Technically Speaking: Sketchy at Best

There’s a certain subset of people, less than the number of American Doctor Who fans, but more than the number of British King of the Hill fans, who like to do sketch shows in addition to Improv. These people are braver than I, but for the life of me they don’t leave me alone. If you become a hot-shot tech wizard, sketch people will knock on your door. If you answer, be prepared to up your game to a level that no improv show could possibly prepare you for.

Case Study: Tim and Micah

About a year ago I was asked to run tech for a visiting sketch show. It was a two-man group who toured nationally and were bringing the touring version to TNM Austin. I was told they wanted a tech rehearsal and knowing that sketch work required a large number of cues, agreed.

When they arrived they handed me an unmarked CD-R. It had 33 tracks.

33… tracks.

The average improv show has about 3-5 cues. Lights up, lights down, music on, music off. The trick to improv tech is knowing how to end the show, the trick to sketch tech is preparation.

Every sketch show MUST have a cue sheet for the tech. If you a directing a sketch show it is your responsibility to provide one to the tech or to take the time like Tim and Micah did to go over each and every cue so that the tech could write it down himself. The tech’s responsibility is to make sure that you make notes on each cue and let the performer know if you have any doubts about cues that you don’t think will work or you yourself are unable to make work in the given time. A complicated music-and-light combined cue may need to be toned down to just music so you’re not overwhelmed. Honesty and preparation during rehearsals will help come showtime.

33… tracks.

With 33 cues, I had my work cut out for me. To their credit, Tim and Micah knew how crazy of a request they had for me. The show was the next day and this was the only rehearsal time we would have. Luckily I was in the middle of a three-month period of my life where I was carrying a pocket notepad around. I whipped it out and got to work.

When it comes time for the show itself the best thing you can do is sit down with the director and go over any last minute changes. There will be changes, be flexible. Scenes will get moved around, actors will come up with last minute ideas to make their scenes pop, learn to love chaos like I love pie. These days, I really love pie.

By the time Tim and Micah’s show was over, I managed to hit 32 out of the 33 cues. 96.9% isn’t bad a percentage.  After running a few sketch shows, your overall confidence about running tech will increase, and more and more people will look out for you come the next show.

Mikey DoDo Out.

Technically Speaking: All of the Lights

First a confession: I went to prom all four years of high school. I was a player.

But enough about me, you want to hear my sage advice about how to handle pulling the lights for your next improv show. I’m going to be honest, the scariest part about working tech is knowing when to end the set. But let’s go over some quick tips and tales that should make you feel more at home when darkness falls.

Tip #1: Watch more sitcoms

Seriously. The two best examples I can think of are Saved by the Bell and Degrassi: The Next Generation. Pulling lights requires the tech to judge the natural moment when the set is over. In your typical teen show, this is accomplished by a freeze frame.

Learning to find the right moment takes practice, but can typically be accomplished listening to the audience. A big laugh can be a simple cue to pull lights. Also be on the lookout for patterns and callbacks. Ending the show on one of these can highlight the structure of the set and makes the folks onstage look like geniuses, WHICH IS YOUR #1 GOAL.

Tip #2: Keep it simple

You may or may not have a light board at the venue your teching. If you don’t, great. If you do, ignore it. Come in before the show and have all your lighting in place early. That way, pulling lights is all about turning the lights on and off. Fade-outs rarely work and confuse more than excite. There should be a black-out or blank switch on your light panel, use it like you would an impressionable young med student.  Most likely you’ll be handling music at the same time as lights so you want to reduce the amount of button and clicks you need to 2 or 3 at most.

And now a story.

I was handling tech at the Shadowbox theater in New Orleans for the Megaphone Marathons. On stage were Milo and Shyla, a troupe I adore and the inspiration for the troupe I’m currently in, Vietnomnomnom.  They were reaching the end of their set and had just had an insanely madcap scene involving some nasty sex stuff. The scene after that was pure silence. For three minutes Milo and Shyla stared at each other to increasing laughter from the audience. I was freaked. The set was going out of time and at this point in my tech “career” I was always looking for a laugh line to end the set on. But this WAS the end of the set. The perfect emotional conclusion to what had just transpired.  But I just couldn’t do it. They did another scene, found a great laugh point, and pulled the lights.

Which leads me to my final tip…

Tip #3: Trust your instincts

This is not a science. If it was I probably would have failed it by now. You have to remove the fear of screwing up the show from your thought process. Be prepared for your first few cuts to be off the mark, but with time and trust in yourself, you’ll be pulling lights like a rock star in no time.

Mikey DoDo out.

Technically Speaking

Can you name a show that you’ve seen in the past year that was saved by the tech guy in the back?
Can you name a show in the past month that started and ended awkwardly because of the tech guy in the back?
Don’t answer those two questions because I can’t hear you and it’s a little strange to be verbally responding to a written rhetorical question. But you and I both know what I’m getting at. It’s incredibly rare to hear stories at the after-party about the amazing tech work. It’s a thankless job.
Well no more.
I’m here to say that working tech may in fact be the best thing a performer getting their start in improv could do. It’s easy to learn, easy to master, and ladies love a guy who can pull lights like a rock star. I got started doing tech at TNM months before I did my first show and it forced me to learn the ebb and flow of an improv set in a way that you just can’t see in a level 1 or 2 class.
All that running tech entails is handling the lights and sound that go on at the beginning and end of an improv set. For 90% of shows that’s your only concern. The reason why I believe most people get scared of running tech is the amount of variations that are available outside of these two very simple goals. Yes, you will have to run a sound board and a light panel, but with a little preparation these tasks can be reduced to a single button press during the show itself.
Bad tech comes from bad preparation and fear of disrupting the performance.  Good tech comes from trust in your instincts. Great tech comes from having the perfect Hall and Oates song ready to go.
Over the next few columns I’ll go over the nuts and bolts of tech, sprinkling in some real-world case studies as well as fantastical stories of how I out-drank Andre the Giant in Des Moines.