So, before I came to uni, despite being a huge theatre nerd (and still am), I’d never done anything beyond the actual acting part. Cue starting uni, and suddenly becoming entangled in this wonderful theatre world where there was more to be involved in than just being on stage, and with very little warning, I was swept up into the wonderful world of the techies. That’s right, the techies, those people who make sure you can see what’s going on, who give all the lights and sound and projection and often end up pretty much living in the theatre both so that the show can be perfect and also because they probably live there anyway and don’t like natural light.
Cut to nearly two years later, and it’s been my delight to work on the tech aspect of thing on so many shows this year, ranging from simple operating, to actually being tech manager, which has included being one of the tech managers for The Improverts, an improv comedy troupe who are actually the longest running at the Edinburgh Fringe. Needless to say, that’s been pretty exciting, with a lot of commitment (every Friday and Sunday night all term time and during some breaks as well), a role which I’m thrilled to be continuing with next year. I’ve also worked on all kinds of shows, from musicals, to horror comedies to a show involving around thirty light bulbs, and more serious shows. Shows ranging from all of about nine lighting cues to around one hundred and twenty. For reference, the latter was a ninety minute show. Just think about that. Think about it.
Anyway, being a tech manager has taught me quite a lot of things, including:
- Things will go wrong
Okay, so this can apply to the acting side of things as well, but is most definitely true. Theatre, especially student theatre can go wrong. We’re not professionals, no matter what we might like to think, and theatre is one of those places where, if something can go wrong, it probably will at some point. Now, I’m not talking big things like lights falling and killing actors or speakers blowing in the middle of a show, but little things.
Like the house lights coming up in the middle of a show where they are definitely not meant to come up.
Or sometimes, things decide they don’t want to work. Lines may be forgotten, software may give out, extension cords may be pulled out accidentally. You just have to run with it. Which leads on to the next point.
- Don’t panic
Seriously. In these scenarios, panicking is the worst thing you can do. It means you often end up overlooking what can sometimes be a simple solution. Other times, there’s just nothing you can do about it, and you have to work around it. I worked on a production of The Diary of Anne Frank where numerous radio broadcasts sometimes didn’t want to play through the speaker they were meant to. So we worked around it, sometimes actors simply moved on, other times we were able to put it through a different speaker. It’s all about not panicking.
- You’ll probably end up having to do things not in the job description
This is pretty common. As a tech manager, your job is essentially being in charge of sound and lights and projection if it’s used. But things like get-ins are a busy time, and so you often find yourself helping to put up set, cart things around and on some occasions, stand in for actors during rehearsals where people are missing.
On other occasions, this can be rather drastic. I worked on a show this year which was cast just before the Christmas holidays, due to go on at the start of the second week of second semester, so not very much time at all to actually block and rehearse. Before the Christmas holidays, we had a producer. After, our producer had vanished without a trace, leaving us no one in charge of general publicity and publicity design. So I ended up stepping up to the plate and designing a promotional banner. It wasn’t much, but still, sometimes you have to do these things.
- Be prepared for any eventuality
This kind of works hand in hand with the point that things will go wrong. Being prepared is key, particularly when you work out of a university building where the student union sometimes forget to pay the internet bill and where things like to decide to stop working sometimes.
The best example involves the unpaid internet bill. Tech on the sound side of things for The Improverts utilises the Internet pretty heavily, both for our own sound bank website, as well as using spotify and youtube to find fitting end of game songs and in game music. So imagine my horror when I arrived to work on a show earlier that day, with my own laptop in tow for later, only to realise that the internet was down, and not coming back any time soon. I also had no way of getting to somewhere with internet on time to download playlists and do the set up.
Cue me frantically messaging my flatmate and several other techies to ask them to download things and set things up. It was one of the most stressful nights of my life. Another would be the time where I found myself, for the first time, halfway through a show, solely in charge of tech and showing everyone else what to do. This is with me having not done lights in approximately a year. Yeah. Stress. But I managed.
So be prepared for these things to happen. Have people ready to help, obtain multiple laptops so that you should have one that works and be there early. Chances are, you’ll probably have missed something and need to fix it.
- Learning on the job is the best kind of learning
Reading about how to do things is great. I’m certainly not knocking that. But by far the easiest way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Now I’m not saying just climb a ladder with no guidance, but you’re going to remember how to do something much easier if you’re doing it while somebody’s talking you through it, than if you’re just watching somebody do something. Key example when, during a weeklong get-in, my flatmate and I were handed some speakers and an amp and told to test them. No guidance. Just that instruction. We figured it out, and I have to say, we’ll not forget it any time soon.
- Sometimes, you can’t trust actors
Now, I don’t mean this in a malicious way. But like with the tech side of things, things with the actors can go wrong. Props can go missing or break; people can forget lines in the heat of the moment. Sometimes those lines can be cue lines. In that moment, you have to make a decision, find an alternate place to put the cue in, or skip it. It can be a tough decision sometimes, but ultimately you have to figure out the importance of the cue. Are the actors going to be waiting for it? It can be difficult.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that by now, I could probably land a plane if I wanted to. And by that, I mean, there are some actors who have an amazing talent to find the one dark patch of stage and stand it. Your lighting design might be gorgeous and #aesthetic but if suddenly an actor is in darkness, then that doesn’t really matter all that much. Go to rehearsals, watch the blocking. Pay attention to if you might have a potential wanderer. Adapt. Granted, there are some who take this talent to another level. I’ve seen an actor who managed to find the dark patch in a full stage wash. And by that I mean they were practically in the wings, in the small patch of shadow caused by the balcony overhang. The amount of times I’ve waved my arms like a madman to redirect people back into their light is astronomical. But hey, it’s good exercise.
Also sometimes actors trip over cables and pull them out but say nothing. Breathe, gaff tape the hell out of it and calmly warn them to tell you next time.
- Make sure you’ve checked everything before complaining that something isn’t working
Yeah. I say this as someone who has possibly come across every way for there to be no sound through speakers despite something playing. Including but not limited to: speaker extension cables being pulled out, speaker volumes being right down, speakers not turned on, amps not turned on, channels being muted, channels not being linked to speakers, the gain being completely down, being connected to the wrong channels, and the most embarrassing of all- the laptop being muted.
Essentially, make sure you’ve exhausted all the possibilities before complaining. It’ll be less embarrassing that way.
- Some people are hard to work with- be patient
You’re always going to come across them. Some show teams you can be on, and everything can go like a dream. Other times, it can be a lot more difficult. While thankfully I’ve come across very few, there are some people who don’t truly appreciate the amount of work techies put in, and who don’t seem to realise that, in the middle of a tech run when nothing seems to be happening, a lot is actually happening. We don’t want to be there till 3am either, but sometimes things have gone wrong, or we have tricky things to programme, or we need to go through things multiple times to fix things. That’s just the way things are, and that’s why the tech run is left in the charge of the tech manager. Generally in student theatre, it’s not meant to be a full run (although if the show is simple enough, it’s fairly possible). It’s a cue-to-cue, which yes, may involve some jumping about, but if everyone cooperates, it can often be painless.
Sometimes people don’t appreciate this. They moan, they wander off, they start making fun which ends up lengthening the entire process. Take a deep breath and take control. I find in times like this, having a microphone can be extremely helpful for keeping everyone’s attention without having to shout or get too stressed.
Other times, directors can be difficult to work with. Sometimes they only communicate their wishes through wanting a certain ‘feel’. And sure, this is great, artistically speaking, but I’m not always sure what you mean by a ‘subtly moody feel’. Communication is key, even if you have to pin the director down. Make sure you know exactly what they want, sometimes this requires some prodding and sometimes you have to improvise. Be patient, you’ll come out the better for it.
- It’s alright to be unsure
I have to admit, when I started as tech manager for the Improverts in September, I suddenly felt way out of my depth and like I’d made the wrong decision by applying. I felt like I couldn’t remember how to do anything, and I was terrified. And that’s alright. It took me a little while, but bit by bit, I began to build confidence. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I definitely do not know everything. My tech knowledge is still relatively basic, but I’m getting better. The thing about student theatre and tech is that, a lot of the time, you have a lot of people around you, and out of those people, there are those who can help. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re unsure. Try new things, and to be honest, fake it till you make it is probably the best description of my confidence over this year. And if I can do it, anyone can.
- It’s all worth it
No word of a lie, being a techie isn’t easy. Being involved in theatre in general isn’t. It’s competitive and it involves a lot of work, whether that’s off the stage or on it. But there’s something magical about a show coming together, after you’ve spent hours in the freezing cold climbing ladders and crawling across a rig, and corralled actors while trying to programme lighting cues, and had approximately two hours sleep over a number of days. When you watch that show go up, and everything works, and everything looks good, and when that hand gets raised to the tech box at the end, it’s just a great feeling. And almost without noticing it, you’ve formed a new family. It’s worth it, worth the irritation and the exhaustion and the upset. It’s completely and utterly worth it.