Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tech Tip! Biting More than You Can Chew!

This is the first post of what I call my "Tech Ten Commandments". Unlike the real Ten Commandments theses rules aren't set in stone. But having worked with several theatre companies in the past and seeing what works and what doesn't these can serve as Golden Rules to keep your company out of disaster. And as always we start with the beginning.

Commandment 1: Thou Shalt Not Take on More than you can Build!

Cause: This Commandment gets broken in so many ways and is what I feel the most common sin of all the companies I've seen. The cause usually comes from a Director picking a play that he/she just has to do but requires custom set pieces or props or costumes that will keep the shop working around the clock or require more skilled labor or special materials or special effects than the team knows how to build. This also comes from lacking a strong independent Technical Director who can won't say no to special projects. 

The Reality: A good scene shop works a lot like a wood-chipper if you feed to much into it the gears will jam up. Your department is broken into tiny teams that take on maybe two or three projects a week  and get  paid part time to full time. If a show gives them more projects than the have time or get paid to do they won't get finished or done with the same quality. A good shop break down for a small to medium theatre goes like this...

Shop Foreman
Carpenter Team                                                                              Carpenter Team
Lead Carpenter and Apprentice                                                       Lead Carpenter and Apprentice

Lead Painter and Apprentices                                                           Volunteers

Again this is a Best Case Scenario of a Theatre Company. Most Small-Town Theatre Groups don't even have a shop space or all the tools necessary to get that kind of output done. You'll most likely be working under volunteers and in someone's back yard to get the work done. 

Solution: So how do we avoid this problem in the meantime?
  • Don't pick a set heavy play: Run plays that you're considering for the season by your tech people. They'll give you an honest estimate of if they can deliver the goods. If they say that they can't then put the play aside for next year.
  • Pull from Stock or Borrow: Start building up a collection of stock scenery and props and use them heavily when planning a set design. Borrow from someone that you know has the items already. A good rule of thumb for a set design is 80% stock to 20% custom build. 
  • Choose a Set Design With Multi-Taskers: If you can find any way that one set piece can double as another then that's wonderful. It only counts as one build but can be used as two set pieces! Paint the front and back of flats with different scenes. Use unit boxes or simple stools that can be used over and over in different scenes. The less custom work your people have to do then the more that they'll love you and the more they'll choose to stay.
Have any questions about this commandment? Have any stories about when you've seen this commandment broken in the worst way? Feel free to post a comment below.

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