Improv Tech Series Part 1
I’m not a writer. Usually. In college, papers and essays made me sick and I am glad to never again have to endure the arduous process of pacing around trying to think of the best way to illustrate how intertextuality works in the dramatic process. This blog is a way for me to speak my mind about two things I love, tech and improv. This blog is a way for me to communicate to improv groups, directors, performers, and venue proprietors about improv tech and things that I have learned over the past decade.
In order to bring some credibility to my words, these are my credentials: BFA Applied Theater Technology and Design, Metropolitan State University 2011, Technical Director of Bovine Metropolis Theater 2003-Current, two time graduate of the Bovine School of Improv, Tech for approximately 1000 improv shows over the past 10 years, 2009-2010 Colorado Improv Festival, Stage Manager/Tech for 25 sketch shows, and freelance lighting designer and stage manager for traditional theater at multiple theaters around Denver.
This series will be broken up into multiple segments highlighting lighting and sound and how it applies to the improv stage. Some things said may not be popular or be practically applied, but are useful for generating a dialogue that I feel is lacking in the community.
Point 1: “Good tech is seen and heard but not noticed”
This mantra is one that I try to use in every show I do. Now that does not mean that tech is unimportant or more important than what is happening on the stage, but is a cog in the machinations of improv. Everything done in the booth should be a “yes and” or at least a “yes” to what is happening on the stage. That brings me to an important point. The operator in the booth. That person MUST be familiar with improv. That person MUST be comfortable with the equipment. That person MUST be the unseen player in the group/s.
If the tech is unfamiliar with improv or (worse) theater, then that person will have a hard time understanding what the scene/show needs. That person will probably pull lights at the wrong moment or let a group suffer on stage while they keep “calling for an out”. I have seen very great shows train wreck and become a nightmare with bad tech or a poorly trained operator. While they are cheap and good in a pinch, interns can be problematic, be careful when using them.
The person running tech should be familiar with the equipment in the booth. Knowing how the light board works or how to turn on the microphone will make the night go much smoother. If the person is familiar with the equipment then they will be relaxed and comfortable which will make for a better show and make it easier for that person to overcome the inevitable problems that arise.
Ideally the booth operator would be someone who is part of an improv group or a player with the group for whom they are providing light and sound for, but at the very least should be someone who is an improviser. The booth op should ideally warm-up with the group or one of the groups that is performing that night.
The most important person in the building is the audience member. They should be made to feel comfortable. They pay to be entertained.
Point 2: Treatment of Techies
If a tech/stage manager calls time (“10 Minutes”) everyone should respond to that person by repeating the call (“Thank you ten!”). This tells the stage manager that everyone heard what was said and that they understand.
A tech should be paid for their time. The reward that the performers get is the time to play on the stage; the tech does not get that in the booth. Pay them something they deserve it. Even though they may be sitting up in the booth, many times they are working just as hard mentally (at least they should be, this will be addressed in the future) as the players on the stage.
Please treat the techs with respect. They are not lackeys. Most people do love and respect their tech person, but some don’t and that is infuriating. I’m not saying that they should be treated better than others, but they should get respect.
Point 3: While there are no mistakes on the stage, there can be mistakes in the booth
I will address this in my next article, but I feel that it should be said. Lights can be pulled too early or too late or at inappropriate times. Microphones can be live. These things happen but the worst thing one can do is panic.
Point 4: Tech responsibilities
The tech should be sober. As improvisers are usually not better when they drink before a show, the same applies for the techs. They will be slower to respond to the needs of the stage. The tech booths are many times in raised positions accessible only by ladder, so there are safety concerns as well. Drink after the show, it will be more rewarding.
The tech should be attentive to every moment on the stage. Please don’t just “put lights up” and leave until the set is over. It’s more fun to play with the group. Don’t miss an opportunity to support the action on the stage. Brown-outs or transition light can help between scenes and give the audience variety.
Techs MUST speak up when an unsafe situation arises! They are responsible if someone gets injured and they could have prevented it.
It’s generally a good idea to sweep and (if possible) mop the stage prior to the show. I find that this time is good for clearing my head and getting focused on the show.
It is the duty of the stage manager to keep the show on-time and to give time calls to the performers. The time calls help the performers gauge when they should warm-up and use the restroom. It also prevents the surprise “places”.
Finally, Point 5:
It’s just theater, people. Relax. Have Fun. Create. Inspire yourself and others. Bring love and joy to what you do.
I will suggest books in each article that I have found helpful in my development as a theatrical artist and the one I will suggest every time is The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmund Jones. For being written 100 years ago, it is still very applicable and inspiring in the modern theater. I also suggest From Page to Stage by Rosemary Ingham.
In the next article I will speak about lighting in improv and how to use it effectively, pitfalls and mistakes, and the responsibilities of the operator. If there are things that need to be addressed, please let me know.