Sunday, April 05, 2009

Perils of Student Theatre

Perhaps the hardest kind of theatre that exists is one run completely by students. Over the course of my many years of experience, I have had the fortune...misfortune...experience to work with student-run theatre. For the most part, it can go well, but it is an exercise in what the real theatre experience will be. Sure, these people may seem cool...and they may be your best friends, but under pressure, they will eat you faster than a dingo with a baby.

The first experience I ever had was while I was in high school. However, that one won't count as the school's theatre teacher gave a tremendous amount of help to the point of lending lights, sound equipment, and his time. No, proper student theatre has to have no outside help. So let's jump ahead.

My freshman year of college, the group AST (a helpful acronym that stands for All Student Theatre...oh how clever) put on a production of
Macbeth (if you are in a theatre as you read this, say "The Scottish it for Sir Ian McKellan). Now, I worked on the show as a favor to my then girlfriend who was friends with everyone on the production and would sweet talk me into helping... this leads to...

Lesson one: Never work on a production without knowing all the parameters up front. If you haven't been on the show since day one, and they call you fix problems, it's going to be more taxing than you can imagine. These people take all their huge problems and dump it on the consultant. Then, if it doesn't work, it's your fault. Make sure you have an escape...just in case.

I'm in bed when the phone rings at midnight. Doesn't sound too bad, but I had been asleep since nine as I had a horrible cold. It's the show's lighting designer, and he needs my help. His name is Adam, and he's one of those guys who's always sure he's right. If he was on fire (important later), and he didn't think he was, he would burn to death to prove that you were wrong. Seriously.

"Buddy, I need you."
Ok, let me be clear here: I really dislike when people use terms of endearment that are fake. Chief, buddy, dude, brother, etc. Either use my name or tell me how you really feel. I have a colleague who calls me, "Buddy," and it makes me mad because she used to do it when she forgot my name.

"What do you need, Adam?" I reply coughing into the phone loudly. It's at this point I realize that I will need to wash out the puke bucket...but that's neither here nor there.

"I'm really stuck, Chief. Can you come down here and help me focus?"

"Where's your crew?" I ask, and try to start counting how many times the room has spun on me... 14.

"Left me in the lurch, Bro. Can you get down here and help me. I know it's what (My Ex's name) would want."
This is an unfair move...however, it is lesson two:

Lesson two: If you are desperate for help, blackmail, blackmail, blackmail. Use whatever resource you have. I once got a friend of mine to withhold sex to her boyfriend until he came and helped me. Cruel? Hell yeah. Necessary? Most definitely.
On the flipside, however, be prepared for it. If someone attempts to use your significant other, then you bargain using his or hers. And always collect favors in writing or recording. Seriously. I used to do it all the time, and I still have a stack of I.O.U's that I am using to get people to help me now.

I sighed into the phone. "Fine, Adam. I help you, and you owe me. No questions."

This is how you tell how desperate a person is. If they REALLY need you, then the no question bit is washed over. If they don't, then they will argue it.

"Just get down here. I need help. We'll talk details later."

I get down there to a version of Lighting Hell. A combination of late delivery, rain, and lack of man power has the show a full day behind. Adam is really desperate...and I can use that.

Ok, if you are doing a production and cannot get lights from a university, college, or local school, you will have to rent. Now, this is where you need to be nice to the school's (or space's) Tech Director. Get a name and number of who he/she would use. Make sure to mention how much money you have...less $500. Seriously. I watched a kid make this mistake my senior year of college. She pissed off the TD by talking to him like he was a kid (not a good idea with Rick), and then gave him the exact budget. He gave her the number of a guy that I knew jacked prices. She ended up paying $300 out of pocket. I would have said something, but she insulted me too, so I decided to let it go. Too bad for her.

Adam had gone to a guy that everyone knew was reliable 50% of the time. Sometimes he showed up with the lights, dimmer, and cables....Sometimes he didn't show or showed with only some of the equipment. On this night, he showed, but the guy wouldn't bring the equipment up from the bottom of the steps, and this was why Adam was panicking. The students had all ditched the set when it started raining, so Adam was left with himself, me, and one actor who was too drunk to know any better.

Lesson three: When desperate, you can take any warm body and use them, but be careful who you are taking as they may be:
Better than you

The actor, we'll call him Terry, was incredibly drunk. This was a given for most AST productions as the sets were outdoors in April, so staying warm was very hard. Many people drank or had sex to be warm. The sex was why I never wanted to clean the set...ever. Too get the idea.
Anyway, Terry was wasted, and here was Adam asking him to carry a box of lights up the steps of the building so we could begin hanging in the rain. The very idea was insane, but I'd done worse.
Halfway up the steps, Terry started getting woozy and losing his balance.

Have you ever seen the scene in
The Untouchables where the baby in the carriage rolls down the stairs? No? Ok, here. Yes, it's a rip-off of the scene from Battleship Potemkin..but..uh...ssshhhh.
So Terry is starting to fall, and he lets go of the box with the very expensive Source Four Revolutions in them. As the box starts to slip from his fingers, everything slows down. Adam begins to dive to save the box, while I just stare. Had it been my show, I might have cared more, but because I was doing a favor...meh.
Adam gets his fingers on the box, and it still gets away. So several thousand dollars worth of equipment goes spinning down the steps as Terry pukes on himself and Adam screams.

Lesson four: A great deal of student theatre is luck. So many things will go wrong that it will make your head spin. Actors will be idiotic, techies will be frustrating, and anything that can truly go wrong without incredibly meticulous planning will go wrong. However, occasionally something will spin your way.

For Adam, this was his lucky moment. Even though the box had plunged down all those steps, nothing was damaged. So, even though I was still dizzy, I helped Adam haul the box up while Terry continued to puke on himself while saying, "Aww...dude...(Hoorrk)," over and over.

As you'll recall from rule one, always have an out. When Adam began talking about working until the sun came up (and again, it was pouring rain), I pulled my out. "You get a little longer, but I have an exam tomorrow, and I need to both sleep and study. School first." A flimsy excuse, but enough of one. This was also because I knew he was going to try and get me to go up on the scaffolding.

Now, here's a helpful tip. Not a rule per say, but something to remember: fatigue + rain + heavy equipment + electricity = VERY, VERY bad idea. I knew Adam was going to ask me to go up and hang the lights on the three story tall scaffolding...and there was no way I was going up in the horizontal rain with several pounds of lights attached. That's just asking God, or Fate, or Time, or Space to throw you around. Years later I would be in Adam's position and almost kill myself leaping around the scaffolding, but on this night I wasn't stupid...or designing.

So after setting up some pipes, running some cable, and hanging a few lights, I was done. "I need sleep, Adam. I'm going home."

"Thanks, Chief," he said and my spine shivered. "I'll call you later to come back." This was not said as a question of if, but that I WOULD come back.

"We'll see. Bye."

A few days passed, and Adam got everything ready. The night the show opened, however, Adam would cause another problem.
During "The Scottish Play", there is a scene where three murderers appear and kill Banquo. The director decided that the lighting would mimic moonlight and that the actors would carry torches. Great...except the murderers were supposed to snuff the torches in order to symbolize Banquo's death (which everyone was seeing anyway...but I digress).
So Murderer #3 grabs the torch and tries to snuff it out with his cape...which hadn't been sprayed with fire retardant...and it catches on fire.

Being the techie that I am, and being that I am in the audience, I stand up immediately and go to put the guy out. Adam, who is also the stage manager and tech director for the show stops me (again, it's student theatre, so everyone has multiple positions. Being the lighting designer also means he knows the cues already).
"Don't touch him!" he shouts at me. "He can put it out himself."
The spreading flames say otherwise.
"Get out of the way," I say to Adam, and head backstage where I know the fire extinguisher is. (The guy they rented the lights from includes it with all of his rentals...isn't that a bad sign?) Adam keeps saying, "He doesn't need you to put him out."
At this point I don't care. I grab the extinguisher, run back out, and spray Murderer #3 down. He was grateful as the flames were actually starting to burn him.

Now this was not that bad. Sure, an actor was burned, but nothing crashed.

On a later production of
City of Angels, the tech director didn't double check to make sure the flats were lashed. So, the play is rolling along, and they hit the big number: You're Nothing Without Me. Stine and Stone begin the song...and the flat behind Stine literally snaps and crushes him. Sadly it was the only time the audience enjoyed the show.

This leads to...

Lesson five: anything that can go wrong...will...and it will have fallout.

Yes, your show was a success...good for you. However, there was an immense amount of drama (no pun intended) leading up to your awesome opening.
Over the course of the years that I did student theatre, I had:
Directors at war with each other
Drunk or high crew members
Drunk, high, or horny actors
Angry weather gods
Annoyingly interested security and peace officers
Homeless folks trying to use the set as a home or urinal

And of all of those, the worst was always weather. If you can avoid doing it outside, you'll be much happier. During a very frustrating production of Much Ado About Nothing, I had to setup scaffolding and hang lights all in the quad. Ok, the first problem was that I had one helper, and while Donger (yes, like ding-dong...with er at the end) was a great help, he was also hyper-competitive. "Hey dude," he would always start with. "I bet I can carry two lights up to the top of the scaffolding faster than you AND get them hooked up first. Ready? Go!" Then he would run as fast as he could, grab the lights and sprint up the side of scaffolding. Was it helpful? At times, but not when he slammed some of the lights into the metal bars and caused damage.

So it was pretty much me. It was a rainy April when this show was being setup. It was also cold and windy. This meant that the three stories tall scaffolding would sway while I was on it.

Anyone who knows me as a professional in theatre knows that I am basically a monkey. I will hang off pipes, swing around with ladders, and basically throw my body across pipes and walls if it means getting the job done. This includes flying around and cheating death and injury while on unsecured (very much unbeknownst to me) scaffolding. Now, in case you are unaware, metal and water don't necessarily mix well. If you add heights then it's a recipe for disaster.

There I was on top of the scaffolding singing the Marriage of Figaro at the top of my lungs, when I slipped for the first time. The light was secure, and I had my trusty (no longer mine) crescent wrench tied to my wrist so it wouldn't hurt anyone or force me to go after it, but I slipped and had to grab on to the metal plank to not go anywhere.

In hindsight, this should have been my first inkling that this was a warning from God or Fate or Time or Space or the Theatre Gods or whatever runs this strange land we all inhabit. I would continue to work and would make an almost fatal mistake. With all the lights finally attached, I began to wire and focus. One light was extended out (it was a special for Beatrice), so I, being the macho idiot I once was, leaped over the scaffolding to swing into position to focus the light. It wasn't done to impress a lady, it wasn't done to cheat death, nor was it done to prove a point. I did it because I started leaping over the side during my Sophomore year. Never had a problem, until that moment.

Again, rain makes metal wet. Metal is then hard for skin to purchase on. Add heights and you begin to see the problem. My hand grabbed for the metal bar and slipped right off...while I was three stories up. I began to fall.

My first thought was, "Fuck. Who's going to feed my cats?" Why? Couldn't tell you.

So I reached out again with my hands and feet and managed to pull myself in with my leg. It didn't break, but it caught me, I hit my back on the scaffolding, and my shin caught me in place by letting a pin that was holding the scaffolding together enter in. It was excruciating and embarrassing, but it wasn't the worst part. I would survive, patch up the leg (though I still have the scar to this day), and finish the job. I'd even keep singing.
And as soon as I finished, lesson five kicked in.

I had asked the crew to secure the scaffolding to the ground using ropes and stakes. We couldn't do anything to the brick of the quad as that permanent damage. So they were supposed to stake down one side and tie the other to a tree. One was done (the tree). That afternoon, several guys were playing football, and they somehow got too close to our scaffolding tie down and a bunch of them hit the rope. This forced the scaffolding to tip back. Add in a gust of wind and now a bunch of extra weight in the form of the lights and the structure begins to tip over. I was there when this occurred. It is the only time in my life where I loudly asked God or the universe or Murray, the little old man who lives in the Sun, to "HELP ME!!!"

Yes, I ran up to the scaffolding and started trying to pull it back. There was a rope still attached from when we raised it, and I grabbed it and leaned no avail. The whole structure went over. For a few moments, I just looked at the desolation of the fallen metal. Nothing of the structure had broken, but two lights had...which was costly. This would be the last time the director of the show and I would actually speak as he was supposed to tie down the other line...but had forgotten because the actress playing Beatrice was wooing him.

In the end, I'm not against student theatre. Far from it. It's a wonderful experience.
Just remember:

1. Never work on a production without knowing all the parameters up front.
2. If you are desperate for help, blackmail, blackmail, blackmail.
3. When desperate, you can take any warm body and use them, but be careful who you are taking.
4. A great deal of student theatre is luck.
5. Anything that can go wrong...will...and it will have fallout.

Of course, there's one more rule to remember. It's not a hard and fast rule, but as a techie, I highly recommend it.

6. Never date any of the actors or directors involved with the production. Oh my, this is a sure fire way to end your relationship.

Of course what do I know? I did four years of it and didn't die. I could be wrong.


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