Tech crews keep Fringe running behind the scenes

Categories: Theater

FringeKafka.jpg
Image courtesy Comedy Suitcase
Kafka Nuts is one of 169 shows in the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival
Making order out of the potential chaos -- and loss of blood -- are the hard working technical and house staff at each of the Minnesota Fringe Festival venues. They are in charge of keeping the clock running from show to show. Ten minutes to load in. Sixty minutes on stage. Ten minutes to load out. Boom! Next.

That's the only way to keep the Fringe running smoothly. Between tomorrow and August 10, 169 different shows will be presented at 15 locations around the Twin Cities. Each production will be presented at least five times. Everyday, each theater (apart from four site-specific pieces) will play host to four to seven different productions.

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There will be blood and chaos behind the stage at this year's Fringe

That's a lot of actors packing the dressing rooms and backstage areas, eagerly awaiting their chance to tread the boards, not to mention the hundreds of folks who gather in the sometimes tight spaces to experience the shows.

Fringe executive director Jeff D. Larson knows all about that side of the festival. He started in the booth, and spent years as the festival's technical director before taking over the top post last year.

"I think it is like preparing for a long hike," Larson says. There are the things that you think you will need -- but that's a lot more than you will actually need. Both the tech time and the load in and load out moments go by very quickly.

Welcoming all theaters -- and experience levels

The Fringe, about to begin its 21st year, is unjuried, so getting in is a matter of the pull of a ping-pong ball. This encourages a wonderful variety of performers and performances.

That also means onstage experience runs from a lifetime to zilch.

"You have to remember that you could be working with a professional, or a mom who decided she wanted to put on a show," says Karin Olson, a veteran designer for the Fringe, whose mother actually did put on a show for the festival.

Adding to this is the tight time allocated to each show. With a dozen shows at each of the traditional venues, the performers only get three hours to do tech: work out their plans for lighting and sound, determine the blocking (where each scene will be played on stage and how the set pieces will be arranged), and make sure their concept works in the space.

"The goal is to get them comfortable. We do everything we can to make them comfortable," says another veteran festival technician, Wu Chen Khoo.

Still, mishaps are bound to happen even with the best-laid plans. Apart from tech, "Shows do not have access to their venue. They usually can get a diagram of the space, but sometimes important details aren't clear," says Tim Uren, a veteran producer who is back in 2014 with The Tourist Trap.

"One year, I had planned for actors to cross behind a curtain along the back wall of the stage, making it possible to get from one side to the other or to a center stage entrance. When I got to the space, there was no space between the curtain and the wall and even if actors flattened themselves against the wall, there was no opening in the curtain for a center-stage entrance. So my first task of the tech rehearsal was to re-block the show using one less entrance and no backstage crosses. It was three stressful hours, but we managed."

That means there needs to be a lot of quick communication between the creators and the tech crew, so the different sound and light cues can be worked out and recorded.

"It's crucial that we assess right away how to best communicate with each producer so we can support them at their comfort level. The key for us, as well as for the producers, is to be able to adapt," Olson says. "We need to make choices quickly, often from limited inventory -- which is not to say sloppily."

Beyond working out the basics, the hope is to get a full run in of the show, and to even rehearse the vital load in (10 minutes, remember) and load out (yes, 10 more minutes).

That's something that Khoo makes sure is part of the process. It's important. The Fringe runs on a tight schedule. Shows need to start on time and there's no late seating for patrons (even critics running late). A hiccup here and a slight delay there can push a venue off course, and make everyone upset.

The nature of the festival also offers challenges. The Fringe features a lot more than traditional theater. There are experimental works and plenty of dance as well. "Some shows don't have a script and we need to create our own notations in order to remember when cues need to happen. This has to be very detailed and precise so that the notations still make sense after you've teched another nine shows in your venue," Olson says.

"Then there's the tech's favorite. It's almost always a one-person show. This guy strolls into the tech rehearsal, and the entire process goes like this: Hands us a CD. 'At the top of the show play track one and turn some lights on. I'll talk for about an hour, then play track two and turn the lights off. End of tech. We love that guy," says Bill Cassidy, who serves as one of the venue techs.

Well-oiled machines

For the tech and house crew on a Fringe show, the days are long. On the weekends, seven different shows load in, perform, and load out in the space. And there isn't a spare moment at all during the day.

Even the relative quiet of the time before the house opens is spent checking the light and sound systems. The stage needs to be ready for the long day. Then the box office crew is let into the space, followed by the first nervous performers and then by the (hopefully) eager audience.

"Once the festival is running, technicians aren't just the person running the lights and sound. They really become the hub that all the spokes -- audience, house managers, volunteers, performers, and anyone else -- rely on," says Liz Neerland, who took over as the overall technical director this year from Larson.

"The technician's clock is the official one, so they are the people keeping the festival running on time. There are a lot of moving parts that constantly need coordination, from getting one group out and the next one in all on time while also keeping an eye on the audience and handling any unexpected things that pop up. It takes a lot of caffeine and a lot of sandwich delivery. There's a reason the technicians all enjoy a well-earned beer at Fringe Central every night."

In fact, the time actually spent in the booth, running the lights and sound? The easiest part of the day, Khoo says.

And what can go wrong? Well...

"I was running a show where the actor pantomimed ringing a doorbell. It was one of those 'too many cues' shows, so I was kind of scrambling to get the right sound effect loaded," Cassidy says. "Well, when the actor made the doorbell motion, I hit the go for lights, and of course the next cue was a zero-count blackout. I blurt out something along the lines of 'son of a bitch' loud enough for the entire house to hear, before recovering, turning the lights back on, and getting on with the show. Not my finest moment. The actor actually saved my bacon, ad libbing something like, 'Oh, that must have been the light switch. Let's try this one.'"

Troubles on the road

Not all disasters are created equal. And sometimes they are beyond the control of everyone involved. Ryan Lear and Rachel Petrie took their show, The Finkels Theater Show!!, to Cincinnati in 2010. Things went poorly.

"We took the train from St. Paul and we made it to Cincinnati one day before opening. However, two of our suitcases did not," Lear says. Of course, these didn't just have spare clothes. In one was Petrie's costume. The other had Lear's contact lenses.

"We were told by Amtrak that we'd receive our lost luggage on the next train, which two days after our opening," Lear adds.

Thankfully, some "show must go on" spirit and aid from a local theater saved the pair. Petrie was able to get a replacement costume from their hosts, the Know Theater, while Lear, "Talked a local optometrist into donating a pair of sample contacts for the cause," he says.

Then there was a trip to Montreal. They planned to stay with a friend of a friend, but forgot the name when they got to the border.

"The first mistake we made was not being able to remember our primary contact's last name. The second mistake was admitting we had never actually met the guy, and that he was just a friend of a friend. The third mistake was trying to explain that it was okay, because we weren't staying with him, we were actually going to be staying at his friends' place, who we had also never met and also did not know his or her first or last names," Petrie says.

Things ended up fine, but not before a few nervous, sweaty moments when, "We possibly wouldn't make it to Montreal at all," she adds.

For Gemma Irish and Mark Sweeny, last year's Fringe involved serious health issues. Sweeny was suffering from a "freak" kidney disease that added extra pressure as the Fringe preparation got more intense. "It was quite difficult to balance his personal health issues, his somewhat demanding day job, and his producing, writing, and memorizing duties. We keep looking back on last summer and going how did you do it?'" Irish says.

Even without travel woes for traveling companies or the interruptions of the outside world, the act of rehearsing and performing takes its toll. Not just as the rather extreme examples of on-stage blood, but the usual wear and tear. That's especially true when it comes to dance.

"A couple of times, we have had to change our choreography due to injury, though we do take care of ourselves and each other and nothing's been too serious," says Kathy Welch, whose Green T. Productions brings an interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the festival in 2014. "Still, my actors like to joke that I'm trying to kill them. That's nonsense, of course; then I'd have to do the show myself. Also, if I wanted to kill them, I could do it much more efficiently than this."

Then there's the usual existential angst that can strike anyone, especially in a pressure cooker like a live performance.

"I've done several shows with phillip andrew bennett low and we have discussed our dark theater fears and compulsions," Uren says. "Every time a show is starting, phillip wonders what would happen if he just left. How bad could it really be? Similarly, I always wonder what would happen if a show went so badly that it couldn't be redeemed. I would have to go out and explain it to the audience. 'I thought I could do this, but apparently I can't.' So far, neither of us has had to confront these situations."

More unintended violence

On the technical side, there is the pleasure of helping bring theater to life, show after show, day after day, for the 11 days of the festival.

"All told, I love love love the fast-paced nature of the technical rehearsals and the adrenaline rush of running 10 shows in rep with constantly changing casts and conditions. Days can be very long and exhausting, but at the end there's always Fringe Central for sharing 'Tech Horror Stories,'" Olson says.

Neerland can recall numerous shows she has seen over the past 15 years at the festival, from DNA and the Dancing Fool at the Phoenix Playhouse in 2000 to Bedlam's Love in the Time of Rinderpest at the Theater Garage. "I can still sing a song from that show," she says.

There have also been important personal connections. "In 2001, I saw a play called Third and Long at the Women's Club, produced by this new company called nimbus. I guess I liked it," Neerland says. That's certainly true; she is now married to nimbus's founder, Josh Cragun, and is the company's co-artistic director.

And the Fringe is, well, about the fringes: taking risks and pushing you to the limit. Noah Bremer and Live Action Set tend to do that with all of their projects, but the festival finds the company taking it to the next level. This year, that means an immersive version of Crime and Punishment spread throughout the basement of the Soap Factory.

"Take risks. Be bold. Do what you are good but delve further into that set of skills than ever previously imagined," Bremer says. "The Fringe is meant to be a place of innovation and danger. If your show isn't pushed towards the edge of failing, you haven't gone far enough."

Which brings us back to unintended on-stage violence.

During a disastrous tech rehearsal for Font of Knowledge, the players in the Shelby Company got a lot more intimate with the confines of their space.

"About 10 minutes in an actor was making his exit stage right and just as he disappeared backstage we hear a loud thunk!, a moment of silence, and then simply the word, "beam," screamed with a mixture of confusion and pain I don't think we'll ever hear again," says company member Jonathan A. Goldberg. He had just run head first into a low hanging metal beam. Dazed and with a red welt forming on his head he insisted he was fine and to continue our tech. I think at that moment I accidentally pressed the sound cue for an explosion. It was apt -- everything was lost."

Yet, it wasn't.

After a lot of hard work, "Somehow when the house lights went down and the sounds came at the right places the show worked," Goldberg continued. "People laughed, the complex shadow puppet moments weren't a train wreck, and the train wreck scene was a train wreck in the good way. Theater is one of the closest things we have to magic in this world. It's alchemy. You take these odd disparate elements and pieces and you throw them together and somehow they form gold, or at least fool's gold which is good enough and impressive enough for me."

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