“The mood can swing at the click of a finger, and as much credit for this must be given to the lighting and sound designers as to the actors themselves.”Hettie Judah review of Lifegame, “Added Twist to This Life.” The Times (London) 19 May 1998.
If you’ve had the unbridled joy of improvising in a venue with a strong technical set up and a gifted improvising Technician, you will deeply appreciate just how much such astute hands add to the work. From elegant transitions and mood-enhancing washes to rich ambient environments and mischievous sound effects, the stage action transforms under their watch. Hopefully it goes without saying that these unseen members of the team are improvising just as fearlessly as the players on the stage, accepting and pitching offers and ideas to maximize the entertainment and energy. If you primarily work on the stage, as I do, it can be easy to inadvertently forget just how much artistic technical improvising elevates the performance event – it can be difficult to register in the moment the subtle shifts in light or sound that are supporting or inspiring your work and choices. But as you rehearse on the cold theatre boards under fluorescent lighting in the afternoon, the absence couldn’t be more starkly palpable. So in addition to serving as a love note to our technical magicians, this entry also aims to reminds us all of some best practices for collaborating with these fellow improvisers.
Host: “And let’s see that scene based on a rain forest in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….”
The stage lights fade as the host’s voice echoes through the sound system. The countdown reaches its climax, and the stage becomes bathed in vibrant shadows evocative of a dense canopy. A steady storm can be heard pounding in the distance, punctuated by the cries of rambunctious unseen wildlife. As Player A and B emerge, the lights gently swell around them and their body microphones are turned on. Their voices reverberate in the endless forest as they utter their first words…
Honoring Technical Improvisers
1.) Set them up for joy. If your company has the good fortune to work regularly with an improvisational musician it would be odd to routinely craft shows or play sets where they sat idly by for lengthy periods of time, their considerable gifts left untapped. The same holds true for the creative improvising technicians in our midst. Strive to include opportunities to feature their contributions in meaningful and joyous ways. It’s important to have this voice and perspective in the development phase of projects as well as in green room pre-show planning sessions to assist in this endeavor. In a short-form show it can be as simple as folding a game or two regularly in the mix that highlights design improv; in long-form it may involve developing a greater awareness of how to best exploit latent technical potentials. Onstage and offstage improvisers alike thrive when challenged and are not asked to plod through the same routines in the same way time and again.
2.) Embrace their choices. Be wary of viewing spontaneous design choices in a different light than you would a verbal or physical offer from a character. Just as a player might fumble or serve up a good idea in an inelegant or unclear manner, so too can a technician make a good faith call that lands wonkily or experience unknown equipment malfunctions that prevent them from fully realizing the potentials of the scene. The iteration of Gorilla Theatre that I’ve directed includes a tradition of directly addressing all the improvisers in the space, so an opaque choice that pushes against the current director’s intent will generally be verbally addressed in the moment (with the technician often responding in similar kind and tone on the God mic). Generally, however, I’d advocate the same accepting “go with the flow” attitude that applies to any other unanticipated scenic offer, reserving any critique or discussion for the postmortem. Players should justify design offers with the same joyful spirit as any other improv addition.
3.) Communicate expectations. Regardless of the skill and experience level of the improvising technicians in question, it’s good practice to clearly and consistently communicate show expectations. If a planned short-form game or scene requires a special technical treatment or offers unique design opportunities you’re more likely to set your fellow improviser up for success if this isn’t sprung upon them at the last moment, especially if what you’re requiring involves behind the scenes preparation such as accessing specific sound effects or music files. Using pre-show notes to talk through any exciting new games or dynamics provides the technician advanced notice and gives ample time to troubleshoot the specifics or strategize an alternative course of action if this particular idea would be better served by some rehearsal without the presence of an audience.
4.) Know the tools at their disposal. Discussing show possibilities and creative needs also affords a chance for everyone to better understand what tools are – and aren’t – in the technicians’ tool belt. Players who keep walking into that one lighting blind spot expecting a spotlight aren’t making anyone look good, least of all themselves. If you’re fortunate enough to have more advanced programmable consoles and equipment, there may be aspects of the show that aren’t particularly flexible from a technical perspective, or when something goes wrong a manual reset might have unavoidably noticeable onstage repercussions. Many of the most responsive technical improvisers I’ve collaborated with have more than a passing understanding of onstage improv practices. Pursuing some knowledge of the technical aspects of your venue not only allows you to more fully exploit these rich tools in your scene work but also builds empathy and ensemble.
5.) Don’t expect miracles. And finally, just as we wouldn’t expect one preassigned onstage player to single-handedly execute the perfect move to save any struggling improv scene, we shouldn’t have this unrealistic expectation of our technical teammates either. I see this tension most frequently swirl around the issue of scene endings. A well-timed blackout can do an awful lot to save a lethargic game or scene – as can the addition of an appropriately uplifting soundtrack or well-crafted lighting steering our attention to where it’s needed. But technical improvisers cannot create dynamic buttons out of nothing. We are all responsible for “saving” our own scenes, or to be frank, not allowing a scene to become such an unmitigated mess that it needs saving. If our booth colleague misses a panicked editing wave or sweep it’s quite likely the audience might not have experienced the moment in question as a resolute ending either.
I’ve referred to technical improvisers in the third person “they” for clarity in this entry but in many venues “they” are really “us” and “we” as improvisers often wear many hats (sometimes on the same night). One show you might play onstage, the next you take on the role of host, and the following you’re steering the action from the computer or instrumental keyboard. There is great reciprocity in terms of learning, with strategies sharpened in one arena providing lessons and awareness for challenges encountered in another. So even if you’ve found yourself specializing in one area of the craft, there is much to be gleaned from appreciating how fellow improvisers approach their positions as well. As I noted in my earlier entry on material, interesting improvisers are interested improvisers, so be sure to extend this sense of creative fascination to your colleagues as well.
Connected Game: Booth Torture