When you go to a play, the opera, the ballet, or even a concert you notice the people on the stage performing. You may also notice the lighting effects, audio effects, costuming, makeup, and the set the performers are on. All of these things are part of the world of Technical theatre.
Technical theatre encompasses all that goes into making a staged production. The areas of technical theatre are scenery,lighting, properties,costuming,and sound. All of these areas work together in a production to establish the place, time period, and mood of the production. If successful the audience will not even notice many of the technical elements of the show. Instead they will come away having enjoyed the show. However, if one of the areas is incomplete or of a lesser quality than the rest the entire production can suffer. Each area relies on the others for support so it is important that everyone works together and communicates as a team; if the lighting designer uses blue light in their design and the costume designer creates a yellow dress, the audience will see an ugly green dress. Technical theatre therefore depends on teamwork and cross-communication for success.
People in Technical Theatre
To put on a play it takes many people, doing many different jobs. Working together as a team the result can be very impressive. Each production organization is laid out differently, but most have people filling these roles.
The Stage Director is the person responsible for the artistic vision, the meaning and thusly the purpose of presenting the production. While not a technical position, the Stage Director is still important in technical production in that he/she coordinates the artistic efforts of the different designers and actors into one unified vision. The Production Manager works with the Stage Director and the various designers, coordinating all the various design elements,making sure the different designs are carried out as best as possible. This person coordinates the efforts of the different departments, and making certain the production maintins its production schedule and remains within the budget. The Technical Director (or TD) works with the Scene designer and Properties designer, supervises the master carpenter and oversees the construction of the set. The TD frequently (in smaller organizations) may also take on other functions, such as supervising the set and props crews .
The Designers are the people that make the artistic decisions in their respective areas. The Scene Designer designs the sets for the different scenes. The Lighting Designer designs how the playing area and the actors will be lit. The Properties Designer obtains and sometime even creates the hand props held by the actors and props used on the stage. The Costume Designer designs the clothes that the people will wear, often designing or working closely with the designers of the hair and makeup as well. The Sound Designer chooses or makes the different sound effects that will play during the show, as well as determining who gets microphones, and how much amplification will be necessary.
The crew heads are responsible for coordinating the efforts of the different crews of stagehands working under them in the implementation of the designers' work. The Master Carpenter directs the construction of the set. He/she may also coordinate the people that move the set during scene changes. The Scenic Charge is the person that oversees the painting of the set. The Master Electrician makes sure that the lighting instruments get placed where the designer needs them. They also oversee the people operating the lighting control board and any follow spots. The Audio Engineer oversees the layout of the sound system; during the show they will oversee the operator of the sound boards and make sure any microphones and other sound equipment is working. The Properties (or props) Master will gather the items that the actors will handle during the performance. Under direction of either the scenic designer they may also in charge of "set dressings" such as tables and chairs that the actors will interact with. The Costumer will coordinate the making of the costumes and the fitting them on the performers.
The stagehands are the people that do the labor. These people are divided into several crews. The carpenters build the set, and move set pieces during the show. The painters paint the set the colors the designer specified. The electricians put the lights in the correct place, run the cables to power them, and operate the control board and any followspots. The audio crew will place speakers and microphones as well as run the cables to power them. In addition, they will operate the sound mixers. The wardrobe mistress supervises the stitchers and drapers who sew and mend and clean the costumes, and the dressers who help the actors get into them. The props crew will make sure the items the actors need are where they are supposed to be, and repair them if they get broken.
Set design and Construction
The design of a set for a production, often times, is one of the first steps taken by director and designer. This is due to several issues. First, the set is one of the few parts of the technical theatre which is specifically dictated by the script. How many people must be on stage? How many different entrances must be accommodated? Where do those entrances lead? Each of these questions (and others) must be addressed with the set design. Secondly, the directors must have the set design prior to blocking the play so that the performers are blocked intentionally around the set pieces which will exist.
As with all design elements, the first step in creating a set design is to read the script several times. The minimum number of times a designer should read the script is three before beginning work on a set design. The first time through, the designer should read it for the story line and enjoyment.
The second time through, the designer should begin gathering a better feel for the story. Where does the story take place? Are there any major set pieces that must be included? What entrances and exits must exist? How much space must be allowed for the number of characters on stage at any given time?
The third time through the script, the designer should begin writing down specifics about the space. In coordination with the director, choices must be made about where off-stage locations exist, where will the more intense beats or moments take place on stage, and general traffic patterns throughout the space.
Following this third reading, most designers will create a series of sketches...at least one per location...for the director to review. These sketches should include not only the set but also stage props and furniture and possibly tentative actor locations for major points in the story. After getting the director's approval of the sketches, scale drawings must be made. These should include not just an overhead view of each scene but also front elevations of the scenes and, where necessary for construction, specific cut-away designs of complicated set pieces. From these scale drawings, many designers will then create scale models so that the directors and designers have three-dimensional models to work from both for the sake of blocking and also building the set pieces.
All of these design steps should also include the lighting designer and scenic designer (in charge of providing the coloring scheme for the sets...sometimes the scenic and set designer is the same person) so that the design schemes for all of the elements are complementary.
Property design, acquisition-construction
The prop design of each show depends on the artistic style of both sets and costumes, as well as the requests and needs of the director and/or choreographer. At a first reading of the script, the property designer will make a general list of all mentioned items and those that can be inferred from narration. Basic background research will begin for the look of items from a set period and location. Communication with all departments and designers helps to eliminate various items that overlap into costumes or set Lists. An initial "Prop list" is generated and dispersed to each of the other designers as well as the director, and all relevant parties. After receiving notes from the various departments, the "prop list" is updated and a second reading of the script is done to double check information gathered is consistent with script requirement as written. Research continues and narrows in on items that will require special attention. Budget constraints require that many items be used from stock, borrowed or rented before a purchase of a new item is made. Some items that are not in the company stock and cannot be located are fabricated. Props from a period settings are not always widely available and often require some amount of research to determine what the item is, how it was used and where it can be located.
A property is designated depending on the theatre and the structure of design responsibility set by years of trial and error. It is common for a prop to be defined as anything that is not a set-firmly adhered or 'nailed' together. That would include all dressing, furniture and hand held "props". Some theatres may only designate that which the actor actually picks up as a 'prop'. The range in-between varies. Props may be an item usually associated with another department or require close work with them. Costume pieces may sometimes be the responsibility of the costume department to fabricate and then be tracked in rehearsal and performance by the prop department such as hat and purses, coats that come off or never worn but held as part of the costume. At other times in the script, a dress may be picked up and packed in a suit case on stage and never worn. The prop department would acquire one of the correct period, basic size, etc. and may possibly require the approval of the costume designer. Another example of a possible cross over would be a microphone. If live, it would require input from both the sound and electrics department but may be chosen and tracked by the prop department. The choice of microphone may require the input of the sound designer, set designer and the prop designer.
In some theatres a prop may be among many different elements layered on top or around each other with backdrops and architectural elements, elaborate costumes, large ensembles as well as lighting. With theatre in the round the elements are distilled down to the most basic elements. The 360 degree "line of site" adds limitations to sets. While costumes may be as elaborate, theatre in the round has a much more limited area then a proscenium and cast size could be limited as well. These are a few reasons that make theatrical properties in this situation stand out more. It also puts a more direct spotlight on the item and in many cases is central to the development of plot or central character.
Specialized props used as 'sight gags' could be a rubber chicken or a more elaborately conceived notion. Simple looking items, in many cases, require specialized work. Requirements, specific to a production may require an item be 'rigged' in one way or another. A burlap bag may require an inner lining smaller than the outer shell that may be stuffed to emulate content.
Types of Lights
- Ellipsoidal Reflector Spots
- PAR cans
- Automated ('Intelligent') Lights
- Strobe Lights
- Cyc Lights
- Pin Spots
- Strip Lights