Dance Production companion website

Just a quick note to let my readers know that the companion website for my newest book Dance Production: Design & Technology is live. There are a number of wonderful components to the site, such as free downloadable web-chapters. These two chapters feature information on non-traditional performances and touring your show. Like the print chapters, they feature examples of contemporary work in the field as well as easy-to-follow commentary on the process of producing a live performance. In addition to web-chapters, you will also find videos, a great web resource directory for finding dance and design/tech information online, and instructional projects. These projects are a favorite for teachers looking for supplemental assignments to assist in the classroom. One great benefit of the website is that all of the content is FREE, so this is an excellent opportunity to share some information without the obligation of buying the book (of course, I would be thrilled if you decided to pick up a copy, as well)!

I hope you find this website useful and enjoyable. Feel free to share it with some friends.

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Someone Else’s Shoes

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It seems like every year we see more and more public schools cutting funding for arts, eliminating programs, and generally marginalizing the role of the arts in education. Without getting into a nasty political debate that is likely to lead nowhere, I think it is fair to say that politicians of all stripes from the Federal to the local level have been guilty of this, on some level. When looking at a basic cost/benefit analysis, I can even understand why it seems like an investment in arts programs is hard to justify – especially in the midst of the Great Recession.

As an educator, I get so tired of the perennial exercise in justifying the worth of the arts in our educational system. One positive that comes from this is that it affords me a regular opportunity to examine the worth of what I do. Every artist, if you’re being honest with yourself, has had those moments where you stop and really wonder if what you’re doing is impacting the world in any way. I have found that theatre artists are often guilty of this, due in no small part to the pervasive mentality that we are “just putting on a show.” While it is true that we work in the entertainment industry and, therefore, spend the majority of our time doing the whole entertainment thing, I think there is an important aspect to our work that is often overlooked – empathy.

Fundamentally, the role of theatre is to enable the artists and audience members to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To be successful, an actor has to take on the mantle of another human being – to see through their eyes and respond to the world in a way that might not jive with the actor’s own inclinations. Designers and technicians collaborate with dozens of different people in an attempt to tell the story in the most effective manner. Often, they must abandon their own ideas along the way to make room for the end-product. Audience members get a glimpse into the inner workings of  character in a way that is impossible in the real world. At face value, this might not seem as important as scientists creating vaccines for deadly diseases or engineers designing nano machines. I would argue, though, that empathy has become the single most important commodity in the world today and we owe it to ourselves as a society to foster it whenever and wherever we can.

A look at the news on any given day can be an unsettling glimpse into the reality of our polarized world. On any topic it seems that there are two camps, us and them. Moderates and independents seem to be a dwindling thing of the past, replaced with folks on both ends of the spectrum unwilling to see the other side’s perspective and, worse, vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. Compromise is considered weakness. In the United States, we have seen this mentality taken to the horrifying destinations: cyber-bullying, character defamation, and even mass shootings. In this environment, a little empathy can go a long way. Any exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is a welcome medicine to treat this ailment.

That’s where we come full circle. The change that we want to see in the world must include art. The arts have a magical ability to break down walls and build bridges between camps. It has always been so. When we stop to consider how our education system will shape the world of tomorrow, let’s not forget that the arts aren’t simply electives – they are one of the last great tools we have at our disposal to instill a sense of empathy, bring our society closer together, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. For all of you artists out there, those goosebumps you’re feeling are completely appropriate. In a society where we all too often feel powerless, you are the ones with the ace up your sleeve. Get out there and save the world.

 

Filling The Void

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Photo courtesy Max Wolfe. Creative Commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/leeadlaf/

As a teacher, I often get to observe that moment when a student looks at the blank piece of paper or an empty stage and  struggles with that internal debate over “what next?” This is a familiar exercise with artists of all varieties (and, believe it or not, all levels of success). As a writer, there is nothing more exhilarating and, at the same time, taunting than a ream of paper. For the painter, it is a canvas. The dancer alone in the studio feels the need to stake a claim on on that empty space and fill it with movement.

The Void is a magical and terrifying space that the artist must occupy and shape to his or her own will. This need to fill the void speaks to the power of art and our ability to carve out some small corner of existence for ourselves – to put a stamp on this place and time and boldly proclaim, “I was here!” More than that, it means that we took the few fleeting moments given to us and turned them into something that will last longer than the finite scope of our lifetime. Something that will AFFECT someone, or something. Lots of artists over the years have spoken about this:

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.'” – Vincent Van Gogh

This is the challenge I want to leave you with today: Break the spell of “you can’t.” Make something! Say something! Think! Create! Resist that voice that says “what if it isn’t good enough?” Good enough for whom? Embrace failure is an important and often necessary component of success. The fear of failure ought not keep you from trying. Quite the opposite. Samuel Beckett said it best in Westward Ho 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The fear of failure should drive you to create new things – take bigger risks. Feel free to fail. By all means, fail in grand and dramatic gestures. Just don’t fall victim to the most mundane of all failures – the failure to get up off your butt and start something.

Indispensable Products – Go Box

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A few years back, I posted the first of what I planned on being an ongoing series called “Indispensable – Great Products We Can’t Live Without.” Fast forward in time and I still haven’t added a second installation to this series (if you can call one item a series)… Well, I’ve got good excuses for how long it has taken me (dozens of shows, a new family member, a new book) but I won’t bore you with the details. The bottom line is, I recently had the pleasure of working with a new toy that made me think, “everyone needs to know about this!”

Team Sound has recently released the Go Box, a wonderful MIDI interface to work with QLab and your other MIDI-capable programs. For those of you who use programs like QLab or SFX, this is a wonderful solution to automating control of your system at the touch of a button. Instead of pressing the space bar hundreds of times for every show, you can simply plug in one of these interfaces and save the stress on your keyboard.

There are currently two different boxes, the Go Box 4 and Go Box 6. Each one is a designed using the highest quality parts to make the Go Box a road-worthy addition to any rig. The buttons are made from arcade-style switches rated for half a million cycles. The boxes are made from powder-coated aluminum, so they are light weight and durable. The USB jacks are equipped with Neutrik locking connectors that, when used in conjunction with a locking USB cable, really stay put so there are no worries of accidentally pulling the cable out (I’m told that they hope to offer 5 meter locking cables very soon through their website). This week, Team Sound released a second edition of the Go Box 6 featuring a new die cast enclosure with fewer seams, two Neutrik USB connectors, and a low-light LED connection / power power indicator on the back of the unit. These addition make an already strong tool even more appealing. A few more details about each unit is included below:

The Go Box 4 features four buttons, and the Go Box 6 has six. Each model works in a similar fashion, with the buttons serving as MIDI remote triggers. There is no driver software required, either, so it is a remarkably simple setup. Each button sends a MIDI signal through the USB on channel 16. The signal is a Note On message with a velocity of 127 when the button is pressed (notes 1-4 on the Go Box 4, and notes 1-6 on the Go Box 6) and a velocity of 0 when the button is released.

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If you are using QLab, you can even download pre-configured QLab 3 workspaces from the Team Sound website here. In the basic workspace for the Go Box 4, Note 1 is “Go,” Note 2 is “Panic All” which stops all cues over a duration determined by the user, Note 3 is “Select previous cue,” and Note 4 is “Select next cue.”

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The Go Box 6 is ideally suited for a redundancy rig. A redundancy rig is a collection of two show control computers running their workspaces simultaneously. Both are connected to output to your system, typically including a manual switch to change output from one unit to another should the need arise. The Go Box 6 features two USB connectors, meaning that each button sends MIDI signals to both computers simultaneously. By using this unit, there is no need for a separate go button for each show control computer.

This summer, I got to help my wife Kate Hopgood set up a new QLab rig for The Michigan Shakespeare Festival, where we are both Artistic Associates. Kate’s preferred setup is to have a tech table in the auditorium networked to the show sound computer running QLab. By using screen sharing, she can sit with the Stage Manager at the remote computer. This gives her the opportunity to make changes as necessary while the SM gets used to calling the show and running QLab, but from the relative comfort of the auditorium. This year, we integrated a Go Box 4 into the system and the Stage Manager loved it. No more accidental bumping of the space bar or worrying about the double click. The best part was the setup, though. The only aspect that had to be changed was making sure the remote computer was running a QLab workspace (pro version) with OSC commands pre-programmed into it. The Go Box was plugged into the USB port of this computer, which then triggered OSC cues to be sent through the Ethernet cable to trigger cues in the show computer’s QLab workspace. Once tech was done, striking the tech table was basically coiling up the network cable and plugging the Go Box into the show computer in the booth!

For those of you looking to simplify your sound or show control setup, I would highly recommend the Go Box.

Full disclaimer – having written a book on QLab 3 show control, I have gotten to know a lot of the Figure 53 gang pretty well. Team Sound is the work of Brooklyn, NY based sound and projections designer Sam Kusnetz, who also happens to work for Figure 53. Neither I, nor Team Sound, are affiliated with Figure 53, LLC. As Sam puts it on the Team Sound website, we’re awfully big fans, though.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF TEAM SOUND NYC

*Editorial note: I made a few minor corrections to this post after the first upload.

Rules to Live By

Every year around this time, teachers go about the process of putting together lesson plans, syllabi, and projects for the coming term. If they are anything like me, I’m sure they do so with the hope that some of it will stick – that it will be helpful for at least one of those students and help develop positive life skills. If I’m honest (and a bit cynical), I’m sure that roughly 98.9% of what I put out there gets lost in the ether or ignored. The optimist in me, though, knows that 1.1% is more than enough to go out there and change the world for the better!

Almost fifty years back, Sister Corita Kent, an instructor at Immaculate Heart College is Los Angeles and somewhat unlikely figure in the LA art scene created “Some Rules for Students and Teachers” in the Art Department and actually managed to create something that has affected generations of artists and students for years afterward. These rules were created for a class she taught in 1968. Kent was a friend of a number of celebrated artists and thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller and John Cage. In fact, many people mistakenly attribute this list of rules to Cage, due to the fact that he is credited for the last rule. Though he did not pen these rules, he was definitely fond of them and spread them around. His lifelong partner Merce Cunningham was said to have them posted on his studio wall. One of the things that has always struck me about this list is, even though it was made for artists, it works for students and teachers of all persuasions. Student or teacher, you could do worse than keep these ten rules in mind as you head back to school this fall.

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

Design & technology instructional videos

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I have recently been busy putting together a series of video playlists on my YouTube channel. These are supplemental videos for my QLab and Dance Production books. The QLab playlist is a series of instructional videos specifically for QLab 3 tools and tricks. The Dance Production playlist is a collection of videos related to a wide range of topics. Though it is created to accompany the dance production text, it would also be useful for anyone wanting to learn more about design and technology, in general. I hope you find these useful and, as always, please share with your friends and give feedback. If there is a topic you would like to see addressed, please let me know!

New QLab 3 instructional video

A quick post, since I’m in the midst of opening 3 shows at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. I just uploaded a new QLab 3 instructional video onto my YouTube channel. This one details the process of using a Fade Cue to fade out a Video Cue in QLab 3. The Fade In video was one of my more popular with over 10,000 views, so I hope this one will be equally useful to folks wanting to learn a bit more about the software. All the best!

Like Somebody is Watching…

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Over the last year, I have spent a lot of my time researching a number of different aspects of dance for my forthcoming book Dance Production: Design & Technology. This process has been an utterly enjoyable one for me, greatly due to the fact that it gave me a wonderful excuse to meet some amazing folks across all areas of the dance industry. From the beginning, I wanted to interview a wide spectrum of professionals working in a number of different areas of dance – design, choreography, management, etc. Along the way, I picked up a lot of great information, anecdotes, and advice. As I was going through the process of final edits for the text this last week, I came across a quote from Campbell Baird that really struck a chord with me. Campbell is a top-notch scenic and costume designer and a genuinely nice person. When asked about advice for young designers wanting to embark into the world of dance design, one of his statements was this:

Learn what dancers do… Learn to admire their incredible devotion to an art form that, at best, can only give them fifteen to twenty years of a performing career. Every day they start over in class, take corrections, and try to improve.

This really got me thinking about the role of the professional dancer (especially in the ballet world), where class work is an expectation of the job from the novice to the master. No matter the status of the dancer, from the principal to the members of the corps, you are expected to continue in your training and explore how better to improve yourself. I respect this so much and believe there is a lot to be learned from this model. How much better would it be, in so many different industries, if those at the top of their game were expected to do this?

As a design professor, I have to admit to requiring things of my students that I sometimes simply cannot find the time to incorporate into my own freelance work while balancing the rigors of being a full-time professor, husband, father of two, and writer. I always feel just a bit sheepish, when I can pull up my designs from early in my own career as examples but sometimes not my most recent gig. How much more effective might I be at my own job if I had the equivalent of the morning technique class to remind me of what areas I was letting slide? For better or worse, there is no equivalent of the morning technique class in my field.

There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “dance like nobody is watching.” This certainly isn’t the life of any dancers I know. Most everyone I know dances like somebody is watching, even if no one else is in the room. Maybe we could all learn a bit from that idea, as well. Live your life as if every morning you have to show up, start over, take corrections, and try to improve. All things considered, it makes for a pretty damned fine work ethic.

Trust the process

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Most artists are familiar with the phrase, “trust the process.” It is true for scenic painting more so than any other artistic endeavor I have ever worked on. Scenic painters recreate the work of a scenic designer, taking a small rendering painted in 1/2″ scale and creating the life-size version of the object. As a student, you are taught the basic techniques that allow you to do this – cartooning, enlargement tricks, geometry, wet-blending, glazes, color-mixing, etc. (it’s a substantial list – scenic painter’s are kind of amazing creatures!) Because of the nature of painted scenery for the stage, it is often large and awkward to analyze close. This leads to the two cardinal rules – step back to get some perspective, and trust the process.

As a teacher who has worked with a number of students learning this trade over the years, I always enjoy watching them experience this firsthand. I tell my students, don’t believe what you think you see, look three steps ahead and see what it’s going to be. Trust the process. Scenic painting is one of those things in life that works that way – most often you spend a good portion of the middle of the project wondering what you’ve done wrong and how it will ever look right. This is true for so many painters I have spoken to. Without the proper encouragement, a beginner might just stop out of frustration. That’s where the reminder come in – relax, and trust the process. you can’t see it right now, but this is going to be perfect. Sure enough, when they push on through that frustration and self-doubt, 90% of the time they come to realize the painting was there all along. It was just waiting to be revealed.

For whatever reason, this has struck a chord with me over the last few weeks in talking to some other friends and colleagues. More often than not, when you feel bogged down and troubled by what’s going on around you, just take a few minutes to step back and get some perspective on the moment. Relax, and trust the process. Things can often seem chaotic in the middle of the project. It’s not until you place that final brush stroke that you can truly step back, admire your work, and realize “hey, maybe I did know what I was doing, after all!”