was the case even sometimes in the middle of tech. I love when we can take a 10 and I literally have nothing to do for 10 minutes. And because I’m sometimes a bit calculating with how my behavior affects everyone else, rather than just sit at the tech table tweeting for 10 minutes, I often took advantage of the opportunity to show my face around the theatre — in the dressing rooms, on the deck, in the lobby where the producery-types had made their office — specifically for the purpose of being like, “Hey. No, just saying hi. How’s it going for you? Oh, there’s a funny YouTube video of Mary Poppins as a horror movie? Let’s all stand in the middle of the stage and watch it right now, cause your tech is going so well that this is what your PSM is doing.” I know from previous feedback that this kind of thing works wonders in everyone else having an enjoyable tech, so in addition to watching YouTube videos, I began my dressing-room-hallway flybys, just to show that although tech isn’t about the actors, this tech is so under control that it could be about the actors if they needed anything. With this pattern established, I made it a predictable occurrence as we continued into the run, in the hopes that people would think of things to ask me, secure in the knowledge that any problem they had could be taken care of swiftly.

It became something of a game for me, which is actually a very Mary Poppins life lesson, about making things that could be work seem like fun. I challenged myself to make sure that any note I was given was fixed immediately, whatever bad thing was happening never happened again, and any question, if I did not know the answer, I quickly hunted down the right person and came back with an answer. Anything from issues with the heat, to props getting stuck on scenery, to missed mic pickups of lines that aren’t in the script, to broken dressing room chairs, to soap running out in the mens’ room, to escorting backstage guests was something I enjoyed providing prompt and effective service on.

My proudest moment was a team effort, as one night after the show our PA alerted me to a potential problem that I hadn’t heard about. I was flabbergasted — it seemed impossible that this could be a real problem (a safety issue, no less) that had gone unreported with the amount of time I spent hanging around, prodding everyone to think of anything that was on their mind. I suspected one of those situations where something happens in the heat of the performance, and by the time there’s an opportunity to tell someone, it’s three scenes later and long forgotten. And then the next night it happens again, and the cycle continues.

So next intermission I swing around the dressing room door with, “Hey, I don’t know if this is a thing, but is there a scene change in Act II where you could potentially get crushed?”

“Yes! I almost die every night! How did you know?”

Because I am your magical PSM. If you don’t remember to tell me when I make my check-ins (many of which you actually answer with a cheery “I don’t feel like I’m going to die”), my magical minions have eyes everywhere. And now that I know what’s happening from your perspective, we can employ a change right now, ensuring you will never be nearly-squished again. #dropstheheadset No but seriously, I gave our PA most of the credit, cause it takes a village to keep a cast alive.

On the Deck

As I said in my earlier post, I was disappointed how little contact I got with people while the show was going on. The deck was crowded, and as a result everyone instinctively knew that if you were hanging out, you were going to be in the way of actors, crew or scenery who had a need to be where you were standing. So there wasn’t a lot of hanging out, at least not downstage right, and due to large chimneys and houses stage left, I’d imagine people got the hell out of there, too. Or maybe waited on top of chimneys and houses for a while, I don’t know.

When I picture calling from the deck, I think of those moments where you know you’ll see certain people. Maybe you have a little ritual you develop for that moment. And it’s important to learn the times during the show that you have a chance to get a word with people of note, if the need arises — your ASM, your head carp, your leads (especially those who rarely leave the stage), the dance captain. We did eight shows in five days, and I know if we’d run longer things would have relaxed enough to allow for more of that, but the inherent pace and structure of the show still would have limited it.

As it turned out, the moments I had any chance to talk to people were almost nil. The stage right offstage singing position was right behind me, which you’d think, “cool!” Yeah, but I’m still calling cues, and they’re singing, so every time I had the impulse to turn around and wave, I realized I’d be calling a cue right into somebody’s mic. And the moment they were done singing, they were scampering down the stairs to their dressing room to get out of the way and make their next change. So much for that.

The number of times in the show where an actor was standing next to me in a moment of calm for the both of us, for long enough to speak words? One. ONE. It was at the top of “Feed the Birds,” when Mary and the kids arrived for their entrance. The whole time they were there was maybe 20 seconds. In reality, between me finishing calling the scene change, and them moving into position to enter, it was more like 5 or 10 useful seconds of communication. Make eye contact of the “everything good?”/”good” variety, and then maybe a couple extra seconds for pleasantries, like actually saying those words out loud, or perhaps a brief comment on the performance, and off they went. A couple times there was something of actual content to say, like we’re working on the monitor issue. But the good thing was that we had eight deck crew members on headset, plus the A2, so in the event anything important had to be said between me and any actor, they could always find a nearby crew member to tell, and whenever I asked, “Is anybody near so-and-so?” the answer was always yes. So the in-person check-in was really just for socializing, or sharing anything not urgent enough to interrupt anyone, but I was still sad that I barely saw anyone.

Occasionally crew members or ensemble on their way downstairs would spend a moment standing behind me watching the show on the monitor, but the pathway would not be able to be blocked for long. My friend Jimmy, who played Robertson Ay, had a significant amount of time offstage, and would sometimes tuck into my jungle-gym (if you haven’t read the other post, I was under a platform, and the ladder and legs of said platform provided me with a footprint of personal space), to watch for a while. One night we had a prop get stuck on the apron and needed to get it struck, and of course the one time I needed to send him onstage as actor-conveniently-dressed-as-a-butler, he wasn’t there with me (and, I should correct myself, this was the one time when I asked “is anybody near so-and-so?” and nobody was, because his dressing room was in the bowels of the earth).

Word to the wise: make time to find out in advance how audible your paging system is to the audience if used during a performance. I would have paged him to come to the calling desk but I didn’t because I was afraid it might be too loud onstage. So instead we sent out a stagehand-conveniently-dressed-as-a-stagehand during a scene change, which is not quite as slick. Although if you’ve read my other Mary Poppins post, Being Too Clever, you would know that our attempt to solve the problem elegantly would have inevitably resulted in something far worse than an audience seeing a glimpse of a burly black-clad figure in the dark.

After the first few days of controlled chaos, things did calm down enough that the crew was able to wander over to chat once in a while. Our crew chief spent most of his track flying at the arbor right in front of me, so we were usually within sight of each other. Daniel, the ASM, was also able to be around more and more as things settled down. There were a few times when the three of us being able to chat off-headset while the show was going on helped us to better plan our response to unexpected situations.

Other than the fact that the show itself made things so crowded and crazy, calling from backstage was everything I hoped it would be and more. As I had hoped, I had good line of sight to the actors during most of the scenes. Although I never noticed how many of the Mary-snaps-and-something-happens cues were staged with her in my blind spot midstage-right. The ones where I could see her were a lot of fun. The ones where I was going just on knowing her timing and an incredibly blurry and low-contrast figure on a monitor were terrifying. I think I usually got them, but who knows. I have vague memories of getting completely psyched-out once, but I took my rehearsal-hall mock calls very seriously, so it’s possible that feeling of abject humiliation happened not only not in front of an audience, but quite possibly not in front of anyone. Which didn’t make it less terrifying.

The show had an unusually high number of cues that could be taken on acting beats, and that number grew higher the more I saw of the acting. With such performances to hang a cue on, who needs words or blocking to mark the separation between one thing and the next? It was a great advantage to be so close to the stage for all those cues. They were the easiest to call. I guess it also didn’t hurt that in the typical bane of my stock existence, I spent every single rehearsal with the principals. So I could write a paragraph to describe the moment in Christiane’s acting upon which a light shift from the living room to the office will occur, but I couldn’t call the dance break of “Step in Time” without counting it. But honestly, what I found — contrary to my expectations — was that the show is more about that shift from the living room to the office than it is about dancing chimney sweeps. Except Bert dancing on the ceiling. I literally considered my job description to be (1) be able to call the Bert walk correctly, by heart, every time, before we ever set foot in the theatre. (2) Call the rest of the show. (3) Schedules n’ shit.

Hi

Whatever, McKayla. If you look far stage right, you can see all the fucks I was giving about pleasing anyone within 20 feet of the ground.


December 15, 2014

Mary Poppins Calling Desk

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:23 pm

Probably the first real decision I had to make on my whirlwind experience as PSM of Ogunquit’s “Mary Poppins” remount at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH, was to take a site visit of the venue and choose a calling position.

I’ve probably talked about my thought process before. When I was on the road my general pattern was that if a venue had proper video and audio monitors or sightlines to the stage, I would call from the deck. Partially this was because we were in a new theatre nearly every day, and I was very comfortable with the show and wanted to mix it up. Also, walking back and forth to the booth is annoying and sometimes lonely. And not just lonely, but I think bad for morale because I can’t be a part of the backstage life as much.

However, I also liked to call from a nice booth, because it’s easier to really see what’s going on in the show, and judge its whole impact on the audience from their perspective. If you know a show well you can call cues from backstage and know they’re doing what you want, but when in an unfamiliar situation (either a new show, or a venue with significant differences), it’s the only way to know you’re really calling things right.

So I was torn. I wasn’t going to get much time at the tech table. I was really unfamiliar with the operation of the deck, having left that to my ASM Daniel, who already knew the show, while I spent the 6-day rehearsal process focused on learning the show itself and the placement of my cues in it. Being backstage seemed like it might give me a better understanding of how the show operated, and a perspective on what was going on during a problem. Also, I’d be able to spend more time checking in with the actors and crew and generally making sure everything was running smoothly. And I might actually get to know the ensemble, who I hardly ever saw in rehearsal.

We got the site tour, and I was shown my two options, and took photos so that I could look back at them again if I needed to re-consider.

The first option was backstage under a little dimmer platform, behind a short downstage arbor, looking through the ropes. It was a weird view, but not awful. And the legs and ladder for the platform overhead provided a nice barrier to give me some personal space (the ensemble dubbed it the “jungle gym” when they saw it). The sightlines upstage reached to the upper edge of wing 2 across the stage, and only wing 1 on my side, of course. Not perfect, but pretty good for where our scenes played, and there was a decent amount of room to lean in either direction to see upstage or down to the apron. Due to the intricacy of the “Bert walk” Foy effect, in which an actor walks and dances up the proscenium, over the top upside down, and then down the other side, my first caveat was that I would only call from backstage if I had a camera view sufficient to clearly see the position of his feet all the way across. I was told I could.

IMG_4882

The other option was a booth in the balcony, which was not luxurious but not tiny either. The view was almost-center and unobstructed. There was an optional window (which I said I would want to keep, and add an audio monitor). I’d have a nice view of the gorgeous theatre, and a far away and steep, but clear view of the stage. My “cons” about the booth were the fact it would be a real hike to get to, and it was a little far away for the kind of acting-based cues I already knew I would have, and wanted to be able to do justice to. I felt confident I could see those kinds of moments better by watching them sideways from backstage.

IMG_4879

There was a third option, of an open desk adjacent to the booth in the balcony, which was where the light board ended up. That was vigorously and immediately ruled out by me, and by Daniel on my behalf, that there’s no way to call such a show from the audience.

Finally the tour concluded back on the deck, and the venue’s TD turned to me with the words I was dreading, “So where do you want to call from?” I hemmed and hawed. Daniel had told me that my predecessor had called from stage right in a similar position, without any particular problems, so that assured me it was a basically sound idea. I had him come look again at the backstage desk with me, and try to imagine what issues I wasn’t thinking of. There would be guys flying at the arbor in front of me occasionally, but that’s why I have a camera. So I went with stage right.

The end result

IMG_4898 2

IMG_4899 2

When we arrived for the day of our dry tech (yes, we did a dry tech, which in my experience is rare and usually not that helpful, but definitely allowed us to save six hours of headaches without the actors on the clock), the calling position was still buried in other equipment, so I remained in denial for a while and got comfy at the nicely-apointed tech table I was given.

I familiarized myself with the cue light system our ME had provided. This was a fun process because the only limitation I was given was that there were eight switches, and I could ask for whatever Daniel and I wanted them to do. We met up on a lunch break (because we were pretty much rehearsing in separate buildings the entire time), and hashed out our needs and desires.

IMG_4887

What I requested was:

  • On the deck, ropelight running the depth of the stage on both sides — red, blue, and green, the colors on both sides controlled by a single switch. High enough to be visible from across the stage, so you can see your light no matter which way you’re facing. I requested red/blue/green, but they were plugged in as red/green/blue, and by that point I was actually considering doing that anyway, so we kept it, as red was primarily rail, green was primarily traveler moves, and blue was primarily (and by the time we opened, exclusively) set moves, so it made sense to keep red and green together.
  • A yellow cue light on the fly rail (both sides — it’s a hemp house). A second color here was on our wish list, but we sacrificed it to split the downstage lights into left and right. We planned to call this light Tinkerbell, if indeed we were able to get yellow (as we had our meeting the day after an epic Peter Pan Live-watching party), but to be honest by the time things calmed down enough and we got friendly enough with the crew, I had totally forgotten about it, and am just remembering it now. Which is a shame. I think they might have liked it.
  • Independently-controlled downstage cue lights in wing 1 on either side (colored blue for minimum distracting spill if they glowed in view of the audience).
  • Sound
  • Conductor

I went home that night and stayed up till some ungodly hour matching the switch numbers to the cues in my inherited script, and re-ordering them in the script to match the numerical order of my chosen layout. Daniel provided me with his work-in-progress run sheets, and a list of where each flying piece was operated from (some from the fly rail, some on the deck), and as I went through the show I checked for any transitions that couldn’t be accomplished with our design. There were a few re-warns, but easy enough to do.

I sent our request to the ME, and heard back soon that it should be attainable. When we arrived to dry tech, I met him for the first time, and immediately got some evidence of his sense of humor. The conductor’s cue light was a Christmas tree. Not Christmas tree lights. Not lights in the shape of a Christmas tree. Not even a tiny light-up plastic Christmas tree. I mean an actual (fake) stand-up, leaves-and-all Christmas tree, maybe 2 feet tall, strung with multicolored lights, and sitting smack in the middle of the pit. It’s one of the most whimsical things I’ve ever seen in a theatrical operating environment. The pit was not sunk very low below the audience, so it wouldn’t have been subtle in the event I needed to contact him during the show, but I only needed to do that once, and I was stopping the show during the overture because the house lights weren’t responding.

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Backstage the Jolly Holiday cheer continued (yes, we know “Jolly Holiday” doesn’t mean holiday like we say in the States, and this was a matter of great debate in a marketing sense, but the pro-Jolly-Holiday contingent won out over the sticklers for accuracy, and we frequently threw the word “Jolly” in whenever it was mentioned that this was a holiday-season-based production).

Instead of finding red, green, and blue rope light, we found green and blue Christmas lights, and candy-cane-striped rope light. I decided to go for the morale boost of changing whatever calling muscle-memory I had developed in the rehearsal room, and to warn on the “candy cane” rather than on the Red. It was only two more syllables, though the hardest thing about learning to call the show was to fit the warnings in. I think the candy cane is what distracted us from calling the yellow cue light Tinkerbell (or “Tink” as I suggested it would have to be called, for the aforementioned syllable-rationing reasons). I think by the end of the 8-show run I was comfortable enough that I could have called it “Supercalifragilisticexpialicuelight” and could have made it work.

All the other lights were conventional theatrical cue lights, but the Christmas-y feel when our three main deck lights were lit seemed to put everyone in the holiday spirit. When we discovered an actor had a hard time hearing a dialogue cue to enter through a door, I suggested a cue light, and chose the candy cane simply to be festive.

I was very grateful that the switches were up-and-down and not left-to-right. I kept saying to Daniel, as I practiced with mock cue lights in the rehearsal room, “If these switches are sideways I’m gonna cry!” The really heavy toggles are not my first preference, but the orientation, spacing and reliability were so good that it was still better than most possibilities. I have short fingers, and the panel was angled relative to my body, so I had trouble reliably getting an equal distribution of force to get all the lights off exactly together when throwing 4 or 5 switches at a time. There were quite a few 4-at-once cues, but only one 5-at-once, and most of the time it was a little scary, as my fingers would sometimes slip off the sides without throwing the switch, but it all worked out.

The calling desk

When we finished tech (a day for each act, ending a little early each day, which disappointed me a little, but was respectable), we only had one afternoon for a dress before our first preview that night. So the night before I was faced with my second-most-nervewracking question: did I want to call the sole run from the tech table or the calling position? And I chose, as I always do, the calling position, as if there’s something totally unworkable about it (can’t see or can’t hear), I’d like to discover that in a rehearsal I can stop, and not with an audience in the house. It was especially a no-brainer on a show like this, where there are only a few dropping-flying-things-on-actors dangers, but a number of Foy cues, the clear operation and calling of which was of course given priority over anything else on the show.

But the downside was that I never got to call the show from the house, so I was flying a bit blind as far as the artistry of calling the show. Tech wasn’t all that helpful from an artful-calling perspective because we didn’t repeat sequences very often, and I was so focused on getting the set onstage and getting all the words out, that I didn’t usually have any time to call a light cue and study it in depth. And a lot changes as the designers tinker anyway.

So on the day of our first preview, having never called the show (which was an awful feeling!) I approached the calling desk with trepidation, to figure out how I would set it up. If I faced the stage, the monitor with the front-of-house view would have been just behind my right shoulder, and I’d have to call on a steeply-pitched music stand, which is not my cup of tea. I didn’t like that prospect. If I faced the monitor, my script could be on the desk, but I’d have to turn a full 90 degrees to glance at the stage.

Quite sensibly, I decided to try splitting the difference. If I called the show diagonally, I wouldn’t be facing anything of use, but I’d have the comm and the volume adjustment for vocals over my script, and closer to my left hand, and the cue lights in front of my right hand. The stage would be a 45 degree glance left, and the monitors a 45-degree glance right. And my chair swiveled, so I could pivot as the moment required, to watch the stage more comfortably, or to use both hands (as I usually had to) to throw cue lights. It felt pretty comfortable as I set things up and imagined myself calling the show.

The front-of-house camera ended up being an interesting situation. Originally it was in the booth at the center of the balcony. It was a great view, until the curtain call of the first preview, when we discovered that when the back row stood up (a good problem to have — the back row was always full, and they always stood), they completely blocked the camera. I called the spot pickup for Mary’s bow based on where she was approaching behind the ensemble when I last saw her. I have no idea if it was right. And then I was like, “Well thank God the rest of the show is all musical cues!” and I proceeded to call the 3-minute finale totally blind from FOH.

When we discussed it at the production meeting that night, I was asked if I would be OK with it being somewhat off-center, as that was the only location available to mount it high enough. I didn’t think I’d ever used a significantly off-center camera, but the show didn’t have a single “when _____ gets to center” cue (except for stopping Bert at the top of the proscenium during the Bert walk, which is a musical thing, and his feet are literally right below the ornamental decoration at the middle of the proscenium, so it’s easy to tell). I didn’t feel it would be a problem even if it was somewhat noticeable. But the distance between camera and stage was so great, I really couldn’t tell. The photos here were taken after the move was made. I basically forgot all about it.

The conductor camera was a tiny one mounted above his music stand, and had a perfect view, and as an added bonus, clearly showed a good chunk of the audience, which was helpful for observing audience reactions (if they’re quiet, are they at least smiling?) and the timing of the standing ovation.

I didn’t use the music stand in front of me (which was bolted to the desk) for much. I put the God mic on it (sometimes with a post-it to remind me of things I wanted to announce), and whatever else I needed to store.

Over the course of the short run, I really fell in love with the layout. It wasn’t perfect, but I think I really got the most ergonomic solution out of the situation I was dealt. The audio deal was actually cool, too. At my feet was the stage right monitor for the actors to hear the orchestra, which of course had no vocals, but as much music as a body could want. Our sound designer then gave me a small monitor right in my face with just vocals, that could be adjusted from soft to deafening with a quick flick of my hand up from the talk button. It was actually better than most situations because I couldn’t control the volume of the band, but I could make whatever mix I wanted of vocals vs. music.

Being backstage was a great advantage. It accelerated my understanding of how the scenery shifted around in the very crowded wings during the show, which was incredibly helpful in managing issues as they came up. The one thing I was a little disappointed with was that the pace of the show and the packed backstage space allowed for very little direct contact with the cast during the show, which is part of the reason I like calling from backstage in the first place.

But I was really happy with how this arrangement worked out, and I hope it gives you some ideas for brainstorming the next time you’ve got a challenging calling desk setup.


July 6, 2012

My Cave of Ominous Solitude

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:15 pm


This is my booth at the Soho Playhouse. It’s also the closest thing we have to an office, so I’ve tried to make it comfortable.

For a truly immersive you-are-the-stage-manager-in-a-tiny-Off-Broadway-theatre experience, visit this link where you can drag the view around to see things in sort-of-3D.


July 9, 2011

The Calling Case

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:35 pm


This is a little something I like to call The Calling Case. It’s a handy little box that sits with me when I’m calling a show. The need for a convenient, easily-transported box comes mostly from touring, where I might spend four hours or less at a given calling desk before packing it all in again. Especially on the road, I found it very handy because I could take off for the desk with nothing but this, my script, and my computer and know I have everything I will need during the show.

Find Your Own

As you can see from the ArtBin label on it, this is presumably supposed to be a case for artists to carry their tools. I think it’s probable that I found it at a Hobby Lobby, but I’m not 100% sure. It could also have been a Walmart. The exact case doesn’t really matter, although this size is sufficient, just barely, for what I need to carry. If it could fit a LittleLite, it would be even better. But the key is, it’s sturdy, closes securely, has a slim profile, and a nice big handle.

The Contents

  • My headset – that’s a Telex PH-88 with some modifications I’ve made. The most important function the calling case serves is to protect my headset. Everything else that happens to fit in the case is just a bonus.
  • Pen/pencil case – that’s a Mont Blanc case, but they’re not Mont Blanc writing implements. My primary pen and pencil are made by Sensa. I generally call every performance with a pencil in my hand, or very close by. The pen just kind of tags along because it’s in the case with the pencil.
  • Snackage – I try to have a Nutri-grain bar or similar healthy and filling snack on hand in case I get hungry during the show, or end up missing a meal if things get crazy approaching curtain time.
  • Binoculars – this is my little luxury inclusion because my calling case travels in a road box that weighs hundreds of pounds, so the weight of the binoculars is negligible. If I had to cart it everywhere myself I might think the weight was unnecesary. I’d estimate maybe once a week something will happen onstage where a pair of binoculars comes in handy — maybe to check what a foreign object is on the floor, or to see if an actor is bleeding. My actors don’t bleed once a week, I swear. I used it on Comedy of Errors a lot to see if things were on spike, because we performed in a lot of different-shaped venues where proportions sometimes looked weird, and often I had the best perspective to see if it was just a trick of the venue, or if the actors/crew missed their marks.
  • Flags – I throw a miscellaneous packet of post-it flags in, which can be used to very quickly mark a page of the script for later examination. This is mostly useful in tech or early in a run, when changes are happening and errors are still being discovered.
  • Occasional inclusion: LED USB keyboard light (not shown) – sometimes I include a USB keyboard light, which I can use as a script light powered by my computer. On the Acting Company tour I always have a LittleLite, but on shows where I have to be more self-sufficient sometimes it ends up being my keyboard light, and when that’s the case, it goes in the box.

July 8, 2011

WTF is This?

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:35 pm


I’ve been doing a lot of digging through old photos as I transition my social networking to Google+. I came across this.

What in the hell was I thinking? I don’t even know how to read this.

I will say one thing about the Joseph score, which you can see in this photo: the score is arranged like regular sheet music, where the repeating verses occupy the same line of music, and the lyrics are doubled up. Now imagine you have cues to call over these verses, and have to indicate which cue goes where. The real solution is to copy the pages twice and somehow try to cobble together a real score. And that’s generally what I did, and even that doesn’t at all explain why my cues look like some kind of demented flow chart.

Reminds me of one of the first times I called the dreaded shadow play in tech for The Comedy of Errors, when I followed my arrows and they led me back to a cue I had already called.


July 7, 2011

My Recent Fling with the Calling Desk at the American Airlines

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:55 pm

A couple weeks back I did two gigs at the American Airlines Theatre on consecutive Mondays. Just want to take a minute to show off the very sexy calling desk they had there for The Importance of Being Earnest. It was on a jump deck above downstage left. Nice view of the stage in real life, as well as a really large and clear color video monitor, and infrared (which was pretty useless to me since we didn’t have blackouts, but a nice touch anyway). The audio monitor was conveniently placed under the color monitor, and the comm panel (as well as a fancy programmable cue light panel I didn’t get to play with) are within easy reach. The desktop wraps around to the left side, affording lots of surface space for stuff.

It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but just a great example of a calling position done right.

And with labels highlighting the awesomeness:

Why it’s Awesome

Let’s talk about what actually makes this calling desk work.

Location, Location, Location

The live view of the stage is actually pretty good, as backstage calling desks go. Most of what you can see is the downstage six or seven feet, but depending on the show, that might be a lot of what you want to be looking at. Obviously you can see farther upstage on the far side (stage right) than you can on the near side. The higher elevation provides a less-obstructed view when viewing the show sideways than it would if the desk was on the deck.

One negative is that being located stage left is less convenient in this house. This is on a per-theatre basis, but most theatres have a convenient side and an inconvenient side. At the AA, most useful things (such as the pass door, the lobby, the elevator, and apparently most of the dressing rooms) are stage right. Now, I know some stage managers who might actually prefer being on the inconvenient side, on the theory that it will keep people from bugging them during the show. But for me, I’d rather be accessible, and have the rest of the theatre accessible to me. And on the Earnest set, that also meant a downstairs crossunder to get back and forth from the desk to anywhere else, which, while fairly direct, is still more of a pain than, you know, just walking a couple feet.

Monitors

The color monitor was bigger and clearer than I expected. It was a CRT, so it took up a lot of room, but there’s something reassuring about keeping things analog. On the road this year I encountered a digital monitor with all sorts of awesome pan and zoom functions. Awesome except for the fact that the output was so far behind real life that all my cues were wrong.

There was also an infrared monitor, which as I said, was useless on the kind of events I was doing with no blackouts, but for a normal show is either necessary, or a very helpful security blanket. I never saw a blackout, so I don’t know what quality it actually was. I’ve also had some infrared monitors that go pretty much black in a blackout. What the point of that is, I’m not sure, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that a Broadway show has infrared that works.

Audio Monitor

The audio monitor is right under the main video monitor which means it doesn’t take up any space, and is also very close to the script, and at hand-height. This one had a post-it on it saying something like “do not adjust volume.” I didn’t get the story on that. That’s a problem if that’s the way it really was. I like to fiddle with my volume. Frankly, I like it off, unless I can’t hear, then I want to be able to make it “just loud enough” for the given moment. But my assessment of the awesomeness of this desk is based on the way it’s set up, not the way it’s used on this specific show, so assuming the volume knob is operable, it was a great place to put it.

Script Area

Enough room for a script, facing the stage. That’s pretty much all I ask. Not slanted, so I don’t have to worry about my pencil rolling. And there was a little bit of excess space here and there to put other stuff.

Two Little-Lites

Sturdy, well-positioned Little-Lites. One over the middle of the script, one off to the left-hand side. Because I had nothing else to do with it, I used the side one as secondary illumination for the script (which is nice because sometimes with one light source you can inadvertently cast shadows over parts of the script with your hand), but it could be used to light things on the side desk as well.

Comm Panel

I got a very quick overview from the sound guy and didn’t bother studying it too much. It had four channels, but we were only using one, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see how convenient it was. There was a master talk switch, in a comfortable place for me to rest my hand over it.

#1 most important thing about the calling stage manager’s talk button: it should be able to be activated with certainty without looking at it! Mushy buttons that may or may not have been pressed successfully, or may not have latched, SUCK, especially when the panel is located somewhere off to the side where you actually have to turn away from the stage to check the indicator light every time you want to speak. This had a tiny toggle switch that was either UP or DOWN. Absolutely no doubt what position it was in, without ever needing to look at it (which is good, because it was so small it would be hard to tell by looking). This allows the SM to quickly turn the mic on and off without thinking about it. Sucky buttons, and/or sucky buttons badly placed, result in either the SM having to look away from the stage and script every time they talk, or leaving the mic on for longer than necessary, which annoys everyone, including the SM.

Cue Light Panel

I didn’t have reason to play with this at all, and having never actually used one of this type, I can’t say whether or not I like it. Frankly, I think it scares me. When throwing cue lights, I’m a big fan of “this switch makes that light go on” and that’s it. I guess by the same token I should think that all lighting instruments should be controlled by piano boards, but I’m willing to take more liberties with computers with a light, or a mic turning on, than I am with, say, whether I’m cueing the rail or a trap.

Anyway, cue lights are a beautiful thing, so that’s worth points.

Obviously

Obviously, this is a Broadway theatre, it goes without saying that they have the resources to have a nice calling desk, but what I enjoyed about it was that what made it nice had nothing to do with multi-million-dollar budgets. It’s the exact same stuff you’d see in any halfway-decent theatre: an old TV, the standard black & white monitor, the same audio monitor that every show ever uses, some Little-Lites, a decent comm panel, and some cue lights, on a custom-made plywood tabletop. It’s nothing that’s beyond the means of any professional or decent school venue, it’s just set up in a way that’s really logical and comfortable to use. I’ve worked in plenty of places far from 42nd Street, that had fancier equipment, but were a pain in the ass to call from. So I submit this as an example of what makes the difference between a good calling desk and a bad one.

I took the pictures mostly to remind myself what made this desk so nice, so that I can identify better and worse ways to set things up. I really should make a habit of documenting this more often.


March 5, 2011

The Calling Couch

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:52 pm

I have several dreams in life. I’d like to be a Broadway PSM. I’d like to have an apartment with laundry machines in the unit. I’d like Hal Prince to see me call Phantom. Other than that, my dream was to call a show while sitting (or ideally, lying) on a couch. Preferably multiple times, but just once would be good.

Picture it: Phoenix, 2009

Our story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, in the spring of 2009. We were playing the Herberger, and I was assigned the orchestra-level booth to call from. At the time, it looked like this:

The couch was inspiring, but as you can see it’s way too low to see out the window. More than anything, I was frustrated and perplexed. All it needed was to be put on a 4×8 platform about 3ft high and it would be the most amazing thing ever. Why had it not been done? This haunted me for years.

This fall, we went back to the Herberger, where sadly, no further work had been done on the couch. In fact the sound console was on that table, blocking the view even more, and making the booth feel a little cramped.

Enter Fairfield, CT

A few weeks ago, we played a day in Fairfield, CT (just outside Bridgeport). Often when I scout my calling position I judge the booth based on how it looks from the stage at first. Does it look like there’s a crapload of stairs? Will I have to fight my way through the audience? Does it look nice and spacious inside? Is there a calling position backstage? Most importantly, is there a camera? If not, I generally won’t call from backstage unless there is literally no front-of-house position.

On this particular day it was a nice venue, and they probably had a backstage calling position, but I was predisposed to want to call from the house because our big bosses, Margot and Ian, were coming up from New York to see the show, so I wanted to be seeing the show as they were seeing it.

I spied a spot booth at center, which I always love for two reasons:
1. it’s generally unused, because our show doesn’t have followspots
2. the low window affords a nice view, and sometimes even a sill which can serve as a footrest.

So I declared that I preferred to call from the spot booth. It was many hours before I ever went up there. When I finally did, I was astounded to find…
A CALLING COUCH!!!

It was not so much a calling couch as a couch for the spot ops to recline on when not doing cues. The couch was against the back wall of the booth, where it didn’t afford a full view of the stage, but dragging it a few feet toward the window provided a perfect view. I took a nearby wooden step as a footrest, and set myself up with a music stand off to the side. With my computer sitting on the couch next to me, I had a perfect setup.

During the first act, my board op, Alex, who was sitting in the adjacent lighting booth, was very much amused by my love of the calling couch. At one point I commented that the only improvement I would make if I was sitting down for a long run would be an end table with a bowl of snacks on it. Of course when I came back from intermission there was an end table (he couldn’t find any snacks), and a pillow so that I could sit up more comfortably (the couch had a very far-leaning back which made it hard to relax and see the stage). It might have been the greatest three hours of my career.

Here’s a very rough picture of my view:


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