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Theatre lighting and sound experiences

In the Student Drama group I'm in at Uni, we recently decided to compile a list of the various things involved in pulling off a play, and since I had done work on their homepage as well as lighting and sound on certain occasions, I compiled a little text on the details of those aspects I had to deal with. Not one to waste good blogging material, I thought I'd post a modified version of that info in case other drama groups are curious.

Lighting

We have a fairly decent (though slightly damaged and dated) lighting system on our small stage, and each year we pull out a ladder and take some of the lights off their tracks (if they aren't baked on, that is) and put them into different positions, or turn and tilt them so the areas we use most during the play are sufficiently lit. Usually we need to keep in mind the following points:

  • Two lights usually point at the same spot from different directions. That way, each lights up the shadows the other one throws.
  • The lights for the lower edge of the stage mustn't be tilted too much, because otherwise they'll blind the audience.

Because good stage lights are very strong, they produce lots of heat. So, before we take a light off or turn it, we usually let it cool off. Failing to do that can both damage the bulb (expensive!), or even the whole light if you drop it because you burnt your fingers. In addition, we usually try to turn on the lights only intermittently before a performance starts. That way the room doesn't heat up too much before the audience arrives (humans are their own little radiators, especially in groups of hundreds).

Our light-mixer has two banks of sliders. They're essentially the same, but you can fade from one to the other. The advantage of that is that you can have the current light on bank 1 and prepare the lights for the next scene on bank 2 and then smoothly and quickly fade between the two. It also has a handy black-out-switch to turn them all off and a delay slider.

One of the full run-throughs we do before dress rehearsals is usually a Light Rehearsal (often combined with the sound rehearsal), where we can notice flaws in lighting (like badly-lit corners, which either the actor needs to avoid, or where we need to provide better lighting), and in timing for light changes. We check how much light has to be where and when, and keep a light-script noting slider positions and cues, so the illuminator can look that up if he got distracted, or if the lighting is very complex. This can be a separate sheet with a table, or just a marked-up copy of the play.

Usually, light rehearsal is one of the early run-throughs (second time or so), so there are still a few more rehearsals before dress rehearsal where we can work out stuff like purchasing missing cables, hooking up an additional light, trying out different approaches to a "night" light etc.

We have special named kinds of lighting. For example, when there is a set change between scenes, we have construction lighting, which is very dim. Just bright enough so the stage workers (okay, just us actors ... we don't have dedicated stage workers) can see what they're doing. Usually, just using the stage light for this results in the workers throwing shadows on the curtain. To avoid such shadow play, we usually point our two spots at the curtain and make them a tad brighter than the construction lighting, thus hiding the shadows.

We usually have a small desk lamp at the light-mixer, so the illuminator can see the light switch and read the light-script even when we're in blackout.

Once lighting and stage building are completed, we usually use tape to mark the "sight line" into the different stage entrances. Otherwise, the audience can watch a recently deceased character having a drink of water...

Sound

For simple sound needs (like intro music, break music and end music), we just borrow a CD player plus amp from somewhere and a pair of speakers. Then we burn a CD collecting all the needed songs (to avoid switching CDs and ending up with the wrong one) and play from that.

For more complex and time-critical needs we usually take some member's notebook computer and WinAmp or iTunes. Last year I even wrote a little Cocoa app that played a sound as long as a key was held down, looping, fading etc. (It's called HoratioSings. Interested? drop me a line). A couple of years we had a good pair of active boxes, but the pair we had last year weren't powerful enough, so we had to run a long cable from the iBook to the amp instead (taped to the floor behind the stage so nobody could trip over the cable).

The sounds and music aren't too hard to get by. Google will usually yield some royalty-free sounds, and where that isn't enough, there are CDs, tapes and records containing sound effects available in the stores as well. The key here is that you can't just take any old sound unless you wish to risk being busted for Copyright infringement. Although we copied the sounds onto the notebook computer's hard drive, we also burn a CD-ROM containing all sounds as a backup solution (and make sure the CD player accepts the CD -- sometimes a burned CD doesn't work in all players).

We also have a Sound Rehearsal, which is usually at the same time (or near) the light rehearsal. Here we occasionally pause to figure out the correct sound volume for a scene, or to work on the timing for a particular sound effect. During such a rehearsal, we also figured out we had to edit some of the sounds to make them as loud as (or louder than) the other sounds, or to remove pauses at the start of a sound that made it hard to trigger it in time. Audacity is quite handy for these things.

Once we realised a sound wasn't really recognisable due to stage accoustics or whatever, and it was handy to have several rehearsal opportunities for the sound to revisit a problematic one or try out alternate approaches.

Just like with the lights, we usually keep a sound-script, a simple table with the names of the sounds (or keys to press) for the computer, as well as the track numbers on the fallback CD, and notes on how loud a sound should be or whether a sound should fade or cut in or out.

Another thing we had to watch out for is that it usually is (intentionally) dark behind the stage. That meant that we needed some sort of light so we could see the keys on the notebook computer, and we had to turn down the notebook screen's brightness so it wouldn't light up the whole backstage area. This was especially problematic as the sound operator had to sit somewhere where he could see the stage, so he could trigger effects in concert with the acting, and that meant light could easily bleed onto the stage.

We also turn off all Energy Saver options of the notebook so it doesn't fall asleep the moment we want to trigger a sound. This is especially problematic with an iBook, as those sometimes put the USB hardware to sleep while they're running, and then we have to hit a key once to wake up the keyboard, and once more to actually trigger the sound...

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Created: 2006-01-09 @723 Last change: 2006-01-09 @867 | Home | Admin | Edit
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