The separation of tech and stage

In 2002, I had an awesome opportunity. I was on staff with a large church and wanted to produce a variety show. Just something I had always wanted to do.

The church was open to considering whatever I was wanting to do. It got very open, very quickly, when our big Christmas performance cancelled in mid November. They needed that slot filled asap. I got it, with only 3-4 weeks to prepare. No problem. I was the classic adrenaline junkie anyway.

I already had a large group of volunteers who were willing to jump into it. I already had a lot of material, since it was something I had been planning anyway. It was my main room, so it wouldn’t take a lot of extra planning, I already knew my limitations for tech. The budget was set. I had nothing. Had to make it happen on my own time with no budget. Perfect. But we pulled it off.

All said and done, I was told it was one of the best Christmas shows ever. Even though I attempted to have my hands in every single aspect of it. And. I ultimately boogered up the finale. Running crazy for an hour and a half backstage and I made an entrance WAY too early. Threw everyone off, but they played it well. So, in spite of me, it was a hit.

I said all that to get here. What do we have to understand about shows like that?

Just like life, we need to make graceful, and smooth, transitions to keep moving. Changes happen, that’s part of the show. Learn to accept them and appreciate them. Use them to your advantage.

Sesame Street will always be regarded as spectacular production to me. It was right up there with Saturday Night Live as an example of great transitions.
Those guys understood how our brain works. We all have short attention spans, it’s just more obvious in kids. Sesame Street doesn’t go more than three minutes on anything. From what I remember, every one to three minutes, there’s a transition. They don’t give the kids time to get bored before they have to wrap their brain around something new.

We made sure that the audience never sat in silence, there was always something happening. During set changes, we had fake announcements or commercials that ran on the screen. I produced about ten video clips to keep their attention during changes. They worked like a charm.

We also used lighting to move their attention. When we had to make a major change on one side of the stage, we put a spotlight on something on the opposite side. Simple, but effective.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes darn close to perfect. The cast was mostly teenagers from the youth group. They did great, but we found out quickly what their weaknesses were. If we had one less week of rehearsal, I don’t think we would have had a chance.

The finale was set to music, no dialog. Everyone just came and went, following the music. I figured out really quick, that modern teens can’t follow music unless there are drums and repetitive lyrics. The classical piece from the Nutcracker, left them completely lost.

Days before the show, we had changed the finale about three times, just to make it simple enough for them. Then I got mixed up and jumped out, based on the original show. Dang it.

We found our weakness and adjusted. Rehearsals give you opportunities like that. Anything that isn’t flexible, will eventually break with enough pressure. Be flexible.

The night of the show, I gave these guys my infamous pre-show speech. It was something like this.
“Guys I appreciate all your hard work getting us here. I am very thankful for all you have done. But now it’s show time. For the next two hours I am going to be a complete tyrant and none of you will like me. I am not your friend for the next two hours. I am a miserable taskmaster who expects perfection. When it’s over, we can be friends again. For now, this show has to happen.”

Most of them were fine with that. I think I scared a few of them. We were all smiling, but they knew I was serious.

Know your audience.
The audience was primarily Christian adults between 35 and 55. One of the big script conflicts happened when I tried to introduce something more appropriate for an audience of mostly 14 year old boys. I thought a scene built around an old lady farting would be awesome. Nobody else did. It got cut. Probably a good thing. I didn’t like the change, and even got an attitude for a while. But it was a good call.

Technicians and performers.
My big suggestion for these guys, keep them separate. Most of the parts that I considered bombs involved blurring those lines.
Having me produce, direct, coordinate all the tech and even act in this large, live show was a bad idea. I became a bottleneck in several places when people needed me for one area, but I was busy in another.
The other issue was when my techs were acting and doing set changes as well. Just too much responsibility on someone who already has to remember lines.

Another major issue happened when my front of house tech had to abandon his post and tried to help with a special effect… onstage. A special effect that he didn’t rehearse. One that I am still not sure he was ever involved with. Still have no idea why he was the one who ended up onstage with special effects.

The audience didn’t know we bombed all those parts. It looked fine to them, but to us, it was tragedy. I was stressed out. Something like 250 hours of my life crammed into that show. One performance.

All said and done, it was a great experience. Something I always wanted to do. Glad I got it out of my system. So, what’s the big point here?

If you are responsible for the tech side of the show, stay on the tech side of the show. The stage end is where the crazy people hang out. Keeping those lines clear usually makes for a much stronger show.


  1. Solving the mystery of the disappearing audience | The Art of the Soundcheck - November 1, 2013

    […] me to pull together almost every aspect of production I had worked in. Remember that story from The separation of tech and stage post? I couldn’t help but reference the Sesame Street crew in that one, and I am going to do […]

  2. Three Keys for a Successful Tech Rehersal | The Art of the Soundcheck - November 26, 2013

    […] Two. Get your crew involved. Do not assume that you will grow extra arms prior to the show. The cloning process isn’t ready, yet, either. You will need help. Whenever possible, draft other techs for the critical stuff. Pull from the more responsible kids in the youth group for runners. You will be very thankful you did. I almost ruined a major Christmas show, because I took on too much responsibility. Yep. Read the Separation of tech and stage article. […]

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