Singing passengers held on to the wings of a biplane as it swiftly landed on stage. The 600-pound plane was an automated prop for Cal State Fullerton’s 2016 fall production “The Drowsy Chaperone”.
While the plane is one of many props automated by CSUF’s production crews, it serves as a reminder that what happens before a production is just as important as what happens during it.
While there’s little glory for those behind the scenes, theatre technicians work hard to make sure productions run smoothly and safely for the actors. From sounds to visuals, each role helps drive the story along.
Dave Mickey, chair for the department of theatre and dance, said that Cal State Fullerton runs like a regional theatre and can produce up to 28 productions a year. Each production can take Mickey up to 18 months in advance to plan, and students and faculty are responsible for facilitating everything that goes into them.
“People think it’s fun and games, but it’s very stressful,” Mickey said. “We make it look easy, but we put in tons of hours to make it look beautiful and well rehearsed, nothing happens instantly and over night.”
To help a play come to life, prop and scenery crews work together to create automation, which are props and pieces of scenery that are programmed to move according to the script.
Maggie Riordan, a junior and theatre major with an emphasis on design and technical production, worked most recently as the technical director for the fall 2017 production of “Bell, Book, and Candle” but was originally thrown into the world of automation during her freshman year.
Riordan was also one of the automation directors responsible for landing the biplane in “The Drowsy Chaperone”.
After carpenters constructed the biplane, Riordan and the automation crew had to figure out how to move it during the production. To give it the appearance of flying into the space, Riordan said it was designed to be raised and lowered by the crew. The automation team then designed it to move back and forth on stage.
To do this, Riordan said they use devices called winches and chords that can be programmed to pull objects back and forth or on and off stage.
Because there are moving parts on stage, one of the biggest concerns theatre technicians stress is safety.
Mickey said there are always eyes and cameras monitoring actors from every angle, and If an actor is ever in danger, the automation is stopped.
However, there are little mishaps that can happen when a winch malfunctions.
During one of Riordan’s time as an automation operator, one of the winches disconnected and the prop, which was a horse, didn’t show up on her screen. Because the winch was no longer programmed, when Riordan hit “go” the horse darted onto stage during a scene in which it didn’t belong.
Luckily, Riordan was able to quickly back the horse off stage, and it was fixed in time for the next production night.
While automation helps bring the production to life, the stage would be stagnant without proper lighting, which takes an entire team of its own.
In preparation for a show, Mickey said that a lighting designer first creates a light plot — a framework that outlines where each light will be placed and how it will connect to the building and computer. After the light plot is finalized, students and faculty members set these lights up using catwalks above the stage and prepare them for every performance.
Lois Bryan, master electrician for the department of theatre and dance, works with students to create unique lighting for each production and has seen students succeed through the program.
After the lights are installed, the lighting crew has to make sure each light is serving a purpose to support the story.
To do this, they have to become accustomed to adjustments and fine tuning.
“You got to carry all these things upstairs and hang them and use wrenches, but then you have to finesse the focus, which can be the subtlest of movements, the littlest of shutter cuts, a tiny change in color, and the whole thing is different,” Bryan said.
After the lighting is set to the crews’ satisfaction, they have to be programmed into a computer so they are ready during the production.
Because a lot of the work is completed by the students, Riordan said she was given the opportunity to realize how much actually goes into technical theatre production.
“It’s all about collaboration. It’s really about making things happen so that the audience can see it,” Riordan said. “The finished product is almost always something to be really proud of.”