Over the past year I’ve been touring with Forced Entertainment’s show Real Magic, as the sound operator. Around the same time that tour began I also started listening to a popular podcast, The Worst Idea of All Time. In TWIOAT, two friends from New Zealand (Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery) set themselves the task of watching the same bad film every week for a year, documenting their experience weekly in a podcast. In Real Magic, a failed minimalist quasi-psychic act is looped 36 times, each loop a slightly shifted variation of the previous.
The experience of binge listening to a podcast about repeat viewing, while repeatedly viewing a show about repetition, made me consider how much watching a show over and over is taken for granted in theatre. Batt and Montgomery sit through 80+ hours of the same content, needing to remain engaged enough in the material to provide 30 minutes of podcast every week. Touring technicians and Deputy Stage Managers all over the world sometimes put themselves through more intense versions of a similar regime, at times watching the same production daily or even twice-daily for months on end.
The first thing I often get asked when meeting people who don’t work in theatre is some variation of, “don’t you get really bored, watching the same show again and again?”. It’s the seeming drudgery of the job that also makes TWIOAT such a successful concept and podcast: surely the experience becomes maddening after a while, regardless of how enjoyable the material might be when viewed once or twice. In TWIOAT’s case, it is maddening- that’s part of why it’s such an enjoyable listen. A small portion of the audience in Real Magic often finds even one viewing infuriating, some members loudly heckling over the action in a misguided attempt to break the loops, or leaving the theatre in a deliberately disruptive huff. But the experience of watching a work from a technical perspective is completely different from that of a passive, or even sometimes rowdy audience- the technician is forced to be active, present, engaged in every moment, because their actions are part of making the show happen.
It is often the case when touring smaller-scale productions (at least, in terms of its technical requirements) like Real Magic that the touring technicians are the show’s caretakers- they put the show on its feet and are relied upon to make sure it runs as smoothly and as closely as possible to its original conception. Watching the show again and again, of course, helps with this, especially as after a while every beat of the show becomes ingrained in our minds, for good or ill. Choreographers and directors, when searching for touring technicians, often ask for someone who can learn to “breathe” with the show, to fall in step with its subjective rhythm- it’s a skill that can only be gained through repetition. After a while, a show can start to seep into our bones. In the late 80s and early 90s, during the Tetris craze, people addicted to playing the game would start seeing real life objects as falling Tetris blocks- the game began to pattern their thoughts through their constant exposure to it, a phenomenon now know as the Tetris Effect. Numerous colleagues have said they experience a similar thing with their theatrical exposure, where they might consistently dream about working on the show, or have certain phrases or snippets of music trigger instant twinges of nostalgia (or stress-induced dread). By the time I was finished with a two-year 70+ performance tour of Chris Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, an hour-long one-man monologue, I had completely memorised the text (ironically, the performer reads it live from a script). After enough time, a show’s technical team can become like the exiles at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or the characters in Mr Burns– unwitting and perhaps unwilling vessels for a very specific piece of (theatrical) canon.
In an early Season 2 episode of TWIOAT, Tim Batt says he can’t focus on the foreground anymore. His experience watching films, having been subjected to the onslaught of 52 back-to-back viewings of the Adam Sandler vehicle Grown-Ups 2, means that his attention is constantly hovering on what’s around the action. Batt’s quirk is a survival mechanism, one developed because he subjects himself to the same content weekly and needs to find variation lest he have a breakdown, but I recognised something there in my role as a touring technician. In Real Magic there are nearly 100 sound cues, many of which rely on almost subjective judgements of timing and pace, as well as often requiring the focus to be on minor details: pauses, gestures, brief actions that to a first-time audience are missed or immediately forgotten, but which are still so dramaturgically tight and reliable that the soundscape of the show rests on them. The show a technician watches for the 20th or 30th time is a different show to the one the audience is viewing for the first- the overall artistic picture has been replaced by a string of technical snapshots. We often can’t see the forest for the trees. We become not so much aware of what’s happening, but aware of how it’s different from what happened last time. In a medium where the performance being “different every night” is a mantra, the ability and intuition in clocking those differences can be very important.
The problem for Batt and Montgomery is that a film is a static medium, and none of what they have to watch will ever change. Over the course of a run or tour however, a show can change dramatically: performers shift their delivery, try new things, speed up or slow down, try to keep the variations that work and discard the ones that don’t. Often the only people aware that this is happening, besides the people on stage, are the technicians in the box who are following along closely. There are fans and fandoms of theatre productions who may see the same show many times, sometimes even hundreds of times, as was the case with blogger Debbie Gilpin and the musical Sunny Afternoon. But fans and audiences can still abstract themselves from the minutiae, take in the aesthetic whole of a performance, not necessarily consciously engage with this or that moment, a luxury not afforded to the DSM. Crucially, the role of a technician or DSM allows us to directly interact with the piece, to take on and shift our own contribution to the production each time, in a way that an audience cannot. If a show begins to veer off track, its tight technical structure can often bring it back.
Amidst the Real Magic touring I was in Frankfurt a few months ago working with Forced Entertainment on making their new show, Out Of Order. In the rehearsal process, this repeated viewing kicks into gear on a grand scale- every rehearsed moment is recorded and pored over endlessly by the creative team, every performance is filmed and watched again and again. Even after weeks of performances, the footage is kept, archived and annotated. But as with other shows, at some point the camera is put away, the team reduced to the minimum required to comfortably tour the show. FE’s Terry O’Connor said it made touring “solo” shows like Complete Works: Tabletop Shakespeare (a series of 36 hour-long solo retellings of Shakespeare’s plays) a lonely experience- once the production manager has left, the only person with a consistent understanding of what the show is, could, and should be is on stage doing it. Audience feedback can be wonderful and useful, but performing a show on a regular basis is often a dance around the subjective subtleties between what makes a show “fine” and “great”, and a constant striving for the latter- something one only understands having been embedded in the process. Having another set of seasoned eyes in a room who can feed back becomes invaluable over time.
If a production is big enough to involve a nightly show report, then subjective feedback can get passed on formally- but often the liaison between technician and performer happens in the theatre or hotel bar, where they compare notes and figure out what did or didn’t work, for the next show. The performer on stage can always feel the impact of their performance and if it succeeds or fails- often, they need someone who is in step with them every show, to know why.