Show Tech – What Can Go Wrong

This is a post about a production I did roughly a year ago and how what felt like absolutely everything went wrong somehow until final preview. These sort of things are a trial-by-fire; when I wrote this post a year ago I was feeling incredibly discouraged and hateful, but a year later I feel pretty awesome about the fact that the show designer and I made it happen with very little outside assistance. We rock, I’m freaking amazing, and the audience had no idea that we had so much trouble prior to opening. This show was critically acclaimed and reviews even mentioned and complimented the design for once.

SUNDAY LOAD IN:

  • We got there at noon and the previous group hadn’t finished loading out yet. It was over an hour after our load-in time before the space’s employee came to check us in and tell us where things like light switches and the dimmer rack were.
  • The custom LED wall didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon and wasn’t at a state in which we could install it into the set. When we left at 2 am, it still wasn’t anywhere near finished.
  • We quickly discovered that their light plot was a disaster. Some of their circuits were plugged into who-knows-where and were always on, so we couldn’t use them. But there was no notation about which circuits went to dimmers and which did not. Lots of things were two-fered or more-fered and again there was just no information about it. We got lucky and found a circuit plot posted on the wall near the dimmer room, because the space did not provide us with one. But when I got in the air, there were a lot of circuits that I just couldn’t find; later, we deduced that those were just long extension cords which they ran to wherever they needed them at the time. We ended up reducing the planned light plot by half to make it work.

MONDAY 10 of 12:

  • The LED wall wasn’t built and testable until the evening. We did a test and had to scrap it because we just didn’t have time. It was supposed to be at that level of completeness at noon the previous day.
  • We did a cue-to-cue sans video, then a tech run. Everyone was on edge due to the lateness of the day, the lack of video, and the stress of multiple “hacks” we had to come up with throughout the past day or so.

TUESDAY FIRST DRESS:

  • We decided to use a projector to replace the LED wall. The projector we hung had a weird green tinge. Which we discovered after learning that our HDMI->DVI->VGA double converter didn’t work AND that the VGA cable didn’t work. Ended up plugging my spare VGA cable into the Lightning Bolt adapter that was supposed to be for our computer monitor. We were going to replace the projector with the spare I’d brought but I’d forgotten a power cable and it used a different one than the projector the space had. Luckily the space had a spare as well. We finally got it hung and ran the show off my laptop instead of the show computer so we could use that Lightning Bolt-> VGA adapter.
  • We ran the show and all the timings are FUBAR because it’s the first time video has gone with the show. We decided tomorrow we need to do another Q-Q and stayed really late doing notes talking about every individual video cue and what changes we could make prior to tomorrow.

WEDNESDAY FINAL DRESS:

  • We came armed with a different video converter – this one goes directly from HDMI->VGA . Aaand it doesn’t work at all. Again, we run the show off my laptop.
  • We did that Q-Q and then do archival photos and dress rehearsal which is recorded for archival purposes.
  • I had a really, really bad run of the show. I was at the end of my energy from all the long days and late nights and literally cried silent tears of “damn it that cue looked awful” and “that was a bad call” in the booth while I ran it.

THURSDAY FIRST PREVIEW:

  • We arrived to discover that the prop water bottle had disappeared. Venue staff mention that they were cleaning and maybe the man who cleaned the green room threw it away. It’s not like it’s a disposable plastic water bottle like Arrowhead or something. It was upside-down next to the sink in the green room, clearly drying after having been washed. Who would throw something like that away? Our actress has an innocuous travel mug so we used that instead.
  • Anyway we had purchased another new adapter that goes from USB->VGA. Apparently it’s its own video card. Whatever – I install the software and we have picture! Flickery picture with lines running through it regularly. We swapped it so it’s my monitor that looks awful and call it good. We finally ran the show off the show computer.

The thing about all this stuff going wrong, mostly the techfails, is that both Designer and I have a lot of experience and we can think on our feet. Everything that failed, we had some sort of backup plan already in place, or we immediately came up with an alternative that could work. This sort of thing comes with experience and time, but a lot of it also has to do with personality. Designer told me I was invaluable, that the show couldn’t have happened without me, and honestly I have a reputation in town for being the person you want as your stage manager when you have no idea what you’re walking into with a project.  This isn’t bragging, just fact.

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