Thursday, August 26, 2010

Marketing Chicago Storefront Theatre

I have a new idea for a side business that I'd really love some opinions and advice on.

To start, my mom is a travel agent in St. Louis. She tells me that she regularly puts together weekend trips for little girls, their mothers, and grandmothers to come up to Chicago and go the American Girl Store. I was thinking that St Louis theatre fans might be interested in taking similar weekend trips to see Chicago storefront theatre. It might be tricky or intimidating though to coordinate a trip like this if you weren't familiar with the storefront scene.

My plan would be to set up a small travel service to coordinate these "Chicago Theatre Weekend" trips. For a small fee I could talk to clients to get an idea of their taste in theatre, find a couple shows for them, and even recommend some restaurants for dinner before the show and bars for drinks after. You could conceivably do a Friday evening, a Saturday evening and a Sunday matinĂ©e and still get people on the road/train at a decent time to get home to go back to work on Monday.

I would have a great leg-up starting this because I would be able to coordinate with my mom's travel agency, but eventually I think that there would be a market out of Indianapolis, Louisville, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and all sorts of smaller towns in between.

What do you think? Would you be interested? Do you know anyone who would? How much would you pay for something like this?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Equality starts with encouragement

This weekend I attended the first annual Chicago anti theatre conference. I had a fabulous time talking to some really talented people and will be posting ideas that came out of the conference over the next few days.

First I'd like to go back to the subject of women in theatre. I was initially speaking about my experiences as a female technician. This weekend I continued the conversation with female playwrights, directors and administrators and I think that their opinions really helped me clarify some of my own.

First, in speaking with these other women I realize that I am lucky to have found such supportive female mentors.  A few women spoke in the room about finding other women to be their harshest critics, that an older generation of women have taken a competitive attitude of "I had to work really hard to get here and you're crazy if you think some young woman is going to come take it from me." (for a specific experience check out Kate Powers post on the 2amtheatre site). Maybe it is because there are fewer female technicians, or maybe because technical work is somewhat less competitive, I have always found the women around me to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of one another. Especially when I was working as a tech director, the other female tech directors I encountered took extra time to take me under their wings and guide me as much as they could, and I, in turn, have tried to do the same for other female carpenters and tech directors.

One of the panelists in the "gender equality" discussion described her efforts to encourage female playwrights. This particular company pulled members of the community, actors and other artists who seemed to have a story to tell, and hosted playwriting workshops for them.  Through the workshops they were taught the basics of how to construct a script and were able to work through the process with a mentor. Some of these women came out of the workshops with excellent pieces of theatre that have gone on to be performed in other venues. It is not that women are less talented, or even less interested in the long run; I am beginning to believe that the difference is in encouragement.

I never would have had the career that I have had so far if Armie, my mentor, hadn't suggested it to me. My freshman year of college I thought I wanted to be a high-school drama teacher (after one education class I knew I didn't). I never would have thought of becoming a technical director except that Armie pulled me aside and told me "you're pretty good at this, you could be incredibly successful." That little seed was all I needed, but how many women have that seed planted? If we don't see women playwrights, or women tech directors or women artistic directors around us, are we thinking to encourage female students to pursue those fields?

I am reminded of a professor who spoke to a group of women when I was in college on the subject of equal encouragement. "When a young women tells people she wants to be a teacher," he explained, "people in her life will often tell her how great that is. When a young man expresses an interest in teaching, he is more likely to have people ask him if he wants to become a college professor." There is nothing wrong with becoming a high school teacher of course, but there is something wrong when a young man is asked to push himself just a little bit harder, into a more competitive, higher-paid field, and a young women is not.

I find myself in endless, fruitless debates at times about what is to be done to combat the gender disparity in our culture. Why do we have to force diversity? Doesn't that amount to reverse discrimination? It's not an easy question to answer right now, and maybe the best we can do in the moment is some artificial formula for diversity. But we have so much opportunity to change the future. We can start right now by encouraging artists and technicians as early as possible to dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assembling an airplane

In the final scene of the Drowsy Chaperone a plane is supposed to fly onto the set, and then 10 people are supposed to fly away to Rio in it. Realism was not a requirement; the play sets itself up as classically theatrical. In past productions large scenic pieces have been flown in from above or brought in from the wings. Our challenge was to create the same effect at our theatre in the round.

The solution, from set designer Tom Ryan, was to build the plane as a set of small pieces that the actors would hold together to create the plane, almost like a giant puppet onstage.

The basic plan was that most of the pieces were to be carved out of foam. With the handles and hardware that was required though I had to have something to attach to, which meant I had to sandwich some type of wood between layers.
I used green contact cement to glue all of the foam pieces together and then carved and sanded them to round them out and give them dimension.

I made four of these clouds. They were created by cutting the two foam pieces and then tracing them onto either side of a piece of lauan that I cut to match the overlap. I screwed this piece of lauan to the dowel and then glued the foam back on either side (with a trench carved into one of the foam pieces to accomidate the dowel.

For the propeller I screwed a metal pipe phlange onto a piece of plywood and screwed that onto my large lauan circle. I glued the foam to the lauan with a hole cut for the plywood, and then another layer of foam on top to hide the plywood. The propeller itself had a lauan base with a dowel screwed to the back. The dowel passed through the phlange and the actor was able to spin it.
The actor wore the propeller like a shield with his arm passing through two canvas straps.
Each of the four wings was built from ripped down 1x2. Especially when using wood that was so thin it was important to predrill every screw and use glue on every joint. 
The large flat pieces were made of lauan again, sandwiched between pieces of 1/2 in foam. 

The tail fin was probably one of the trickiest pieces of the plane. each piece needed to attach to a belt, which meant that the lauan I used on the other pieces wouldn't be thick enough on end to screw into. I ended up carving out a groove to fit a piece of 1x4 between the two layers of foam. For the belt I found one that had grommets all the way around like this one so that I would have reinforced holes for the screws wherever I needed them (a lesson I learned, I still needed washers to further spread out the stress on the screw, on my first attempt the screws pulled the grommets through.) The side fins each had handles (with screws going into that hidden 1x4) so the actor could hold them out on the sides. The tail fin was stableized by running a thin line from one of those handles, through the top of the tail fin to the other handle.

The pieces came down all four aisles and before most of the audience realized what was happening the actors had assembled all of the pieces the create this fantastic spectacle.
Then to top it off the actors marched the entire thing in a giant pinwheel moving the wings and clouds up and down in time to the music.

I love theatre magic.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pinocchio's Nose Part 2

Pinocchio opened weeks ago, so this post is very long coming. Right after opening the show I was incredibly stressed and I needed some space and time away from the experience before coming back to reflect on it.
Let me say first that the multiple noses I made didn't work. I spent many hours and lots of money and ended up not using any of it, and it was incredibly frustrating.
I am still convinced though that I was on the right track, so I will start by telling you what I did and the lessons I learned along the way, in case you ever are in a position to make your own nose.
After creating my posterboard prototype I set about looking for something stronger to make the final product out of. The best option I found was a telescoping light saber toy. As I sliced the toys, I learned several important lessons.
-A ton of the original light saber had to be forfeited to waste. You'll notice in the picture of the toy, there is a lot of overlap between pieces. Since my pieces were only an inch long, I couldn't afford to have that space.
-Because I had to work with the cuts that already existed between pieces it was pretty much impossible for the nose segments to be uniform.
-Every step had to be done in order, no short cuts. First, sand all the pieces so that the plastic takes paint, then paint the pieces, then sand them again so that the finish is smooth. Then cut each piece to length starting at the tip. I also melted the wider end of each piece and curved it inward so that each piece would catch the one before it as the nose collapsed.
The difference between fitting smoothly and not fitting was so tiny that even a thin layer of paint could throw things off and force you to redo everything.

This is how the plastic noses turned out when they were installed on the mask.
As with all of the noses I made, it looked pretty impressive when it was extended. The problem was that, with this script, the nose was only extended for two very brief moments during the show. Collapsed, the nose was far too big for the artistic director. He wanted it smaller, thinner and less distracting from the actor's face. 
After working though all the steps on several different plastic light saber noses I decided to go with another material. I went back to the original posterboard idea. This time I fully covered each piece of posterboard with masking tape, making it more durable and conveniently taking the whole thing closer to the right color. 
I wasn't able to make the closed nose much lower profile, but the thin material allowed me to make the extended nose much longer, and making it myself allowed me to make it much more uniform. The biggest problem with the posterboard was that, if it got a fold or wrinkle, the pieces would stop catching and you could pull the nose apart. If I were to do it again I might try something a little less inclined to bend, maybe paper mache. 

After making all of these noses the director and AD were still not happy. The large mask that concealed the tube across the cheek still took up too much of the actor's face. I mocked up some prototypes of smaller masks that would be hand operated instead of using the cable system, and even a totally different concept based on extension pieces that the actor would attach to the tip of his nose using magnets. None of these ideas worked. 

If I were to do it again I would probably try the cable system again, but instead of through the cheek I would design the mask to run the cable along the bridge of the actor's nose, across his forehead, over his head and down to the small of his back where it would be operated. The mask would likely have to have some sort of piece that extended across his cheeks, but it could be much smaller and low profile. 

I think my biggest mistake though this project was taking my policy of "saying Okay" too far. I don't want to be the props master who always says "no we can't," but in this situation there should have come a point where I insisted that we work with the current nose to trouble shoot. Instead I kept reinventing the mechanism in an attempt to fulfill every request I was given, and as a result, none of the dozen noses I made ever got to the trouble shooting phase. 
By the time we got to opening there was really no choice but to go with the nose from the last production. It had it's flaws, and it too distracted from the actor's face more than we would have liked, but it had been used extensively and the troubleshooting phase had been completed. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Quick link to share

I believe that every theatre company should read this list and make sure they pass the test. The Theatremaker's Theatregoing Manifesto
It seems so simple, but if you are struggling to fill seats, are you also making sure that you aren't doing any of these little annoying things that are putting off potential audience members. 

Some of my favorites include:
-If a patron's cell phone went off repeatedly at your last show, or someone was talking at an inappropriately loud level, and your house staff did nothing, don't expect me to come to your next show. Also, it's not their fault--it's yours for not training them better
-If I have met the artistic director of your theater company and he/she was dismissive, snooty, or just a downright asshole to me, don't expect me to come to your show.
-If I heard that you didn't treat your interns, volunteers, actors, or artists well, don't expect me to come to your show.

Others that I would include- 
-If you are dismissive or rude to critical comments (whether in person or on some online forum) instead of taking the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion, don't expect me to come see your next show. 
-If I hear that you continually rely on "company members" for donations, fundraising volunteers, administrative tasks, and extra labor at set build and strike, but do not offer them design positions or cast them in your shows, do not expect me to come see your next show.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Film Project- A whole new world

One of the theatre companies I regularly work with, Silk Road Theatre Project, decided this summer to turn one of the origional 15 minutes plays from The DNA Trail into a short film. No one on the theatre team knew anything about film, but we hired a film director and three other experienced film artists and set off on a trial by fire. I learned a TON.

In no particular order-

-Film lights and theatre lights are not the same. They may say PARcan, but the usual ones we had in the theatre were not nearly strong enough. Our theatre PARcans were 500-750 watts, for the film we used 2K and 1K Watt lamps. In general think fewer, stronger directional lights as opposed to more, weaker lights that would create a uniform wash. On this note, we originally thought we wouldn't have to spend any money renting lights because we had so many in the theatre stock, that is a mistake we won't make next time.
-The biggest job of a a film make-up artist is to keep powder nearby to continually powder and freshen actors who get sweaty and shiny during the shoot.
-It takes forever. They told me this, they all told me over and over again when we were prepping and planning, I didn't get it. It can take half an hour (or more) to set up lights and camera for a single shot. We had many lights already programmed into the board which I thought would help, it may have, but it still took forever to set up each shot. Our final product will be a 15 minute film. It took us 26 hours to shoot.
Some of our film crew told us that average is about 4 pages per day. We were able to do 9, but it was all in one location on a closed set and we were able to have 8 hours of rehearsal on set the week before to plan. I was sure that we could be efficient and prepared and that they were exaggerating. There were some things we could have been more prepared for, but they weren't exaggerating. We worked two thirteen hour days and no one was being lazy.
-Important tools to have on set that you might have at the theatre or can buy at Target: Black fabric to reduce bounce from lights or shield shadows (ideally deuvateen), white poster board (to reflect light), foam core board (to shield light spill).
-We used clothes-pins to clip gel to lights. Unlike in a theatrical setting the gel doesn't need to look pretty and neat. We clipped the gel to the outside of the lights, could easily remove it, and then didn't need to cut it so it could be reused multiple times on different sized instruments.
-"camera tape" is gaff tape and you can buy it cheaper from theatrical suppliers.
-This may be an over generalization, but on this project I found that film people think much more last minute. This makes sense because they often don't get to be on set until the day of the shoot and they don't know what they need until they get there. For me this meant that there were multiple times when they didn't tell me something was needed until very late in the game. If I had worked in film before I may have seen some of the requests coming, but since I was so new to the process I found myself blind sided multiple times by large requests at the last minute.

Overall it was a fun experience, and it was really refreshing once filming was done to be able to simply walk away from the projects (as opposed to a theatre project which continues to run for a month or two after opening night). I'd certainly be up for trying it again, this time with a much better sense of what I am getting myself into.