Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Psychopathology of Drama

I spent all day yesterday and most of the night before in the theater, doing lighting. It brought back many unrepressed memories.

I used to do a lot of that sort of thing, way back when. Most of my high school and college friends were theater techs of one variety or another, and I stopped counting the number of shows I worked on when I hit four dozen. Every semester in college I would wonder how many shows I could do before it seriously impacted my academic work.

The answer was six, by the way.

Not that this turned out to be a problem, in the long run. I was taking a class entitled “The Psychology of Drama,” taught by the only faculty member there who ever had anything to do with the theater. All of our theater was entirely student run – I don’t think they even offered a theater major – and there were eight or nine major student groups putting on shows as well as a few one-offs every semester. There were a dozen of us who did lighting, and we’d go from show to show, feeding on cast parties like locusts.

The class turned out to be a dud from my perspective – it was all about the psychology of acting and directing, which to my mind is not the same thing as the psychology of drama. I understood why it didn’t focus on the tech stuff that I loved – all that is add-on, and while fascinating in its particulars and an awful lot of fun to do is not at the heart of drama. You can put on a play in a field, without any tech at all, and it will be fine. The audience, however, is the core of theater. And the class never addressed the one question I thought would be of paramount importance for anything labeled “The Psychology of Drama”: Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

I still don’t know.

We had a group project due at the end of that class (and don’t get me started on the absolute uselessness of group projects – that is an hour of your life you’ll never get back). But I had promised a friend of mine that I would run the lighting board for her for that sixth show – a production of Hair. One of them had to give. Eventually I figured that there was really only one person I could ask about this, so I called the professor at home and explained the situation. There was a pause at the other end of the line, and then his German-accented voice softly replied, “Vell, you do vat you tink iss right.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I called up the leader of the group project and announced my retirement, ran the lights for Hair, and spent the following 48 straight hours writing my final paper for that professor. In four years of college that class shows up on my transcript as the only A+ I ever got.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Yesterday down at Home Campus we had a performer come in for three shows – a magician with an act geared toward mathematics education. For the two day shows we invited some local schools to come in, and the evening show was open to the public (and packed, I might add – oddly enough, the acts that sell down at Home Campus are almost always science-related acts that people can bring their kids to see). As with all of these events, it was my job to do just about everything support-related, from negotiating the contract to hanging the lights to providing the snacks backstage. During the show it was my job to run the lighting board.


It’s a computerized board, as they all are these days, but one that is at least fifteen years old and whose manual was clearly written by engineers rather than theater techs because – like all such manuals – it is organized around features rather than tasks. “Oooh! Look what this button does! And that one! And this one!” All of which is fine except that nowhere in there is there anything that says “If you want to get the cue you just programmed in using those buttons to show up on the stage, you need to do this…” Eventually the sound guy and I gave up trying to figure it out and I went with smaller cues I could do manually with the dimmers.

The thing about these shows is that they’re not like my Bright College Days when we had a week to work with the cast and practice running the cues. The performer showed up at 7:30am and spent two hours loading in his gear, after which he and I managed to squeeze in almost four minutes of explanation as to when he wanted the cues on the cue-sheet he helpfully provided to actually happen. The house opened at 9:40. First curtain went up at 10.

At least he provided a cue sheet. That’s one step above most.

So there I was, running cues on the fly.

Old memories indeed.


vince said...

I've never been a fan of group projects either. When I went to college (Mark II Mod I) because I was a "non-traditional" student (ie, person going back to school as an adult that was also working and livid where I wen to school during the week then went home on the weekend) I was able to convince all my professors to let me do the group projects with no group, except one.

The class was a business class, and I made the same argument I had to the others that had worked - I wasn't around on the weekends, I ran my own business (the one I still run) even while away, and my time was too tight to allow the meetings that were required. Worse, this was a spring semester class, and two of the other three group members were baseball players (also gone a lot) and the third was a single mother who was a part-time student that also worked part-time. You can imagine the scheduling nightmare that was going to be.

The professor refused. His argument was that in business, we often had to work together with others when scheduling would be a major problem. We all needed to figure it out to help us learn how to handle this type of situation.

It worked about as well as you can imagine. Meetings were few and fewer still where everyone showed up. I ended up writing the group paper myself. We also had to do a class presentation on a book describing a business model, and the only way qw managed that was we did a "news conference" where the other three asked questions I'd written and I answered.

I got a B+ for the class, the only B I got those two years I went. However, the others were appreciative of the work I'd done and took me out for a night on the town.

I haven't done theater in several years, but I prefer acting or directing to tech work, although I've done tech.

TimBo said...

In during my first year of college my English Professor offered me the option of getting perfect marks in all assignments if I would do the technical production on his one act play (Winston Agonisties can you guess what that was about in 1984?). It would be rather silly of me to agree because I was working full-time to support my wife & two children as well as taking a full class load. Naturally I went for it.

I had created a lot of audio and video affects tightly integrated with the action on stage, all controlled from the lighting board. Split second timing was important. Things went well with the play and we won the opportunity to compete in the one act play festival at the newly built Keyano College in Fort McMurray".

I had never even seen a computerized lighting board before, never mind operated one. But that was no problem because their technician would set things up. Then it was our turn to present the play. From the point of view the lighting booth the play went something like this:

Me: Video clip # 1. Now.
Technician: I've programmed a 15 second delay before this starts.
Me: Never mind.

Fortunately some of the cues happened as they were supposed to and the actor was good enough to cover the rest. I won the Best Technical Production award, but the award should have gone to the actor.

David said...

These are such great stories!

Vince, did you point out that many businesses fail precisely because those in charge refuse to listen to the valid concerns of those doing the work? I'm glad you got a night on town out of it, at least. :)

Other than choirs and bands, I never went front of house until I started teaching. I always preferred being one of the anonymous people who made it work over being up front. I still do.

Tim, I've long maintained that the greatest talent in theater is the ability to adlib through vast quantities of what shouldn't be happening. And of course you'd take that offer - I understand that completely.

And I hope you gave that tech an atomic power wedgie for messing with your cues without approval. That's an unprofessional move on his part.