Monday, January 18, 2016

Observations on the Theater

Way back in the Mesozoic, when I was an undergraduate, I took a psych class called, “The Psychology of Drama.”

It was an experimental class, one that had never been offered before on that campus.  The class was taught as a seminar and eventually it got picked up as a regular offering, though as a lecture class instead.  Sometimes I wonder how much we had to do with that.  We wore the poor professor down.

It was taught by the only faculty member on campus who had any involvement in the theater there, a faculty member whom you will notice was a psychology professor and not a theater professor.  We didn’t even have a Theater Department.  I think you could, technically, major in theater, but it was a text-based concentration within the English Department and not anything that had anything to do with actual staged productions.  We were entirely student-run when it came to theater.  There were eight or ten major student drama groups, depending on how you counted and when, as well as a whole bunch of one-off productions every year, and I was one of the dozen or so students who did lighting, moving from show to show and feeding off cast parties like locusts.  Once every other year, this professor would direct a play. 

His plays were considered very desirable productions to work on among us theater types, but I never did get a chance to do so.  The first time he directed a play when I was a student was before I really got involved in theater on campus, and the second time he got sick and canceled it.  So the class was my only shot at working with him on something theater-related, and since I was also a psych major it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would sign up for it the moment it hit the catalogue.

The professor was a kind man who had lived in this country for decades but still spoke with a pronounced German accent, as perhaps all psychologists ought to do.  My clearest memory of him happened at the end of the semester, when I had run into a conflict that forced me to choose between the group project assigned for that class and a commitment I had made to a friend to run the lighting board for a production of Hair.  Doing both was not possible.  I hemmed and hawed about this for a few days, once that realization set in, and then I finally just called him at home and explained the situation.  There was a pause when I finished.  “Vell,” came a soft voice after a few moments, “you do vot you tink iss right.”  “Thank you,” I said, and then I hung up the phone, bailed out on my group project, ran the lighting board for the show, spent the 72 hours immediately after the cast party frantically working on the final paper for that class, and got the only A+ for a final grade that I ever received as an undergraduate.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

The class itself was a bit of a wash, though.  I learned a great deal, but I was outnumbered.  There were maybe fifteen people in that class, and they were almost all – including the professor – focused entirely on the front-of-house side rather than the backstage side where I and one other student in the class lived.  It became, in other words, a class that really should have been entitled, “The Psychology of Acting and Directing,” which to my mind was very much not the same thing as “The Psychology of Drama.”  This technician felt there was a bit more to be explored than that.

As the meme I saw go by on Facebook recently put it so succinctly, actors without technicians are naked people emoting on a dark, empty stage, while technicians without actors are at the bar.  Where was the psychology of the backstage stuff?

And more importantly, where was the audience in all that?  To me, the audience is the most psychologically interesting part of the theater, and the class addressed them only glancingly.  In particular, we never explored what I felt was the single most important psychological question about the theater:

Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

This to me is the central riddle of the theater.  We take it for granted that people will be interested in theater – or movies, or television, since it’s all drama when you look at it this way – and we focus on how to make them more interested, with scripts and blocking and sound and lighting and so on, but we forget to ask why those people are there at all.  We should ask, though, because without the audience there is precious little point to theater.   

I never did get an answer to that question, by the way.  I still don’t know.

So while the class spent the semester arguing over the merits of this or that acting technique, in self-defense I spent a great deal of time writing up my own observations on the theater – things I had learned over the years.  I had been dragooned into backstage work in high school and many of my favorite times had been spent there.  I’d worked for most of the various drama groups on campus as an undergraduate, and would go on to work backstage for community theaters, other university theaters, and, briefly, professionally.  Even back then I’d seen a few things that seemed worth writing down.

Not that anyone could read them, of course.  My handwriting wasn’t any better then than it is now, and I do remember at one point having to tell my roommate, “No, that doesn’t say ‘weasels.’  It says ‘headsets.’”  Although weasels are inherently funnier than headsets, so perhaps I should have gone there instead.  It is difficult but not, after all, impossible to imagine scenarios where weasels would become relevant in a theatrical setting.

Eventually I ended up with a list entitled “101 Observations on the Theater,” each observation complete with commentary and typed into legibility.  Hey – it got me through the class.

Tabitha has now been pulled into the orbit of her high school’s theater groups, which – among other things – made me drag out that old list recently.  Many of the things that had struck undergraduate me as either funny or profound seemed to middle-aged me to be a bit cringe-worthy, frankly.  There are still a few things on it that I thought were worth passing along, though.  Plus I’ve had a few experiences since then that perhaps deserved a place on a new and revised list.

So I went back and picked out the ones that I felt were worth preserving, polished up a few others that had potential once the cringing stopped, and added a few more to reflect current knowledge.  It’s a shorter list now, but perhaps a better one.


1. Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

2. The audience doesn’t catch most of the good stuff.  This is why the tech crew seems to be laughing in all the wrong places.

3. You either know your audience or you don’t get to have one.

4. There’s deep, and there’s digging a hole.

5. Never complicate the simple more than the simple will bear.  Never simplify the complicated more than the complicated will allow.  This is, in essence, a judgment call.

6. You never know what an actor will do until you get them in front of an audience.  Some blossom, some wilt, but none are quite the same as they were in rehearsal.

7. There is a world of difference between reading a script and acting.

8. The ability to ad-lib through long stretches of what isn’t quite supposed to be happening is a prized skill on both sides of the stage.

9. Technicians mostly talk about past shows.  Actors mostly talk about this one.

10. Sometimes the only reason a show gets produced is because the technical crew thinks it would be an interesting challenge.

11. Good tech work, like a good butler, is invisible.  If the audience spends its time looking at the tech, something is wrong.

12. Mistakes happen in bunches.

13. Five competent people is all you need, which is good because a lot of times it’s all you’re likely to get.

14. Nobody’s organizational system is like anyone else’s organizational system, though most people have at least one.

15.  Things are where they are because that’s where they get put.  Don’t ask for more explanation and please put things back there when you are done so the next person can find them.

16. When in doubt:
    a. On scenery – paint it black and nobody will notice.
    b. On sets – nail it down and tell scenery to paint it black.
    c. On lighting – fuzz it, gel it warm, and add it to the wash.

17. If you look like you know what you’re doing, nobody will question you.

18. When all is said and done, final creative control rests with whoever does the last bit of work.  In lighting, this is known as “board-op’s prerogative.”

19. It’s a good musical when the audience leaves humming.  It’s a great musical when the tech crew dances.

20. Light repels actors.

21. If there’s no glare in your eyes, there’s no light on your face.

22. Actors regard blocking as a suggestion.  Lighting designers regard blocking as a map of where the light needs to go.  Often these perspectives can be squared, but not always.

23. Audiences occasionally blink in unison.  This usually bothers the director much more than the lighting crew.

24. Gobos get hot more quickly than you think they will.

25. Anything that runs through the lighting board belongs to the lighting crew.

26. Most problems in lighting can be resolved by asking three simple questions: a) Is there a lamp in it?  b) Is it plugged in? and c) Is it turned on?  Save the fretting for the real problems.

27.  The mere fact that the lighting board can handle a given wattage doesn’t necessarily mean that the theater’s electrical system can actually provide that much wattage.

28. Dancers are only graceful onstage.  No matter how often you explain to them that the lighting instruments on the offstage booms are a) heavy, b) sharp, and c) hot, you will still have to refocus them after every show.

29. There are times when the lighting crew, like the Secret Service, must be prepared to take the bullet for the good of the larger cause.  Audiences are much happier thinking that the lighting went wrong than they would be if they knew that the actors just skipped four pages of the script.

30. By the time the show closes, all the lighting designer can see are dark spots.

31. The best part of headsets is the running commentary.

32. There is a way that lighting cables want to be coiled.  It is not the way you want the lighting cables to be coiled.

33. People who screw around with equipment during shows get pitched off the catwalk.

34. Beware of set designers with bandages.

35. If you screw up the set, screw up symmetrically.

36. In a pinch, a hammer is as good as any other tool.

37. There is no reason to use building-code-quality construction for a set that is only a backdrop, especially if it has to be moved during the show.

38. The ideal running crew member can see in the dark, walk without a sound, lift up the set with one hand and carry china service for twelve with the other without chipping a cup.

39.  Know where the safe spots are on stage.  Lighting designers are often very optimistic people when it comes to how many instruments the grid can actually support, so if you hear anything while you’re onstage dive first and ask questions later.

40. If you’re caught onstage while moving pieces of the set, have the grace to bow when you’re done.  The audience appreciates a good sport.

41. Have sympathy for the costumer – it’s the last vestige of the sweatshop economy.

42. For those who think that theatrics are confined to the stage, there is always load-in.

43. Load-in is where you discover that what you want is not what you have, what you have is not what you need, what you need is not what you can deal with, and what you can deal with is not what you want.

44. It takes a lot less time to tear down a show than it does to put one up.

45. The show isn’t over until strike is over.

46. All diets and nutritional care are suspended during production week.

47. Opening night is usually the final dress rehearsal.  As long as it’s not the first dress rehearsal you’ll probably be fine.

48. A show has never opened that didn’t have wet paint on it somewhere.

49. A sense of humor will get you through just about anything.

50. Never underestimate the ability of a cast and crew to change just about everything on a moment’s notice.

51. Stopping the show to ask if there is a doctor in the house is not as fulfilling as the movies make it sound.

52. When a show is good enough, people will give you time, effort, results, and diseases beyond your wildest imaginings.

53. The greatest moment in theater is when the house lights fade to black to begin the show, for then all things are possible and magic still exists.

54. Periodically, in the midst of all the confusion, everything clicks and you just have to sit back and watch.

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