A couple people last month asked me why I work on the school productions. They note I complain a lot, and sound stressed when I talk about how the show is going. When even my father asked me, I realized I need an answer, and so I have been thinking about this during last week, when we were getting the show ready to go, and this week when I have been recuperating from the effort.
The short answer is that while some parts drive me crazy, I like many aspects of working in high school theater. Making things that people use is deeply gratifying, whether that thing is a computer program, or a quilt or clothes or toys. Seeing my work used makes me absurdly happy. Designing and building sets for a show feeds that gratification because it provides an environment for the actors that supports them emotionally as well as physically, so they can do their work to the best of their ability.
The design process is generally solitary, but design for theater requires that the sets be build-able, useable, and fulfill the requirements of the script and of the director. I start with models, because describing brainstorms to people doesn’t go well, and my drawing is not up to the perspective involved.
If my overt duties are designing and building things, and teaching the kids I work with those skills, I also have a covert agenda. I hope I am also demonstrating how to use tools, how to work in teams, how to solve engineering as well as social problems, how to be capable and kind. So I teach about how tools are used, and hand drills and hammers to everyone. I can empower the meek, rein in the thoughtless, and encourage and follow the wise, if I do it right.
Can I take a moment to talk about kids these days? I love them. I think the teenagers I know and work with are astonishing. They behave better with their peers, and show more kindness towards their adults, than I remember applying when I was their age. Faced with challenges and diversity, they are crafting a much nicer world than the one I came of age in. I know thoughtlessness and even unkindness exist but they are harder to find now. I look forward to the world when they have control.
When we work together, we get a lot done. They require insane amounts of pizza and donuts, but they also supply insane amounts of effort and enthusiasm.
Eventually, the show happens. Before the show happens, production week happens. That part is profoundly stressful, but it is hard for everyone. The integration of scene shifting and light and sound cues with the choreography and blocking the actors and director have been working on for months is finicky and effortful. But once the initial integration is accomplished, settling the varied pieces into their proper places, polishing the production until it runs cleanly and well can be gratifying. And by that time it is mostly out of my hands. With the build crew the set was accomplished, with the light crew, the lights were hung and focused and colored, the sound crew makes sure everyone is heard… all that remains is to keep the edifice upright until the end of the run.
What we do is a large piece of impermanent art. We build a huge, rickety clock-work construction; we wind it up, and it unwinds in a real-time, live performance. And the next night, we wind it up again. It is big, and complicated, and has many moving parts that interlock and depend on each other. It interests me that the thing we build is almost equal parts technology and humanity. And it amuses me that if we the technologists do our part well, the audience won’t notice it. It delights me to provide a platform for this level of joy:
And I shall tell you a secret: my absolute, most favorite part is taking it all apart at the end of the show, reducing the construction to parts ready for the next one.