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More...

Oh, how glorious is Show-Business!

Friday two weeks ago, we had the last performance of the English Student Drama Group of Mannheim U's version of Agatha Christie's whodunit "And then there were None". This marked the successful culmination of about a year-long tour-de-force.

The first performance, as first performances go, was pretty successful. The second performance was kind of The Theatre Performance from Hell (tm), not the least because our sound program went quiet shortly before the play, and we had to scramble to replace it with René's Laptop playing the sounds from the CD I had luckily burned as a backup.

We even needed the backup's backup, because there was a WinAmp problem in the first half of the play (when my and René's characters were still alive and on stage and thus couldn't apply the fairly straightforward fix). Luckily, Melanie had her text back there with her and just read in the couple of lines of text that should have come from a canned recording.

There were a few other problems, like props left on stage that should have been taken away during the break (because some of us were rather nervous that evening), and just generally it was our worst performance. Halfway through the play, to top all that, the balcony railing suddenly fell over and hit one of the corpses (i.e. yours truly, who of course wasn't allowed to move). Luckily, we didn't repeat this, and René 2 went out with a hammer after the break to say he'd fixed it, which at least integrated it into the play.

By the next performance, I had the sound system fixed again (I'd forgotten to delete an old if in the program I had written to give us sound at the press of one key, and it didn't show until we restarted the computer after the first performance), and performances stayed at a decent level, improving with each performance.

The final performance had the well-known insider jokes again. The hammer made repeat appearances, and René changed his character's name, keeping everyone on guard. Last year we'd overdone it a little with the jokes, but this year it was a nice mix. Bastian even took the opportunity to allude to last year's Importance of being Earnest by mentioning in one scene he'd left his cigarette case in the country. That completely made up for that horrible No. 2.

It annoys me a little that it was an error by me that caused the sound failure, but I don't think it could have been avoided. We had the first-ever rehearsal with sound at dress rehearsal, and that also was the first one where we had moderately correct lighting. Without Cocoa and my Mac, we wouldn't even have had sound in that short a time, with fades and a UI that works in darkness and does repeats and fades and different volume for each track. It was quite a dash to get finished this quickly.

And this is an interesting part in comparing previous plays and our previous director to the new play and the new director. While Julia's choices of plays were much less complex in the actual building of the stage, they were actually multiple-room plays. And Julia was pretty much forced into the role of director by necessity that first time. Compare that to Rita, who came to us and volunteered to take Bastian's one-room play, with its multiple exits (physically, our stage has two) and oodles of props. The plays' complexities were almost the opposite.

Personally, I preferred Rita's way of laying out a scene. Rita tended to work more with walks and motion, with pictures, and tried a few more daring things. On the other hand, Julia was much better at organizing everything in a way that didn't involve long waits. Where Julia occasionally seemed set in her ways and was hard to sway in her decisions, Rita tended to be rather fleeting, and many of her decisions seemed ad-hoc (even though I suspect they weren't, and she just couldn't get through her lists, or didn't remember her mental list-taking accurately).

She also had a tendency to get confused with act and scene numbers, which sometimes meant what she was saying made no sense to us until one of us peeked over her shoulder and signed to us what scene she was on about. But communication is hard, especially when you're re-working your mental picture of the play in the background. I guess Julia was just a natural at that.

Rita also had the benefit of learning from Julia's previous mistakes (probably not the least because she liked to consult with Julia and Mr. Butz, the director of the German drama group, and also some others who offered advice): She tackled the "mass scenes" first, to focus on smaller, individual scenes later, just like Julia had done the second time round.

On the other hand, I think she underestimated the technical and organizational aspects of a play. For example, I'd expect a director, or someone appointed by the director, to go through the play some time alone to collect a list of props that need to be moved between places, and a list of other preparatory things that need to be done to the set. Rita did that during dress rehearsal, by sitting down with some huge posters with all of us in attendance. And she did it in a fairly confusing way, jumping around between scenes, and with not quite enough structure. And most of all, she did it in a "frontal lecture"-kind of way. With us for input, but with her doing all the writing. She could have delegated the writing, so we could discuss while someone else could take the time for the large letters.

I know it's easy for me to say all those "could"s and "would"s, since I'm not the one who had to organize everything, but as the director, one spends so much time with every aspect of the play that it should be fairly easy to just sit down with this thing, make a preliminary list on DIN A4 paper, bring that along during rehearsals and check it against the actual scene. Then, during the first run-through, she could have told people to check against it and note down anything that was missing, and then she could have asked someone who wasn't needed on stage right now to copy the finished lists on posters and assign tasks to people. Doing a little of that work beforehand is especially important for a whodunit, where, by the end, most people have died off and aren't involved anymore, and thus were waiting boredly for the four finalists to finish. I did see some attempts to do things like that, though, but I have no idea why they didn't bear fruit. Maybe I can get more from Rita on that when we have our "after-performances-dinner".

Similarly, lighting and sound didn't have any dedicated rehearsals this year (something I should have realized and got fixed when the final rehearsal schedule came out). It's really important to have an early run-through where the main focus is sound and light. That seemed to have been less of a priority than I would've made it.

Another fairly new problem was collaboration this year. Some people who had signed on for the play apparently hadn't realized how much work it would be, and thus we spent many rehearsals with missing actors. Moreover, rarely anyone - except those who would have had to be there anyway - was there to help during shopping trips, stage-building, ticket sales etc., where it would have been a lot faster with more people. Those who came were a select few who then ended up spending a disproportionately large chunk of their precious time working on that.

Daniela and Nico, two people who weren't even in the play anymore (but had been ATG actors in previous years) spent the better part of a day with me in the home improvement store to get all the wood we needed to pull up two additional walls that allowed us to have two direly needed additional stage exits (the balcony, if you know the play). René 2 was actually the only new guy who showed up several times for the hard work - to help paint the walls, and later also to deconstruct the walls and put them into storage. Daniela pulled up one of the walls pretty much all by herself. Bastian was a great help, getting people to contribute needed cables and extension cords, organizing paint etc.

I don't expect people to know how to use a flex saw, but with all the stuff we had to carry around, hold fast, screw on, apply tape to so light wouldn't show through ... if we'd had just four more people, we could probably have done it in half the time. I'll have to make it a point to make sure this is made clear for the next play, even though I probably won't be playing due to having graduated.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I loved this experience: Doing some wood-building again, being in a play that was quite different from anything I'd done before, a small part that had an intriguing development (and for which I probably wouldn't have tried if Rita hadn't asked me to), an audience one day that didn't just react, but where you could actually feel the nervousness in their laughter in certain scenes... it was worth the stress, the complaints, endless discussions and waits.

And, being a computer geek, I of course got a great idea for improving that little sound-playing app I wrote...

 
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