The Perils of Amateur Dramatic Stage Lighting Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Perils of Amateur Dramatic Stage Lighting

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When asked how they got into stage lighting, lighting technicians will, more often than not, reply 'Same way as most people - got steaming-drunk one night with a mate who was involved in it and looking to get out. Nature took its course'.

The whole process from start to finish is exactly the same for any venue, society or production and can be broken down into the following phases:

Phase 1 - the Pre-Production Meeting (or 'Bringing the Producer Back Down to Earth')

This occurs up to two months before 'Show Time', usually in a pub, between the producer, lighting director and stage manager (or mangler in some cases). It goes something like this. The producer outlines in great detail their concept of the production. This fantastic spectacle is generally the result of a recent visit to a West End/Broadway show, or a chemically induced state of semi-consciousness. This is now seen as the only time the stage manager and lighting director will happily join forces, as they gently but firmly explain why the likes of 40-foot flame towers and 10kW laser arrays will not easily fit in the local school hall or indeed into the £300 budget available. It is a long and delicate process, and should be approached in much the same way as one wakes up a sleepwalking person.

When the producer shows signs of accepting the inevitable, attention can be turned to issues of a more realistic nature, such as 'How long does the production run for?' and 'Who are the dancers? Not that lot from last year again!' It is common to find that the production is going to employ a radically new direction technique - or the 'ass-first' method as it is commonly known - which will lead to three times the amount of scene changes and 3.2 seconds to do them in. This is when the first droplets of apprehension start to form.

After the meeting, the lighting director should have an idea of what equipment he will need, thoughts on how to best achieve the lighting plot and the best excuse to use to get out of it before he is totally committed.

Phase 2 - Rehearsal Nights (or 'They'll Never Get This One off the Ground')

Two to three weeks before the first night, it is usually looked on as polite to turn up at one or two rehearsals. This gives the impression that even though it is an amateur production with no salary involved, it doesn't hurt to appear professional. It also gives you the chance to air some concerns with the producer about the odd issue - there are always plenty of those. The biggest problem here is that the producer is usually so wrapped up in performance problems that a request for even a modest audience is met with 'I'm sure it will be alright, you're the expert' or words to that effect. It's best to have this response witnessed by an independent observer.

Watching the rehearsal at this point is a complete waste of time, as nothing performed here will be seen in the final show. For example, where a player is seen to enter stage right in rehearsal, come the performance, they will enter from stage left, centre or even on some occasions, drop in on a Kirby wire. It would not be unkind to state that most shows at this point look, well, absolutely horrendous and bear no similarity whatsoever to the show discussed with the producer, or for that matter, to the script. On the other hand, it affords an opportunity to assess the dancers.

Phase 3 - Procurement of Kit and Crew (or 'Who the Hell Can I Bully this Time?')

Getting the right kit for the job is easier than getting the right crew. This is because:

  • Kit is available from a number of reliable sources and comes with a guarantee.
  • Kit does not get bored.

Once the required equipment has been identified, it is up to the lighting director to acquire it from his ever-growing list of lighting suppliers. Depending on the type of production, this can be as easy as buying a pair of socks or as difficult as trying to find Salt Beef in Iran. Pantomime season requires a greater deal of forethought, as everyone is after flashboxes, maroons, mirror balls and snow effects. It's best to shop early for Christmas. Make sure the kit does not arrive at the 11th hour, there is nothing worse than rigging a 2k effects projector and finding it is either the wrong spec, or just plain bust.

As has been mentioned, crew is a completely different ball game, In a show that requires five bodies (lighting director, two spot operators, one backstage technician and a gopher), it is not unusual to end up with a roster of about 12 - 15. The logistics of fitting the right people into the right role on the right nights would give a Gulf War commander a headache. The best people to find are either the retired or the unemployed, as they have far too much time on their hands to be good for them, and are probably grateful for a few free nights out. While this may sound cynical, the other two available sections of society (teenagers and workers) are generally not a good bet due to lack of attention span in the former and lack of time and energy in the latter.

Once the crew has been assembled, the lighting director has to be prepared for the inevitable letdowns, amnesia or common sense attacks that may befall some or all of them.

Phase 4 - Rigging (or 'Can Anyone Come in Early on Sunday?')

There is an old saying, 'Work expands to fill the time available'. This is as good an example of it as any.

Usually, the stage and lighting crews both turn up on the Saturday before the show at the same time - that's when the trouble starts. As both lots of workers invariably need to be in the same place at the same time, there is inevitably a lot of friction generated in the course of the day between camps. The biggest fight is usually for the ladders/tower/cherry picker and is always resolved by the stage manager playing his trump card: As the lighting director cannot set and focus the lamps until the stage is built, then the lighting crew always has to defer to the stage crew. This leads to the stage being released around knocking-off time, hence the need to get up at some ungodly hour on the Sunday morning to complete the rig. In extreme cases, it is necessary to take the Monday off work as well, so it is best to have an understanding boss who likes to get occasional free tickets for local shows.

At the end of the process, all lamps should be hung, focussed, coloured and all effects installed. If there is the luxury of time to spare, test, test and test again. Everything that doesn't move should be tied down, taped up, labelled and made safe. Failing that, note the locations of the emergency exits and make sure you can reach them in the dark before the punters. This is not a problem if something catches fire - a useful side effect of fire is light. However, it also gives off smoke, so don't hang about.

Phase 5 - The Dress Rehearsal (or 'Our Technical Run-Through')

In proper theatres, with proper crew, proper producers and proper money, there is such a thing as a technical run-through, where the first scene is set, plotted and started. After a few lines, it is struck, the next scene set and so on. This has benefits for the stage crew, lighting crew and actors alike. It allows the lighting director to get all the cues plotted and agreed with the stage manager, which results in the dress rehearsal being conducted as if the audience was in attendance and therefore should progress more or less smoothly.

In amateur theatres, with amateur crew, amateur producers and no bloody money, things are done somewhat differently...

The rehearsal kicks off usually on a Sunday, without a cue plotted on the board, or the stage crew wondering what goes where and when. During the course of the next frantic few hours, the lighting director attempts to get enough of a lighting plot into the system to keep the producer in the auditorium and out of the control room. This is where it is essential to emulate an octopus and his brother, while mentally plate-spinning and processing more data than a Cray 2 on time and a half. The whole rehearsal can take up to twice as long as the running time of the show, due to mistakes by the cast/crew, scene repeats and nervous breakdowns. It's no wonder that blood pressures can reach 200/140. Just pray that the kit holds up.

After the blur that was the rehearsal and if the producer has not questioned the lighting director's parentage too many times (less than 5 is seen as a result), it is absolutely vital to review the events of the last few hours in a local hostelry, with all the attractions that usually accompany it. It's opening night tomorrow and God help everyone, metaphorically speaking.

Phase 6 - Opening Night (or 'Our Dress Rehearsal')

Traditionally in a proper theatre with proper money etc, the producer 'hands over' the show to the stage manager at this point. Their only involvement from now on is to provide support and help for the cast, pace nervously backstage, make notes, get through 60 cigarettes (you get the picture). The stage manager is God, in that he organises and cues everything, from getting the first act beginners out of the Green Room and onto stage, to abusing a stage hand who forgot that the prop he is sitting on should be centre stage in 4 seconds time.

With amateur events, it is almost mandatory for the producer to request major plot changes before, during and after the first night's performance. This is accommodated with as much diplomacy as possible by the lighting director, who has enough to occupy his attention. Some requests however, such as picking up two actors 20 foot apart with one Follow Spot, are handled with a little less tact and the traditional two word response.

One saving grace of first night is that most of the audience got in for half price, consisting of the elderly, the disabled or just the plain mad. Therefore, the expectation for a seamless production is low at best - and just as well.

At the end of the evening, the lighting director should now have a proper cue plot, lighting balance and at least a fair grasp of what is going on for the rest of the week.

Phase 7 - The Rest of the Week (or 'What Was All the Fuss About?')

Around midweek, complacency and boredom starts to creep in, as all the crew starts to experience near terminal déjá-vu. This of course increases the risk of oversights by all members of the production. Thursday night is traditionally billed as 'Mistakes Night', with most of the cast coming on late, drunk, half dressed or a combination of all three. It's sometimes possible to hear completely unconnected snatches of dialogue from a totally different show. The stage manager and lighting director may as well throw away the script on nights like these, as the chances of nailing a cue goes right out of the window.

At least mistakes night brightens things up a bit and keeps the crew awake. That's presuming most of the crew has made it this far. Be prepared for either a steady decline in manpower or a shock walkout due to 'changing priorities' or more likely the 'b....r this for a lark' effect. Just make sure to have plenty of bodies on standby towards the end of the week, especially when it comes to stripping out.

Phase 8 - The Strip Out (or 'I'm Sure We Put More in than This')

The last performance (providing the show hasn't been previously closed by the fire department, lack of ticket sales or the arts council), usually winds up around 10pm. All of the cast now rush off to the fabled 'After Show Party', leaving the stage and lighting crew to return the hall to the state in which they found it a week earlier. With the thought of missing out on valuable partying time and a chance to have a crack at the dancers (mainly by the stage crew, it has to be said), the resultant activity resembles an 'Everything Must Go' sale at the local store. All the care and precision with which the equipment was installed is blissfully forgotten as 36 hour's construction is demolished in less than 2.

It is always well after the witching hour when the crew eventually makes it to the party, filthy, sweating and exhausted, to a barrage of suspicious stares and 'who the hell are they' type comments from the cast. Most of the food is gone, most of the assembled thespians are drunk or asleep and the dancers have either gone off to a night club or are wrapped around their respective boyfriends, who are at least ten years their senior. Little recourse is left but to retire to the kitchen/bar/dark corner, drink themselves silly and wake up the next morning realising they have promised someone to help out on a show...

In Conclusion

Any person that chooses to devote a lot of their spare time to this particular activity must find themselves frequently wondering why they are not in the pub/at home/sleeping/having sex/watching sport etc, instead of subjecting themselves to weeks of hell.

So why do it?

Well, a number of advantages spring to mind. Self discovery, triumph in the face of almost insurmountable odds, logistical challenge, feeling of a job well done. However, most people do it for the sheer fun of it all, that and the chance to have a real good laugh or two when things really go wrong. And that's for sure - they will.

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