June 13, 2007

The Highest Purpose for Theatrical Projections

I call this: gaming,mac,summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 9:10 pm

I had a few minutes tonight as we were doing the pre-show, and we had our first round of NES gaming on our lovely projection screen. We didn’t have a chance to do much, as most people were actually engaged in important work, or were about to be, but it was nice to try it out. I played a little bit of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, showed how much I suck at Spy Hunter, and just a tiny bit of Bionic Commando to show the young’uns a cool game that they may not have heard of, before moving on to the greatest game ever made, Super Mario Bros. 3.

Here’s a short video clip of Angela trying out SMB3. And yes, the sound is being run over the house system.

Here’s the (messy) setup in the booth:

The controller is something I picked up last year. It’s an actual NES controller that has been rewired for USB by RetroZone. The Emulator I use on the Mac is Nestopia, which is freeware, but does not support joysticks without a shareware add-on, which is $30. For only $20 you can get USB Overdrive, which is an all-purpose driver for tons of USB devices. You can assign buttons to do just about anything, and have different profiles for individual apps, so I could have my NES controller assigned as a really cool iTunes remote in that app without screwing ups its functions in Nestopia. Not that I would ever need it to do that, but now that I’ve come up with that example, I think it just may have to be.

Getting the game on the projector is simple. Just drag the window off your main screen to the side that leads to the projector’s screen (see here for details on setting up the projector). It was necessary for me to resize the window a bit to get it all on the screen.

June 11, 2007

First Dress: Looks Like a Show

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:06 pm

It’s 2AM and I just finished my duties on my daylight day of rest. I left the theatre around 1:06, having rehearsed 7PM-12AM, and then with a production meeting to discuss notes on the evening’s dress rehearsal, disconnecting my computer from the projector, and moving my crap off the tech table and back to the booth, it took a while. The show actually went pretty well for a first run, and my anxiety about calling was mostly unfounded. I did indeed sit in the very nice laundromat (they sure don’t have couches and coffee tables in any laundromat I’ve seen in NYC!) and put the warnings in my script, which gave me a chance to sit and focus on the order of the show and clean up my book. I’m pretty happy about it. I actually learned the show itself better than I expected before we started tech, and just needed to learn my cues. Today I started to feel like I’m also familiar with my cues, and even the ones I didn’t get right today now make sense. I wouldn’t want an audience to see the show tomorrow, but if they had to, I’d have a decent shot at not embarrassing myself. Which puts me in good shape, since I have tomorrow (Tuesday), Wednesday, and a special school performance (at 9-o-freakin-clock-in-the-morning) on Thursday, if you count that as “practice” before the first paid public performance on Thursday afternoon.

Even when things are going well I’m usually reluctant to give up the security blanket of calling at the tech table, where I’m closer to the stage and can hear and see better, and have an actual sense of the artistic vibe of the show. Once I’m in the booth 100ft away and seeing through glass and hearing through speakers, I have to rely on my memory of what it felt like in the house to know what the audience is experiencing and how I can shape that. In a perfect world I prefer to move to the booth having already settled on the ideal placement of all my cues, knowing I like what they’re doing, and then I can just try to recreate that from the booth. Of course I keep tinkering, but it’s a good foundation. I’ve been calling Phantom for over three years and there are still cues I’m not satisfied with. The biggest reason for that is that I’ve never been able to call it from the front. Such is the disadvantage of being a replacement or sub. It’s not just a matter of trying something and deciding if you like it. Just figuring out what the audience is seeing requires major research. And I’m a little bit OCD about Phantom — I won’t be satisfied until every one of the 400-odd cues are perfectly placed down to the nanosecond.

If it weren’t for the video component of Singin’ in the Rain, I’d spend another day at the tech table, but I’m eager to run video myself so I get a few tries at it. The VGA cable is just long enough to reach out the door of the booth to near the sound console, and the assistant engineer has been nice enough to let me call video cues to him so I didn’t have to be up there. I’ve noticed the response time when I’m calling video is longer than I’m used to, I’m not sure if it’s a delay in the computer because of the size of the files, or that the videos themselves have a second or two of black at the beginning, but it’s something I’ve had to make an adjustment for when calling, and getting to run it myself twice before an audience sees it will make me feel better. I also don’t like to get in the booth too late in the process, because sometimes there are surprises, like I discover I can’t see something as well as before, or the orchestra part I was listening to to call a certain cue is difficult to hear in the monitors. I’d rather discover these things while I still have one more chance to do it, so I can confirm I’ve solved the problem before there’s an audience. There’s few things scarier than changing something before the first performance and thinking it will work, but not having actually tried it.

June 5, 2007

A Puzzlement

I call this: computers,mac,summer stock — Posted by KP @ 8:51 am

An interesting question arose as I typed my last post (about the purchase of the Macbook Pro). I said that I had been in need of a new external hard drive for some time, but have been waiting to see what the capacity of my new computer would be before deciding on one. Here I am up here in Waltham, without an external hard drive. My backup program (Intego’s Personal Backup) nags me every few days about how I haven’t done a backup since 5/22/07, and with the entire Reagle season sitting on my 4-year-old hard drive, don’t think this doesn’t worry me. It’s been on my Treo’s Todo list for a week, “Backup to DVD.” Have I done it yet? No. It takes for-freaking-ever, and I’ve been busy, and when I’m not busy I’m lazy. But I really should. But as I have to leave for rehearsal in a little over an hour, now I don’t have time. See how this happens?

Anyway, all this musing about getting that external drive ASAP led me to mention how important it is, since my computer will be running all the video for Singin’ in the Rain. This is one of those shows where the projections aren’t just pretty, they drive the plot. A crash or deletion of something important would need to be able to be fixed right away, on-site.

As I typed this, this is where the puzzlement struck me: if my Macbook Pro arrives somewhere between June 8-13, as Apple says, then it will either be right before tech, or right before the first performance. Which computer gets to run the show?

In this corner, we have the Powerbook. I’m typing a freaking blog post, and the hard drive is cranking, the fan is spinning, and it’s beachballing for a second when I switch between Firefox and Entourage. It’s old, and while it’s done fine for basic projections, sometimes I wonder if it could still handle full-motion video and audio. This machine has been running projections for professional theatre since I bought it. Its credits include the tour of Abundance, Earthquake Chica at the Summer Play Festival 2004, The Reagle Players’ production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the comedy show Laughing Liberally at Town Hall, and the Charlie Chaplin musical Behind the Limelight, where it ran the coolest cue I have ever called in my life (actor-Charlie walking into the screen and disappearing into it as the real Charlie appears in his place on screen and shuffles off into the distance). I have never, NEVER had this machine fail in performance. I once had to start an invited dress rehearsal 20 minutes late because Keynote 1.0 used to crash occasionally when you tried to save, but that’s a separate issue. I have run all three versions of Keynote on it, and it has been 100% reliable in performance — no delays, no mistakes, I have called thousands of cues on it, and it’s as accurate as calling a light cue. However, due to its age, and the fact that it sometimes has trouble, you know, rendering a web page… I worry that someday I’m going to ask it to run a full-screen video with audio output to the sound board, and it’s going to have to think about that for a second or two. In its defense, last December it did run video with audio at Laughing Liberally, and to my surprise did just fine. It was a very last-minute thing. I got to the gig about six hours before the show and said, “You’re running video by hitting pause on a DVD player? Gimme the files and half an hour!” I was a little concerned that it could handle it, but it seemed fine to me.

In the other corner, we have the newcomer. So much faster, I’m not even going to try to quantify it. Will there be enough time to make sure it doesn’t have something wrong with it? A habit of kernel-panicking just when you least expect it? The Powerbook has recently taken to kernel-panicking when I wiggle the connector for my USB hub, but at least I expect it. Of course the earlier the MBP arrives, the more time there would be to test it. But five days of tech and dress might not show all its flaws compared to almost four years with the Powerbook. But it’s my new toy!

I think I will try to use the Macbook Pro, as it has to do its first performance someday, just as the Powerbook did when it was new. You can be sure the Powerbook will be sitting in my bag right behind me in the booth, with the current show files on it, ready to be swapped in if there’s a problem. If the MBP doesn’t arrive until the middle of tech, I will need a day or two to get all the software on it and make sure everything’s good. In that case I may decide to make the switch for the second week of performances, in the meantime letting the MBP get on the projector and run through its cues before the preshow check. It would also be interesting to project both on stage and see if there’s a difference in the quality — if the MBP is rendering noticeably better, that would be an argument for using it as soon as it’s ready. We will have to see.

There are also other important uses for the machine that runs the show projections: we have plans to do a screening of the original movie for cast and crew at some point. And most of all, and I promise to take better pictures of it this time, here is Super Mario Bros. 3, arguably the greatest game of all time, being played on stage during the dinner break of a tech rehearsal for Thoroughly Modern Millie. What you can’t hear is the game audio plugged into the sound board and being blasted through the 1,100 seat theatre.

We had several problems here: there wasn’t really a projection screen to use, as in Millie the only projections are supertitles that translate the comic brilliance of the two Chinese characters. For this reason the projector was tipped up and not really centered on stage, and the screen was just a narrow strip three feet tall. Also, we did not have a light-colored drop to bring in as a projection surface except one that was way upstage. This time, we will have a real screen to play with.