Hit by a Bus Rules: Children Will Listen…and Maybe the Adults Will Too.

Alandra Hileman, a day late, but still wise.

Theatre Rule of the Month: …hell if I know.

Many years ago, after a steady diet of watching musicals and occasionally acting in church sketches, my parents enrolled me in a summer theatre camp. That camp was where I caught the bug, leading me to meet my high-school mentor, and eventually to pursuing a variety of theatre degrees in college. Well, folks, I have come full circle, because this summer I am teaching theatre camp. And, conveniently for the purposes of trying to keep this log themes to the behind-the-scenes, it’s tech camp. I love teaching, I love tech, and this seemed like a great opportunity to maybe pass on some of my passion to the next generation the way it was passed to me all those years ago. Of course, I sorely underestimated the power of the soul-sucking apathy of high-schoolers, but I can’t really fault them – I was them in high school too.

I don’t really know if they’ve learned anything from me – I spend a lot of time floundering and making things up as I go – but I’ve learned a few hard lessons that I’ll carry with me into my future backstage experiences. Here are some of the highlights:

* It is really hard to teach a scenic production class when you are not allowed to use power tools with the students. Or any tools, really. However, you may get the opportunity to bond with kinds about shared taste in emo music of the ‘00s. (I’m just saying, my explanation of how to build a flat was boring but I got a ton of pointed for having a P!atD/FOB/MCR playlist, and yes that is a sentence I just typed that I am going to allow to be posted on the internet, so…)

* Do not suggest an effect to a director unless you know with absolute certainty A) how to achieve it, and B) that you have the means to do so within your venue/budget/personnel. Truthfully, I thought I knew better than this. I do not. We start tech on Monday and we only just now decided how we’re going to do this stupid avalanche effect.

* Speaking of effects…light boards are complicated, but you can find literally any answer on the internet. This week I’ve been teaching the kids how to program an ETC Ion but referencing a cheat-sheet I found via Google. YouTube also has some great tutorials. And if even that fails, there is always that one really smart kid that looks at the board and asks, very politely, “have you tried that button?” You have not. It is that button. Accept your defeat with grace.

* These kids likely don’t know anything about theatre. But they do absolutely know that you are probably bullshitting them, so just go ahead and tell them what the deal is. I suspect I gained a lot of respect the first day that I straight up told them I was exhausted and had nothing planned and we were just gonna paint flats. They painted those flats like machines that day.

* Design is not Technical Direction. Technical Direction is not Teaching. Teaching is not Design. If you get stuck doing all three, especially when you’re only vaguely qualified for one-and-a-half, try not to panic. The children feed on fear.

It’s been a weird, often frustrating four weeks, and I’ve still got one more to go before my camp duties end. But even for all the bullshitting, last-minute scrambles to find lesson topics, and inability to actually use any of the equipment in the theater in a particularly hands-on fashion, I’ve met some great kids. I don’t think I’m about to become a great mentor to any of them, but hopefully they at least enjoyed the playlists.

Alandra’s posts other occasional “lessons” she’s learned on Twitter (@LadyBedivere), and on rare occasions updates her general doings at ajhileman.com.

Hit by a Bus Rules: No Mistakes, Just Opportunities

Alandra Hileman’s Theatre Rule of the Month: If you act like it’s intentional, no one will know it’s a mistake.

Bob Ross Mistakes copy

I feel like my last couple blogs have been sort of downers, so today I wanna talk about something more fun and positive: mistakes!

I love technical mistakes in theatre. Love them. When they’re in someone else’s show, this is often the schadenfreude of “I’m so glad I don’t have to solve this, but let’s see what their stage manager (or whoever) does.” If it’s in a show I’m not enjoying, technical flubs sometime re-pique my interest in what I’m watching. And if it’s my own show, even though there is sometimes panic, there is also a bit of an adrenaline thrill that comes with trying to solve a problem on the fly.

But my absolute favorite thing about technical mistakes is when they are covered well. Sometimes it’s a mistake that is obvious, but I enjoy the skill of cover as much as I would have enjoyed the actual effect. I was recently at the premiere weekend of a new stage show attraction that plays at a popular theme park run by a giant mouse. This show is based on an animated film, of course, and involved one incredibly specific quick-change for the lead character in which her dress transforms min-song, much like the current Broadway Cinderella dress transformation but with more icicles. The performance I saw reached the big musical swell after the bridge of the song, there was a lot of twinkling and flashing lights, everything blinks to black for not more than two seconds and then the lights popped up – the dress hadn’t changed. I could see that the actress had tried to trigger it, but something hadn’t worked. However, to her credit, the actress just continued to sing the huge final verse of her song, and very simply, at the end of every line where there was a sort of instrumental punctuation, she would subtly tug the release until finally, with two lines of song left and in full view, the release “let it go” and the dress transformed, right at a big musical swell. The actress was relieved, the audience was thrilled, and the show didn’t miss a single beat.

The other best kind of technical mistake is the one covered so well that even someone like me, a veteran SM with years of technical experience and just a generally observant person, doesn’t even realize it’s a cover. Just last night, I was at a show and in the first scene the lead actress is supposed to have a laptop which doubles as a prop and lighting source. In the course of the banter between her and her stage husband, they begin looking for the laptop, until she sent him into another “room” of the house and he returned with it. Realistic married life, right? Nope! I found out from the SM later that the laptop had been left charging backstage, but the actors were so entirely unfazed when they realized what had happened that they created a perfectly in-character scenario that would allow the ASM backstage to hand it off.

Those are just two incredibly recent examples, but I have dozens of war stories about technical flubs, good and bad, and the often ingenious ways in which they were resolved. I’m sure I’m not the only one, so please comment with your own favorite flubs and covers, and let’s find the joy in mistakes!

Read about Alandra’s mistakes on Twitter (@LadyBedivere), and find out about larger projects at ajhileman.com

Hit by a Bus Rules: The Write Stuff

Alandra Hileman, after a bit of a hiatus, returns.

Theatre Rule of the Month: Write It Down

I’ve been in a writer’s cave of insanity the last few months, so rather than a cohesive blog, here’s a series of the sorts of “shower thoughts” I’ve had about writing.

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One of the hardest things about stage managing is figuring out what to write down when. The stage manager should write everything down, of course, but sometimes you’re sitting there frantically erasing your blocking notes again as a scene gets restaged for the fourth time in as many days and you start to wonder if there’s a certain point before which you can safely not take notes. The answer is no, because suddenly in tech week that one offhanded comment from the first read will become absurdly relevant and necessary and you’re gonna pray it’s still jotted in the margin of your script somewhere.

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I don’t totally understand the Hemmingway-attributed quote “Write drunk; edit sober,” which people often pitch at me when I ask for block-busting tricks. Not like I don’t understand the principle of it, but…when I’m drunk all I wanna do is watch Futurama and play Marvel: Avengers Alliance on Facebook. Maybe it’s just my brain chemistry.

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I found a Post-It the other day as I was cleaning off my desk that had a very specific sequence of numbers on it, which I finally realized was RGB level adjustments for some set of photos I must have been editing at some point. I assume I wrote it down because I wasn’t doing the whole set at once, but it would have been really helpful if past-me had noted which photo-set it was for. This is why in my notebooks I’ve started writing project abbreviations in the upper corner; so that I can quickly flip through and find all the notes for any given project.

***

Speaking of “shower thoughts,” I’m going to go buy some of those kids’ bath crayons so I can take notes in the shower. I’d get so much more done.

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By the same account, I need to start running a tape-recorder in my car, because I solve so many plot problems when I’m blasting down the freeway talking to myself, but usually by the time I reach my destination I can.

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I used to never write notes for things. Never in classes, never for stories or plays I was working on, and to be perfectly honest, when I first started stage managing I didn’t write things down nearly as much as I should have. I think that was where I really started to realized that for as good of a memory as I have, things will fall through the cracks, especially when you’re juggling being the cetral hub of information for not only your department, but everyone’s. I’m still really bad about just taking the moment to writing something down, but I’m trying desperately to get better at allowing myself that time, in every aspect of my life. Especially handwriting – there have been, if I recall, scientific studies which have show that handwriting notes helps us not only to remember things better but also to form our thoughts more coherently. I’ve been trying to take time to enjoy the note-taking process, and to apply the tricks I learned in stage managing on how to annotate an existing script to the process of creating one as well. It’s sometimes a weird hang-up transitioning from the world of executing a script vision backstage to creating said script for others to execute, but I feel like I’m starting to find my groove.

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This blog is the most productive procrastination I’ve had all week.

You can find more of Alandra’s “shower thoughts” on Twitter (@LadyBedivere), and find out about larger projects at ajhileman.com.

Hit by a Bus Rules: Ritual and Reverence for the Modern Age

Alandra Hileman, full of reverence.

Theatre Rule of the Month: Don’t Say The Name of The “Scottish Play” Inside The Theatre

Aha! Even with the switch of my column from Tuesdays to Fridays, I still got a convenient real-world date that synced up with my monthly ramblings. What date, you ask? Nope, not even remotely Valentine’s Day. (You’ll wanna watch my Facebook and Twitter for THAT annual joke.)

No, I’m referring to this last Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, which all lapsed Catholics and natives of New Orleans will know marked the beginning of Lent, a high-church Christian holiday of fasting and meditation for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Now, I’m not actually Catholic, but given my predisposition for personal guilt and suffering, I’ve always been drawn to this particular holiday, which involves giving up things you love or enjoy and instead meditating on the divine.

I bring this up in a theatre blog because this year the advent of Lent got me thinking a lot about ritual. There’s a lot of connection between superstition and the divine, and between theatre and religion, dating back to the earliest origins of humanity and which many scholars have explained better than I could. But what I’m more interested in these days is the strange and delightful ways in which the modern theatre rituals have evolved.

One of the seeming oldest and most enduring rules in theatre, and certainly one of the most exciting to tell stories about, is the rule that we never say the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” inside the theatre (unless you are performing the show itself and must say the lines) lest you curse the production mwahahahahaha, etc. There are hundreds of stories, some very famous, about terrible tragedies that have befallen those who didn’t adhere to this rule, and a good couple dozen ways to supposedly dispel the curse should someone slip up. And unlike, say, not whistling in a theatre, which originated for an incredibly practical reason,* there is no specifically logical reason that we don’t say the name.

I, personally, don’t believe in a curse. But I don’t say the name inside the theatre, both out of deference to people who are genuinely troubled by it, and because I like participating in a ritual that connects me not only to my immediate cast and crew, but to every cast and crew out there, almost like a secular genuflection. We have lots of these traditions and rituals in theatre that have persisted from earlier generations, such as using “break a leg” instead of “good luck” and leaving the ghost light on in the dark theatre (which I’ve always felt is the perfect blend of practical and sacred). And they become one of the many connective tissues of the theater community – we don’t recite prayers in unison with others all over the world, but we do commit the same lines to memory and treat them with reverence. Or intentional irreverence. But it’s still part of what strengthens the bonds we have with everyone else who works with that same text.

The other thing I love most about ritual in theatre, besides the way it connects the community, is the way new rituals are always being created and passed on. I have worked with a few companies and individual actors that have very specific drinking rituals which occur at certain points in the process (most often on opening and closing nights, sometimes for other occasions). I know a few companies that hide a certain object or prop in every show. There are great individual rituals too: I know a lot of actors who develop their own specific warm-ups. One of my frequent bosses is constantly making us eat snacks. This week is was “You have to have a Double-Stuffed Oreo. Tech week tradition.” Who cares if it wasn’t before, it is now, because we all did it. I have a specific ring given to me many years ago that I always wear on my opening nights, the classic theatre masks. I wear it on either the third of fourth finger of my left hand, either to remind me how much I enjoy being “married” to my work, or as my subtle flip of the bird to bid goodbye to a stressful tech as we open. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone but me, but it’s my own contribution to the ritual of theatre.

Theatre Ring

In closing, I offer this anecdote: Very early in my stage management career, I worked with one director on a Shakespeare play who always began the rehearsal process with several sessions of table work. As we were going through the text, and of course getting off on Shakespearean tangents, the Scottish Play came up. This director made a point of basically saying this: “Well, I don’t believe in the curse. But I always want to point out to my casts that the historical Macbeths as far as we know didn’t murder anyone and were very good rulers.” As I recall, according to repeat actors, this little speech was something that happened every year. Despite not believing in the “curse,” this director had created a new piece of the ritual to dispel or satisfy it. And that itself is the beauty of ritual, right?

Alandra will be suffering through the next two months of deadlines without the help of caffeine or alcohol, so if you’d like to come find her and commiserate, check out her ongoing calendar of upcoming events at ajhileman.com

* For anyone who doesn’t know: In the 17th Century, out-of-work sailors would often find work as deck hands (see what we did there) in the theatres, primarily running the rigging of scenic drops and such. They used a complex series of whistles to communicate, so anyone else whistling ran the risk of accidentally signaling for heavy canvas drops or even sandbags to start falling from above.

Hit by a Bus Rules: A Poe Excuse for a Blog

Alandra Hileman honors a very special day. 

Theatre Rule of the Month: Measure Twice, Cut Once

Today, January 19th, would be Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday. His happens to be one of the few famous birthdays I remember without prompting, thanks to two years in high school I spent working on a massive research project (which, as a matter of fact, I was never actually required to finish and turn in). I also probably have more poems and passages from Poe’s work rattling around in my memory than any other single writer, not that I would trust myself to do a proper recitation anytime soon. Delightfully, I’m finally getting the opportunity to put all this info to use in one of the far-to-many plays I’m currently in the process of drafting up, which means Poe has been on my mind a lot of late.

hark a vagrant 213 copy

Interesting fact about Poe: he was a fairly obsessive reviser. Many of his poems and stories exist in multiple versions, with revisions running the gamut from simple spelling corrections or a change of title all the way to entirely new stanzas or endings. His output of fiction, poetry, and essays was fairly prolific, so when you begin to comb through the various publications to look for the revisions and variations, it adds up to quite a lot of text to compare.

Yes, publications. There aren’t many original drafts belonging to Poe that survived his turbulent and impoverished life, so most of the revisions we know about come from fair copies that were in the possession of magazine editors to whom they had been submitted, or the actual published texts, of which there were often several variations. Which brings me around to this month’s rule.

One of the first things you learn (or should learn) in both carpentry and sewing is the rule of “measure twice, cut once.” This rule gets brought up often in the theatrical world because, honestly, there’s usually not enough money in the budget to do something over if it doesn’t measure up the first time. So if you’re building a set, first you measure everything: the doors, the floors, the 2x4s. Then you draw your sketch to scale, measure your space and materials again, (for extra credit measure your scale drawing again), and then, and only then, do you start cutting and screwing. Apply the same to sewing, but with bodies and fabric.

It’s a solid rule. And it’s totally the opposite of what many writers seem to be taught. I’ve done readings for plays where I see draft after draft after draft presented, each one different, often each presented exactly as flowed from the writer’s pen (or laptop). Outlines are perfectly respectable, but not required. And sometimes, you keep making changes and revisions even after you’ve, I don’t know, won a Pulitzer prize for your play and had it produced and published all over the world. (coughBuriedChildcough) But then, words are a lot cheaper than lumber, so you can usually afford to screw up or change your mind more easily.

This isn’t intended as any sort of perfect metaphor, and all rules are probably made to be broken. But it is interesting to look at these two sides of how things are made. One is a very precise, planned system meant to deliver exact results the first time it comes together. The other may be a perpetual work-in-progress, or an experiment in throwing something half-baked in front of people and then adjusting after you see what it is. And since re-researching Poe brought it to my attention, I’m curious to pay more attention to where these two methods come to the fore as I plug away on measuring and (eventually) cutting my own writing about Poe.

So, happy birthday to the inventor of the modern detective story, formative contributor to the science fiction genre, first American writier to try to live on writing alone, and all-around wow-you-make-me-feel-better-about-my-life-choices guy, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks for the work.

If you’re more interested in Poe’s alcoholism and weird relationship with his 13-year old cousin than his revision habits, you can come see Alandra Hileman’s upcoming play Cyprus, Sin, and Care this Spring in the BoxCutters readings series at The Breadbox. Quoth the Raven, “See You There!”

Hit by a Bus Rules: All I Want for Christmas is U(Haul Discounts)

If Alandra Hileman has to have these songs stuck in her head for a month, she’s gonna make everyone else suffer too.

It’s the middle of finals, winter holidays are upon us, and I just started a new job that currently involves listening to 60 children perform a 60-min musical version of Elf. So, rather than some profound musing on the “reason for the season” (obviously corporate consumerism, or Chinese food if you’re Jewish) or meaningful and heartfelt analysis of the best version of A Christmas Carol (it’s the Muppets and I will fight anyone who says otherwise), I thought I’d honor the unsung techies of Christmas plays, pageants, and light displays around the world with, well, some songs. So here’s to you, Christmas crews.

STANDBY GO (To the tune of “Let It Snow”)

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the booth is so delightful
And since there’s three acts of show
Standby, Go, Standby, Go, Standby, Go

When they finally take their bows
How I’ll hate going out on the storm
But as long as concessions allows
The free shots will keep the techs warm!

The audience is slowly dying
And someone’s child is crying
But since we love theatre so
Standby, Go, Standby, Go, Standby, Go

WE THREE CREW (To the tune of “We Three Kings”)

We three crew on stage right are
Bearing sets, we travel afar
That flat’s a fountain, that one’s the mountain-
Try not hit the star.

Ohhhhhh, oh!
Tape of glow, and tape of spike,
Tape that sticks with wondrous might,
Platforms leading, blackouts fleeting,
Shift scenes and get out of sight.

THE LONGEST TECH (To the tune of “Deck the Halls”)

Deck the stage with boughs of holly
Cue-to-cue-to-cue, and hold-please-hold
10 of 12 is never jolly
Cue-to-cue-to-cue, and hold-please-hold
Don we now our blackest sweaters
Cue-to-cue, cue-to-cue, step back one
Sound just hit the triple letters
Cue-to-cue-to-cue, that’s scene one done.

Now that you too have these sappy carols stuck in your head, I strongly recommend you get yourself down to PianoFight next Monday, December 14th, at 8pm, for The San Francisco Theatre Pub Annual Sing-Along: Guess Who for a festive night of all the holiday songs you WISH Nordstrom would rotate into their muzak.

Alandra Hileman’s favorite carols are the ones that sound like horror movie soundtracks, like this one: <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS8onRSlHqU“>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS8onRSlHqU

Hit by a Bus Rules: Uncharacteristically Thankful

Alandra Hileman is probably gonna lose her “Crotchety Curmudgeon” merit badge for this.

Like all dyed-in-the-wool theatre folks who have decided they want to try to make some sort of career in this crazy field, I also spend a disproportionate amount of time bitching about all the things I hate about theatre. This week alone has included half a dozen rants with and about other theatre folks, some of which have become so ubiquitous in the circles I travel that even one of my professors greeted me with “So, I hear you’re having a hard time with that thing.” Additionally, a combination of my messed-up brain chemistry, some crappy life-events, and my ongoing attempt to win “Introvert of the Year” has made all the things I hate about theatre and people and theatre people feel a million times more terrible than any of them actually are, so I’ve been staying pretty far off the grid lately.

However, were it not for a large number of folks within my theatre circles closing ranks to help me out, I probably wouldn’t even be functional to write an article for today. So, in a pretense at the spirit of the season, this article is actually NOT going to be a bitch-fest. (Sorry, I know y’all were excited.) Today, I’m gonna write about why I do still love theatre and the people in it, even when I kinda wanna strangle them and myself.

The Inappropriate Conversations. I am a creepy, morbid, foul-mouthed individual who knows a lot of random facts about generally disturbing things. Thankfully, in theatre I have found people who not only will not judge me for having in-depth strange ways to murder people, the mechanics of an orgy, the Victorian cult of mourning, or alternate uses for MaxiPads (kneepads! wound dressing! cleaning up any spilled liquid!), but will gladly participate, usually with their own crazy dramaturgical insights. Some days, nothing brings be more joy than knowing I have an entire Facebook full of people who will respond to questions like “Which serial killer’s life would make the best theoretical musical?” with thoughtful, clever answers. (Feel free to toss in your bid in the comments.)

The Magical Kits. Every theatre person I know has a Mary Poppins bag/box/car trunk full of random stuff that we will always share to help each other out. I have had to make requests for anything from the mundane (ibuprofen, lighter, band-aids) to the specialized (razor, Leatherman tool) to stuff you normally don’t just carry with you (rubber gloves, wood glue) and had someone seemingly materialize it out of nowhere, no questions asked. More than one I have seen people take off the black socks they were wearing and hand them to an actor or technician who needed them in a pinch, which is kinda gross, but also a testament to how cool the theatre community can be about helping each other out.

The Underground Network. I like to joke that every stage manager in the SF Bay Area knows all the others, but that’s not too far from the truth. If/when I get asked to work a gig that I’m unavailable for, I have a list of close to a dozen names I can recommend, unless of course one of those folks is already the one who recommended me. I know finding SMs and PAs is one of the most important but also hardest parts of any production, so I love that all of us who work in those fields try to keep each other employed and the companies we know staffed by sharing contacts.

The Empowerment. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am insanely insecure about basically everything I do in my life. I have always had a really hard time saying that’s I’m good at anything with two exceptions: reading (seriously, I’m baller at both speed and comprehension), and organizing for theatre. I still want business cards with the tagline “I will organize the shit out of your show,” except that’s not really professional to say, although given the above comments about inappropriate conversation I could probably get away with it in certain circles. But really, theatre is one of the few areas where I, and many other young women I know, have not only felt like we are good at what we do, but also that we’re allowed to be the best. I’m still learning how to say it out loud, but the support is there.

The Solidarity. Look, I’ll be vulnerable for a second here: The real reason I didn’t get my article up last month was because I was in the middle of such a bad depressive down-swing that I was barely making to classes or the show I was stage managing, and I definitely wasn’t getting anything extra-curricular done, and then my fur-baby very suddenly got sick and died. So, I panicked and sent emails to every “boss” I work under at the various small theatres I’m involved with and basically said I was going off the grid. And every single one of them wrote back immediately with reassurance that it wasn’t just me and to do what I needed to do and let them know if they could help. And, unlike most other communities I’ve been around in my life, I knew they meant it. I’ve finally started getting back into the swing of things, having meetings and writing again, and generally getting back to my normal mode of operations. But I couldn’t have done that without the community of equally depressed, messed-up, weirdos who were there when I needed them.

So that’s my sappy thank you to the all the theatre folks out there. Now get off the lawn; it’s part of the set.

If you need visual proof-of-life, Alandra Hileman will be at Olympians on Wednesday night to see her play and rest of the glorious Crew finally assembled; get tickets and info at www.SFOlympians.com.