When It Comes to Theatre Tech, Less is More

James Tredinnick

  • OnStage Austraila Columnist

A few years ago, I saw a production of a Musical containing quite a few of my friends. One of these friends, who shall remain nameless for reasons that will soon become apparent, performed a wonderful, tasteful and poignant monologue, inciting a heavy emotional response from the audience. He then marched off stage, tears welling in his eyes, and once in the wings announced to anyone who was listening that it was, and I quote, “time to take a huge sh*t!”. And his lavalier caught every word.

The fact is, technology is becoming more and more prevalent in modern theatre, and in most cases advancements in the field have improved the experience for the average theatre-goer. But there is a line, and as necessary as technology like microphones and lighting has become, the line remains difficult to define. The example given is one of many I’ve experienced over the years, and each has led to me closer to a realization:  when it comes to Theatre tech, less is more.

For hundreds of years, Theatre was mankind’s primary source of entertainment, and it managed to remain that way despite the absence of fog machines and strobe lights. And since the arrival and popularity of TV and Cinema, Theatre has been forced to adapt to survive. But the reality is that we have taken it too far. Theatre hasn’t survived for this long because of new technology that likens it to its competitors, it has survived because it offers that which others can’t. Theatre is our purest form of performance art: no editing, no retakes, nothing to hide. The more technology we add, the more of that we lose. And what a sin that would be.

That’s the deep part out of the way. Part two is more practical, but no less important. Part two is called “accidents happen”. We’ve all seen part two. It’s a microphone running out of battery just before the big ending of the aria. It’s the backdrop changing from a serene forest to a slideshow of cats after the computer attached to the projector moves into its screensaver. It’s the backing CD (heaven forbid) playing the wrong track and the cast silently freaking out.

Part two is the understanding that the more moving parts something has, the more likely it becomes that one of them will break. The things that make Theatre different from screen-based entertainment are also the things that make part two so dangerous: no editing, no retakes. Mistakes can’t be hidden. And when actors are performing live, the possibility of human error is already high enough. And yes, mistakes will happen with mics and lighting. But they’re necessary, and the risk is part of the fun. But in other aspects of production, it’s better to be creative than take the chance. If I had one piece of advice for a prospective Director or Producer, it would be this: AVOID COMPUTERS. Like the plague. They love to screw up, especially when they’re needed most. And besides, Theatre thrives on the suspension of disbelief. A rear-projected image of the Great Hall from Harry Potter is great way to take me from “I’m in a castle” to “this production I’m watching is set in a castle”. Creativity reigns supreme. Technology is the evil usurper to the throne. There’s a show right there. 

If you decide to perform it, please build a set.