Broken Machine

Woah there! You’re going to program your lighting cues to fire automatically? Well, go ahead. Why don’t you just shoot the LX board operator and me in the face right now and put us out of our misery. Save us the trouble of doing it ourselves when our jobs are inevitably stolen by cold, heartless machines.

This overblown response is actually pretty similar to what was really going through my head when I started work on my last DSM job.

‘Well, there will be a lot of called cues, of course. But during the few songs that have a click track, you can just fire the first sound cue and then sit back and light a cigar.’

As great as that did sound, it also made me feel unsurprisingly nervous.

That’s a helluva lot of responsibility to leave in the hands of a computer, isn’t it? Or am I being terribly old-fashioned? Some of my Mac-obsessed friends would probably trust these sophisticated machines to shave them, dress them and bath their babies. They’d trust these computers with their mothers’ lives if given the opportunity.

After all, dozens of shows a day (more, probably) are successfully being run off QLab-type software. It’s a normalised practice, which has enabled shows to run increasingly complex sequences of lighting, sound and AV cues, for example. And, as audience members, we benefit from the subsequent ‘wow’ factor of a technically complex production.

All of this tech-talk reminds me of a small presentation I did on ‘Stage Management Software’ last year. One of the topics I touched on was the use of an iPad (other tablets are available) to call a show from, chucking the old paper prompt copy out of the window in the process. Speaking to a room full of other Stage Managers about this concept, I was met with a shared feeling of “bleuurgh”. Faces turned faintly green with a nauseous unease.  For most, it was just a step too far in the relationship between SMs and technology.

Then again, if we look back just 10 or 15 years, I would hazard a guess that most Stage Managers were pretty uneasy about the idea of trusting a piece of technology with all of their contacts, or going digital with their calendars, for example.

On the whole, we agreed that the introduction of new software into Stage Management practice should only happen when it makes the process smoother, and the end product superior, without adding unnecessary risk. What is the desired result of using the software, and do the ends justify the means?

What the QLab programming in my last job aimed to achieve was an exact, precise, robotic effect. Lighting cues would fire on the exact hemidemisemiquaver of choice. How can a human DSM compete with that?

With experience, one can learn to pre-empt the beat sufficiently, leaving precisely enough time for you to say ‘GO’, for the operator to hear ‘GO’, for the operator to press their button, and for the information to travel from the lighting desk to the individual lanterns. And this is adequate for most snap cues. But can it really compare to the exact science of targeting individual microseconds of midi?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At the end of the day, this technique can only be employed when the piece is accompanied by musicians playing to a strict click-track, or when the players themselves have been heartlessly replaced by machines (or at the very least a recording). Until that day, the unpredictable element of live musical performance will require a human response.

I’d like to think that, actually, an audience can tell (in a good way) when a show is automated, and when a human being is calling it. There’s a softer atmosphere, with more give and take. It’s difficult to put into words. I guess it’s a little bit of je ne sais quoi.

And let’s not forget that sometimes… just sometimes… the software can crash… *gulp*

My final question is this: at what point does this remarkable technology start to strangle creativity? The last production I worked on was a new piece. It was constantly evolving, growing, contracting, and expanding. Lighting cues would move frequently, as would sound clips and projected slide cues. In the end, in order to facilitate these audio-visual quick-changes, I decided to cut out the middleman.

Almost all of the previously programmed cues became called cues. Man overcame the machine. As speedy as I soon became at editing QLab, it was much faster to grab a pencil and amend my score. After all, an organic approach to show-calling was far better suited to the organic approach to theatre-making adopted by this particular company.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s all about finding the right approach for the individual piece. We have to constantly develop and adapt our working practice. Even if, at some point, that does mean replacing me with a robot.