Sunday, August 18, 2013

Adult v. Child Actors

When I tell people I work primarily (though this will be changing shortly) with child actors the reaction I get is: oh that must really difficult.  My general response is: no, it's not really that much different than working with adult actors.

I've always sorta sad that flippantly, as a general statement about general actor.  Well, on my last show I worked with adult actors for the first time in close to two years and I realized how accurate that statement is.  I work with children a lot and as such get to know many of them quite well, and what has always struck me is how similar they are to adults.

They want respect, they want success, they want reinforcement.  And this is true of every actor and of every person I have ever met.  Perhaps the children are more insecure, but in my experience, that isn't always the case.  Perhaps the children are less intuitive, but this isn't always the case.

Part of the matter is that I generally with older children who are very serious about pursuing acting professionally.  That type of drive transforms anyone.  I have always had a belief that adults as a whole underestimate children.  Perhaps that was because as I child I wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously and treated equally with adults.

I have always found that if you lay your expectations out clearly for people than they will generally do their damnedest to meet those expectations.  In the case of actors (backstage) I expect that they stay out of the way, not be in the wings when they aren't needed, stay quiet backstage, perform all set changes that they participate in, and to inform the correct people if something is wrong.  These are fairly simple and straightforward and I've found that I get along with actors splendidly if we both work together on those goals.

I didn't really expect this post to turn into a talk on expectations.  I really did intend for it to be a comparison of young/child actors with adult/professional actors.  I suppose, what I discovered is, at the most basic level, the only difference is their age.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Assorted Stories from my Latest Shows

In  my post about being burnt out I talked briefly about how I rescued an actor from being killed by a sandbag.  Now for a myriad of other entertaining (I hope) stories.


The fourth day of tech I came in having already worked a six hour shift at Starbucks.  It was my fourth eighteen hour day and so this is the setting for my story.  About an hour before dinner one of the actors comes offstage and informs me that one of our very large riser units is hard to move.  This wasn't the most trustworthy of actors and so I went to find another one who had proven himself to be slightly more reliable.  He confirmed the first actor's story and so I took a look at it and first checked to see if the drop pin (essentially our braking system) was down.  It wasn't.  But one side of the unit did seem much closer to the ground.  I informed my deck chief and he came over to take a look at it.  He initially dismissed it as wear and tear, but I insisted and he too noted that one side was much much closer to the ground.

We took the side paneling off and he quickly discovered that the unit had completely failed and would not roll again if it couldn't have extensive repairs made to it.  So we took it to the adjacent (small) shop and began major repairs that should have never been needed if the unit had been made correctly in the first place.  The stage manager and I then pointed out that we would need to do the same with the second unit (there was a fair amount of cursing at that point that I'm cutting out).  I spent the next forty-five minutes listen to my deck chief/master carpenter rant and rave about the whole situation (and really his whole reaction was well and truly earned).

So I walked down the street of the small city where my theatre was located, getting more and more agitated.  As I walked, I bumped into my assistant choreographer, a close friend of mine, and I literally broke down and cried on his shoulder for a solid few minutes.  I have never been in that state in my life nor would I ever want to again.  But the major scenic center pieces of the show were eventually repaired and life did go on.

Oh and as the kicker, when we took the side paneling off of both riser units there were loose screws just hanging out inside.


The rest of my stories from that show aren't quite a coherent tale, but here's just a fun list of things I witnessed/was party to/dealt with:
  • A forty year old dating a seventeen year old
  • Two dogs onstage
  • Set pieces that didn't actually fit in the space
  • Confetti canons that never fucking worked (eventually we figured out a trick with the masking tape)
  • Disappearing masking tape, spike tape, paint, paint brushes, batteries, and drills
  • A crew member who had no business being backstage because he was a safety hazard (he was a bit slow, which is not a problem, unless you're working in a business where you or someone else could get killed if you're not quick on your feet)
  • A teenage friend confessing relationship issues to me

Oh wait, I do have one more story.  I'd forgotten this one because it was the first day of tech.  This crew member eventually quit.  This was the conversation I had over wireless headset.  As you'll see, I had already learned to be very specific with this particular crew member.

"Rachel, can you please move the stage right wall unit into stage right wing three with the red paneling facing down?"
"Rachel, can you please move the stage right wall unit into stage right wing three with the red paneling facing down?"
"The stage right wall unit."
"Please move the stage right wall unit into stage right wing three, with the paneling facing down."
"Yes. You."

That was literally the only time I have ever thrown anything in frustration (I threw my clipboard (funny thing was my boss was right there and he just laughed at me)).  Luckily my deck chief took over from there.  Just UGGH.


This next story actually happened on my latest show two days ago.  It involves a picture.  Since the theatre I'm working in has no real fly (rigging) system to speak of the carpenters created an impromtu one for something called a kabuki drop.  A kabuki drop is essentially a rig that holds something (in this case a sign) and then you press a button and it unfurls.  Then you can press another button and it drops completely to the ground.  The rigging system for the kabuki drop in this theatre looks like the picture below:

So the other day, what happened was that one of the three pick points on the kabuki drop (which is represented by the piece labeled scenery) came unattached from the counterweight (in this case a sandbag).  So we got I got out a ladder and pulled the wire down from the ceiling and we reattached it to the sandbag.  However, the wire was no longer the same length as the others, so I needed to adjust the length of the other wires.  It was infinitely doable, but the stage manager told me to just let it be, so I did and we did the show without the kabuki drop.

That same night we got two-thirds of the way through the show and suddenly all three people on the crew realized that our headsets were too quiet.  As it turns out we couldn't communicate with the stage manager, who was on wired clear com (headset).  We were on wireless.  We realized when a cue to close a curtain was supposed to happen, but didn't.  Since the kabuki was cut for the night, I ran up to the booth and informed them what was wrong, but since the show is so busy for everyone involved, we couldn't actually fix it.  So we did there rest of a very complicated show with no clear com (it went of smoothly, but dear god it was nerve-wracking).

The next day we came in and there were cables securing the sandbag to the wires of the rigging to keep them from coming apart, which is what had happened in the first place.  It wasn't a clean or elegant solution but at least the idiot fixed it.  So me, being the person I am, decided to test the rig after it had been fixed and before the show.  Let me tell you, I have never been so glad of doing something.  When I pressed the button for the sign to unfurl, one of the ropes securing the sign to the kabuki drop completely came untied and it swung on one rope like a drunken pendulum and would have hit whoever was below it.  So I retied the knots, checked several other knots that were loose and tested it again.  Since I did that, it's been working perfectly, thankfully.

If it had just been rigged properly in the first place it never would have been a problem.  In case you actually care, the person who did this rigging was the same carpenter who built the riser units from my first story.


I've discovered, having written one post, that I have a myriad in the back of my mind that I didn't even realize were there.

I'm not sure I am actually up to writing this, but if I'm not, then I guess you won't ever see it anyway.

I started as a barista at Starbucks last year in September.  I loved it.  It was a challenge and kept me engaged and focused.  My training was not so much training as: HERE GO.  Since then we've gotten much better at training, but I tend to learn best from doing, so it worked out for the best I would say.

In December, I got asked by two of my shift supervisors if I was interested in learning how to become a shift supervisor.  After some thought, I said yes.  My official training began really in February.  And when I say training, I mainly mean the long process of becoming a shift.  There was a new set of skills, not generally expected of baristas, that I was expected to learn.  And it was difficult, but it was also an engaging challenge.

At the end of May I got the green light to be promoted.  I was promoted in-store, which is not actually how promotions generally work.  It's typically considered hard to be promoted in-store because the baristas who used to be your peers, frequently won't respect you as a superior.  That wasn't a problem I really encountered.  The majority of the baristas (7 of 9) were actually people I ended of training (we had a lot of both growth and turn over this year) so they were used to me having authority.

The problem I have been having is when I was promoted.  I think I was ready.  I have the knowledge base.  However, the week I began my training as a shift supervisor (so early June), my store manager left.  I could probably do an entire post of what made her the best boss I've ever had, but suffice it to say, she was the best boss I've ever had.  The week after my training finished, one of our shift supervisors left (our store is supposed to have three, so we were left with two and me).  A month later, another of our shift supervisors left to become assistant store manager for my old store manager at her new store.  We still have not replaced the second shift supervisor to leave.

If this weren't enough, my store manager is getting married (actually, her wedding is this weekend), so all of her attention has been on wedding planning and not on the store.  On top of that, my training was never formally completed.  You see, the last three days of my scheduled training, my trainer (the shift who left to become an assistant store manager) was incredibly sick, so I just ended up running the floor and doing the best I could.  And really, it's been like that ever since then.  I was expected to have the capabilities of a fully trained shift supervisor in an understaffed store under a brand new store manager.  Please someone tell me what's wrong with that picture.

So I just dealt with it, as I always do.  I didn't realize that it was something that I just couldn't deal with until I started breaking down and crying after every shift.  I hit my breaking point and then was pushed beyond it and didn't know how to fix it.  I wanted to quit.  I almost did quit.  I have never been so close to just leaving work and going home and not coming back.

What I haven't explained yet is that these details are just the setting for the scene.  Because the point that really pushed me was that when my manager came in she changed everything.  She was used to working on a different system than we used and she just wanted everything to be her system.  But my store doesn't know her system and isn't due to be taught it until February, so we have now been reduced to running this sad crippled, half and half system, where no one is quite sure what they're doing.  She moves everything in the store constantly and doesn't tell anyone where she put it and more importantly doesn't tell them whether that's its permanent new home or if it just got put there by accident.  Everyone has a very different work schedule now and sometimes people are scheduled for things that just don't make sense (we are required by law to give someone a lunch after five hours of work, so scheduling someone for five and a half hours of work is just stupid).  Since I trained most of the baristas, they come to me with their problems and the fact that they are just completely demoralized.  I can only think of two baristas who have not expressed a desire to quit.  And having that weight put on me by baristas just added to everything else.

I talked with my store manager for four hours one day, but I don't think she got how dire it was.  All the advice I was given by family was to stick with it, even though by that point I knew I couldn't deal with it any more.  I have a very strong sense of self and I know when I'm at my breaking point.  Earlier this week, I talked with my manager again and asked her for a transfer.  She agreed, but said it would take time.

She's off on her wedding vacation now and suddenly things are better.  We're allowed to run things according to how we know is correct and don't have someone breathing down our neck constantly.  Even though we are thoroughly understaffed, minus a shift and a manager, it suddenly seems like I can handle it.

And now I finally have hope again.  I didn't realize it, but I had lost hope.  When I finally was able to express that fact to my manager, it was like a weight was lifted.  I had no hope that things would get better.  No hope that it would ever end.  No hope that I would be able to escape.  And it's a horrible thing, one I had never experienced before.  The fact that I have been told I can transfer, even though it's in the future, gave hope back to me.  On Thursday I had the wonderful feeling for the first time in over a month that maybe I would be able to stay at my store after all.

Burnt Out

I haven't been blogging.  It's been almost a year.

Part of the reason is that I live with the people who used to be my primary audience.  Part of it was I got more self conscious.  Part of it was that I got really busy and haven't had time.  When you work 18 hours a day for almost two months straight you don't have much time for anything other than sleep.

Starbucks has been an utter disaster lately.  I don't really want to talk about it at the moment, maybe in another post, if I can find the time and energy to do another post.  It's really rough though when something you love turns into something you hate and in this case it was all at once.

In the case of theatre it was gradual.  What I realized recently (and it's only become more clear writing this most) is that the last time I've taken more than a one month break from theatre was the summer of my freshman year.  What that basically means is that I have stage managed for four years without a break of more the four weeks.

Now, I realize that this sounds like normal life for people probably.  I mean, people work for years at a time without taking more than a few weeks off here and there for vacations.  But the fact is, stage managing is one of the most stressful jobs I can think of.  You are underpaid (by more than I can possibly explain).  Stage managers don't get paid by the hours.  They get a contract stating an amount of money that they will get during a show and then receive that amount every few weeks in even portions.  Why don't stage managers get paid by the hour?  The honest truth is that theatres can't afford it.  If you're an equity (union) stage manager, you are in rehearsals for eight hours a day.  That sounds about normal.  However you have, roughly, an hour of prep on either side of that rehearsal.  Not to mention paperwork to fill out and disseminate.  The old saying goes: A stage manager is the first and arrive and the last to leave.

When you stage manager, you live the show.  No one knows it better than you.  I would argue not even the director (though that argument would be contested by many a director).  There is stress on you constantly.  You are expected to not only know what everyone is thinking, but know it before they even think of it.  I truly wish I was joking, but you do start to be able to do the impossible after awhile.  On the last show I was working I would pull out the rehearsal props that were needed.  Then seeing how quickly the director was working, I pulled out the props for the following scene as well.  The director turned to me a few minutes and said that she would like to continue working and if I could pull the props out, which I promptly handed to her.  Now that level of detailed thinking is not necessarily expected by every person who you work with.  But if you are trying to impress them and get rehired or hired on in a larger capacity, it's certainly helpful.

If something goes wrong, it's your fault.  Again, that's not to say that everyone will blame you inherently, but if someone needs to take the blame it should be the stage manager who voluntarily takes it.  It's not fair and I know it and I generally accept it willingly.  Because I have found that, every single time, it is better to swallow your pride and apologize, than fight over something ultimately trivial.

I'm trying to describe the amount of pressure on you as a stage manager and I'm not sure I'm succeeding at all.  I'm not trying to complain, I'm just trying to make this profession I so love clear for those of you who have never experienced.  It's not like almost any other job I can think of, because when work ends most people can go home and the pressure is off.  They can relax and blow off steam.  But that's just not the case for a stage manager because you could get an email at any point and who knows how urgent it could be.  It's lovely to say: "I only answer emails, texts, or calls, between x and y times."  It is important to set boundaries.  But if it truly is something urgent, if a lead actor has whooping cough or broke a leg, etc, that is something that needs to be dealt with right then and there and putting it off is stupid and sometimes dangerous.

On my last show, we were in tech and running a transition at speed for the first time.  An actor went to exit and stopped in the wing as a curtain was coming in above his head.  The sandbag was about, maybe, a foot from his head when I calmly pulled him out of the way of it.  It could have killed him.  And even now, my response to it was slightly unbelievable, just because the complete level of calm that I felt during the whole incident.  I would have been responsible if I hadn't acted when I did.  The person flying the curtain would have been responsible, but I could have prevented it.  If I hadn't seen it and acted then there would have been a tragedy.  That actor's life was in my hands, and I was only an assistant stage manager.  That's the kind of stress and the kind of situations that I deal with on a daily basis (once a show is open).

And I can do it.  That's the thing.  I can handle that stress.  I love pressure.  But I can only thrive under it for so long before I start to crack.  And I've started.  I caught that mistake and I caught other ones like it during my last show.  But I missed things that I shouldn't have because I was so tired and so god damn burnt out.  So I'm taking a break.  I'm taking a break so that I don't miss something that could get someone hurt or killed and I'm responsible.  It's a boundary I've never encountered before, but it's one that I'm glad I found.

So my plan?  I'm taking a break from stage management.  Not from theatre, which I thought for a long time was what I needed, but from stage management.  I'm currently crewing a show at the theatre where I normally work and I'm having so much fun.  This show is quirky and weird and just a 90 minute sprint straight through, but it's intricate and involves all sorts of skill sets I haven't used in years.  And I love it.  The reason why?  I'm not in charge.  I'm allowed to make mistakes, because I don't have to be perfect (not to say that I don't expect that of myself still, but with the external pressure off it's better).  And the thing is, I look brilliant because I'm not expected to perform to the level I am.  The praise I get from that certainly doesn't hurt.

I want to go back to stage management, and I'm not sure how long I'll be on this hiatus, but going away was important so that I can eventually return to it.