Friday, February 13, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

But Sir...The Show?

Sometimes when you do theatre, there are directors who have such outlandish ideas of how a show should run that you, as a tech person, start looking for the nearest window out of which to jump. Over the course of my many years in theatre, I have bumped into a few of these directors, and no matter how much logic you use, it won't matter.

During my freshman year of college, I worked on an artist-in residence play called
The Girl from Clare. It wasn't a bad play; it just didn't work. The playwright had created a story that was so specific that the audience needed to know everything about divorce referendum and abortion laws in Ireland in the 1980's. The director, the crew, and even the actors had no idea what she was talking about most of the time. In one funny moment, the director turned to her and asked, "Hey, ummm...what did you mean here? What's this line about?"
After some careful consideration, during which she looked at her notes and the script, the playwright looked up and said, "I have no fuckin' clue what I meant.... Just...just have her read the line how she thinks it should be read."
Unfortunately the girl would be forced to give the line seven different reads before the playwright would be ok with it. There's nothing worse, as an actor, than finding a character...and being forced to change that vision to fit everything the playwright sees. It breaks down the creative process. The playwright, however, was not the only problem.

The director, who actually was quite brilliant when he had good material, recognized this script was inferior, and he panicked. The opening of the play called for man to be seen in silhouette and be given a lap dance, while a girl and her boyfriend moved from making out to sex on a couch that did not face the audience. Now, the playwright wanted the scene to drip sex appeal, so the director tried very hard to make it that way. The girl giving the lap dance was moved to skimpier and skimpier outfits. In the end she had to buy (though she was re-imbursed) her own lingerie. As for the couple, it went from the simple ("Ok, so you should kind of go up and down like, you know, you're having sex. You can leave your shirt on.") to the incredibly (and unnecessarily) complicated ("All right, you need to count to 15, then slowly remove your shirt from the left sleeve first. Now, she does that, you should moan slightly as thought you like it, but not too much. You're the man, so make sure you act it. Now, Saskia, once the shirt is off, you should bend over Aaron and slide your left hand back. No one will see it, but it will help the scene look good.")

We spent a week of the six week production on the opening five minutes. All because the director had to have it perfect. The entire scene was done to the tune of Sinead O'Connor's version of I Am Stretched On Your Grave. I'll give it a few minutes while you listen to the song....

I Am Stretched On Your Grave - Sinéad OConnor

So, here we are during load in (or Hell Week as most Techies call it) when the director comes up with a brand new idea: what if we create a platform in the back just for the lap dance?
The idea was that the girl was us and on the ground, but the dad, who is getting the lap dance, is those in power lording it over us.
The tech director took the words out of my mouth before I could say them:
"What the fuck are you thinking?"
Unfortunately, after forty minutes of debate, the director used some piece of blackmail on the TD to get his way. So we built a platform for the girl to dance on. This led to the next problem.

When they choreographed the lap dance, the girl, Andrea, was on the floor, so she had all this space to work with, but because we were in the black box, and because the platform was so last minute on an already done set, her "dance floor" was shrunk to a 4' x 6' platform that she was sharing with a man on a chair. Suffice to say, I knew something bad was going to happen, so I made one of my crew members stand underneath them so that if she fell, someone would catch her. This is how Andrea met her now husband. Catch a falling girl a few times, and she swoons. Just a tip for the fellas out there...or the ladies as it were.

The stress of the show and the playwright would cause the director to get even more involved as the play got closer to opening. At one point, he asked the actress playing the mother to do her lines a specific way and then gave her blocking. She felt that the line reading now contradicted the blocking. Now, again, he was a great director...when he wasn't stressed. He leapt out of the audience, ran onto the stage, moved the actress on to the couch, asked for her coat, and then did the scene as her. To the tech people, there was no difference. Even the playwright was overheard saying, "What the hell was that?" To the director, however, there was a huge difference. It didn't matter that he totally pissed off and alienated his actress or that he freaked out the other actors. No, he just berated her as he did the scene as her.

The show was a colossal failure. The audience did not understand it, and the director, who wrote a page and a half director's notes for the program, would take the microphone during the post play Q&A and say, "I have no clue what this play is really about, and I don't care. All I know is that I tried...and it's over. Hopefully you liked it, but if you didn't, the playwright is right there."
I hid in the back during the Q&A. That's what a good techie does. The worst part, however, was that even though the fabric set had been treated, a cigarette found the one patch that wasn't and burned a hole during the show. It smelled terrible. We even had audience members leave.

So what's the moral here? What's the theme? Good ole number 4?
Well, the idea is that you will, as a stage manager, as a lighting designer, or even as a crew member, run into directors, playwrights, or tech directors that lose a grasp on the situation. You can try to talk to them about it, but this just makes you a target most of the time. I learned very quickly which directors I would get along with and which ones I would not. I did work with this director again, and it was a great show. He didn't panic, because he knew the material. So if you're the tech person remember the following:
1. If the director is panicking or falling apart, do not step in unless asked. You don't want to become the whipping post.
2. Find out the director's and TD's comfort foods (preferably candy). Keep these handy as it will diffuse situations.
3. Don't argue. If you have to bite your tongue until it bleeds, don't argue. Only when it looks like you will hit overtime, and you have a big commitment the next day...that's when you talk. Even then, don't yell. Just talk.
4. If the director is just bat-shit crazy, get the TD to be on your side. If the TD is bat-shit're fucked.
5. Very important: Know your director ahead of time and then decide if this is really the show for you. It helps. Seriously. If the director or the show looks There will be others.