December, 2021 Issue
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From the Chair

by Corey Shelsta, NBS Section Chairperson

Todd       I have two interesting tales of holiday theatre to share this month.
    The first relates to a production of Christmas Carol I designed recently for a theatre in the region.  The production was in an older proscenium space that I had worked in several times before, so I knew going in that there might be a bit of fixing of lighting equipment and non-functioning circuits.  Budgets being what they are, extensive rental of equipment was not going to be a thing so I would be working with the house inventory.  Lots of Source4 Juniors and PARnels.  There are two Mac 700s mounted out front of house, so those will come in handy.
    I will admit, I had a rough time getting started.  I have grown accustomed to designing with LED units.  And now I had a multiple locations, moods, and times of day to light with conventional fixtures and gel.  Now I am not one that uses LED units for dozens of colors throughout a show.  I tend to select my color palette for the production and stick with it.  Whether it is gel or LED.  The challenge however was fitting all the units I needed on the electrics. They were packed pretty full.  And I did actually enjoy the challenge of NOT having the LED units.
    The night before I was to get the stage to hang the show, I received a call from the stage manager.  It seems that six moving lights became available.  Long story on how that happened, but I was just happy it did.  So, the next morning I am in my office at 5 am re-drafting a light plot.  Early morning, but well worth it.  I had to be at the theatre by 8 am and done with the stage hang by noon so the scenery could get loaded in.
    This brings us to part two of the story.  The scenery.  Have you ever been waiting to focus until the scenery gets loaded in and assembled?  I have too.  Pretty common.  Ever had the scenery not show up?  I have.  There was a bit of panic, but nothing that was going to stop the show.  The scenery was to arrive on Wednesday at noon, but now would not arrive until Friday.  Alright.  The next day was Thanksgiving, I cooked turkey.  It was delicious.
    Friday arrives, back at the theatre.  We are fixing a few patch issues waiting for the scenery to arrive.  What’s that?  It was supposed to be here at 9:00 am and now won’t be here until 1:00 pm?  Well ok.  If that’s what has to happen, we can make it work.  The scenery arrives and we have another surprise.  Most of it is not there.  We have a false proscenium and a turntable platform.  And a few stud walls for the two story unit on the turntable.  But that’s it. 
    Have you ever done a tech rehearsal for a multi-location show with less than ¼ of the scenery in place?  I have.  Now I am pretty good at what I do.  I’ve been at this a long time.  I know where the walls are supposed to be, I know how tall they are, I know what units are supposed to fly in for each scene, etc., etc.  But it is still much easier to actually have the scenery to see the lights on.
The scenery trickled in, a few pieces each day.  Have you ever opened a show with about 1/3 of the scenery missing?  I have.  Now through creative staging and selective lighting we were able to make it work.  Did it look like a completed show?  To the average audience member who was not privy to what was supposed to be there, sure.  The rest of the scenery – wing walls, Fezziwig flying units and shelves, the Cratchit house, and a few other odds and ends – arrived during the couple of dark days between the two weekends of the run.  So, the audience during the second weekend saw a much more complete production.  Quite an interesting situation.
    I really have to commend the stage manager, actors and crew for pulling this off.  New scenery arriving each day of the performance and they just made it work.  I think that is what impresses me the most.  Scenery or not, the show must go on and we just make it happen.
    Story number two involves a similar situation.  The week after I opened Christmas Carol with no scenery, I was on to the next production.  Scenic and lighting design for our annual Christmas Dance Celebration here at SDSU.  I have been doing this show every year for 21 years now.  We did not perform last year due to Covid, so we took the down time to re-envision and reimagine a few things.  We were excited for a new production this year.  We kept a number of the favorite pieces and added some new ones.  A new script, new music in sections, new set, new projections.  We were all set to go.
    Have you ever been the designer for a dance production and had the choreographer test positive for Covid four days before you open?  I have.  Fortunately, they had been rehearsing for several weeks in the studio, so dances were mostly in place.  It was just really adjusting to the stage and getting everything cleaned up.  Now I have been watching this show from the light booth for many years, as I said earlier, so I was able to help a lot with staging and spacing.  I have lit enough dance over the years to have a good aesthetic as to what it should look like, I just lack the vocabulary to explain it to the dancers in dance terminology.  Fortunately, we worked out a rotation where various dancers who were not on stage in any given piece would come to the house and take notes.  This worked out really well.  We would meet after the rehearsal each night, share what we had observed and discuss what needed to happen in each dance.
    Thanks to Covid, we had streaming technology in place from last year.  So, our choreographer was able to watch a feed of the rehearsals.  She would then text me all of her notes to read to the cast.  Her notes often were right in line with the feedback the student dancers were already giving each other.  I think this is a great testament to what they were learning and then applying to this situation.  While it was not ideal, it gave the students a chance to step up and assist their peers in creating what turned out to be a beautiful performance.  And it was certainly an experience none of them will forget.
    The point of all of this is simple – and it is something I find myself writing about again and again.  The ability of people in our profession to adapt to whatever circumstance we are given and make the show happen.  We think outside the box.  We problem solve.  We create and collaborate.  And these are the skills that help us in our lives and our careers.

I hope you all have the most wonderful holiday season
See you next spring!  [ ]