Saturday, May 16, 2009

Directors, Musical Directors, Lighting Designers... and Stage Managers

Don't taunt the Heinemann when in its natural habitat. And remember, the Heinemann is as afraid of you as you are of it.

Yes, Adam can be quite savage when teasing Jamie about being a machine. But let's now turn our attention to the natural habitat of several species of homo sapiens which inhabit the musical theatre.

An important factor to note is that there is a strong symbiosis between these and several other species of theatre-dwelling creatures. This can have unexpected results, ranging from "When you hit 'Bottle you hit me!" loyalty to an undercurrent of hatred beneath a carefree and frivolous exterior. Extensive studies are required in order to trace these relationships - until such a time extreme caution is recommended.

Directors are what we in the business world would call the prime contractor to the company. Anything that doesn't fall within the purview of one of the other members of the directorial team naturally devolves to the director. Diction, staging, dancing, costumes, props, scenery, you name it.

Obviously the work of directing a show is one that requires plenty of artistic talent. Of course if you can find a show that's out of copyright and just copy the staging and everything from the original season, the director becomes a sort of administrator that just watches to see that everything happens when it should. But that doesn't happen often - so directors are usually the artsy types that talk more about the second position and the visual effect of prop and costume rather than sensible things like whether the proposed performance dates conflict with the Avalon Airshow and what's going to be flying on the Friday night.

This tendency has certain common side effects, including ambition, professional jealousy, lessened ability to respond to the unexpected, perfectionism to the point of embarrassment, extreme irritability when stressed, and a response to criticism akin to that of the Crocodylus porosus on receiving a cricket bat to the mandible.

When at leisure, directors are safe to approach and highly educational to study. They are usually strong on research, and can talk about little known facts relating to the play which give a more rounded view of the plot, characters and setting. They usually also have many years of experience in stagecraft, and can tell amusing horror stories about their previous productions and what catastrophes befell.

Interestingly, at those times they are rarely reticent, as their artistic ego carries with it the effect of loquaceousness almost to the point of verbosity.

Directors are usually unique - few directors significantly resemble any other director, or indeed any other homo sapiens at all. Many of their moods are also unique or very rare. When studying one, it is always wise to be prepared for anything, and to wear a lip-mounted zipper to prevent the spreading of foot-in-mouth disease.

Musical Directors
MDs are the supreme overlords of everything to do with the music - whether it's done by cast, crew or orchestra. If anything, they are even more varied than directors - from terrors who drop "useless bloody" in relation to anyone who incurs their displeasure for any reason, to the kind and thoughtful ones that have to force themselves to halt a rehearsal to fix up a passage that isn't working.

Musical ability, while similar in some of its effects to artistic ability, has certain significant differences. For instance, musical training usually includes a background of the mathematics and physics of sound, which means a petrol-headed, diesel-headed, avgas-headed or bunker oil-headed person can more commonly find something to talk about with a musical director than a director.

When at leisure, a musical director will often be working on a musical project of their own or playing an instrument in a band. It is often difficult to tell when they are at work and when at leisure.

Musical Directors are less susceptible to mood swings than directors, although if sufficiently irritated they can strike to cause serious injury.

Lighting designers
Theatre lighting is also an artistic discipline, although unlike direction and musical direction it is impossible to separate the effect from the physics of the cause. A range of tools is available to the Lighting Designer and the correct use of them to create the desired effect is vital.

There is also a strong element of electrical knowledge and hands-on ability involved. Lighting Designers are (on average) fitter and stronger than either Directors or MDs.

However, the artistic tendencies are just as strongly marked. There is a natural repression to the artistic ego, as the object of a lighting design is necessarily self-effacing - that is, the purpose of lighting a production is to direct attention to the drama, rather than to the lighting itself. This makes Lighting Designers even more irritable when subjected to criticism, although fortunately it means that any boost they do receive to their ego has a more significant effect than it would on a Director or MD.

When working, Lighting Designers are usually monosyllabic and prefer not to be interrupted. Although they do have leisure time (at which they are as garrulous as Directors) it is often difficult to tell, because much of their work is done mentally and even away from the stage.

Stage Managers
The SM is in command of everything that happens from the time the company arrives at the theatre until the last piece of equipment is moved out. Even the Director, MD and Lighting Designer must obey instructions from the Stage Manager.

SMs are invariably efficient, quick witted and intelligent, characteristics which stem from a high internal clock speed. High clock speed is a must-have for any SM, as they will be required to respond to changing situations by making snap decisions which amount to "How can I rescue the situation without the audience realising that something just went wrong?"

They are also the focal point of all cast queries and concerns, from "Can you please announce to everyone that dinner between the shows will be at 6pm" to "I can't see the edge of the black steps - do you have some yellow safety tape?" - which obviously requires the SM to be able to handle multiple mental threads without suffering an electroencephalographical meltdown.

As with the Lighting Designer, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether an SM is at work or at leisure. The difference is that an SM will often be in leisure mode while a show is progressing - making facetious remarks to cast or crew members in between calls (which are the SM's main task once the show is settled into the theatre). Also, if an SM is interrupted while in work mode, they will usually spawn another thread on which to respond, or put up the "Please wait..." message, rather than attacking.

There are many sub-species of theatre dwelling creatures, and it is necessary to be able to tell the difference. The preceding handling techniques are from my personal experiences which, while they have not so far proven fatal, I do NOT recommend to any reader unless they have a skin as thick as mine.

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