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.


Opera is Child’s Play

After watching Blue Peter’s mop-headed Barney muck around with shadow puppets whilst explaining to his tea-time telly audience some of the technical intricacies of bringing The Firework-Maker’s Daughter to life, devoting little of his valuable screen time to discussing David Bruce’s music (or much of what would set it apart from a Year 4 Art class), I understood that really with every example of theatrical musical performance (be it Opera or One Direction), it is likely to be the visual aspects that engage and inspire children most immediately.

Blue Peter’s producers understood that. And so did the Creatives behind this ‘children’s Opera’, directed by John Fulljames and co-produced by The Opera Group and Opera North in association with ROH2 and Watford Palace Theatre. This heart-warming dose of family-friendly theatre, based on the Philip Pullman book, has graphic and pictorial curiosities at its core, using aforementioned shadow puppets, old-school overhead projectors, and other familiar friends of the primary school classroom (glitter, corrugated cardboard, and wibbly-wobbly parachute fabric).

That’s not to say that the music of this production is of little importance. Far from it. In fact, if something doesn’t sound appealing, even the most polite of children will be the first to tell you about it. Bruce’s score, featuring hypnotic Eastern-influenced percussion alongside the beguiling Monteverdian laments of a countertenor elephant, take centre stage, quite literally, as the animated band forms the physical backdrop for the show’s events. In addition, Bruce’s frequent use of text repetition (essentially a stock Operatic device in itself) amounts to the ‘Again, again!’ Teletubbies-style of narrative delivery children are accustomed to.

But how did the children react? Frankly, I was amazed by the calm and receptive behaviour. However, One of my companions (ever the pragmatist) pointed out that it’s not just every child that gets treated to a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the Royal Opera House. She’s right. It’s possible that, for little Tarquin and Clementine, this mightn’t have been their first experience of Opera at all, or that their parents had been grooming them for this day since their first excerpt of ‘Mozart for Babies’ in the car home for the Neonatal unit.

Having toured an Opera into various schools, my companion was all too aware of the dangerous ripple effect that can occur when one boisterous child decides that the only possible solution to the implausible attack of wailing sounds emanating from these strangely dressed imposters is to clamp its hands tightly over its ears. Before long, you have a school hall full of ‘hear no evil’s.

One child did leave quite early on with his hands over his ears and his disheartened, short-changed parental figure shuffling him awkwardly towards the foyer. It’s easy to say that he was just acting up, or that the sound of the Operatic voice, at first potentially alien, is an acquired taste. But the reality may be that, with children being the most honest of us all, he just hated the sound and, for him, that reaction might never soften.

Equally, one of my other adult companions pointed out that he would have loved something like this as a child. That while he had always been taken to orchestral and choral concerts, it was now quite clear to him that Opera’s winning combination of drama and music were more his thing. So why should we assume that if a child doesn’t immediately respond to ‘Classical’ music, they wont enjoy Opera given a little bit of encouragement?

Of course, Opera for children is nothing new, and there have been many Operas written for children along with dozens of companies currently producing Operatic work specifically for little ones. Fittingly, Scottish Opera has developed a show for those very little ones who would probably be thoroughly at home having strange, unintelligible warbling sounds made at them for extended periods of time.

In my opinion, ‘Opera for children’ and ‘Opera for adults’ would be best illustrated by a Venn Diagram with two circles essentially placed on top of each other, with the only areas not overlapping bearing the words ‘Sex’ and ‘No Sex’. The other essential ingredients are virtually identical: heroes (or heroines), forces of evil, a machine to rage against, and a sense of adventure, tragedy and eventual balancing of the scales. Maybe I should add to that something about extreme gore, given some of my experiences of late

As an adult watching The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, it occurred to me that it’s just a bit more fun going to an Opera when you can pretend to be seven again. Kids often remind us that actually its okay to join in, and to really give ourselves over to the performance. Laugh out loud if it’s funny, sigh (or even cry) if the mood takes you, and gasp in amazement when something out-of-the-ordinary happens on stage. Actually, wouldn’t most Opera audiences benefit from the occasional burst of oh-so-adorable state-the-obvious commentary thrown in for good measure?

On reflection, maybe not. Mozart’s probably better off without “he’s behind you”.


Entrepreneurialism in the Arts

Isn’t it great when something lingering at the forefront of your mind is suddenly at the forefront of someone else’s? When YPIA (Young People in the Arts) announced that their next event would be a panel discussion covering the application of business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit to the all-too-mystical concept of the ‘Arts professional’, I was out of the door before you could say ‘start-up organisation’.

Anyone who is self-employed/freelance in the Arts sector, which covers most of the Arts professionals I know who aren’t lucky enough to work full-time for a large organisation, must employ a disciplined, business-like attitude to almost everything they do if they are determined to make ‘the Arts’ their sole means of income. So, I was intrigued to hear what practical advice might be on offer.

The varied panel consisted of host Chloe Booker, Founder and Director of Platform 33, Tim Foxon, Awards and Partnerships Manager for the Musicians Benevolent Fund, Ben Cooper-Melchiors, Arts Manager and Theatre Producer for IdeasTap, National Youth Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre, and Eleanor Barrett, Founder and CEO of The Brick Box. All success stories in their chosen field, but what did ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ mean to each of them in fulfilling their ambitions?

For inspirational entrepreneurial case studies in the Arts, just ask Ben Cooper-Melchiors. Informed by his work with IdeasTap, this enthusiastic American was full of positive attitudes and exemplary accounts of the creative businesses he has guided towards full realisation, mixing a little of his Arts admin insight with whatever bright idea was struggling to reach commercial success.

He asserted that, whilst the teaming-up of business minded individuals and creative types was potentially a recipe for success, there was a great deal of potential to be unearthed in the way creative people themselves tackle business concepts. I responded strongly to his idea that being an Arts entrepreneur means bringing an abstract artistic vision and implementing creative management (not creative accounting!) to develop a financially viable project.

Highlighting the differences between the UK and the USA, he pointed out that the absence of Arts Council England-style funding across the pond means that there is a greater need for creativity in finding cash for projects, something we could be embracing more at home. Whilst I agree that the Arts industry should take more entrepreneurial risks to earn its keep, I still maintain the belief that artists are able to take more risks within their art form, and experiment more freely in a country where Government subsidy still exists.

In the case of host Chloe Booker, ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ meant a question: how do you merge business with arts? The difficulty faced by some arts businesses (such as Chloe’s Platform 33) is that treading the line between a soulless, overtly business-minded operation and the somewhat cloying bonds of charity status leaves you unable to claim certain funding but also unwilling to sell-out to the highest bidder, making you more responsible for securing the necessary funds some other way.

Tim Foxon, working for the Musicians Benevolent Fund, painted for the crowd a picture of the MBF’s Dragon’s Den-style funding panel, one example of the different financial options that are out there. An opportunity for young musicians (of any genre) to compete for the money needed to avoid falling at the final hurdle post-college, attempting to jump headfirst into a successful career. The scheme aims to help artists at the stage when there seem to be so many things that must be paid for in order advance their career, including the currently controversial audition fees.

The YPIA event benefited from its discursive nature, with two audience members raising concerns that age seems to be a limiting factor for many cash strapped individuals, as they are just now reaching that jumping off point despite having checked out of Club 18-30.  As has been recently documented here, many creative types ‘bloom’ later in life (not to mention the time it takes to mature as an opera singer). So, the system’s not perfect, but MBF’s scheme is certainly a start.

One such self-proclaimed ‘late bloomer’ came in the form of Eleanor Barrett. Down to earth and gorgeously honest about her own journey to success, I particularly enjoyed her account of the many jobs, volunteer positions and mysterious past lives in cabaret that informed her decision to eventually start The Brickbox. She doesn’t consider the jobs she hated as wasted time, but as learning experiences and stepping-stones towards her eventual success.

Perhaps the clearest examples of entrepreneurial attitudes offered by Eleanor were the ideas of giving yourself permission to address whatever the ‘It’ (with a capital ‘I’) is inside of you, and, once acknowledged, just getting on with it and not being deterred from that path. When you have said yes to your own ambition, convincing others to get on board with your ideas should be more straightforward.

All of the panellists pointed out the importance of mentoring and of sustaining a strong network in the Arts. Chloe, who started out in the corporate world, was shocked at the comparative lack of support structures in place for Arts businesses, whilst Eleanor reflected that she had found a great mentoring group, although formed specifically for females. All agreed that successful Arts professionals, the sort one tends to idolise, often really like being asked for advice. They might just feel responsible for nurturing the future of the Arts industry they are so passionate about.

For me, at this point in my career, ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ means applying business-like attitudes to job-hunting and managing finance. After all, I am a product that I market to theatre companies. Whether that means networking, designing a website, or just uploading a CV to several specialist ‘jobsites’, in order to enter a crowded market place as an Arts professional, one must work harder than ever.

Work Experience

When is an Opportunity not an Opportunity?

When you’re walking across London in bone-chilling, bra-soaking, sideways rain to fix someone else’s problem. When you’re not learning anything (apart from how to catch pneumonia) and you’re not getting paid.

I’m not bitter. No really, I’m quite honestly not.

That said, it’s true that in the past I have taken on the role of the appreciative, ever nodding dogsbody on a few too many occasions for very little or no financial compensation. The general idea behind offering to do these things, at the time, was to learn something new, to make contacts, and to broaden my experience of theatre in its various forms.

But when does an ‘internship’ or ‘work experience opportunity’ stop being useful to the person making the cups of tea, picking up other people’s over-the-counter drugs, and scooping poop for the director’s dog, and start being a genuine opportunity for free manual labour on the part of the employer?

Sometimes when I discuss what I have been up to with certain ‘non-theatre’ friends and family, they are shocked and occasionally saddened. It’s often difficult to shake the feeling that there are some middle-level ‘theatre success story’ types who have reached where they wanted to be by stomping ever so confidently, bedecked in ridiculous vintage couture, on the heads of those grateful interns following closely behind.

Let me try to reassure those troubled friends, and myself. True, many theatre companies in the UK rely on a multitude of unpaid enthusiasts, but, sometimes, that’s just great. In these situations, everyone is working towards the same goal for the simple reason that they feel genuinely passionate about whatever bit of tut is being put on the stage. And that’s fine, so long as you have the savings/pocket money/hassle-free, fast approval, payday loan to allow you to put food on the table.

In addition, I have done some seriously useful work experience jobs. And when I say useful, I really do mean useful to me. I was given what I still perceive to be a genuine opportunity, based on very little experience on my part, by an opera company who treated me much like a paid employee. In this way, yes, I was taken advantage of, but I also learnt how to do the job, on the job.

Of course, we can never know just which ‘unpaid opportunity’ (as many of the familiar job sites advertise them) may lead to something really pivotal in the formation of a successful career, but with just a little bit of hindsight I think it becomes painfully clear exactly which of them didn’t.

I admit that this post doesn’t aim to plumb the depths of the unpaid internship ‘situation’, which has become a significant issue throughout the arts sector. It’s been debated at large across most of the usual reputable news channels. All I might offer is my own viewpoint, and I suppose that viewpoint is somewhat conflicted.

Without unpaid work experience placements I wouldn’t have evolved, Pokémon-style, into the Charmeleon that I am now. But, from where I am now, I can appreciate how frustrating it is when a company chooses a clueless unpaid intern over employing a qualified stage manager, for example.

What I would say with some conviction is that it is extremely important to learn when you really have to say “no, I will absolutely not pay my own travel costs to come and work for you shovelling shit on a Sunday for absolutely no monetary compensation and little more than a half-hearted nod by way of a thank you”.

We must try to make a reasonable assessment of what our time is worth. But, as long as people like past-me keep agreeing to the bonds of the unpaid ‘opportunity’, companies will keep relying on them to survive.

Spider Man

‘The ASM’ Stands For ‘The Amazing Spider Man’

While this may be factually correct, within the context of this blog we are most often discussing the Assistant Stage Manager. Although, just for the hell of it, let’s compare the skills and expectations associated with Peter Parker with those required from your average theatre ASM.

The film, opening during Summer 2012 to the tune of £11.1m at the UK box office, and nominated for a Teen Choice Award(!), charts Spider Man’s ‘struggle with love, commitment, and secrets’, the result of which sees Peter making ‘life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero’. Sound familiar?

Yeah, you’re right, there are definitely some evident shared qualities. To highlight them, let’s recap some key elements of the ASM job description:

  • ASMs are often privy to sensitive information relating to cast members, ‘showmances’, and other titbits of trivia that ought not to leave the theatre’s walls, much like Spider Man’s need to disguise his true identity.
  • Must make a full commitment to the show, showing allegiances to both the technical and the artistic teams, like Spider Man’s commitment to both his family/college work, as well as fighting various underworld criminal masterminds (I’ll let you decide which relates to which in this comparison).
  • May sometimes need to assist people in flying through the air, like Spider Man but without the weird, stringy, expelled bodily fluids.
  • Must be able to make on-the-spot snap decisions often relating to cast members’ wellbeing, like Spider Man does pretty much all the time with his various beleaguered girlfriends.
  • And, not forgetting, the old ASM adage: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Oh, no, wait…

So yes, whilst ‘The ASM’ standing both for ‘The Amazing Spider Man’ and ‘The Assistant Stage Manager’ may cause some mild Google-based irritation, it’s actually not so much of a serious mix-up after all. In fact, from now on I’m going to view these as pretty much interchangeable job titles. Okay?

P.S. This post does not wish to entertain any association with the Broadway musical beset with problems in its inception. That would be too much of a mind #@*&!


Talking Regional Theatre Laundry Facility Blues

I have recently finished touring for the first time ever.

I’m sure you’re wondering what delicious nuggets of knowledge I foraged during my very first tour as an assistant stage manager with costume responsibilities. What crucial lesson about regional theatre did I learn moving a couple of one-act operas from venue to venue around England and Wales? Let’s just say, where quality of venue is concerned, for a lowly costume ASM, the truth always comes out in the wash.

That’s right. I am using this blog to talk about washing machines. In fact, charting the pros and cons of each venue’s laundry facilities, in a ‘higher or lower?’-style (mostly humourless) game, became a serious and well-worn topic of conversation over tea and Hobnobs. And you would be surprised which theatres did not come out on top when judged by this all-important yardstick.

But this is not a gossip column. Rather more a cross between a psychological profile and a how-to guide. The key criteria you will need to conduct just such a thorough comparative investigation yourself are as follows:

  1. Number of washers/dryers. It’s all about multi-tasking. When a theatre boasts more than one of each, it is truly a rare bonus to be cherished whenever and wherever possible.
  2. Top loader or front loader? We all prefer a top loader, if we’re being painfully honest. Allowing for the classic ‘tip and run’ manoeuvre.
  3. Speed of wash. Jobs in theatre, like most legitimate ways of making money, revolve around deadlines. In addition, we like to set ourselves little (sometimes unnecessary) challenges. Is it possible to get all of that blood out on the fastest wash cycle in the time it takes to pack the props? Good golly, who can tell?!
  4. General ‘industrial-ness’ of facilities. If it looks like you would not find it in your aunt’s utility room, it must be good. An industrial sized dryer will bring a wry smile to any costume ASM’s world-weary face.
  5. Distance from stage. What obstacle course may face you in your attempt to transfer your bag/wardrobe pan/basket from truck to wash is certainly part of the venue assessment process. Several hundred flights of stairs? A lift that’s kept under lock and key with a criminal record for holding people hostage? Door frames that should allow enough clearance… but don’t. It’s all part of the game!
  6. Sundry items. For example, what luxurious and/or intriguing half-used laundry products or toiletries are lying around in the running wardrobe? “Oooh! Ariel Bio with actilift! … I didn’t even know they made Lynx shower gell?! … I’ve never smelt that brand of spray starch before…”

The darker days were those when the washing machine was not up to scratch, tragically unable to complete its cycle in time to get those lights and darks onto the truck before closing up. Or perhaps when an irritatingly nonchalant ‘out of order’ post-it clung stupidly to a singular tumble dryer.

But when the laundry facilities impressed, well that really shed a positive light on the theatre as a whole. So what if there weren’t any seats in the pregnant singer’s dressing room? So what if I had to operate surtitles sitting in a draft on a cold, angular flight case. Who cares?! They had TWO washing machines, TWO tumble dryers, an iron, and an ironing board!!!

In case you hadn’t already surmised as much, I suppose what I am really getting at by focussing in on this sad inner monologue is just how completely insane touring can make you. How it is possible for the most banal issues to become lodged at the forefront of one’s mind. And this strange fascination for the running wardrobe is just one, infinitesimal example. Who knows what peculiar, cable-based, obsessional thoughts are tearing apart your over-worked TSM? And we all know the mental breakdowns held at bay simply by finding your DSM an appropriate show-calling pedestal.

All sarcasm aside, of course this message about laundry facilities was one of a very long list (some of which I may chronicle at a later stage) of absorbed insights and just a small dribble in my growing pool of theatre experience. Perhaps more accurately, this is a reflection on the advantages, the quirks, and the challenges that differ every time a touring company enters its new place of work. And, of course, we embrace them, because that’s what makes our job ‘interesting’!