Last night I slept 8 unbroken hours for the first time in… oooh… a while. It’s been another tech-tastic week, and it’s not quite over yet….
Thankfully! When I come to that point where I’m pretty much too tired to speak (a problem when you’re trying to give cue numbers to a deputy stage manager), it turns out that my common response is laughter. Someone may say something – anything – and when it is my 13th consecutive hour at a desk without a single break, on the third day where this is the case, I will simply corpse. I will laugh and I will not be able to stop laughing.
Working that many hours at a lighting desk isn’t particularly healthy. It’s the great dilemma of theatre… I know that by all rights, I should get at least two, two hour breaks, every day, without fail. But for a three day period that runs Sunday-Tuesday, in which I have to design a show of over 300 cues and then tech it with cast, that would be six hours lost, and if I lose six hours, I lose the ability to design a show that I can be pleased with.
The rigours of theatre production mean that the immortal words ‘can’t you do it later?’ simply don’t apply. ‘Later’ is when the audience come in. ‘Later’ is that point where a cast are no longer available for me to tech with. I get incredibly annoyed when directors say to me ‘ah yes, Cat, the act two lighting… we’ll have to look at it later’ because I know – and so do they – that ‘later’ is not going to come.
This applies to all technical departments. We all want to get through the tech because we cannot fly a piece of scenery, set off a pyro, check a sound cue, do a costume change… anything, really… unless we do it at the speed it’s going to happen at, at the point in the script where it’s going to occur, with the cast on stage doing what they need to do. And worse: we’ve all spent weeks getting to the point where we can do this. Plans have been drawn, days have been spent building contraptions and prepping machines, and now that the moment of truth is upon us we are faced with a dilemma: take your allotted breaks and perhaps lose six weeks of work, or work through your breaks and make the theatrical magic happen. We all tend to choose the latter course, not least because theatre can be dangerous. A tech isn’t just about making sure the actors have the correct props – that’s important, because we don’t want them to look silly – but it’s also about making sure there’s enough light that they can find their exits, that scenery isn’t going to be flown onto their heads and their clothes aren’t going to catch on fire when an effect is triggered. If something has to be cut – fine – we will cut things to make a show work. But there’s few things as frustrating as having to cut something wonderful, simply because you didn’t have time to make it work. Five minutes, ten – every second starts to count as the clock ticks down towards press night…
Very occassionally I’ve been in tech where actors turn round and utter the immortal words ‘if I’m not comfortable with this, I’m not going on’ – and sometimes it’s valid! Sometimes it’s a correct and sensible response to something being actively dangerous. Sometimes it’s less valid… sometimes it’s a response to feeling that they’ll look a bit silly. To which all the technicians go tactfully silent, as the thought runs through our minds… dude… it’s a preview… going on and looking a bit silly now is how you get better at not looking silly tomorrow…. Moreover a great many of us, and certainly I suspect a lot of lighting and sound designers, bite their tongues at this juncture, and remember with regret how many previews we’ve gone into where the end of the show simply hasn’t been teched for our benefit. Perhaps the actors have rehearsed their entrances and exits, perhaps they know where their props are, but perhaps also a director turned round with a cry of ‘the cast are comfortable, let’s move on!’ and for the sake of time, didn’t – couldn’t – stop to let the technicians do their jobs. On most days, this again is a necessity. On bad days, it is the thing that happens when a director has wasted time in a technical rehearsal on doing things with actors that should have been done elsewhen. Even the most stoney-hearted of technicians find themselves going narrow-eyed when a director starts exclaiming ‘darling, can you find a different motivation for that line?’ to an actor in a technical rehearsal. We couldn’t care less what Hamlet feels at this juncture, so long as he’s standing in his light, and what’s more, Hamlet probably couldn’t care less what he feels too, for precisely the same reason. This is the point of technicals.
And then the bitter moment. We’ve run out of time, we didn’t tech properly, but we must still run the show. How my stomach clenches when we reach that area of the cue stack, the dreaded section towards the end where I know – I know – it’s going to look wrong. Perhaps others don’t notice it as keenly, perhaps they merely think it was a bit loud or a bit dark on stage, but it’s a technicians’ job to know and care, and make no mistake, we really, really care.
And so we return to where we began… in the last three days I have worked 13 hour days, and had a combined total of maybe 40 minutes away from the lighting desk in that time. Despite this, we rushed through the second act at break-neck speed, the room getting more and more frazzled as we ran out of time, and I am nervous about what I shall see in the first dress. I’m also, however, quietly phlegmatic… I do have dress rehearsals to try and fix things, I do have options available to me, and while nothing is as good as actually teching an actual show with a decent amount of time to do it in, this is the job and we’ll get it done, somehow, and maybe even have time to eat at the end of it.