Why do we need yet another book on technical theatre? What a good question!
I have always been fascinated by the combination of history and the newest trends. For example, I love fountain pens and computers! I believe we must know what has come before, who did something first, and how they did it. In essence, we must know where we come from and honor that history. Otherwise we spend a great deal of time reinventing, well, the wheel – literally. At the same time we must continue to push, pull and stretch ourselves as both designers and technicians using the newest materials and technology currently available. This new technology allows us to do things that were previously unavailable to us. It also can make our lives easier on some on the more routine tasks. Technology is only as good as the use you have for it. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy depending on how you choose to use it.
Theatre is a relatively small business. I have been fortunate to interview a great many working designers. I have quoted them throughout the book. I have also researched a great many of the superstitions or traditions we have all come to know in theatre…trying to find their origins. I will also include this information, a little in each chapter, as a part of the industry’s overall history. We always hear people saying “break-a-leg” or “the Scottish play”. Now we’ll try to find out, as best we can, where these sayings started.
Opening Night and Paying Customers
There is a superstition in theater about the opening night customers. As we all know, some tickets are given away through various connections with the production. These are called “comps” or complimentary tickets. Supposedly the first customer to be admitted into the auditorium must be a paying customer. This is said to ensure the financial success of the production. House managers have been known to refuse admittance to someone with a comp ticket prior to seating a paying customer first.
Stagecraft Fundamentals uses examples of past and current design ideas to make interesting comparisons. Not to say that one is right and the other is wrong. Anything but that! What is truly wonderful is that we who work in the theatre are constantly reinventing it. We do this not only through our concepts and ideas, but also through our implementation. Think of the classic musicals from the 1950’s like Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady or Camelot. Then think more recently to the musicals like Spring Awakening, Wicked, and Young Frankenstein. What are the differences from a design point of view?
Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the newer shows couldn’t have been done 50 years ago. They absolutely could have. But they would have been different. We’ll look at the differences may have been incorporated in the design and implementation process. This will clearly show how scripts have been able to expand their scope, at least in part to the expanded possibilities in design and implementation now available. The bigger we can dream, the more we can accomplish!
My goal in writing this book is to bring the newest ideas and technologies available in professional theatre to the attention of anyone with an interest in backstage theater. Each chapter goes into enough historical detail to give you a background and a perspective. Visual examples as well as explanations of current techniques will bring you not only into the present – but also into the future.
Wow – sure does sound like an awful lot of information for one book! Well, it is. But I’ve organized it in such a way that it will hopefully make sense. We’ll start slow and with each new chapter we’ll build a little more on what has come before. Here’s how we’ll do it.
We’ll start by honoring that history I talked about earlier. It all started with the Greeks right? Our overall organization in the theatre as well as some of the basic conventions we still use today all have their roots in Greece. If you’ve ever been backstage in a theatre, it may seem like the technicians are speaking an entirely different language. Well, in some ways they are. In Chapter 1 we will discuss many of the terms that form the foundation we will build on in later chapters as we continue to expand our new Theatre vocabulary.
You want to be a technician, or you are at least interested in the topic, and you’re wondering why you should also be learning about Design. The best way to be a good technician is to understand the designer’s process. And the best way to be a designer is to understand what the technicians go through to realize your design. Then as questions arise, or perhaps problems needing creative solutions…you can all be a part of the final answer. Chapter 2 will discuss the design process. And yes it is a process. Designers don’t sit down and just draw pretty pictures. They read scripts, do research, go to production meetings, etc.
The next logical step in the conversation is to discuss composition and color theory. Any visual artist needs to understand composition. Chapters 3 and 4 will explore the basics of these topics. All the images that the audience sees and perceives are directly relayed to them through composition and color. Composition is the basis for all things visual. At it’s most basic we can discuss, is the line straight or curved? Does it have pattern or rhythm? This begins our discussion of composition. Color adds on to the conversation about composition. It adds another element or layer. Color is usually defined thought of in terms of primary and secondary colors. We’ll discuss this and so much more. How we perceive the world around us is directly related to how we see color.
Chapter 5 begins the implementation phase of the book. So you have all these great ideas. How do you get these wonderful ideas out of your head and into the theatre? We’ll jump right into our discussion of drafting, drawing and rendering. This is the first tangible step for any designer. You have to get the ideas out of your head and onto paper. That is the only way others can see visually what you’ve been describing verbally. The “old way” to do this is with a pencil and a piece of paper. And many designers still work this way. The “new way” with technology adds the use of computer drafting software and photo manipulation software as well as other programs written specifically for the theatre. The goal of creating drawings and drafting is still very simple. Get the ideas out of your head so they can be realized.
My students all know one of my favorite sayings: “I’VE NEVER HAD TO CALL 911 FOR A STUDENT AND YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BREAK MY RECORD.” Chapter 6 will talk about safety both backstage in the theatre as well as in the various shops related to implementation of the designs. There are standards for safety and they are practiced for a reason. The theatre can be a dangerous place. We are always trying to accomplish things that aren’t supposed to be done inside a building, never mind in the dark! If you follow some basic safety rules you will have a much better chance at staying safe. And let’s face it, most of us got into theatre because it looked like fun. Let’s keep it that way.
Scenic Tools and Materials are discussed in detail in Chapter 7. There are so many different projects you might need to do and I’ll give you all the basic information you need to walk into a scene shop and get the job done. This chapter has tons of information about the nuts and bolts – literally – of theater. I’ll also talk about how to choose the right tool or material for the job at hand.
Chapter 8 is all about scenery. Yes, we’ve finally gotten to talk about scenery. Did you think that scenery was going to be chapter 1? As we get into the “down and dirty” of implementing scenic ideas you’ll see how the first six chapters have given you a background you didn’t think you’d need but is now coming in very handy! This chapter will give you a background in the traditional scenic elements: flats, platforms, stairs, doors, etc. As always we will honor the past before moving into the future. And keep in mind that when the budget is tight you will need this “historic” information in order to come up with a well-rounded solution to whatever problems might arise. Once we get the basics under hand, we’ll discuss some of the new technologies available today. These will include advancing in the capabilities of decks as well as other technologies that can help your vision come alive.
The next logical topic is a discussion on paint. Chapter 9 addresses a range of painting tools and techniques. You might wonder how painting has changed, or what new technologies there are. It’s just a paintbrush and some paint right? Wrong! There are many new developments in this area. Some changes are small, some are large – but all are important. There has been a resurgence of painted faux finishes both in the theater and in homes. These techniques will help to complete our picture of what is possible from a scenic point of view, and they might even help you make your living room look better!
Chapter 10 is next with a discussion of rigging. Now that the scenery is built, how do you get it into place? How do you get it into its storage position? Does it fly in and out, does it track on and off, or does it just sit there? Once you know the answers to these questions, the solution lies with the rigging department. Rigging at its most basic is all about knots. Where do these knots come from? Again, we will look at the history of knots which all come from sailors! Once we learn about the knots that make theatre rigging safe and easy, we’ll move on to more complicated rigging where new technology has really made a huge impact. 50 years ago if you wanted a platform to move across the stage somebody had to push it! It sure is different today with the advent of hoist, motors, winches – and computers to control them.
From all things scenic to all things lighting, chapter 11 discusses lighting. With the same concept as other chapters, we will discuss the history of lighting through a variety of developments straight through to today’s fixtures. Automation is the biggest overall change. Conventional lighting (meaning non-moving lights) and Intelligent lighting (meaning the fixture can move in some way) are both viable options in today’s theatre. In some ways this is one department where both old and new coexist on the stage seamlessly.
Chapter 12 is all about costumes. Now you may be thinking, “how can costumes use new technology”? Well, of course we will look at history a bit as many of those same techniques are still in use today! Many of the newer technologies that costume designers and shops use is not obvious in the actual costumes, but in how they get built. Sewing machines have come a long way since the old treadle machines. Patterning software has had huge developments that may change the way a costume shop functions.
From Costumes the next logical step is Makeup. In Chapter 13 we will explore the basics of makeup starting with evaluating the face. Makeup can show the era of the play and age of the character, and so much more. We will discuss street, or everyday makeup, as well as aging and some special effects. Street makeup is what works to enhance the features of a face. Aging takes it to the next level by not just enhancing but changing features. Aging makeup can give you insights into how you will look in 10, 20, 30 or more years in the future. Additional effects makeup can achieve include everything from a broken nose to scarring to injuries to all sorts of fantasy characters.
Chapter 14 will explore sound. There are many aspects to what sound can do for a theatrical production. At the very least, sound can reinforce the spoken word. Sound can also create everything from a source of the individual sound to wild effects. With the advent of digital technology, the impact sound can have has drastically improved. Sound can now follow a performer around the stage, or around the entire theatre. Digital delays can ensure that audiences of 50 to 50,000 all hear the same thing at the same time.
Special Effects will be the focus of Chapter 15. We will explore all varieties of effects. Effects can fall into any of the departments we’ve already discussed, or the production may add a Special Effects department if there is a need for many effects. A prop may need to explode into flames, rain or snow might be needed for a certain scene, one character might be portrayed as having some awful scar, and another character might need to fly through the air. All of these effects can be handled in a variety of ways depending on the theatre space and the budget. Bringing in an expert in special effects is sometimes the only way to safely do these effects. Other times, if the effects are done simply enough, some one already on the production team can supervise it.
Now that we’ve got all the technical stuff done, what next? The culmination of working in the theatre is always the actual performance. I don’t think we’d ever get much of an audience if all we did were put the set and lighting on stage. The audience has come to expect actors! Chapter 16 will talk about stage management. The Stage Manager is responsible for organizing the initial rehearsals. The true test of a Stage Manager comes into play during the technical rehearsals and performances. Without the Stage Manager we would never get as far as house to half. The stage management team, and yes it is a team, are responsible for everything that happens during the actual performances. Stage Managers have to be organized, they have to love paperwork, and they need to work well with a variety of people.
OK…great…you’ve learned all this stuff. What’s next? Chapter 17 will discuss all the places you might find employment. There are many job opportunities out there, some of which are directly related to the Theatre. Many of these possibilities will be in related fields and some will be in what seems at first to be totally unrelated fields. We’ll explore all of these options to make sure your training gets put to good use in an area where you will be happy.
Now let’s talk about the website! In addition to the printed book, there is matching website full of information. Check it out at www.StagecraftFundamentals.com. There is so much information out there to reference that it could take an entire room full of bookshelves. The more information we can store digitally, the easier it is to search for the one exact thing you are looking. The information takes all forms.
1. There are lists of schools, theatres and associations. This combination of organizations will help you find the right place for you to continue to study and learn your craft. The lists will then give you some of the contacts you will need in order to begin to make the transition from student to successful professional.
2. There are also list of other textbooks that specialize in one specific area of theatre. They can go into much more depth than I can in this book, so keep them in mind as you continue to yearn for knowledge!
3. Manufacturers, suppliers and other vendors have allowed me to include their catalogs in PDF form. This can be the beginning of a resource or reference library that you will hopefully return to again and again. I have listed these companies in a PDF as well, with their websites and other contact information.
4. Lighting and Sound America has worked closely with me to allow us to reprint a number of their articles. I have excerpted them in the book, but you can access the complete article on the website. Don’t miss this special chance.
Hopefully I’ve given you enough of an idea of what fun Theatre can be, that you aren’t running out of the classroom screaming. Theatre is fun! I’ve written this book so that you can learn some of the information you will need while having fun at the same time. Now let’s get started!
And remember…this book is a jumping off point…don’t stop here!