Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Day In The Theatre

Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.

Robert Heinlein
Have you ever noticed that no matter how big the ocean liner or tanker is when it docks it is tied up by a rope. With all of our newfangled gadgets it is the simple rope that does the job. Something once thought up and fashioned by some brain child to make it easier to keep the boat in place. A rope.

Some of our most important inventions are very simple things that virtually never change. Think of the golf tee. Golfers used to tee off from a pile of dirt or sand until someone thought of putting a stick under the ball. Now the tee is taken for granted.

Three of the most important inventions of use in theatre are tape, Velcro and, of course, everyone's favorite two fisted, brass knuckle, steel toed, betrayer of human intentions called the computer.

There have always been quick changes in the theatre, change of costume, change of character. The ancient Greeks used to do it with masks. But that changed when theatre tried to become more "realistic" and the lace took over. To accomplish a quick costume change by unlacing and lacing up took some doing, and lots of help. Changing scenery was just as complicated, muscle straining and time consuming. It gave rise to a new skilled laborer known as the "stage hand" for whom there is now a union.

At some point in the history of the entertainment business the lace was replaced by the button which did speed things up a bit but not by much. The button was an improvement but it came with a hazard. Buttons, like laces (and actors), could come undone and sometimes in a most embarrassing way. I have found myself twice on the stage with my fly open because in the rush to get the costume on I forgot to button up or they became unbuttoned somehow.

Soon the zipper replaced the button and costume changes became speedier although there were other hazards which the zipper presented that never occurred with the button or the lace. They had the same problem of being forgotten about, leaving the actor with the embarrassing job of zipping up as surreptitiously as possible while playing the scene. Worse than that however is that the zipper could get stuck, half way up it could get snagged by the tail of a shirt. Imagine, which is neither unusual nor extraordinary, two young apprentice girls fussing over an actors fly, trying to get the zipper unstuck while his entrance cue is coming up.

But costume changes and set changes still took time and often if the changes were major the producers would put in a cross over to take up the time. A cross over is done in front of the curtain and usually consists of other characters following (sometimes chasing) each other across the stage. Other times an extra something was inserted to take up time. I read somewhere that the song "On The Street Where You Live" which was sung in front of the curtain was put into "My Fair Lady" to cover the huge set change.

Theatres were built with a lot of space above the stage called "The Heaven" where scenery could be stored when not on stage .Gradually set changes became easier with winches taking the place of pulleys and weights. Then the winces became electronically operated which gave rise to a specialty stage hand know as the "winch operator." I was a winch operator for one season in Boston. It's very tricky, but it works.

Now about tape. There are two kinds of tape used in the stage: spiking tape and glow tape. Spiking tape is used in TV and films also. It comes in several colors and is placed on the floor so the actor can find where he is supposed to be when he enters, or where he has to move if he's already on. The audience won't see us looking for our tape because we are very clever at finding it, some of us. I have know of actors who seem to have never heard of spiking tape, especially one soap opera actor who will remain nameless. Along the way some lazy person invented glow tape. This tape will glow in the dark if it has been in the light for a while. Glow tape is used to find our place when we have to enter the stage in the dark or to find our way out and not run into the scenery, as some dunderheads do, if we have to exit in the dark. Believe me in happens. I was the dunderhead who ran into the scenery during a performance of Zorba when I didn't see the tape. The glow tape is on the floor, the steps and the corners of all the furniture and other set pieces that we are liable to run into in our rush to get in place. I remember a production where I had to enter in the pitch dark on the upper right side of the stage and sit in a chair in the lower left side. When I stepped onto the stage I saw something that looked like the runway of a major airport at night. In Arthur Miller's "The Price" the second act picks up exactly where the first one ended. One actor had some glow tape on the back of his coat so I wouldn't run into him when we came into place to start the act.

Historically, about the same time glow tape became available Velcro hit the stage. There are still laces to be done up, buttons to be buttoned and zippers to be zipped, but when it comes to the quick change it's the scraping sound of the Velcro that tells the story.

The computer has become a great blessing and curse to the theatre as computers are notorious for being. With computers all the lighting effects can be preprogrammed. For example, if the lights are supposed to dim out slowly, say on a 7 count, it can be programmed to do that and the stage manager and electrician no longer have to count to seven together. if they ever did. When I started in theatre a dimmer board was a rack of large handles and to do a black out one had to jump on the rack and ride the handles down with body weight. Now the computer does it with a click.

In the theatre as anywhere else we live under the constant threat of Murphy's Law. As a result, even with all the new fangled gadgets there still have to be the skilled crew people around, the costumer with safety pins at the ready, the electrician with his eye and hands on the dimmer board and the stage hand watching.

The computer is also used in some theatres to perform complicated set changes. The massive effect in "Les Miserables" for example. But even then if a piece of scenery has to be temporarily held in place before it flies back up to heaven the stage hand will tie it off. And what will he use to tie it off?

A rope.
DB - Vagabond Journeys

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1 comment:

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

It is always interesting to see the various tools of the different trades.