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!


And here’s the view from the calling position:

Further back, showing the chair and stairway to the ensemble dressing rooms.

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™”). 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…


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.

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!