Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 27 April 2008

How to Put on a Musical 5 – The Creative Team (Part 2)

Costume Designer
Get a nice one. Get a cheerful one. They don’t have much of a life. They spend most of their time in small rather smelly rooms looking at actors in their underpants. The rest of their time they are dragged round the shops by the Costume Supervisor looking for fabrics, when they find one that they like they are firmly told by the Supervisor that they can’t afford it. The biggest cross they have to bear is that producers, who are nearly all men, don’t understand a) how clothes are made, b) anything about shopping and c) how a wig can cost as much as a decent second-hand car. So in the initial budget the allowance for costumes and wigs is normally 50% of what it should be and there is no end of woe and misery in the process of negotiating the figure up to a realistic amount.

Lighting Designer
In the good old days Lighting Designers didn’t exist, in those days the Company Manager would pop into the theatre, tell Cyril, the electrician, which colours to put in the ‘battens’ and then return to the pub to finish his pork pie and bottle of stout. Then at some point in the 1960s someone called Richard Pilbrow insisted that we all take lighting more seriously and it became a legal requirement to have a lighting designer. Engagingly the first generation of lighting designers were drunk most of the time. I have fond memories of a tech of a musical where the LD was spark out with is head on the DSM’s lap at the production desk. She gamely claimed that the LD had “just gone out to buy some cigarettes” and lit most of Act 2 herself. For almost a decade a bottle of Scotch on the lighting desk was de rigeur and alcohol fuelled creative differences, with headsets hurled across the auditorium, were the stuff of legend. These days it’s hard to come up with a convincing risk assessment for that bottle Scotch on the production desk, broken glass hazard, fire hazard, ill judged proposition to the choreographer’s assistant hazard and so on.
Today the top-notch lighting designer needs to be sober and on his mettle just to keep up with the latest technical developments, someone is likely to have invented a new moving light in the time it takes to fit the show up and there is always a smart arse 20 year old at the production desk who is desperate to impress.

Sound Designer
The first thing any aspiring Sound Designer needs to know is that, statistically, they are more likely to be fired before the First Night than any other member of the creative team. Why should this be? It’s because unlike the other disciplines, lighting, set and costume design which nobody understands, where sound is concerned anybody including the Producer’s mother-in-law (possibly particularly the Producer’s mother-in-law) can stand at the the back of the stalls and say “Ooer I don’t think much of the sound”. Anybody who ever owned a Decca Dansette thinks that they are a sound expert.
Historically Sound Designers are even later arrivals at the Musical Theatre Ball than the Lighting Designers. It’s only relatively recently that we have all decided to take Sound Design seriously and even now we sometimes smirk a bit when we think that no one is looking. In the Good Old Days there was no amplified sound, the band played in the pit and the cast sang on stage and if you couldn’t hear them you fired them and employed someone that you could hear. In the early days of the amplified musical it was considered a result if you heard the words and the music on the same evening. How things have changed. These days the sound rental package for a West End Musical is likely to cost twice the lighting package and you hear every note, every word, it’s almost as if you were in the same room as the performers.
Sound Designers need two important qualities. Firstly they need Secretary of the UN style political skills to deal with all the dozens of people who will come up to them and helpfully say “I was sitting in Row G/ Row AA/ Upstairs/ in the Bar and I couldn’t hear anything. I just thought you should know.” More importantly they need to spot the poisonous bastards who don’t pass on this helpful information but go and whinge to the producer about it. They also need obvious technical gravitas. It’s absolutely no good for a sound designer “Hmm that’s not loud enough” or “Turn the bass up on that”, they need to move in a techno-babble universe that only they and their keen bean assistants understand. When the chips are down this is likely to be their only defence against anything that the producer’s mother in law can throw at them.

Fight Director
All you need to know about fight directors is that they are never available and you probably don’t need one anyway. Figures from the Michigan Institute of Spurious Statistics show that on average Fight Directors are available for 8 minutes per calendar month. So it’s best to do without unless you are doing Zorro or Fight Club – The Musical in which case you will need squads of them working in relays.

Project Model – Maintenance!

The producers of Maintenance have done themselves proud in employing Buzz Phelps as Costume Designer. She has worked with Alvin Toxteth many times before and apart from being talented she is also unrelentingly cheerful, a keen Arsenal supporter and likes gin. She may be a welcome antidote to the Director/Set Design team who tend to be a little dour.

Geoff Osram, Maintenance’s lighting designer, is a direct descendant of Sir Horace Osram the inventor of the late 19th century automatic pig feeder which revolutionised breakfast, but he has no connections with the light bulbs which were invented by a bunch of Germans. He has been around a while and though not considered top rate or inspirational he is definitely a safe pair of hands. He tries hard to understand the creative needs of his directors and designers even if, at times, he completely misunderstands them, not being the sharpest tool in the drawer. He likes to wear pullovers.

Ian “The Geek” Geek is a new talent in the West End and much to everyone’s surprise picked up an Olivier for his sound design on Noddy & Me, the Slade musical, and his Heston Aerodrome sound effects on the Neville Chamberlain musical Whoops-a-Daisy were well regarded by his peers. He is known as “The Geek” not only because that is his name but because he is the ultimate anally retentive, techno-bore who only reads manuals and catalogues. He is the sort of man who reads the instructions on a Pot Noodle. He was reputed to have no sex life at all until one day in the middle of the ‘tech’ of Hedda Gabler at the National, a Mrs Geek appeared with four children, who she deposited in the stalls, she then hurled a bunch of keys at The Geek screaming “The car’s in the NCP. I’m off you boring bastard”.

1 comment:

rplight said...

A great blog and wonderfully accurate picture of the musical team. As, I think, the original Richard Pilbrow mentioned I can vouch for the popularity of a whisky bottle at the production desk, which should be both the nerve(ous) and social center. Sadly in the US of A, Prohibition still rules in the theatre, so some of us are reduced to bowls of M&M's to keep the sugar level up and peace and harmony throughout.

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