Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bali Hai, Tally Ho, and All That Jazz

Despite having spent the better part of three decades backstage, I had never actually managed to see South Pacific.

I still haven’t.  But I did see the first half of it last night.

Tabitha is getting slowly pulled into the theater orbit down at Local Businessman High School, which is a lovely thing as far as we are concerned.  The backstage crew was largely what got me through my high school years.  Especially if you add in the choir, which had considerable overlap, that was where most of my friends were.  That was where most of my good stories come from, at least the ones I am willing to share in a public forum like this one.  I learned a great many things backstage (“never underestimate the humorlessness of authority figures” being one of the more useful lessons) and I find myself referring to those lessons often these days, occasionally in rueful hindsight.  Kim also spent considerable time in theater in high school, so Tabitha gets her stagecraft genes from both sides.

She wasn’t involved in this production, but she had friends who were and she wanted to go see it.  Lauren, on the other hand, wanted to go to the Rec Nite over at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, which started before the play did but which also ended before the play did. 

South Pacific
, if you’ve never had the chance, is a long, long production.

So we dropped off Lauren at the appropriate time and headed over to LBHS for the play, and I left at intermission to go pick her up again.  I still don’t know how it ends.  I assume we won the war.

As an old stagehand, I was deeply impressed with the tech work.  The set was really quite clever and involved – there were multiple wheeled set pieces that came on and off depending on what scene was playing, for example, and one of them had a structural second story that could support the lead actress twirling about up there.  That was impressive.  They had a lattice-work scrim of 1x4s that served as the walls of several different locations and retreated back up into the flyspace when not in use.  It tended to sway a bit now and then, but that’s just the nature of such things.  The lighting was quite involved, though as someone who spent more than my fair share of time running a spotlight I wanted to come in and train them how to pick up an actor without sliding the light around the stage first – it’s a voice-activated skill, in my experience.  You develop it after the director shouts at you for a bit.

Oh, what we could have done with that kind of budget.

Despite growing up in a fairly affluent suburban school district, our theater tended to be frugal to the point of miserly.  After every show, for example, we’d carefully take the set apart, put the wood back into appropriately-sorted piles, and then spend a couple of hours straightening nails against the concrete floor so they could be reused for the next show.  I understood about the wood, but the nails struck me as overkill even then.

On the plus side, though, we had a great deal of freedom to run things ourselves.  We designed the sets.  We called our own cues.  We created the lighting plots, which were fairly basic, given the ancient rheostats we had to move, but ours. 

Our lighting board was a massive grey metal thing that was taller than any of us and at least that wide.  On the left it had three rows of maybe half a dozen rheostats, each one controlled by a lever about eight inches long.  There was a blue row, a red row, and a yellow row.  You patched in whatever lighting instruments you could to the plugs corresponding to each of the rheostats and brought them up and down by moosing the individual lever up and down.  It was analogue lighting.  The knobs on the levers turned so you could lock them into one of three similarly color-coded sub-master levers to the right of each row – each about eighteen inches long – and thus locked you could physically move a row with just one lever, which took some arm strength.  Each of the three sub-master levers could also be locked into a grand master lever further to the right – about two feet long, with an extender that could slide out another foot or so for additional leverage if you wanted to lock everything into it.  When new people would join the stage crew we’d tell them that the board was hydraulic and needed to be pumped now and then to maintain pressure, and we’d lock everything into the big lever and have them pump it up and down for a while, which was a chore, let me tell you.  All of the other rheostat levers would move slowly up and down with the big one until we got tired of having them do it.  It was a ritual.

I wonder what rituals they have backstage down at LBHS, and how much they get to run their own shows.  I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

I’m looking forward to it.

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