June 22, 2012

The Challenges of Theater in the Vineyard

By Karen Riley
Technical Director

In a traditional theater the technical staff have control over almost everything in the environment: the ambient sound and projected sound, the lights, even the temperature. There is an existing stage and lighting equipment, curtains to screen back stage activities, a main curtain to close before the show, at intermission, and at the end of the show.

The Livermore Shakespeare Festival has none of those things; we put on our shows outside in front of an old Victorian house at Concannon Winery. Here are just a few of the many technical challenges we meet when staging a theatrical performance outside.

The Concannon House circa 2008

The Stage

Our first year back at Concannon in 2008 we performed our shows on the concrete deck in front of the house. A pretty simple set up for the tech crew… a couple set pieces and we were done!  But for the actors and audience it was not the best experience. Running and jumping on concrete takes a physical toll on the actors, and sightlines were not great for the audience members. In 2009 we got a grant to build an elevated stage and the current structure was built. Last year the unexpected rain in June damaged some of the deck material; those sections will be replaced this year. It takes the better part of two days to bring everything out of storage, assemble and level the steel, then install and screw the platforms into place. And once we get there we are only just beginning!

LSF stage in storage

The Set

Depending on the show and the desires of the Director and the Scenic Designer, there is still a set to build. Those of you who saw our shows last summer will recall that the set for Lend Me a Tenor was quite large: the inside of a two-room hotel suite. The Tenor set had to be converted from a 1940’s Cleveland hotel room to a medieval setting for Macbeth. We built a large steel structure that spanned the stage. Once bolted to the stage the steel stayed in place for both shows. Wooden walls, doors and columns were built in pieces that we could put up and take down in about an hour. The Macbeth set was made of painted landscape cloth that hung from the same steel structure. After each show the tech crew completed a changeover – take down one set and put up the other.

Lend Me A Tenor Set

We build the big pieces of our sets at Pacific or Las Positas College and complete the build on site after the stage is assembled. Building without a shop has its own challenges as all necessary tools and supplies have to be brought to the site. Once on site we don’t have the advantage of equipment like table saws or air powered tools. We don’t have access to those odds and ends you need when building like you do working in a scene shop. My truck turns into a mini mobile scene shop for the summer with tools, ladders, boxes of screws and miscellaneous hardware. Of course there is always the one piece of hardware you need but you don’t have… that’s where the theater’s equivalent of duct tape comes in handy-you can repair almost anything with gaff tape!


Macbeth Set

The Wind

Staging an ‘inside’ scene on the stage at Concannon can be a challenge; it can be very windy. Papers have to be weighted, books have to have their spines facing west, into the wind. Set doors slam open or shut, or won’t stay open or shut. Last year during Tenor we had to have stagehand hold onto some of the doors when it was windy to keep them from slamming behind the actors. Gloves thrown down in disgust at a character’s feet during a scene on stage can end up in the vines.  Everything has to be tied or weighted down. During Midsummer we had to add stage brakes to a large bench that was on casters because otherwise the wind would blow it across the stage.

The Length of the Day

In a traditional Theater the lighting can really set the scene, turning day into night and night into day.  Lighting can create effects like flames or moving water. There are thousands of things you can do with lighting to set the scene. But we are limited outdoors. For most of our season it is daylight during the first act, so lights have no effect. And like everything else for our productions, all the lighting equipment, including the light towers, have to be brought to the site. And there is another challenge as the season goes on: the sun sets a half hour earlier on closing weekend than it does on opening weekend. We usually compensate by having light cues for most of the show. The audience just can’t see them until the sun goes down.

The Wildlife

Hawks, owls, pigeons and skunks, oh my! Another part of doing theater outdoors is the possibility or probability that some local creatures will visit. Last year an owl flew over the house each night during the second act. During the day a kestrel sat on the top finial of the house to check us out. The first year a very friendly pigeon took a liking to the back room and porch; we had to wait to use the balcony until the little pigeon in the nest grew up and flew away.

And then there was the skunk. Thankfully still a baby, he followed the actors as they walked through the vineyards preparing for the second act entrance through the audience area during Complete Works in 2008. An audience member came up to the staff table behind the audience and told us that there was a little skunk in her seat row. I grabbed a blanket and followed the lady back to her row. We were trying not to disrupt the audience; the show was still going on. The funny thing was that no one else had noticed the skunk. That is until I turned on my flashlight; then everyone in the row stood up. Luckily there was no screaming or stampede. I threw the blanket over the little critter and prepared for a stink, but nothing came. I picked him up in the blanket and left the audience area and headed for the vineyard.  I let the little guy go a few vine rows away from the theater, but he followed me back. After two more attempts to leave him in the vines, I picked him up and held him in the blanket. He fell asleep. I held him until the audience left at the end of the show. We left him in the blanket near where he first started following the actors thinking his mom would be looking for him. I hope she found him!

The task of the technical staff is to bring the world imagined by the Director and created by the Designers to life; we create the scenes for the actors to fill. When the skills of the tech staff blend with the artistry of the actors the audience forgets they are in the vineyard and are transported to another time and place by the production.

Next week we’ll visit a pre-rehearsal workshop in which actors learn how to work with Shakespeare’s First Folio, exploring the expressivity and use of rhetoric found in the punctuation and spelling of the day.