Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Man Behind the Curtain...

... used to be me!

By that I mean to say I spent most of my working life in technical theatre. Most of that time was spent as a technical director, with lighting design as a side line. It was a fascinating line of work, and I'm glad I discovered it, but I'm also glad to be out of it now.

So, what exactly is a technical director? Well, they are the person who takes the visual ideas of the director and scenic designer and translates them into reality... taking into account the time, people, and money available.

And there you have one of the big challenges with the job... directors and designers have almost unlimited imagination.... and budgets and schedules are absolutely limited! Of all the productions I was involved in, I can count on the fingers of one hand those shows where the initial design was achievable within the limitations of time and money available. In many more shows, after the initial presentation of the design, there was always a period of revision, negotiation, and creative adaptation to get the show within budget and time. At the best of times, it's a fascinating and exciting collaborative process, where creativity is tested and flourishes. At the worst of times, it's a battle of wills that frustrates everyone. I'm happy to say, most of my experiences were of the more positive sort. I was fortunate to work with a lot of great people over the years, and very few truly unpleasant folk.

So how did I end up in theatre? Well, way back in 7th grade, a buddy of mine, Peter Watson, called me up and told me the drama club at school needed some help building some "flats". I had NO idea what he was talking about, but being best friends, I figured if he was going to do it, I would too. He and I and a few others spent a couple afternoons covering wooden frames with fabric, to make walls for the set of the next play. I remember thinking at the time that it was just bizarre to use fabric for a wall, but that was the standard for a long, long time in theatre.

That first foray into theatre led to volunteering to help out on other shows... and even led me to audition for a play... and then another, and another. Before I knew it I was regularly acting in plays in high school, as well as building the sets and hanging the lights. Then it was off to college, where I was finally confronted with having to choose... did I want to be an actor or a designer/technician? It really wasn't that tough a choice... I really enjoyed both, but knew all too well what the job prospects for an actor were. Besides, I knew in my heart that I was better behind the scenes, and found it fit my strengths and personality better.

I've never regretted the acting and actor training, however. That experience brought me a level of confidence that really came at a good time for me. Up until junior high, I had been the shy, quiet kid that nobody really knew. Stepping out on a stage, in the guise of another character, helped me to come into my own... it was something I was good at, and liked to do, and the audience reaction was an amazing thing to experience. Ask any actor... there's nothing like the connection that can happen between performer and audience.

I have to say though, that my heart was more in the technical and design aspects of theatre. As I said above, in technical direction I found a lot of pleasure (and a share of pain) in being right at the nexus where the artistic vision and the execution came together. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes about two ways of looking at the world... the "romantic" view, concerned with surface appearances, beauty, aesthetics... and the "classical" view, focusing on underlying form, how things work, etc. It took me years to realize it, but one of the things I loved about my theatre work was being where the two merged... or collided, depending on the situation.

My other specialty in theatre was lighting design, and I have to say, if there's any part of my theatre work I miss today, it's that.... the molding and shaping of space and people, the manipulation of the audience's focus and reaction, the subtle art of the ephemeral thing we call "light"... I took so much pleasure in that. And I was good at it, too. Whether drama, dance, muisc or other performance form, I seemed to have a knack for connecting with the main vision of the piece and using the tools at my hands to support and even enhance that vision.

Actually, one other thing I miss is teaching... I still do a little of that in my role as head mechanic at our shop, but I really enjoyed much of my time in university teaching positions... at least the class work. The big challenge in academic theatre is being pulled between two masters... the educational mission and the demands of a production schedule. Not an easy balance, and some settings make it harder than it needs to be. But I did so love sharing my knowledge and experience with students. I hope in some way I helped enrich some lives through my teaching. I'd like to think I did.

So why did I leave theatre? Well, that's pretty simple... 20 plus years of the crazy schedules, challenging situations and the absolute deadlines of opening nights (the only deadline that could not be missed, unlike things like design submission deadlines...ahem), and the stress finally outweighed the satisfaction and the fun. And it's the kind of business where if you don't really love doing it, you have to get out, or it chews you up alive. You have to get your own satisfaction out of it, because the money and recognition and other such rewards are pretty slim. Do I ever think of going back? Once in a while I'll think about some aspect of it I liked... such as the creative process of lighting design, or the satisfaction of teaching a great class... but all in all, the whole package no longer works for me, so I think it's unlikely I'll ever go back, except perhaps as a hobby of sorts. But who knows? Life can take surprising turns.

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