Saturday, October 11, 2014

Techies Vs. Actors

If you hang around with the theater technicians (or “Techies”, as they’re affectionately referred to) long enough, you’re bound to hear the following quote by Mark Leslie:  "An actor without techies is a naked person standing in the dark trying to emote. A techie without actors is a person with marketable skills."  While this statement is dripping with sardonicism, there certainly is some truth to its premise.  While they usually stay behind the spotlight instead of in it, techies are accomplished artists and craftsmen, and they play a huge role in making sure any given show is a success.

As Mr. Leslie’s quote suggests, there is often some friction between the actors and the techies in most shows.  As someone who has lived on both sides of the duvetine curtain, I can tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than a lighting designer who keeps fluctuating the lights while you’re trying to rehearse, or an actor who’s so busy warming up for his performance that he can’t sit still for a mic check.  While such minor irritations may seem petty, they can build and cause a stressful working environment for everyone which is unhealthy not just for the cast and crew, but for the show as well.
However, despite the animosity that does exist, most shows I’ve been a part of have always been full of mutual respect.  While one will occasionally hear playful sparring between the “board geeks” and “bio props” passing in the wings, the archetype of the diva performer and the unsympathetic techie is rarely actually encountered.  Regardless of what side of the stage you sit on, if you work at the theater, you’re an artist and this knowledge obliges and compels every thespian, actor and techie alike, to grant their fellow artist the respect they deserve.

As is the way in all things, it’s hard to give somebody the respect they deserve if you don’t realize just how difficult their work is.  That's one of the things I really like about the theater program at my school (University of Alabama).  All theater majors, performance and technical alike, are required to take both acting classes and technical classes.  While such classes are not strangers to bitter grumbles of “why do I have to be here?” and “This has nothing to do with my future career.”  In short, they couldn’t be more wrong.

For one thing, just learning the terminology alone is extremely useful for creating a healthy flow of communication.  This is critical because theater, its core, is all about communication.  However, you have no hope of communicating your story to the audience if you can’t even communicate with the people you’re working with to bring that story to life.

This theatrical cross-training also serves to introduce students to a side of theater, yet undiscovered, that they thoroughly enjoy.  I know that I stepped onto campus fully intending to act my way through school, but have since answered the call of technical theater.  The adrenaline rush of a performance, the challenge of out-of-the-box thinking, the feeling of familial love that engulfs a cast, all of these things that I thought I could experience solely through acting, I’ve found to be just as present, if not more so, by being a techie.

What’s more, knowing “how the other half thinks” can do nothing but make you more proficient in your own craft.  An actor who knows the intricacies of costume design may unlock new aspects of his character by studying the costume he’s given, a prop designer may better know where to sacrifice realism for ease of use if she’s had to wield them herself, and lord knows we could all learn something from a course in directing.

But most of all, understanding breeds respect, and that is what every theatrical artist deserves.  In fact, I think Mr. Leslie’s quote could use some editing.  For while it is true that techie’s are able to create some beautiful pieces of art without the need of human actors, there are also some incredible masterpieces that have no sets, no costumes, no tech of any kind, but soar on talented acting and raw, sincere material.  However, my experience has shown that nothing can rival the magic created when of their synergy.  So in fact, I think the correct version of Mr. Leslie’s statement is “An actor without techies is the same as a techie without actors: an artist who is not reaching his full potential.

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