Thursday, July 3, 2014

FIREWORKS



Please indulge me as this Blog entry is a re-working of part of one I wrote three years ago.

 
Back in 1983 and 1984 we still had musicals at the college each summer and I of course worked on them and I have written about them in earlier blog posts.
But during those two summers we took a break early in July when I had the pleasure of helping set off the local fireworks show.

My then colleague Michael Voss was trained in pyrotechnics and fireworks and was in charge of the show with several of our student workers and myself helping him.
I think back now and cringe a bit to think that all of the fireworks were stored in several boxes in what is now my office and Mike would label and organize all of the shells.



In the afternoon of the day of the show we would go over to the field and dig holes for the pipes that would be used as the mortars that would launch the shells.
We would also set up the single-use cardboard tubes for the shells that were used as part of the Grand Finale.
It was July and of course it was very hot but we still had to wear long sleeves and hats to stop the falling burning embers from the firework shells.
It is hard to describe the experience without saying it was a BLAST!


During the show I was assigned two mortars to load with the firework shells that were stored 50 feet away in a covered box.
I would run back and forth between the mortars and boxes, stopping to clean out the mortar between shots, careful not to look in or have your head over the end on the pipe.
One of the years we did have a shell that went up and came back in the same field near us, the firemen quickly put it out and we had no other problems.
During the show I was so busy I did not get to watch and enjoy much of it as I was so focused on the job at end.
At the end of the half hour show I was drenched with sweat, exhausted but very pumped up and went out with the crew for some celebratory beers.
The second year was just as much fun but I remember to wear ear plugs.

I still love watching fireworks, but each 4th of July I think back to how much fun I had those two summers.




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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

USITT Milwaukee, 1990




In 1985 I went to my first USITT conference in New York City.
While there I saw four Broadway plays in three days, toured two theatres under construction and spent a lot of time on the expo floor but went to only a few of the formal conference sessions.
I flew down to New York City with the lighting designer, shared a hotel room with him and did most things together.

In 1990 the department chair found money to help pay for me to go in to the USITT conference in Milwaukee.
It was five years later and I went alone and felt a bit different as I went.
I was then 34, both the department Technical Director and Lighting Designer and had been tenured the year before.
I wanted to get the most out of the conference as I could.
Many years the conference runs during our spring break at the college but that year it was only a week before our spring musical production.
As you will see in the photos for Purlie, which I will write about in my next post, that set was large and had many platforms and both rolling and flying wall units.
Planning ahead and getting much of the work done before I left I was able to go off to Milwaukee the week before the play was to open.
We had great student workers and our scene designer Drew Francis worked with them to finish the set while I was away.

I signed up to take a pre-conference workshop on lighting plays for videotaping and so I arrived in Milwaukee a few days before the start of the regular conference.
I have enjoyed every one of the conferences that I have been able to attend but this one was very memorable and made me want to go every year.

Theatre people, especially techies, have  a way of finding each other in a crowd.
While waiting for my luggage at the airport I struck up a conversation with a guy who was  a vendor coming in to set up his booth at the trade expo at the conference.
We got our luggage about the same time and moved to the rental car and taxi area.
As I was looking for a taxi or town car to take me to my hotel the guy offered to take me in his rental car and save me a few bucks.
He dropped me at my hotel and then went on to his own hotel.
I took this as a sign that I might have a good time at the conference.
Theatre tech people are great.

After checking into my room I went back down to the bar for a nightcap.
Sitting at the bar I ran into another vendor or salesman who was working at the conference and he paid for my drinks.
He said that his boss would not think he was doing his job if he did not have a big enough bar bill.
Theatre tech people are great.

The next day I walked down to Marquette University for the video workshop.
I learned a good deal and took lots of notes of things that I would never really use.
The video information is now long outdated but it did help me in some ways I am sure and I met some good people there.
During the lunch break I did have time to walk through the University Art Museum and enjoyed it very much.

After the workshop was over I ended back at my hotel for diner and then back to the bar for a few more drinks.
That night in the bar I ran into the man whose job I took over when I came to Brockport eight years before.
He was now working for some theatre supply company that had a booth at the stage expo.
We talked about what he was now doing, what was happening back at Brockport and because he was a vendor with a entertainment budget he paid for the drinks.
Theatre tech people are great.

The formal conference began the next day and because the trade show would not open until the day after so the whole first day was spent in conference sessions.
There was a great many things to see and do at the conference and I tried to do them all.
I had signed up to take part in a round table discussion for lighting design teachers to talk about the state of education and what changed were ahead.
At another session I saw a demonstration of one of the earliest 3D CAD programs.
The images were was just wireframe images of the sets but they were able to move them so you could see the set from different angles.
What took them lots of time and powerful computers to do can now easily be done with Google SketchUp.

Another session I attended was given by a former student Jim Knapp who was just finishing up getting his MFA in technical direction from the University of Wisconsin.
The session was a review of his work with the engineering department to study the strength of stress skin platforms.
Like too many other things I still have the handout from the session someplace in my office.
Jim was one on many local  students who was born in  Brockport that we have had at the college over the years.
Finding out that he had no immediate plans after graduation except for moving home, I offered him a job to be my assistant technical director for the upcoming summer musical.
It was a good decision as I will talk about in upcoming posts.

There was a luncheon on the first day of the conference and I ended up sitting with a Ruth A. Brown, a costume designer with whom I attended graduate school with and was teaching a Cal State Northridge.
While in Grad school I drove back from New York City back to Ann Arbor after Christmas break with Ruth.
I forget all the details but over Christmas she was going to visit a friend in the city and had asked around the department if anyone available after the break  to help with the long drive back to school.
It sounded like fun so I got a one-way plane ticket home at Christmas and after the break I took a train into NYC from Long Island and met up with her at her friend's apartment to begin a rather uneventful trip back to school.

There was one fun moment on the drive during a dinner break at a truck stop in Ohio.
Hanging on the walls of the restaurant  were very large black velvet paintings of 18 wheel trucks, with added motion lines painted on, but the best part that all of the many lights on the trucks all lit up.
Beautiful! ! ! ! !
I do not how I stopped myself from buying one.

Also at the luncheon table with Ruth and I was her colleague Willard F. Bellman the author a several theatre design text books, one of which I know I used for a while.
The USITT conferences are always great place to run into old friends, make new ones and meet some of the big names in technical theatre.

In addition to conference sessions  and stage expo I took a walking tour of the 4 or 5 theatres near the convention center.
My favorite was the Papst Theatre which was built in 1895 and is one of the oldest working Theatres in America.
I did not have time to tour any of the large Milwaukee breweries but found a nice microbrewery in which to enjoy a beer or two.

Making it back to my hotel after another long day I ended up in the bar again and in addition to the vendors and salesmen I found many of my classmates and a few teachers from Michigan there.
While having a drink or two and catching up with my classmates, I noticed a couple in nearby dark corner having a good time “making out”.
When they finally came up for air it turned out that they were another former student and teacher from Michigan.
Theatre tech people are great.

Having drinks with old and new friends at the end of the day is an important part of the experience of the conferences.
Now it may sound that we did a lot of drinking but at the end of long days it is usually just a drink or two and then off the bed.
When I was working with the Light Lab Committee at several future conferences we would used the late night trips to the bar as time for quick meetings about what was going to be done and who was going to do what the next day.
At one of the Toronto conference I do remember that the smoking of Cuban cigars was added by some to the late night drinks.
Theatre tech people are great.

The stage expo is always a popular part of the conference as everyone wants to see the newest lights, dimmers and other tech equipment that is for sale.
This was the first time I remember seeing color scrollars; they were a bit larger and noisier than the ones we use today.
There was also a great display of some 100 year old scenic pieces from someone's collection.

Away from the conference and bars I did find a great big used bookstore and spent some time there.

I have enjoyed all of the USITT conferences that I have attended but this one really stood out.
In Milwaukee I ran into old friends, made new ones, went to great sessions and felt pumped up and ready to get back to Brockport and work on the next play.
I do not remember why but I did not leave my car at the airport but Drew the scene designer came in and picked me up when I returned.
On the ride home I asked him how things were going on the show.
He said that everyone had worked hard and that the set was done but the show was canceled.

Canceled?!?!?!?!

What the Fuck!

I asked what had happened and what was up.

Measles.

A measles outbreak had occurred at the college and everything was shut down.
Before the school would reopen everyone born after 1957 had to get immunized.
Lucky for me I was born in 1956 and already had the measles as a kid.

It ended up that we would lose the first week of the show and when things had cleared up and school reopened we added an extra performance to what should have been the normal second weekend of the play and did four shows instead of six.
More about Purlie next time.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

NigHt of tHe pterodActyls, 1990



Well it is time to move into the 1990’s.
I had been at Brockport for almost eight years, had gotten a promotion and tenure and was fairly settled in.
There were big changes to come, some good and some bad, but life just keeps rolling on.
As always the spring of 1990 would be busy with several shows and music events.


First up in March was a production of NigHt of tHe pterodActyls by Julian Wiles.
It was a Youth Theatre piece with a few young actors added into the normal mix of college students.

NB: Fine and Jake were not in the play.

Plot?
Teenagers and single parents new in town, a young girls deals with finding her identity, young love and then messes it up by digging up Pterodactyl eggs in her back yard.
Ah, a normal play.

Most of the set was two rotating house units with exteriors on one side and interiors on the other.
They were tall and very detailed.
In front of the houses was a dirt pit in which the eggs could be found.
What made the show was the use of all the high tech items.
Behind the houses were plywood cutouts that were supposed to be a cross between construction equipment and dinosaurs when lit in silhouette.
To rotate the houses we just used people power with several students pushing the houses around as needed.
The best and scariest effect was of course the entrance of a flying Pterodactyl.
At the end of one scene a Pterodactyl would fly down from above the stage and out over the audience ending in a blackout.
The kids would all scream and it was fun every time we did it.




So what was the magic?
Our realistic Pterodactyl was simply two crossing pipes about 6 feet long with black plastic wings and a plywood cutout of the well-known Pterodactyl head profile attached.
The super high tech flying method was a simple.
The Pterodactyl was on a cable attached to a stage pipe measured out so it was arc down to just a foot or two over the floor.
On cue a pin was pulled to release the Pterodactyl which would quickly swing down and out over the screaming audience.
After the blackout a student crew member would use winch to quickly return the Pterodactyl back up into the flys out of sight.

Whether or not I liked doing Children’s or Youth Theatre, I liked the fact that we always gave them full mounted productions and did not skimp on the technical elements that I have seen done in other places.

We had both a student lighting and costume designer for the show and they both did very nice jobs.
There was only one weekend of adult performances and three sold-out school matinees for middle school students.

Soon after this production we had two music events and a student production to take care of before we would  do our spring musical.



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