June 23, 2007

Closing Night for Singin’ in the Rain

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 9:29 pm

We closed Singin’ in the Rain tonight. A closing performance in a situation like this always creates mixed emotions, and different emotions among different people.

The crew is eager to get this monster of a set back on the trucks and off to its renters in Oklahoma.

The actors who are not going to be in the next show are sad to be parting ways with new friends. Some are also happy to be returning home to their children or significant others.

People who are doing the next show have less reason to be sad because another exciting experience is starting in just a few days.

I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not going anywhere, so it’s not a huge transition. It’s a marker for me that I’ve completed a third of my job, and as far as I can tell, everything after this should be much easier. However, what I like about what I do is the part of actually putting on a show in front of an audience. The rehearsal process is just a means to an end. The hours are longer, and most of what I do is take notes and make phone calls, which is not particularly inspiring. Other people are making art (hopefully), and watching that can be exciting, but I just sit around pushing a pencil. So part of me would rather continue to do performances than go back into production and actually have to work instead of just have fun and put on a show.

I’m also looking forward to moving on to a new show. For all of Singin’s technical requirements, it actually was a pretty bland show to call. Not slow by any means, but not interesting. The show is written in such a way as to draw attention to the fact that we’re waiting for the set to be changed, and keeping the show driving forward was kind of a losing battle. I realized tonight how ready I am for something else.

I’ve never done King and I, in fact I’ve never seen it on stage, so I’m excited for it. Also, my friend Sarah Pfisterer is playing Anna, so it will be fun to work with her again.

As I write this (didn’t go to the closing night party because I’m still sick… grr…), the crew is busy striking the set, which they’ll probably be doing until about 4AM. They did a great job making this show go smoothly. It wasn’t easy, but it was always easier than I thought it was going to be.

This was the view out the loading dock door to the first waiting truck.

Joe and Christina making raincoats go away

One down, two to go. Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter in the Reagle summer season!

June 21, 2007

Second Week of the Run

I call this: summer stock — Posted by KP @ 10:56 am

So I’ve been sick for the last two days. Probably got it at the Majestic on Monday. There’s always some bug going around, and I don’t doubt that four hours in that building could send me home with something. At least that’s what I’m blaming it on. I’m not nearly as sick as a person could be, just an incredibly sore throat and a slight fever that I can’t really keep track of because I don’t have a thermometer up here. So I take some Tylenol whenever it seems to make sense, along with some echinacea, which it’s probably too late for, and my favorite cold remedy, Cold-Eeze. Calling a show sick never results in a particularly good show, it always feels a little bit like watching the show underwater — the music sounds muffled, and the timing of everything feels different. Not to mention if your illness is respiratory (which mine usually are) you can never be quite sure when you attempt to speak a short little word like “go” if your throat will choose that moment to get blocked up and not let it out.

But last night’s show was actually pretty good. I bought some ice cream in the lobby at intermission, and that was very soothing, so the second act was better. The key here is to not lose my voice. As I said, all the cues are verbal, so that would be incredibly bad. I can probably count on one hand the number of times in my life I’ve actually lost my voice to the point of no sound coming out, so I’m not too worried. I was careful not to push when calling last night, and although my voice sounds worse today, I think I’m probably on the way to getting better. The nice thing is that in the second week of the run there’s not much to do other than come in and do the show. We don’t even have any matinees this week, so I’ve been able to stay in bed as long as I need to and take it easy around the house.

When I came in before the show yesterday I noticed we had a new section of deck put down just downstage of the rain deck, in a spot that had taken a lot of water damage. At intermission I was informed that there was a section of deck all the way upstage that needed immediate replacement before the rain deck could be rolled back over it. About eight guys and gals with screwguns going simultaneously managed to put down a thankfully pre-cut piece of replacement deck with almost no impact on the length of intermission. I was impressed.

Since tech it’s been relatively common for there to be some kind of problem that threatens to extend the already-long intermission, and since I began my theatrical career in high school as a “techie,” in situations with non-union crews I sometimes enjoy pitching in and actually doing stuff instead of standing around and watching the clock. By now I’ve learned enough of the intermission changeover for this show that I actually know what comes next and can participate without needing to be told what to do or what spike mark I should be going to. Because of the very low grid height at Reagle, a lot of drops have to be clipped up to their pipes in order for tall pieces of scenery (like the rain deck) to move under them. Once the rain deck is pushed back upstage (which I often help with, although I doubt I’m actually taking much of the weight), a lot of intermission is spent unclipping drops used in the second act, which requires one person flying and about five people along the length of the stage to undo each clip, let the drop out, and reclose the clip, while holding the bottom pipe of the drop up off the still-somewhat-wet rain deck. Then the drop is flown until it’s stretched out, and we give it a tug to (hopefully) take out the wrinkles, and it’s flown all the way out. This process went faster last night than I’ve ever seen it, and I was glad I could actually be of some use.

June 16, 2007

What does a 9AM matinee look like?

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:51 pm

Stage… check.
Calling script… check.
Conductor monitor… check.
Computer in projection slideshow… check.
Clock reading 8:50AM… check.
Gigantic cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee… check!!! (I miss Starbucks, but I would have to take out a loan to buy a cup that big from them)

In the lower-left you will also find a homemade chocolate cupcake that I acquired when I unsuspectingly entered the box office before the show. It was only a slightly less-nutritious breakfast than the vanilla-frosted doughnut I had planned to eat, and it was very tasty.

The show is going extremely well. I’ve been getting lots of compliments on how smoothly everything is running, and I have been passing that on to the crew as well. It’s a big show, but everyone seems to have picked it up quickly and it’s been running at a level of comfort that I usually wouldn’t expect until the second week of performances. If we can just maintain the show here we’ll be in good shape, but I think it will get even tighter in the coming days. Three down, six to go.

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.

Projections for Theatre Using Keynote

I call this: computers,mac,summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:03 pm

Quite by accident, I have become something of an expert on the use of Apple’s Keynote presentation software for running projections for professional theatre. Since I’m currently in the midst of one of these shows right now, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how it’s done.

To start at the beginning, you must know about the show that gave me my first experience with Keynote. At the time (2003), I had recently switched to Mac, and owned a Power Mac desktop, and my former computer which was an 8-lb. Dell laptop. By this point I knew I could never go back to using Windows to get any real work done, and I accepted that if I ever got a tour, I would have to buy a Powerbook. This was at the end of the product life of the Titanium Powerbook, and I was hoping if such a thing ever happened, that Apple had a better 15″ model up their sleeve. In the late summer, the 15″ Aluminum Powerbook was released, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Even more so when only a few weeks later I got called to interview for PSM of a small tour. A few days after that, the producer called to offer me the job. I literally hung up the phone, grabbed my keys, and ran to the Apple Store.

With my shiny new Powerbook, I began rehearsals. This show had a really large projection component, both still images and video, and they were not just decorative. The actors interacted with and referenced the images throughout the show, and any errors would make the show not make sense. The video designer was happy to see I had a Powerbook, because he intended to use the then-new Keynote app to run the show. The fact that I owned a Mac laptop simplified things greatly, and I was more than happy to offer its services, since it gave me the opportunity to tinker with my new toy, and a free copy of Keynote to boot. I learned a lot from our designer as he experimented with the slides and played with various features. I had to become pretty proficient with it, because he would not be traveling on the tour, and as the show was still going to be undergoing changes, I would have to be able to handle most situations that would come up. The only thing he would do was editing of the videos and images themselves, which would then be FedExed on a DVD to whatever theatre we were at, and it was up to me to create the slides around them and the transitions between each one to fit the needs of the show.

Sometimes I would be asked ten minutes before a performance to add or remove a border around all the images, or to move or crop all the images in some way, or to swap or reorder them. I think at its peak the show had about 70 projection cues, and I’m not kidding when I say I was asked ten minutes before a show to make changes to all of them. I got very fast with Keynote, and much of the credit has to be given to the intuitive drag-and-drop interface and that magical way Mac apps have of answering all your wishes when you say, “I wonder if I can do this.” This was only version 1 of Keynote, and it has only gotten more stable and flexible through version 2 and now 3. One huge complaint I had on that tour was that the display on my computer while I was running the show did not give me any helpful information about my presentation that I couldn’t already see on the screen. Even the column of thumbnails on the side didn’t scroll as the slideshow progressed, so once you reached beyond the first ten or so, you didn’t even know what was coming next.

Nowadays, when I’m running a show my screen looks like this:

You can choose which elements to include on the screen, where to place them, and resize the current and next slide displays. I like this layout because it places the emphasis on what’s on stage so I don’t get confused, but also gives me a good idea of the cue I’m about to go into.

This is from my file for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I’m proud to say has since been used in productions in North Carolina and California, and I even got paid! The only projections in that show are supertitles, but there’s a ton of them (90, including the blank slides for when nothing is supposed to be seen), as they are used to translate for the two Chinese characters. It was one of the greater challenges of my career to be displaying Chinese translations in real time while also calling the rest of the show. You can see I’ve used the notes field in this slide as a substitute for my calling script. During the Chinese sections I literally couldn’t look down for the entire scene, because each slide only shows a few words and I had to make sure I was on the right one for what they were saying. I don’t speak Chinese, but I did learn all the dialogue in the show. Having that notes field conveniently placed made it possible for me to keep my head up watching the screen and the actors, while being able to get a quick reminder so I could call cues and give warnings and standbys without the script.

The clock of course is handy for noting the running time of the show.

On the tour I first used Keynote on, it was part of the deal that each theatre supplied the projector. We had to deal with whatever they had, and I was prepared to hook up to any kind of connector: DVI, VGA, BNC, RCA, or S-Video. The Powerbook has a DVI and S-video port, and all the others could be done with adapters that I carried. BNC could sometimes be problematic because the signal had to go through two adapters: S-video out to RCA and RCA to BNC. The digital formats (DVI and VGA) tended to be the best, but sometime depending on the projector and the theatre the analog actually worked better. This is why I got good at setting up and breaking down the whole shebang very quickly. I could walk into a theatre for the first time and be pointed to the projector with my laptop and a couple adapters and have video running in probably two minutes. Hours and hours and hours would sometimes be spent if there were problems with the projection angle, bulb brightness, height of the ceiling, etc. but getting the show coming out the lens was the easy part.

One of the tough things about doing shows with devices like DVD players and VCRs is that if it’s not a Broadway show using professional equipment, consumer models have a tendency to display things you don’t want an audience to see, like big letters that say PAUSE coming up between cues. The solution to this is usually some sort of physical device that blocks the lens between cues, but this is often impractical, especially when the projector is hung in the air over the audience. The beauty of using the computer is that you can project a black screen between cues, even if you have to exit the presentation. How to do this is not always obvious. When I offer my services to a show, the question I always get is, “But how will you be able to run it without the audience seeing your desktop?” People really don’t believe it can be done. When you’ve done it a few hundred times, it’s ridiculously easy.

Several steps: you want to turn off display mirroring. In System Prefs/Displays, under the Arrangement tab, you will see a checkbox called Mirror Displays. Uncheck it. I discovered when trying to help the folks at Reagle do this for one of their winter shows that iBooks have their graphics card’s mirroring capability disabled. There is apparently a hack (Google for screenspanningdoctor), but they didn’t try it because it’s not particularly safe. I’m not sure if this is still the case with Macbooks.

When you have mirroring off, imagine the projector is a second monitor attached to one side of your screen. You’ll see something like this.

You can drag the second screen around wherever you want, I always keep it to the upper right as shown. Wherever you put it, the contents of the projection screen will exist in that direction off your desktop. If I’m clumsy and slide my mouse off to the right, you will see it on the projector. There’s nothing wrong with having to back out of the presentation to fix something during a show, the only danger is accidentally flicking the mouse off your laptop into that area leading to the other screen.

Also notice there’s a little white border at the top of the center screen. This represents your primary display, in the shape of the Mac menu bar. Whichever screen you drag that white bar to is the one which holds your menu bar, dock, and by default your desktop icons. You do not want this on your projector. If somehow it winds up there, just drag the white bar back to the other display.

Now you have two screens: your regular one on the computer, and the other, rather empty one on the projector. By default, your desktop wallpaper will probably end up on the projector as well. This is probably not what you want. I have an image in my wallpaper folder that is all black. It’s called BLACK so it’s easy to find. When you go to System Prefs and select Desktop and Screen Saver, you will get a window on both your computer and the projector’s screen. The cool thing is that using the window on the projector, you can sets its wallpaper independently of your normal desktop. So I have the projector set to BLACK, but I can keep my favorite desktop wallpaper on my computer. You should only have to do this once, after that the computer will remember to assign the black desktop to the projector. Unless you make the mistake I made this afternoon, when I plugged the cable in to my computer before turning on the projector. Apparently this confuses the computer, for it set my desktop resolution to 800×600 or something, forgot the wallpaper, and had mirroring turned on. I will remember not to do that again.

Another word of advice: whenever possible, focus the projector on a nice projection surface before you try to do anything with your desktop settings. It never seems to work this way for me, I always wind up trying to manipulate the windows while the projector is throwing an out-of-focus, backwards, horribly-keystoned, and way-too-far-away-to-read image across the ceiling, proscenium and several layers of set pieces. It can take several minutes just to find the mouse pointer. You have to know the desktop prefs window pretty well to be able to set it under those conditions.

When doing a show I do like to keep the desktop settings icon on the menu bar for quick access, especially for shows with analog connections, because the display will not be detected automatically, so you have to select “Detect Displays” every day when you plug the projector in. The screen will flash for a second, and then you will be good to go. You can also adjust the resolution of both screens from that drop-down menu. Unless you have a really fancy projector, its maximum resolution will probably be lower than your computer’s. When you first set it up, the computer may lower res to match the projector (especially if mirroring is enabled by default), but this doesn’t have to be the case. Just go to the drop-down menu and select the normal resolution for your computer and whatever you want for the projector.

A few basic things you should do to your computer when using it for a show:

  • Always have the power cord plugged in when running the show
  • Put the computer to sleep: never (Energy Saver prefs)
  • Put the display to sleep: never (Energy Saver prefs)
  • Turn off all system sounds (Sound prefs)
  • Turn off “play feedback when volume is changed.” If you ever want to hear the little blip, you can hold shift when hitting the volume keys.
  • Mute the startup chime just in case your computer crashes and needs to restart (I use Tinkertool System, but there are others)
  • Start screen saver: never (I forgot to do this when switching to the new computer, and came back on a break during tech to see the default “Flurry” all over the house curtain)
  • Turn off any background apps that have notifications that might pop up (anti-virus, backup reminders, etc.)

Before starting the show:

  • Close all programs except Keynote
  • Shut down background apps that consume resources
  • If you’re outputting audio to the sound console, you’ll probably want to keep your Mac set at a consistent level and let the engineer control the volume. So to start the show make sure you’ve got your computer’s volume where it should be. For Singin’ in the Rain, I keep mine at half.
  • If you’re really concerned about speed and stability, a restart right before the show will probably give you the most reliable performance.

Designing Slides
Keynote has lots of options for deciding how your slides look and how they change. I won’t go into all of it, but I will hit some of the most common techniques I use.

When designing for theatre, you will probably always want to choose a master slide with a black background. You can add colorful backgrounds by creating a shape the size of the slide.

My friend the Yellow Box
When you click on “Shapes” in Keynote, by default it gives you this textured yellow box. The yellow box makes a pretty good target on a black background, and I use this to move and resize around the screen until I’ve figured out what size the projected image needs to be. In this case, we have a drop that flies in with a movie screen in the middle of it, and the movie needs to hit only this part of the drop. So I fiddle with the yellow box, making adjustments until it’s the right size. Then I take the actual content for that slide, the pictures or videos, and drag them so that it’s the size of the yellow box. There are very easy arrangement buttons to help with this if necessary — forward, back, group and ungroup. If you’ve got an image that you don’t want to distort, or a video that can’t be stretched to the correct size, you can then create some black boxes and layer them over the edges of the images to essentially crop them. This leaves you free to manipulate the original image below and drag it around until you like which part is cropped. It also makes it easy to later drop in a new image without losing the work you’ve done with the black borders to size it properly.

So when it’s 7:55 and your director says, “Can all the images be six inches narrower on the left and right side?” you can just make two black rectangles, drag them around until they have the desired proportion on stage, and once you have the first slide looking good, group the black shapes together, select them, and copy. When you paste them into the next slide, they will retain their position in the slide. So all you have to do is select every slide and hit command-V in each one, and you can rest easy knowing they will all match. This is the secret to making changes when you don’t have the time to actually inspect each slide on stage. Get one looking right, and then create something that you can paste in every slide to use as a guide.

Transitions can do some nifty things, but most of the shows I’ve done have not been the kind of situation to use anything fancy. A simple fade in and fade out are the most common. The Inspector in Keynote has a tab called Slide which has the effects for how that whole slide changes to the next (applying a transition affects how you go OUT of the selected slide). An important concept is that you can set transitions for the whole slide, or for elements within the slide. If you can’t get it to do what you want, this may be the problem. When you set the transitions, make sure you know if you’ve selected the actual slide or a part of it.

Say you have a slide with a picture-within-a-picture. You can have the larger picture be displayed when the slide starts, but the inner one appears later. To do this you select the element you want to change and go to the Build tab. If the Build options are grayed out, you need to select the object you want to apply the effect to by clicking on it. There are too many options to go into, but you can set the action to occur either by a certain number of seconds’ delay, or with another button push. The timed ones are great if you want to fade the image with a light cue for instance, but if you want to cue it yourself you can control it with the button. You can build in and out of an image, and can set multiple builds per slide and the order in which they happen. I’ve only ever needed to scratch the surface of this feature, but it can do some pretty cool things.

June 12, 2007

Umbrellas Under Sky with Buckets: A Still Life

I call this: summer stock — Posted by KP @ 10:06 pm

I asked as I left the theatre tonight, “For a show that’s going pretty well, why is it that we keep being here until 1AM?” In truth, it has nothing to do with how well the show is going, it’s been a different reason every night. Tonight part of the reason may have been that while looking at light cues at the tail end of our production meeting, somebody actually looked at what was on stage and realized how absurd it was, and that it would make a great art installation.

I wish I had a better camera, it would have been a great piece of art for a real photographer. Without using a flash my camera is always blurry, so I added some Gaussian blur in the hopes that it would look more intentionally blurry, and suitable for use as a desktop, which is what everyone seems to want. So I’ve made it 1440×900 for our Mac-using production team.

The completely rational explanation for all this is that we had flown in this sky drop to make some changes to a series of sunset cues. The 30-odd umbrellas were put out to dry overnight after having been used in the finale, and the buckets are there to catch remaining drips from the rain nozzles.

Anyway, I’m fried, but the run went pretty well. I’m still shaky on the second half of the second act, but a lot of the cues in the ballet would have given an observer the impression that I knew how to call them. I think we’ll be fine. This was the first run that actually felt to me like a performance rather than an experiment in technical theatre. Well it really was the first run without stops, and I think we’re in good shape. No rehearsal except the final dress tomorrow, and the dancers are coming in a half hour early because they wanted to go over the lifts in the ballet. I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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 10, 2007


I call this: mac,summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:01 pm

Well I’m finally home. Haven’t posted anything in a couple days, because we’ve been in tech. One of the more interesting parts of the process (at least if you’re blogging about stage management), and of course the time when you’re least likely to be able to do anything like blog, or sleep or eat for that matter. I did go around with my camera in my pocket at intermission on Saturday and took a few pictures.

This is the rain machine. I don’t profess to understand how it works, and quite frankly, I don’t think I want to know. I know there’s a big tank of water, two pumps, and a whole lot of hoses.

When taking that picture, I stumbled upon this, and discovered it’s the controls for the rain machine:

Now I’m sure I don’t want to know how it works.

Here’s the crew pushing the rain deck back to its storage place upstage.

The rain deck consists of two levels of platforms (street and sidewalk) and the buildings behind them, and in theory all the rain falls on those two platforms and drains away instead of winding up on the stage. For the most part that’s what happens, given that it’s pouring rain for about five minutes. You can see as they push it (having mopped and vacuumed the water off first), it reveals the relatively small amount of water that found its way underneath to the actual deck. Some more water winds up downstage and on the sides, as there is much splashing in puddles during the dance, and inevitably some of the splash reaches beyond the rain deck.

At some point in the past week, I very quietly asked our TD if she remembered where in the show they had gotten at the end of the first day of tech the two previous times they’d done it. She didn’t remember, but I mentioned (even more quietly) that I was secretly hoping we would at least make it to the rain at the end of Act I. I didn’t say this to anyone, but it would have been my mark of personal failure if we hadn’t gotten there.

On Friday we spent the evening doing something I have come to call pre-tech. I started doing this in the middle of my first season at Reagle, and it has become my secret weapon to a successful tech process. It’s a run of the show on stage, but to that I like to add about four crew people, usually one a prop person. The goal is to introduce whatever technical elements are feasible without getting in the way of the fact that it’s still a rehearsal for the cast. The motto of the day is “This is Not Tech.” The lighting designer may throw cues on stage, but there is enough house light and work light that the stage is never totally dark, and any set pieces that are too complicated to be used by the cast without any preparation are not used.

During the dinner break on Friday we had our paper tech, where the various departments give me my cues, with the director and choreographer also present to discuss placement and intention of the cues. Because the show has been done before by most of the same people, things were very much in order before tech. The light cues were already written (although they are by no means left as-is from the previous production, there is at least a disk of workable cues to start from). So I was able to start calling the show less than an hour after finishing paper tech. That’s a huge advantage for me to start tech having more or less already called a run of the show.

By the time we finished pre-tech on Friday, I had revised my doom-and-gloom scenario about where we were going to stop on Saturday. Whereas before I would have been content to finish Act I, I was now almost certain we would end the day somewhere in the 13-minute ballet that makes up a large part of the second act. And indeed that’s what happened. We ran it in sections, as there are several distinct parts of it, and then stopped for the night when we reached the end of our 12-hour day.

I got about two-and-a-half hours sleep Friday night, which is not the best way to go into tech. For me, the longest night on any show is the night before tech, because I have usually just gotten my cues, and have to do my homework to come in somewhat prepared to call them the next morning. This can mean cleaning up scribbles in my script so it’s more legible, studying recordings of the show to learn parts of the music I don’t know well enough, or just reading through everything so that I familiarize myself with what comes next and what the tricky sequences will be. It’s also the night to do whatever hasn’t been done yet, which is how it winds up extending to 5:30 in the morning. Up to this point, the director has been in charge and I’m basically an administrator making sure things happen and everything is documented. On the first day of tech the show is turned over to me and absolutely anything that’s wrong or not done from that point until the show closes is my fault. So if I don’t think I have everything in order I will stay up until it’s done. Only once in my career have I actually worked straight through the night and finished at the time I had to leave the house the next morning, and that was quite a few years ago. As I laid down to bed on Friday night I could faintly recall a Reagle show where I got 45 minutes sleep, but I can’t remember what it was or what the hell took so long. If I’m lucky I can get a decent amount of sleep, but I didn’t leave the theatre until midnight, and wanted to spend a lot of time looking over the show, especially the ballet.

So Saturday we teched from the beginning up to the ballet. Sunday we ran the ballet first thing in the morning, and relatively quickly finished the rest of the show.

On the lunch break (named for the fact that apparently some people got a chance to eat), we worked on getting the projector focused more accurately on the screen drop, and confirmed our hope that it could also cover the projection onto a different surface which had in previous productions been done with a second projector operated by the conductor from the pit. Because we’re running it on my computer in Keynote, we had the flexibility to resize and crop the videos in a variety of ways without ever touching the projector, allowing the whole show to be run from the single projector hung over the house. This is greatly pleasing to everyone, as it will be more reliable, saves the conductor and orchestra from inconvenience, and saves the theatre $1,300 on the rental of the second projector. Since some of the video files are very large, we were concerned about the ability of any laptop to run a video smoothly without using too much compression and degrading the quality. Because of this I decided to buy the 4GB of RAM that I was going to wait a year or more for, and paid for extra-super-fast-overnight-Saturday-delivery so that we would have it in time for tech to see if the videos ran smoothly. They’re looking great, and today we even replaced the longest one with a higher-quality version that’s over 700MB, and it runs beautifully. We’re going to use the same compression settings on all of them now. Even before upgrading the rest, the show file is 1.78GB.

After lunch things did not go so well. We were planning to run the show, but there were still a number of unresolved issues that resulted in a run with a number of long pauses, and a few scene changes being run again. We added a number of costumes even though the first official dress rehearsal is tomorrow. We knew there would be quick change issues, and there were. Finding them today, while frustrating, means we will have a smoother run tomorrow. There were also some backstage and onstage traffic issues that required discussion. As Act I got longer, we debated over the course of several hours whether we should use the rain at the end of the first act, because it can take up to a half hour to vacuum up the water and set for Act II. After changing my mind at least half a dozen times as the situation developed, we decided to skip the scene and come back to it at the end of the day so that the cast could do notes while the water was cleaned up. It wasn’t the ideal way to do it for a lot of people’s processes, including mine, but we did get through the whole show, and I’m not sure we would have if we had gone in order. We also saved time by starting Act II (which is a collection of book scenes with the ballet in the middle) with the dancers going off to the rehearsal studio to go through their lifts and other tricky parts in costume so that they would be ready to run it straight through on stage without any problems or injuries from unfamiliarity with the costumes.

When we finished we did some notes until it was time for the dinner break (during which I’m told some people had the opportunity to consume food). I went to the “band room,” which is just that, a high school band room, where the orchestra was setting up for their first rehearsal. Our sound guys had already set up the room for recording a few tracks to be dubbed into the videos used in the show. We weren’t sure how everyone would be able to see the video to sync the music. The rough plan was to use my computer screen and an external monitor taken from… somewhere… and hope everyone who needed to see it would have a good view of either screen.

When I went into the band room to scope it out, there was this large whiteboard on wheels. If only we had a projector other than the one that was lashed to a pipe on the ceiling in the theatre… Like the second projector we rented that we didn’t need and would be returning in the morning. Problem solved. So after getting notes from the director and lighting designer, that’s what I did on the mythical dinner break. We placed the whiteboard behind the orchestra so that the conductor could see it, as well as the actors (basically the entire cast) who were standing in a crowded clump off to the side. It set up in just a few minutes and it looked really good. Again, Keynote makes it so simple. I made a copy of the file I was using to run the show and got rid of all the clips we didn’t need for recording, then with a click-and-drag made the videos as big as possible (as opposed to the show file, where they’re smaller to fit exactly onto the screens on stage). My headphone output was connected to the sound equipment, and a simple click of the mute button on the Mac allowed us to alternate between hearing the original tracks for reference, or having it silent to be sung/played over. For one track, the conductor needed to hear the audio on the original recording in order to cue the musicians and singers in, and he was provided with headphones to monitor the audio from my computer. The whole event went very smoothly, and we only needed a couple takes of each one.

The cast stayed to sing some of their songs with the orchestra, but it had been a long day and they were released long before the scheduled 10:30PM to go home and rest and watch the Tonys. We had a TV in the scene shop on which I caught some of it, and even I got home before it was over (stopping at Burger King on the way for my first meal since I went to Dunkin Donuts at 9AM). No big surprises with the awards, it seems. I didn’t get a chance to see most of the nominated shows, including Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening, so I really didn’t have strong opinions about it. I’m just glad tech is over.

June 6, 2007

Meanwhile, something about a show

I call this: mac,summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:56 am

I wasn’t the only one who thought my new Macbook Pro was the most important thing to happen at the Reagle Players yesterday. We have quite a few Mac users among the creative team, cast and crew, and many people were very excited to come back from dinner and see my new purchase. I had just enough time to drive up to Burlington, buy it, swing through Burger King and get back, so I didn’t have any time to start playing with it. In fact I didn’t even open the box until the first break. But then much oooing and ahhhing commenced.

I did basically one thing with it during the entire evening at the theatre, which was to set it up to use my Treo as a modem, and then download a small app to check the LCD for stuck pixels. It’s one of my bigger fears in life to spend lots of money on some wonderful computing device and find it’s got a bad pixel that I’ll have to stare at for years to come. I watched the white screen carefully as it booted up for the first time, looking for any signs of uneven backlighting, bad pixels, or other display problems. I am happy to report that this machine passed the LCD test with flying colors.

But anyway, in the midst of this important event, in the background we continued trying to put on a show. Last night we did a work-through of Act I, which was very exciting. It wasn’t quite a run, but moved fairly quickly. We were also able to have rehearsal on stage, which was very helpful for everyone. It’s definitely starting to look like a show, and it was the first time that the ensemble got to see a lot of the principals’ scenes and musical numbers, so it was kind of like having a real audience. “Good Mornin'” brought the house down.

As Singin’ in the Rain comes closer to completion, I was also greeted by this sight as I pulled into the parking lot before rehearsal:

The set of King and I under construction and being painted by the talented Matt and Jamie. A lot of Reagle’s sets are rented, or purchased from other renters, but this one is being built and stored in the back warehouse. A lot of it was already constructed when I arrived for the summer, and this week they have started painting.

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.

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