Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Notes for Theatre

When I'm mixing theatre, especially on an analog console, notes are of the utmost importance. Years ago I developed a super simplified method for tracking a show that lets me keep everything I need on just one or two sheets of paper. I can leave the script on the desk and just get down to business and focus on mixing. 

One big reason for ditching the script is that if I'm constantly scanning pages, I'm not looking at my performers and I could easily miss something important. Many is the time when the show has gotten off track. While the lighting guys scramble frantically, flipping pages like mad men, I just look at my next note and then keep my eyes on the stage to see what happens. 

Another reason for going with super simple notes is that the human brain is very good at memorizing things. After just once viewing of a show I find that while I can't quote it word for word, the next time I see it I'm already very familiar with it and have a good idea of what to expect next. Even without having read a script I can get in tune with a show very quickly. The more I focus on the show instead of the paperwork, the faster this happens.

So to start, I deal with numbers, not names. On a short run school or community theatre show, there's just not time to associate every character on mic with their real name. Also, when looking down at the console, it's much easier to just look for a 17 than it is to find a character name like "Captain Smith". Once I've got a cheat sheet made up, I'm dealing almost entirely with the numbers. Leads are high numbers, close to the center output section of the desk, chorus players are lower numbers.

A typical scene will start with the scene number and often I'll write the location just under it. Then I look at who the first actor or actors will be to step out on stage and I'll write their numbers down. A lead and a few bit players walking on might look something like this:

1 - 18, 1-4, 6

I write them in chronological order if they're all entering as a group. That lets my hand fly across the faders to prep a scene. If there are sequential numbers entering as a group I just write it as a range.  As the scene develops, I'll leave some space and then write in the next entrances. So if another lead comes on shortly the line looks like this

1 - 18, 1-4, 6       17

I'll only add lines if I really need to. Less writing and reading, more watching and mixing. If I've got one hand busy tweaking levels of the people already on stage, my other hand moves over to 17, ready to catch her when she makes her appearance. Moving on, if there's someone making a blind entrance, or that starts with lines off stage, then I'll include a line so I don't get caught out.

1 - 18, 1-4, 6      17    "...around here somewhere"-12

I don't include cues for actors leaving the stage either. When I see them leave I pull their channel down. Again though, if there's one I'm likely to miss I'll stick in a line or indicator so I don't get caught looking. 

If there's a sound effect that I have to play back, I'll assign it a letter label and write that with a big black square around it at the appropriate time and with an indicator for the action or line that cues it. Whenever possible though I try to hand those things off to the orchestra. Quite often they will have already gotten on this for me. A keyboard player who has been doing gun shots or thunder through early rehearsals will just keep doing them. Or I'll load up a sampler or laptop and give it to the percussion section to mind. I realize that in professional theatre I'd have to man up and just do it myself. But a lot of times the kids in the pit are happy to do it and I'm glad to have it off my list so I can just focus on mixing. 

That's really about it. I can fit the notes for a whole two act musical on one sheet of paper. I'll tweak and make additions as we go through tech and dress rehearsals. Then I'll type it up before the show opens and off we go. I couldn't lay my hands on any actual show notes, but I wrote out a quick example of what the first few scenes would look like.
People who work in professional theatre shudder at the sight of this. They groan when I tell them I set the script aside. They tremble at the thought of cryptic notes that couldn't be handed off to a substitute engineer. But the fact is, on small shows, all that matters is that you hit the cues. There is no time off. There is no under study. It's just me, and if I'm lucky a student or other very green person on hand to help me out. The few people who are up to snuff to take over from me are easily trained in my methods and the couple times we did have to hand off things went swimmingly.

Just keep in mind Brethren of the Knob and Fader. You got hired for your prowess as a mixer, not your skill at note taking. That prize winning script with all the post it flags and penciled notes isn't going to earn you one extra dollar on the gig. Figure out how to take short, effective notes, and get on with the business of mixing your show.


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  2. Interesting, Jon! Next time I do theater I might just refer back to this. Last time around it was exactly as you described: my eyes were just too glued to the script. Come to think of it, I think next time I'll put some gaff tape over my mixer's screen. :)

    1. I love mixing theatre in the dark. Dim the LittleLites, cut the backlight on the laptop screen and just mix the show.

    2. Isn't that how Dave Rat is mixing supposedly? The idea of mixing without visual cues makes me queasy somehow. Which probably means I should just give it a shot.

    3. Switching to mixing by ear first and then looking to see what I did was a huge leap for me about ten years ago. It came to me very quickly, the results were terrific, and I never looked back.

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