My Grandmother, a theatre director, tells me stories of ‘the old days’ that fascinate me. They describe community theatre as hard core, tough, and full of events that produced a group of theatre people I call ‘old school’. These people don’t whinge about small dressing rooms, or complain about having to wait 30 minutes at a rehearsal. They’ve worked in little theatres that made you feel like a rabbit in a warren when looking for your dressing room, lit shows with bulbs in tin cans and most importantly, knew how to use their voice to project in any theatre.
I have a lot of respect for old schoolers. They’re tough and consider today’s theatre experiences a luxury [insert Yorkshire accent]. In many ways though, our technical departments still function as old school. Their equipment is antiquated and the technicians are experienced but untrained.
Actually, this describes a lot of community theatre actors but when it comes to our technical people we are unforgiving and critical. Our stage design is becoming more adventurous and creative and we are expecting our techies to produce highly artistic effects with equipment that is basically only suitable for school awards nights. They have used it for years and know how to squeeze every ounce of juice out of it but they are also frustrated by what uninformed directors and companies are asking of them.
Add to that, actors who are no longer taught to project because they rely too heavily on their microphones and you have a sound technician ripping their hair out because the board is driven so high to hear the small emotive whispers of the actor, that they would happily throw jaffas at the next person who suggests that the sound ‘needs some work’. Don’t even mention the fact that the equipment was what Noah used to shout directions to the animals as they entered the ark.
Community theatre companies don’t seem to be spending much time or money on their technical design and the results show it. They make choices to produce a musical in a little 90 seat theatre with a sound system that should have been retired years ago. Someone gets the big idea to use a full orchestra, therefore making it necessary to drive the sound of the actors personal microphones to be heard over 18 musicians. The result is woeful and distracting from the fabulous performances of the cast and musicians and earns the sound team criticism that is unfair.
Why did someone not say, ‘in a tiny theatre like this, we will teach our actors to project [if you can’t make yourself heard in a 90 seat theatre you have no business calling yourself an actor] and use a piano only arrangement, supplementing it with bass and percussion?” Why? WHY? Instead, the poor sound team have to drive an antiquated sound system beyond what it is capable of, making everyone sound like they are singing into a pillow.
Theatre companies – stop trying to be something you’re not and make choices that make artistic sense. Invest your energies into getting a grant to get decent sound and lighting equipment. Invest in your technical people – find some decent professional training on the practical use of the equipment and, just as importantly, how to design lighting and sound plots.
Before you stand up and tell me how expensive this all is, let me say, “I KNOW!” But how long are you going to put your technical teams last on the to do list? This is the one major area that local community theatre is seriously falling down. No matter how large your company, you have improvements you could make to your technical design and implementation, and you know it. You lament it every time you enter tech week. So does everyone else, and it’s not fair on your sound and lighting teams to have to listen to the uninformed comments about how bad they are at their job when you know full well that, with real or better equipment, they could really show everyone that they are just as talented as those on the stage.
Your technical people volunteer their time to your company in the hope of supporting the production and having fun – just like everyone else. As a company you need to start making decisions that reflect your knowledge of the importance of technical theatre to your productions and ultimately your audiences.
Now put on some soothing music, lick your wounds and know that I love you – BUT YOU NEED TO GET YOUR ACT INTO GEAR!
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