Kids in Black

The Secret Life of the Theatre Techie

Zach Murphy
Zach Murphy (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"There is a separate ballet that's going on behind the scenes for every show that goes on. There's all this choreography that if it's good the audience doesn't even know it's happening."

-- The Gunn Brothers, local sound designers

There is infinitely more to every play than meets the eye, and that innocuous-seeming crew of people listed beneath the actors in every program is key to the backstory. The people in black scurry around backstage, hover over the proceedings in the sound and light booth, work long hours -- sometimes before the show even starts rehearsals, much less opens -- in their studios or the empty theatre. This silent, hidden army is creepily all-powerful. Without the sound and light designers and operators, the actors would not be seen or heard. Without the costume and scenic designers and builders, the actors would be naked in an empty room. And yet, even the most dutiful theatregoers tend to know little or nothing about these black-clad beings. Aside from praise from the other people working on the show, an occasional mention in the press, and awards for the designers, techies get almost no share in the glory should the show triumph. The actors are in the spotlight; they are in the shadows. So why do they do it? "What makes it fundamentally worthwhile for techies is that they understand that they run the world," says Emily Fordice, an actress turned producer/stage manager/sound designer. Clearly, it is important that we get to know these people.

Okay, from the beginning. The theatre world in Austin is pretty small, and as soon as a designer or technician is on the radar of local companies, jobs just appear. Day one(ish) of a new project, everyone working on the show gets the script. "If we're lucky, we get the whole script," qualifies Fordice. After (ideally) a meeting or two with the director and/or some of the other designers to discuss what the show is about, everyone goes off to their various corners to hammer out their end of the production, meeting back frequently with each other and the director to make sure everyone is on the same page conceptually. Then everyone meets up on "tech week," typically the week before the show opens, and puts all the pieces together: sets, costumes, lighting, sound, and any other technical elements, like film, video, slides, dry ice, flying harnesses, stage blood, explosions, and so forth. These pieces fit seamlessly, there's a flawless dress rehearsal, and then opening night. When it works, says set designer Kristin Abhalter, "Everyone's vision comes together to create something that surprises everyone involved." But things, of course, are never so simple.

The main challenge being, how do all the disparate pieces ever come together as a whole? "Planning. Pure and simple," says technical director Andrew Smith. Smith is a firm believer in keeping track of all the details. So long, he says, as everyone's on top of what's happening, the inevitable surprises don't have the devastating impact that they might otherwise have had.

And what happens if there's not enough planning? Then, says lighting designer Zach Murphy, "I come up with this great beautiful blue swirly crap all over the stage, the scenic comes in and does hard jagged lines, and the sound guy does rockabilly music. It's happened."

The compatibility of director and designer is helpful. Directors who are unable to communicate well are hard to work with, says sound designer Brian Schneider. People who communicate well but want crazy things are also difficult. Sound designers Gordon and Jimy Gunn, aka the Gunn Brothers, recall "a certain director that wanted 17 distinct and different thunder cues." The Gunn Brothers managed it, they point out, but it wasn't easy.

Some designers work linearly, like Schneider, who claims he gravitates toward opinionated directors and tends to be very orderly about making lists of songs and cues. Others, like set designer Abhalter, tend to go for a gestalt approach. She reads the script and then goes through a "period of incubation," during which she paints with watercolors and spends time poring over relevant images in the library. A linear director and a gestalt designer will often clash, as will a linear designer and a mood and feeling-oriented director.

But sometimes the relationship is golden. While doing Lipstick Traces, Gordon Gunn had the volume way up for the opening sound montage. He was bracing himself for the director's usual reprimand to turn it down. Director Shawn Sides listened for a second, looked at Gunn, and said, "It's not loud enough!" "Man, I like workin' with you!" Gunn replied.

Regardless of how they get there, most designers agree that the key is creating a lighting/sound/set scheme that will manipulate the audience in the desired way without either overwhelming or underwhelming the production. For set (and occasional costume) designer Christopher McCollum, designing is covertly powerful: "It's very manipulative; that's the nature of art." Audiences, McCollum suggests, may think they're reacting just to the script and acting, but in fact the design of the show has a profound, if subtle, effect on audience response. So in fact, as a designer, "that applause is for you," even if the audience doesn't realize it. Audiences often do, however, realize the impact of McCollum's sets. His set for A Macbeth, for example, featured a dramatically raked stage and chairs made out of blocks and swords. It looked appropriately precarious and enhanced the play's sense of impending doom, even if the audience's initial anxiety was that the actors were going to slide into the huge smoke pit downstage.

Working the techie's subtle magic requires a combination of imagination, patience, and an eye for detail.

The Gunn Brothers: Gordon (l) and Jimy
The Gunn Brothers: Gordon (l) and Jimy (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"Just a hair stage left," Zach Murphy is saying, his finger twitching in that direction, his eyes rapt on the lighted Paramount Theatre stage below him. "Stop!" he yells suddenly, when the light is in its proper place.

Someone is on a ladder 18 feet above him, and two union workers are below holding the ladder in place. One is braiding a rope and then taking the braid out again, over and over. A sample of their conversation:

Guy 1: Did you just do that to the rope?

Guy 2: Yeah (undoing it).

Guy 1: Did you get bored?

Guy 2: I never get bored.

It's a recent Friday afternoon, and they're hanging lights as per Murphy's direction for a touring show that's arriving that night. Murphy has come a long way from the first show he ever lit, when he forgot to put in backlight. He has evolved through fetishes for various lights, like the beam-projector, and now is particularly proud of his use of patterns. "I would say about 70% of shows I do, they don't give me a set, so I have to create the set with the light. And I'm not talking about 'Deese square of light, deese iz your room, deese iz the kitchen ..." Rather, Murphy uses patterns to create themes and tones. For example, he will use a "curvy wavy pattern coming in from this side as a dream, and as a person falls down to his knees and holds himself, the curvy wavy pattern shifts to hard static lines."

The Gunn Brothers' sound design studio in Southeast Austin is a cave of sound equipment, filled with amps and guitars, mini-disc players, a mixing board, some old reel-to-reels, a computer loaded with sound software. They've been working together since Jimy started doing sound for his brother Gordon's band Cyclone in the early Seventies ...

Gordon: "No, Cyclone was '78 to ..."

Jimy: "No, I was in Lafayette. I graduated in '77!"

Gordon and Jimy look at each other, concentrating.

Jimy: "Okay, so the early Seventies. Must have been when I was at Macneese, which would be '72-'73."

Tammy Fotinos
Tammy Fotinos (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Gordon: "No, 'cause I was in Peru until '76."

Jimy: "We may never figure it out."

Well, they've been together a long time. Like a married couple, they correct each other constantly. In the course of our one-hour interview, they will catch each other confusing Hamlet with Macbeth approximately 12 times. But their working chemistry is renowned. Jimy says of setting up shows with Gordon, "He starts on the stage working with the mikes and works forward, and I start at the board and we meet in the middle, and somehow it all works."

The Gunn Brothers' most recent triumph was A Macbeth (not Hamlet) at the State Theater. In this production, a long rain falls -- a tricky effect and one frequently done badly with a sound effects record on an obvious loop. The Gunns, however, got their Scottish rainstorm effect by putting a bunch of materials on Gordon's back porch one rainy night and running a microphone out there. For a four-minute scene in the State Theater Company's Women Who Steal, the Gunn Brothers had to create the sound of a pond. They brought in waves lightly lapping, some wind, and (culled from their extensive library) "close frogs and faraway frogs and intermediate frogs," all layered together on their computer.

What's ironic, though, about these techies' knowledge of their craft is that none of these people can watch a play anymore, at least not without being acutely aware of the quality of the work being done in their field. They know too much. "First thing I do when I walk into a theatre," says technical director and master electrician Andrew Smith, "is I'm looking up, I'm looking at the sky. I'm looking at the lights. I plot in my head what the basic light plot is so I'm not surprised by any lighting effects. If it's a badly plotted show, that can ruin it for me."

But where they learn all this and how did they get to the point where they knew they wanted to do tech work in the theatre? The tale told by Natalie George, a lighting designer and stage manager, is a common one. She started out at St. Edward's University studying to be an actress and was the only one "stupid enough" to raise her hand when someone asked, "Who isn't afraid of heights?" Soon enough, she was up on a scaffold and just never got around to coming down, especially not to go to class. There are a remarkable number of college dropouts in the techie community, many lured away by the cult of the "kids in black out back smoking," as George puts it.

It makes sense that this wouldn't be an especially bookish crowd (though there are, of course, scholars in the bunch) in that so much of what's required of a techie is unteachable. Tammy Fotinos, stage manager for the Rude Mechanicals, recalls one instance when she was calling cues and sound operator and occasional designer Greg Janecek was running the lights. The show was Crucks, and it was staged at the old Public Domain Theatre, which was in possession of a very small board on which the master fader was right below the blackout button. So, despite Janecek's agility and finesse (well-attested to by everyone with whom he's worked), occasionally when he went to fade gently out of a scene he would hit the blackout button by mistake and, as Fotinos puts it, "just plunge the whole play into darkness." When he brought the lights back up, all the actors would be glaring at the booth, where they would see Fotinos mouthing "Wasn't me! Wasn't me!" and pointing to Janecek. "We couldn't stop laughing any given night, mind you," says Fotinos, but they were determined to fix the problem. They tried everything. "He would try it left-handed and WOOMF, the whole stage plunged into darkness." Then one day, Fotinos was drinking a soda. In one hand she had the bottle and in the other the cap. She started staring at the cap in her hand and then ... "I went 'huh,' and I reached over and I put the bottle cap on top of the blackout button and for the rest of the play he never hit the blackout button, only the cap." Fotinos finishes the story with a flush of pride. Portrait of a good stage manager.

It's easier to come up with creative solutions like the bottle cap in a supportive, friendly environment. In Austin, many actors have at one time or other filled in as stagehands, so there isn't much techie-actor rivalry locally. It's even required that actors in college theatre programs like St. Edward's complete certain tech credits. Compare this to Fordice's experience at college: "Actors and techies did not mix. They didn't go to the same parties. I remember there was one married couple: one an actor, one a techie." It was, she says, very much like Romeo and Juliet.

But surely there are some actors around these parts too who sneer at the "sniff ... hired help." Sure, but they don't get jobs, says Fordice, who has sat in on auditions and knows that such an attitude is something you can "smell a mile away." Talent is one thing, but being able to work as a team is vital. And if they somehow get the job and then misbehave? Well, suggests Janecek, do they want their microphone turned on? Note: Be nice to these people or bad things will happen.

On the other hand, when techies love a show and believe in the vision of the director, most admit they'll sacrifice plenty to be a part of the production. Murphy says he's gone without eating or taken high-paying but unfulfilling jobs lighting weddings, just so he could work for next to nothing on a low-budget show he believed in. And a little appreciation goes a long way. Natalie George has stage managed three shows for acclaimed writer-performer Steven Tomlinson. When she asked him once backstage if he was ready, Tomlinson turned to her and said, "No, honey, are you ready?" She melted and realized she would be happy to work for free.

Still, budgeting enough for lights and sound wouldn't hurt backstage morale. While some techies get off on seeing how much they can do for very little money, the garage-y aesthetic is getting on some nerves. "I am continually amazed at every theatre company who manages to find a cave and turn it into a theatre" says Fotinos. Murphy and others feel "compromised by other people's mediocrity." "We're sick of being told, 'We don't want to do that, it sounds too expensive. We don't want to do that, it sounds too hard.'" The tendency for people to hire their friends to do lights or sound for a show brings standards down to a dangerously low level and is unnecessary. "I'm proud to do shows with people who suffer for their art," says Murphy. "You do not need to hire Cousin Earl because it's easier."

Kristin Abhalter says that at her day job as a stagehand for the UT Performing Arts Center (PAC), she is surrounded by high production values, and the lavish sets fill her with notions of what her designs could be if only she had enough money to put them together. Abhalter, who is sick of building sets in people's garages and paying her assistants in beer, wonders if everyone shouldn't just pool their resources and set up a community scene shop.

But Christopher McCollum, who has designed for the PAC, as well as just about every other theatre in town, from Hyde Park Theatre to the Paramount, says that while the budgets for places like the PAC are certainly bigger, they aren't much bigger proportionally. For a stage as big as the Bass Concert Hall's, even a simple set draped with fabric is going to cost a fortune. "Think," he says, "of how much you pay for a bath towel. Then imagine having to buy 1,500 bath towels."

It is, however, generally agreed that the pay scale for theatrical technical work in Austin is, in Andrew Smith's words, "atrocious." There was, say the Gunn Brothers, a certain artistic director who told them flat out, "I don't pay for sound." Their response? "Well, we don't work for you." All techies want is the chance to do their job, make you feel things without you noticing, and be fairly compensated. "We're just waiting for everybody to come up to our standards," says Jimy Gunn. "We've been up here waiting for you guys." end story

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