Avoiding blackouts

A recent post in the open forum of the Educational Theatre Association’s web site (www.schooltheatre.org) mentioned blackouts and how they are often overused, resulting not only in the audience getting distracted, but also in the performance being longer. Although blackouts can be very effective for dramatic impact (like when Junior discovers the Santa suit in the dresser), their use to simply cover scene changes can be reduced or eliminated by careful design and coordination between the set designer and the director.

To an audience, a scene-change blackout is like a TV commercial: it stops the forward momentum of the show and distracts them from what they’re watching. Also, blackouts are very often not “black,” since a bit of light is needed for the crew and therefore the audience can see what’s going on. Even a thirty-second blackout can feel like half an hour to the audience, and, after five or six of them, they can find themselves looking at their watches — which is deadly for a theatrical performance.

Most directors I’ve worked with have been wide open to eliminating scene-change blackouts wherever possible, as long as the change can be done quickly and smoothly, and ideally by the cast. I’ve also seen crew members, in costume, come on to help with the changes, and this can work very well if done correctly.

For instance, some years ago I designed To Kill a Mockingbird, and the director and I agreed the changes would be done in view of the audience. So, when it came time to go from the town to the courthouse, the entire cast, in costume and in character, rolled away the town itself and rolled on the judge’s bench, the balcony, and the other elements. Then they all sat down in their places and the courtroom scene began. To go back to the town after the trial, the sequence was reversed. Each switchover took maybe — maybe — twenty seconds (they were very carefully choreographed) and was “covered” by a bit of music and a change in the lighting, and we didn’t stop the action or the momentum of the story. We also received lots of compliments.

Two days ago, I started working on a production of The Music Man at a local high school, a show that requires ten to twelve locations, depending on how you count them. Again, the director and I agreed on no blackouts, so I’m going to be focusing on how to use the script and the music to create scene changes that “feel” like part of the show and keep the action moving forward.

The first trick, which we are using here, is to go through the script very carefully and look for places where we can reduce the number of physical sets. Many times, a given location is used only for one or two scenes — and sometimes they’re very short scenes — so playing the scene in a similar location may work. For instance, The Music Man has several scenes in “the center of town,” one of which is immediately followed by a very short scene in “a street,” and then we move on to Paroo’s porch. We eliminated the “street” set and will play the scene in the “center of town.” Likewise, we are cutting the “meeting hall” set and playing that scene in the gym.

A second trick is to go through the script again and see where and how the scenes change, i.e., what happens at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next one. Does a character go from one location to another, or do we go from an intimate setting to a large production number? If it’s a musical, does the score include transition music, and, if so, how long is it? Looking at these transitions carefully can give you lots of ideas.

A third trick, which falls back on the other two, is to design the set carefully to provide for these transitions. Design — any type of design — is really about solving problems, and this is an area where the set designer can be a huge help. For instance, a script may have a scene in a living room, followed by a scene in the dining room, followed by a scene outside on the porch, and then back to the living room. Often we’ll say, well, that’s what the script calls for, so we need a living room set, a dining room set, and a porch set, and a blackout between each scene. But it may be totally possible to have all three locations on stage at the same time by designing a set that evokes a house, with part inside and part outside.

I’ll be writing about design in a future post, and especially about how often we get caught thinking sets have to be “realistic.” And this is really the fourth trick: accepting that we’re doing theatre, not making a movie, and that there are conventions (such as the “fourth wall”) that a theatre audience is familiar with. Theatre — real theatre — was an interactive experience long before computers: in theatre, the audience needs to provide their imagination to get the most out of the story.

My favorite set of all time was created by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon one summer when they were doing Shakespeare’s Henry plays (Henry IV parts I & II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) in rotating rep. The RSC has a beautiful theatre and lots of resources, and could have done anything they wanted, but they chose to do the plays on a bare raked stage: no sets, no curtains, no legs or borders. Nothing except a few pieces of furniture here and there. Sitting in the house, we could see all the way to the back wall of the stage, and to the sides, and to the lighting overhead. But when those actors came on, in gorgeous costumes and makeup, and started to talk, we were caught and shaken and pulled right into the stories: there was no doubt we were at the court, or at the battlefield, or anywhere else. Huge sets, and the resulting scene changes, would have been totally superfluous.

A set is supposed to serve the story, not the other way around. Careful planning and imaginative design can go a long ways towards an enjoyable show and making your audience want to come back.