What is tech theatre?

Like many of us, I was a die-hard techie back in college.

My two years in junior college provided me with a lot of construction and lighting experience, but nothing in the way of design experience besides one class. Later, at Cal State Northridge, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors who really pushed those of us who wanted to learn set design to really learn set design. One of them (Dr. Bellman) spent his summers in Europe hanging out with his set and lighting designer friends out there and would then come back and tell us all about what they were doing. The other one (Prof. Kelleher) quit teaching and went on to become an art director in the movie and TV industry.

As a techie, it took me a while to get used to the idea that design classes taught by these two professors were about design and design alone: no shop work, no painting, and no construction drawings. That was all required too, but it was totally separate from the design classes. For each design project, we had to prepare a scale model, along with a floor plan and a written description of our design concept. The same thing happened with our lighting design class and our scenic projection class.

One thing I will never forget was Dr. Bellman teaching us to think like a director whenever we created a set (i.e., a space to support a story). What did we want to say by telling the story? How do the characters need to move, and why? How much stuff do they really need? Did we want to tell the story in a presentational manner or a representational manner, and why? How did the story feel visually? A couple of semesters of this, and six or eight big projects per semester, finally drove it in: our job as set designers was to support the story, not to create a stand-alone collection of scenery.

And then there was that fateful day Prof. Kelleher asked me how you could tell when a techie designed a set. I knew she was half-joking, but I went through the roof anyway when she said, “All the lines are straight and all the corners are right angles.” By the time I came down to earth again, a few days later, I had realized how right she was, and I’ve never forgotten it.

After two years of this, I had pretty much switched from being a techie to being a designer, and that message was now permanently carved in my brain: we are there to support the story, not to create a self-contained end product.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this message doesn’t seem to be driven home very often. I’ve seen so many cases where the designers and the technical departments just don’t seem to be in the loop with the story, and the results show. Little things, like an actor needs to move this or that piece quickly, or that door needs to stick just so much, or big things, like the actor needs to come down the stairs in five bars of music, while singing. What kind of favorite chair would Willy Loman have at home to read his newspaper, or what kind of a house would George and Martha have in Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf? What type of dress would Marian Paroo wear at the library? Doing the historical research is fine, but the details still have to fit the characters and the story and the director’s vision.

Over the past ten years or so I’ve learned to really enjoy the “making of” documentaries that come on some movie DVDs: interviews with the director, actors, designers, composers, special effects people, builders, model makers, and so on and on. What they did, and what lengths they went to, to make sure the telling of the story would be as effective as possible. The shark in Jaws didn’t work at first, but they kept going and going, trying to make it work, until it did. The smell of clams and other slowly disintegrating sea critters under the hot studio lights, as they were dissecting the face hugger in Alien,  was revolting to everyone present, but they worked with it anyway, because the story needed it. The sets, props, and models in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Terminator, and many other movies were all built by very dedicated techies, most of whom were specialists, and who took serious pride in their work..

Contrary to often-popular belief, lack of money isn’t always the reason why things sometimes don’t work, or don’t look right. In my experience, the real reason is very often taking shortcuts: “the audience will never notice it,” or “it’s good enough for theatre.” One of my favorites is the so-called “Five-foot Rule,” which states that if it looks okay from five feet away, it’ll be fine on stage. I never heard of this “rule” back in high school, or college, or grad school, or at a major scenic studio I worked at for six years. We took pride in our work. It had our individual signatures on it.

Tech theatre can be a lot of fun: sets, lights, costumes, makeup, props, sound, and so forth, but it really needs to focus on supporting what’s going on on the stage. It’s not an end in itself. Come to think of it, if I were to teach a tech theatre class, I’d spend the first session or two just talking about (and discussing) how important our work is to the production and how much in synch we have to be with it. Then, after that’s clear, we’d start in on the tools and the flats and the other fun stuff.

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