Last Saturday we had our tech for Dancing at Lughnasa in preparation for our opening this weekend. If you’re not in theatre, ‘tech’ is shorthand for the rehearsals that usually start about a week before opening, where the technical elements of the show – lighting, sound, props, scenery, sometimes costumes – are added in to the show and calibrated with painstaking detail, with the goal of creating the first draft of a “finished” production. Throughout the week before opening and into preview performances, the production is fine-tuned and altered, but tech is when everything comes together for the first time.
Tech gets a bad rap. Plenty of actors, directors, and designers seem to hate the process. I absolutely love it. As you work on a production, you spend so much time imagining the world of your play, and tech is the moment where you finally get to witness it as the audience will: fully-realized, alive and approaching completion. Sure, it’s a long process, it can get messy and frustrating, and it requires the attention span of a monk. But the satisfaction and ‘theatre magic’ when you see all the pieces of your puzzle start to come together is unparalleled.
What actually happens in that elusive ’10 out of 12′ (a 12-hour rehearsal with two-hour dinner break)? What takes so long and what is the team actually working on? Here’s a slice of tech life from 10am to 1pm:
10:00: Actors show up and are greeted by bagels and donuts (compliments of their awesome stage management team of Verena Lucke, K. Ashlynn Abbott, and Rochelle Hudson). The actors won’t hit the stage for another half hour – the designers need this chance to set up.
10:30 am: The first thing that we tech is the preset – this is the look of the stage as the audience enters the theatre. Working the preset is one of my favorite moments of tech – you’re creating the first impression of the play, and it’s a chance to let the beauty of the designer’s work speak for itself before those pesky actors come on stage and draw all the focus. You can say so much about your play through the preset – what is the mood of this world? How bright or shadowy, warm or cold, realistic or abstract is the world? What music or sound is playing when you enter the theatre, and how might that indicate the energy or tone of the play? What props are on stage for you to discover, and how might they be used? Does the light accent anything in particular?
For example, in Lughnasa, there is a soft glow of light on the Marconi radio in the house, which is already telling the audience it’s a bright, crucial part of the life of the house. There is no pre-show music, just sound effects of nature, which has a naturalistic, immersive impact on the audience. The lights have a trace of warmth, but there are striking shadows across the walls of the Mundy home, perhaps suggesting that there is some darkness hanging over them?
10:55: We move on to the opening tableau and monologue. Here the challenge is making sure the whole cast is lit, but the feel remains removed from reality – the action of the play hasn’t started yet. We run the opening sequence several times, taking long pauses afterward to tweak. As an actor, tech usually feels long and slow-moving, which is often due to how much attention needs to be paid to the very beginning. I overhear lighting design professor Allen Hahn start to say to director Dale McFadden, “As excruciating as it is, this first 90 seconds…” Dale nods, knowing how the sentence ends. He’s very familiar with how important it is to start the production on the right note.
11:37: We’re at the top of the first scene in the house. The lights here become warmer and more “realistic”, depicting the house as a lived-in place for the first time. The contrast between the look of the house interior now compared to how it was shown in the preset is a clear demonstration of how much theatre lighting can change space. It’s no small task for lighting designer Tony Stoeri to light the whole interior of the house without spilling much light onto the other parts of the stage, while at the same time preventing noticeable shadows from appearing on the walls.
11:56: We’ve reached Michael’s second expository monologue, just 9 pages in. This bit takes a few minutes to maneuver, as it’s the first time we’ve dealt with the past and the
present overlapping. Chris J. Handley (Michael Evans) is remarkably patient as he stops and starts a dozen times.
12:19: We’re back into the main action, with Ashley Dillard (Kate Mundy)’s first entrance. Here, as in much of the continuous action of the play, large portions go by with no cues at all, so we progress steadily through the play.
12:58: We’ve reached the first big dance. The intricacy of Nira Pullin’s choreography has already been worked out, so the only challenge is making sure the sound is calibrated to sound as though it’s coming from the radio. The movement of the dance is spread over the entire playing space, so lights has to adjust to bodies everywhere.
As you can see, the work moves slowly but there’s so much to think about during the process. And by the time we run the show on Monday’s dress rehearsal, it feels like a completely different experience!