Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Technology and Art Can Make Directors Jacks of All Trades

The marriage of technology, social media and theater is truly awesome and makes the possibilities for creating amazing theater endless. This stuff really turns me on! For a bigger-than-life example of this visit Cleveland this July for the third annual Ingenuity Fest. In the meantime,here are a few of my ramblings about some of the ways I use technology and social media in directing. I think doing things like this and so much more can really increase your value as a Director to hiring theaters and immeasurably help your production staffs.

I recently wrote about improving our chances for media coverage for our shows by doing all the press legwork ourselves so budget-strapped and understaffed print and electronic media outlets don't have to. WE have to take the photos, find and write the stories and deliver them in a nice, neat package to local news outlets. WE become the reporters, photographers and editors. Since I'm currently smack-dab in the middle of directing a community theater production of Oklahoma and pulling the requisite hairs from my head in the process, it occurs to me that the tao of "do-it-yourself" also holds true to an extent for our roles as directors in guiding a show from read-thru to opening.

The modern director really needs to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of as many as possible. Producing theaters are just as (if not more) cash-strapped as the media outlets are. Theaters are always looking to get the most bang for their buck and need to contract people for gigs who truly can do it all - or at least have enough knowledge in as many areas of theater production to make facilitating processes as painless, organized and cost-efficient as possible for the other theater artists handling specific production duties. This becomes even more important as the marriage of technology, new media and art becomes increasingly pronounced. It's not enough to only be concerned with the script and action on stage and leave all the other elements to other artists and technicians. I'm not talking about taking away work from other very qualified designers and technicians. Indeed any production would be doomed without experts specifically proficient in lighting, sound, set design, costuming, P.R. and promotion and more. Just because a guy may be familiar with concepts of flight doesn't mean I want him i the cockpit during a dogfight! But how much more valuable is a leader of a production who has enough working knowledge and hands-on experience with these production elements that they can not only effectively communicate ideas to techs, designers and builders but also roll up their sleeves and do much of the preliminary legwork themselves? This effectively creates the same chances of success as delivering complete press packages to the news media discussed earlier. Directors need to be proficient in multi-media design, video and audio production, media relations, editing software and more. With that in mind, I've been compiling the following list of ways I've tried to incorporate these elements into directing with suggestions for other directors as well:

Set Design - Every director has a mental image of what they want the sets to look like for their productions. But it's amazing how many can't effectively communicate their ideas to tech directors or worse, throw a script at a designer and say "Whatever you think", then invariably complain when the set is built. Delivering thorough concepts and illustrations of those concepts to designers can make their lives so much easier. When the designer has a clear idea of what you're thinking they can then easily add their own ideas to the design rather than starting from scratch and shooting in the dark. First, it's important to know the space. Measurements, wing space, fly space, etc. Then the brainstorming can begin within the realm of reality. There is some user-friendly , cheap (or free) software that makes it easier than ever. I will often use Photoshop to create visual layers of design elements that I can share with designers. Exporting those images also makes it easy to email them back and forth to further facilitate discussion. I also use Google's Sketch-Up - a free 3-D animation application that helps translate ideas into concrete 3-d computer models. Here's an example of my latest Sketch-Up design for Oklahoma:

Sound Design - When I started in theater in the dark ages, there were no body mics or digital anything. Now sound design is an art and more important than ever. Since I've been in bands or in a recording studio since I was a kid I've spent a lifetime plugging in amps, coiling cords and pushing buttons on a mixing board. Software apps like Garage Band or Audacity (which is free) make it easy to record and mix sound cues and effects. Sites like SoundBoard.com offer free libraries of different effects as well. If you do a lot of this recording yourself far in advance of tech week, you not only have a better chance of getting the exact effects you want right away, but you also free up the Sound Designer for bigger projects like mixing mics, orchestra monitors and general house P.A. In the last production of City of Angels I directed earlier this year, I recorded all the sound (and video) cues before we even started rehearsals. Then I just handed the tech a cue sheet and a CD and we were off and running. I talk about that briefly in the intro to this "Call-Back" episode:

Video Design - Video elements in theater productions are more prevalent than ever. Sometimes, they are superfluous and can distract from the action. Other times they can really help facilitate sense of time and place or create a desired mood for a scene. If you're using video, you should try to become as proficient in shooting and editing video as possible. Apps like iMovie are really user-friendly and can turn simple footage shot with a consumer grade camcorder into some pretty cool video cues. Of course you can subscribe to video sites like iStockphoto or Fotosearch to pay for professionally produced still photos and video clips that you can purchase and then edit into cues as you see fit. Of course, tasteful, elegant and simple slideshows are always a snap with user-friendly programs like iPhoto, Keynote or Powerpoint. Lest anyone think I'm a shill for Apple, many PC based apps can do the same stuff. Just so happens, I'm a Mac guy. Again, if you do the legwork and shoot and edit this stuff into organized cues way ahead of time for a board op., life will be much easier.

Here's an example of kind of an abstract video cue I produced using the actor playing "Father" in a production of "Violet" I directed a couple years ago. We shot this in Winter a few months before rehearsals even began. The original recording heard on this video was used for editing purposes only as the music was performed live with the video. I use Final Cut now, but used iMovie back then. This was a case of having the challenge of telling the back story of this musical before the action on stage even began. The challenge was how to depict the horrible accident that happens to Violet without actually doing it on stage. I felt it was important for the audience to see what happened to this girl to set the tone for the rest of the story:

Costuming - I'm definitely not an expert here, but I do try to provide a detailed spreadsheet of each character and what they're wearing in each scene to the person who is the costumer. It's also important to provide them with enough time to provide some simple costume pieces for publicity photos if necessary early in the process.

Lighting - This is a highly specialized art and specialty (not that the others aren't) and definitely should be left to the experts, but any director should know the basics of focus, mood, color (gels), gobos, follow spots, shin busters, etc. Most of my hands-on lighting experience comes from lighting bands, not theater productions, but it does allow me enough knowledge to provide a detailed cue to cue spreadsheet to the lighting designer and effectively communicate what I'm trying to accomplish in each scene.

Publicity & Promotion - That's what "Call-Back" is all about! A video documentary series I started a few years ago that has caught on in this market that is meant to document the process of putting shows on from beginning to end. A lot of theater groups are getting into the video game and that's great. There are so many great ideas to promote shows (see this post). I've already addressed getting shows covered in the press in a previous blog post. The point is the Director who brings these portfolios and ideas to the table is invaluable to a hiring theater board. I always take publicity photos and edit them early in the rehearsal process. Rebecca Coleman has some great tips for publicity photos in her blog. And there's a pretty hilarious blog about what not to do with photos at "...In a Production Of". Here are some of the latest photos I took and edited for Oklahoma. But there are lots of other ways to create buzz. I always tell my casts that if they're waiting for the producing theater to promote and advertise their shows then they're in trouble. Ad budgets are virtually non-existent and volunteers are stretched thin with the bigger pictures of a whole season, not just one show. With social media exploding, it's easier than ever to self-promote online. I always encourage my casts to take pictures and post them on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Tweet (positive) updates from rehearsals, create Facebook event pages and invitations. Here's the latest event page I put together for Oklahoma. At one point recently, the Cassidy Theatre had three different shows being buzzed about at the same time on Facebook. It's free and it helps create a "must-see" type of environment. One other thing I always do is create simple websites for each of my shows. Again programs like iWeb make putting together sites easy.

Here's a screen shot from my latest site and you
can check it out at: www.oklahoma.com and
check out the others with the links in my

There is so much cool technology and so many
brilliant artists out there that it really does make
my head swim! I frequently find that spending so much time editing video and photos and writing and posting about my shows actually makes me a better director because I end up studying the show from every angle. I catch things I wouldn't in rehearsal and am inspired by other things I find in a picture or by creating a website. Very cool. So roll up your sleeves and dive in, explore - but most importantly, don't wait for other people to do the work. I could write forever, but alas rehearsal beckons soon which means it's time to put some of this stuff to work!

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