Shit happens, But..

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 - Featured, Learn Stage Lighting - by:

Fed up? Do you find that you spend too much time on things that go wrong? Does your time on shows seem to be a series of fire fighting opportunities rather than “higher lighting” (?!) opportunities?

Why do things go wrong so often? Why is equipment always letting  you down? Best laid lighting plans going to wrack and ruin while you find your self on a seat-of-the-pants rollercoaster yet again.

Is it your kit? Your crew? Your Director?

Read on and On Stage Lighting will reveal all.


Let’s get one thing straight. In the end, when the audience are seated, shows pretty much always happen. Good, bad or indifferent, they happen. But it might not always seem like that 1 hour before doors …

It’s All Going Wrong, Grommit

One thing that I have noticed, having spent a career putting on professional shows as well as with some experience of amateur and student shows, is that there is often a lot more fire fighting on the latter. Things happen, go wrong, take people by surprise, come back and bite ya on the arse… Shit happens.

You might think that this is because of the pro shows have top kit, top crew and endless supplies of good coffee and Eat To The Beat puddings. We have already busted the Good Kit Myth, but yes, these guys are much more adept at putting on shows – it’s their job. And their job often involves throwing stuff on with little in the way of preparation and apparently without turning a hair. That’s what they get paid for.

However, in an ideal world, no one would have to spin a show from nothing at a moments notice. And this is where the difference becomes apparent, an element often missing from those fire fighting shows:

Process. Production Process.

Every side of the production industry, whether it be theatre, concerts or live events, has it’s own take on process. These processes have been adopted because they work and are used to ensure that, no matter how last minute or difficult things get, the process gives a stable base to underpin even the most difficult of situations.

What do I mean by  production process?

Production process is taught in Universities and Drama Schools, and theatre textbooks, and is practiced in professional show business. It is the use of conventional work systems to stage a show, often originating in some way from traditional theatre practice.

In lighting, it is how you plan a lighting design, communicate with others, prepare equipment, deal with problems, rehearse and tweak and arrive at the first performance with your best work.

Fail To Prepare..

Process and it’s success is often about preparation and readiness, using structured planning tools to think of everything and leave nothing to chance. In planning, stage lighting process consists of:

  • Allocation of roles and responsibilities
  • Cue synopsis and other show specific information
  • Venue specification and data from site visits
  • Equipment inventories and accessory lists
  • Electrical, rigging and photometric calculations
  • Accurate scale drawings, plans and sections
  • Lighting circuit and control information
  • Network and data planning
  • Content creation
  • Preparation of control systems, sometimes including pre programming
  • Communication between departments

All of these, and perhaps more, fit into the process in different ways. Allocation of roles is vital for the team to understand their duties and what is expected of them – in theatre this is often as simple as a job title such as Chief Electrician, the duties of that role are broadly understood by all on the show.
Other lists, data and planning tools such as CAD all play a vital part – miss one of these out and you better have that fire extinguisher handy…

Along with the paper planning process is the preparation of equipment and technical systems before the load in.

Checking, maintaining and just counting the bloomin’ stuff in the workshop is the easiest way to make sure you mitigate the nasty surprises later on during the final stages of production week.

How were you going to get power to that fixture? Do you even have one of those in stock? How many have we got? Do they all work? Do we have spares?

Check it, check it, check it.

… Prepare to Fail!

In the heat of the battle, it seems like the equipment is against you, the Director is being unreasonable or your crew are next to useless.

Some of those things may be true in part. Kit breaks, it happens all the time. Directors change their mind even when you gave them all the information you could on a given effect. And not everyone in your team is a master of their craft like you ;-)

The trouble with fire is that once it breaks out, it spreads. By the time you have put the first one out, you’ve lost valuable “doing” time and another three have sprung up to take it’s place. While you are busy rushing to get the next two out, in a panic,you accidentally start another one. Before long you and your team are doing nothing but fighting a cascade of fires.

When it seems like there aren’t enough fire extinguishers in the world to get this show on, try to look at why you seem to be clinging on by your fingertips.

When the show has eventually happened, it’s all been a “success”, take a break from congratulating yourself on the fact that you pulled it outta the bag in the end, and reflect on why it was such hard work.

Be Honest

I know, this broke, then that broke. You ran out of lamps for those and out of cable and had to use X. Then the Director wanted such and such and the work experience kid couldn’t fix the last scroller in time …

I’ve seen some pretty major equipment failures at some crucial moments, usually just moments before they were required (you forget the ones that failed and were sorted in good time, it’s part of the job). A few of them were rare and unexpected, the professional technicians used all their skill to come up with innovative solutions, the show went on and the audience were none the wiser.

But tell me something that went wrong for you during the lighting of your show and I bet you 99% of the time, I can point to a part of the lighting process you misunderstood, rushed or just plain didn’t do.

Shit happens But not that often.

Image by Alyssa L. Miller on Flickr

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Rob is a freelance Lighting Designer and Moving Light Programmer currently lecturing in technical theatre production at Bath Spa University in the UK. He is also the Editor of On Stage Lighting and runs workshops in stage lighting practice.

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3 Comments

  1. T.K.Agarwal:

    Your advices are valuable,and based on practicals,As I used to face these.
    T.K.Agarwal

  2. Paul Smith:

    At the risk of upsetting another corporate web filter > PPPPPP or Proper Planning Prevents P**s Poor Performances.

    I’ve often been accused of overspeccing the odd gig here and there, usually on the Cabling front, but in the process haven’t had to put out too many fires or been unable to provide the extra fixture to light the banners in the lobby that have just appeared.

    Taking the paperwork seriously helps too. If it’s all there, then no excuses.

    Cheers

    Smiffy

  3. Rob Sayer:

    Hi Paul,

    I find, particularly on large gigs, you can easily end up with several boxes of Soca or TRS left over, which I get the crew to tactfully squirrel away from the PMs eyeline somewhere. I use Excel for cable spec and by the time you have slightly over estimated several thousand metres a metre or so here, another one there, it doesn’t take long to end up with a whole bunch left over on the day. Especially if the crew are trying to be good and are extra skimpy with their cabling.

    On the flip side, I’ve also never found it an issue when the extra requirements suddenly pop up just before evening dinner break or when they double the size of something on a whim. Extra profiles and fresnels are a life saver, especially when you are in the back of beyond.

    As they say about surplus kit, better looking at it than looking for it.

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