Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Women in the Scene Shop

Recently on a woman started a conversation about the frustration and annoyance she feels being a woman technician in the theatre world. I have struggled with this issue a lot personally and I wanted to share some of my opinions, experiences and decisions.

I feel like this issue is the constant struggle of women working in the industry. We face double standards and catch 22s a lot. You are told that in order to get any respect you must be able to do exactly the same amount of work as your male counterparts, but at the same time you should accept help when offered by a "gentleman" and know your limits. You are told to speak up for yourself and assert your skills and your rights, but speak up too much and people of will get frustrated at that woman who cries sexism at every turn.

First I think I should mention my incredible good fortune to have been brought into the world of technical theatre and trained by a women, the technical director of my college theatre program. I was able to start in a place where being female made absolutely no difference at all. By learning in an environment that was so gender-equal I was able to understand what my work environment should feel like, and I have been better able to recognize that type of environment and later create it myself.

My boss at one of my first professional jobs, when explaining why he hired me, explained something else for me incredibly well. He told me that he often doesn't like working with young female technicians because they often talk about their work like they have something to prove. He explained how he had interviewed another woman for the job who, during the interview, mentioned again and again how she was just as good as the male carpenters and he was completely put off by it. Since then my personal rule has been to avoid acting like I have something to prove and instead act like I've already proven it. This is not to say that I don't work my butt off, but I do it with confidence. I don't need to be looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is judging me, I work like I know that they aren't.

When I first started out as a carpenter, I refused to accept my limits. I remember unloading lumber trucks at my first summer stock job. I would watch the master carpenter take a stack of six 2x4s off of the truck and say to myself, "if Adam can carry six then I can carry six," and I would. The problem is that I was completely ignoring the physics of the situation and probably risking seriously injuring myself. Adam was literally twice my size. Regardless of gender, Adam should have been able to carry more lumber than me. I have since learned to respect the laws of physics. Sometimes the guys can do the heavier lifting, and that's ok. And I know some women in the industry will argue with me, but if some condescending guy comes up to me moving something heavy and gives me a "let me help you with that sweetheart," I let them. I find it much more effective not to argue, I just hand off the heavy thing and move onto something equally heavy/challenging/or high skill. Eventually the smart ones will understand that you are perfectly capable of handling yourself, and the ones who don't weren't going to get it anyway.

The biggest struggle for me as a woman in a job dominated by men was reconciling my behavior at work with my feminist political and social views. As a feminist I have been taught that I shouldn't let anything slide, that the details are the fight of my generation if we want to achieve real equality. I have felt at times though that by pointing out the details in terms of gender equality, the attention shifts away from the thing that is most important, my work.I have been fortunate not to work with any extreme bigots, but I have noticed that while men are willing to adjust their points of view, once they begin to think of me as someone who knows about gender issues and workplace reform, they forget, on some level, the most important thing- my expertise in technical theatre.  As a result I have started picking my battles a little bit more. I will still stand up for myself on important issues, but I let a lot slide. My hope is that I am making things just a little bit better for the women who will come after me. I hope that a pleasant experience with me (and maybe a few good natured reminders) will result in male technicians showing the next female they work with that much more respect from the start.

Like I've said, I've struggled a lot with this issue, and I'm not sure all of my conclusions are final. I would love to hear about your experiences with similar issues.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On Regional Theatre- Part 2 the perks of freelance

Let me start off by saying that I have only been freelance for about a year, and I know that things will continue to change as I work my way more into the freelance community, but here are the perks I see for now.

One of the biggest benefits to freelance work is the variety. As an artist I have been forced to learn more, quicker working freelance than I ever did when I was a resident at a company. One day I will be working on a big musical and the next day a period piece and then I will go do a modern comedy. In the past twelve months I have worked in 14 different spaces, from large auditoriums, to outdoor spaces to basement studio theatres, and each one presents a new set of opportunities, limitations and experiences. I've adapted, problem solved and become a better theatre artist for it.

The variety is a benefit, not only in the shows and the spaces, but in the people. In regional theatre, working with the same people each day can be wonderful. As I mentioned in the last regional theatre post, the sense of being a part of a team is something that can't be beat. The problem comes when nothing changes on the team for a long period of time. At some point the same six people doing one show together after another will start to get stale. You know how you have approached problems before and just go back to the same solutions to solve the problems when they come up again. As people develop a comfortable routine there is less and less reason to look outside the box. "Why fix it if it isn't broken" may work in many industries, but in theatre it leads to stale and uninspiring art.

In my freelance work, the theatre community is small, and I run into the same people over and over again as I move around the Chicagoland area. I have developed some fantastic working relationships with some of them. The difference is that every time I run into them, we've all been working on multiple projects in between. When a problem comes up more people can contribute fresh ideas because the collective body of work we are drawing from is so much larger. I tend to be working on three or four shows at a time at different stages of the process, but once that is mulitiplied by the entire production team, we may collectively be working on 20 or 30 shows and we have all of those experiences to inspire us.

Having said all of this about my contrasting theatre experiences I would like to point out that there is a difference between inherent dangers and inherent problems. Having the same group of people working together day in and day out will always put you in danger of creating stale art, but it doesn't mean you have to. If you are aware of the danger, make a conscious effort to mix things up, bring in fresh ideas from fresh designers and encourage continued learning, you can produce fantastic work with the benefits of a strong team atmosphere.

The same applies to freelance based theatres. the variety and fresh ideas are going to come much more naturally; the focus here needs to be on creating a strong team. Production meetings should happen early, often and never be rushed. Encourage production team members to meet outside of full production meetings to discuss and brainstorm issues, in person if possible (instead of relying entirely on email and phone communication). I have found that this type of attitude catches really quickly, and anyone can lead it. If you put the work in to stay in touch and communicate, the rest of the production team is likely to follow.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Floral Arches

I was asked to make some floral arches of Christmas greenery for a dance number in Christmas Carol. I knew exactly what the director was talking about when she was describing what she wanted. I feel like I have seen ballerinas dancing with them in happy spring folk dance numbers, but when I went to find them online I was finding nothing.
The floral part of the project was going to be easy, but I couldn't figure what the base would be. It had to be rigid enough to hold it's shape, but flexible enough to bend as the dancers moved their arms. They also had to be long enough to jump rope with. I searched the hardware store for a hose or pvc that would work but everything was either to limp or two rigid.
I hate reinventing the wheel, so I posted on some discussion boards hoping to find someone who had constructed these before and found no luck there.
I found this image of "portugese flower arches" but using search terms related to that didn't get me anywhere. Eventually  I came across this website on Phillipine folk dance with pictures of girls using similar flower arches. Luckily though, this wasn't a picture taken by a tourist or an observer, but the website of the dance school that choreographs the dances. I emailed the dance school instructor listed on the website and asked her how to make them. She sent me a very friendly email explaining exactly how she made the arches by cutting apart hula hoops and wrapping the ends in tape.
From there the arches were all a question of design. I wrapped them in garland and then wove holly, ribbon and battery operated twinkle lights through them.

On a side note during the holidays you can buy small strands of Christmas twinkle lights (some standard, some LED) attached to battery packs. They are invaluable for creating wireless lighted effects for endless uses, but they are only easily available during the holidays. So buy them while you can and keep a few in stock. 

There are two strands of lights in each arch. The packs are tucked into the greenery close to the handles at each end. The batteries were placed at the end because I wanted their weight to effect the swing and movement of the arches as little as possible.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tiny Tim's leg brace

I'm super excited for this prop. It was a quick build, cheap and easy, but was just what was needed.

We needed some sort of leg brace for Tiny Tim to go along with the traditional crutch. The leg brace needed to be easy to remove by an actor onstage (as Bob Cratchit helps Tim get ready for bed), be adaptable to our two different child actors (with a 4" height difference), and be durable (the theatre is planning on bringing this show back year after year).

While searching google I found this image which served as my inspiration. The leather straps and the wooden base are just what I was looking for.

I bought three similar brown leather belts at a thrift store for $1 each. I stained some scrap lumber and bought a small strap hinge for the knee joint.
The joint looked far too open with just the strap hinge, and didn't really give the appearance of a supportive, functional medical device. I went back to the hardware store and found this sliding hinge. It is designed to support the lid of a box or trunk. After some tinkering to remove pieces that controlled the speed and direction the hinge could slide (prevented the hinge from sliding past 90 degrees) I screwed it on.
The brown leather belts were all cut long enough to go around the boy's legs and then I drilled new holes for the belt buckles (use a bigger drill bit than you think as the leather will stretch around the bit and close back on the hole). I used extra screws to screw the leather to the wooden base, an then stained it all dark.

I had to go back later and drill a couple more holes so "Tinier Tim" could tighten the belts a little more and I went back and added some epoxy putty around the strap hinge because the joint of it was just a little too wide and was poking "Less Tiny Tim" in the leg, but all in all a simple project with some great results.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On regional theatre- Part 1 The things I miss

Right out of college I worked at a mid-sized non-equity regional theatre, and now after a year of working freelance I'd like to talk about the differences, benefits and challenges.

First off. I loved most of my time at the theatre. We had a resident costume shop manager, Tech director, sound designer, stage manager and two addition scene shop staff (1st season carp and props, 2nd season two carps and I doubled as props and TD), a resident ME the first season, a managing director the second season and 4 tech interns. There were lighting, set and costume designers who came back for multiple shows and almost all of the shows were directed by the artistic director or one of the resident acting company.

Since leaving to work freelance the thing I miss most is being part of a team. With the heavy work load (we opened one show per month March-December and ran an intense murder mystery on top of that October-April) we became a team immediately and the longer we worked together the more we learned about each other, refined the system and developed a support system. The resident technicians were able to meet every morning to start the day with a run down of where we were in the process, what our plans were for the day, and what help we needed.

Working freelance that luxury of communication and understanding is missing. Most of the theatres where I work, the designers have worked together maybe two or three times and they are only ever all in the same place at production meetings (if you're lucky) and during tech. Much of the work takes place off site and I may not see any of another department's process between preliminary design drawings and final product; between then a lot can change. Everyone does their best to communicate, but the person they communicate with is the production manager. The production manager shares information when they think it might help or be relevant, but in the end it is impossible for them to share everything and it is impossible for them to know everything that might help another designer.

In a regional theatre, with all the shops on the same property it was easy to stop into the other shops. This simple question of location meant that we always had a panel of experts at our fingertips. If I had a question about a prop involving sewing I could walk to the costume shop and sit down with the costume shop manager to discuss how to tackle the problem. I could also use her sewing machines, thread and notions if I needed. On the flip side she could come to me when she was working on a bigger costume crafts item. We worked together to create the plan for a giant spider costumes for our children's show out of extra PVC and hinges I had in stock. We were then able to talk to the sound guy (who knew quite a bit about lights) to find some supplies in stock to make wireless glowing eyes.

Working freelance that network doesn't exist. As a props master I need to have my own sewing machine, do most of the work for any electrical needs (within practial props) myself, build the furniture myself, and take care of any costume crafts that fall into the props world on my own. This is not to say that the people I am working with are not collaborative, kind people, who are willing to help when I ask; I have met some of the best theatre artists in the world here in Chicago, but I am saying that as much as I love workng with them, I don't work with them enough. I feel much more like we are working on concurrent projects, than a part of a team .

Another thing I miss is the coordination of projects. One of the biggest challenges of working freelance is working for multiple theatres at the same time. It can be very difficult to keep all the balls in the air as you are working through the process, and no one you are working with is in the same boat. Everyone is busy with multiple projects (or possibly a single project and a day job), and has different priorities. I miss the regional theatre where when things got hectic there was a built in support system. When October and November rolled around we would have to open two mainstage shows and our murder mystery within a 6 week span. Most people would go over a month without a single day off work, but we were in it together. As stressful as the work was, there was a support system of people who were going through the exact same thing that you were and so understood when you got stressed/ tired/ overwhelmed. As a freelance worker I feel I have far less outlet for the stress and frusteration. I try more often to keep those emotions from my coworkers and in turn I probably place alot more stress and pressure on myself.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Job Interviews

I've been interviewing people lately for some props design positions and I thought I would share some of my favorite interview questions and why I like them.

Talk to me about your favorite director you've worked with?
-This is a really great question especially if I know the director they are going to be working with and can compare a director they like with the director of the show. But even if I don't know the director well, I feel like this question exposes a theatre artist's commitment to collaboration. Being able to speak positively and enthusiastically about the work of another artist, tells me the person respects and understands the work of his/her fellow theatre artists.

What are your pet Peeves?
-This question is one I use to help decide if the person will be able to work well with me. Often it is less about evaluating the person I am interviewing and more about honestly looking at myself and the theatre company I am working with. For example, I was working with a company I loved but in order to aviod politics and rumors, the powers that be often waited a long time to share important information with the rest of the company. If someone were to tell me that secrets and lack of communication was a pet peeve for them, I would have to honestly look at the situation and see if they would be able to work well and be happy with the company.

What is your favorite part of the job?
-For a stage manager this might be blocking rehearsals or calling the show, a tech director might say drafting, a props master might say building furniture. I just like this question becuase I feel like it gives me a good first impression on the type of stage manager/tech director/props master the person is. Most of the jobs in theatre are incredibly multi-faceted, knowing what part of the job a person enjoys gives me an idea of whether they can fill the holes the company currently has (we don't need two people in a props shop who are upholsterers) or lets me know what to look for in someone else if I am hiring multiple people at the same time.

If you could take a class right now to learn/improve one skill, what would it be?
-I hate negative questions, and I feel that the alternative to this question, "What is your biggest weakness," puts people on the spot, makes them uncomfortable and doesn't get at the spirit of the question I intend. This is another question that is going to let me know where I am going to have holes that need to be filled, but it can also let me know if this job might help the person to grow and move to the next step in their career. I also love the question becuase I, personally, love learning new skills, and someone who responds enthusiastically to this question is likely someone I'll get along with.

How do you handle it when the impossible is asked of you?
-Everyone who has done a reasonable amount of theatre has been in this situation. What do you do when you are told "I need it to be amazing, I need it tomorrow and don't spend any money." The way that a person responds to this question tells me if they really understand the callaborative process of theatre, and the importance of compromise.

What is the show you've done that you were most proud of?
-I love people who are passionate about what they do, and asking someone to talk about a show they are proud of is a great way to get a peak at that passion. It's also a great way to get to hear about how they deal with challenges and think outside the box.

What does a good day look like to you? A bad day?
-I feel like this question is more aimed at work ethic. If someone is talking about a good day at work being one where they don't have to do anything, thats not the person I want to hire. It's like when you were growing up and someone would ask you your favorite subject in school was. I don't want to be working with the kid who said "recess".