Need Some Live Show Technology History Help Before March 4

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UPDATE March 15: I’ll be presenting this timeline at USITT and would like your feedback! Details here.

I’m on sabbatical this semester to work through some ideas I’ve been kicking around in my head for many years about the maturation of live show technology. While of course there is always room for additional innovation, it seems to me that--after a period of fairly rapid and intense development--we now have a large group of mature, well-known production technologies and techniques associated with those technologies. If you see the latest Taylor Swift stadium mega spectacular or a well-funded bar/bat mitzvah, on both shows you can see video walls, truss, chain motors, wireless mics, powered speakers, moving lights, lasers, etc, with all of it controlled by a number of more or less standardized computerized controllers (you might see the same console, in fact, on both events). That is a very different world than the one I graduated into from college in 1985, and also very different from our world early in my career when there were continual disruptive technological developments.

To establish and sequence trends, I’ve been working for too many hours on a fancy timeline which you can view here, (float over any event to see supporting details/products).

Note: Be sure and look at this on a large browser—it may not display properly on a phone.

I can’t possibly document the first ever usage of any particular technology, but instead what I’ve attempted to put on the chart is when a core, modern technology started appearing in the market, and tried to establish some point (somewhat arbitrary) where the technology became “mature”, and found in commonplace usage. There’s no way I know of to establish this exact date, but I want to get the general time where that acceptance point happened.

Notes:

  • I’ve only included technologies that were introduced and continue to be used in some way or another; if something was cool but didn’t really succeed it’s not really important here.

  • I’m including live shows only (theme parks, films etc could be whole other time lines)

  • I’ve left out costumes/makeup because those areas seem separate (I could be wrong, let me know)

  • I’ll clean up the formatting when it’s done.

And here’s where I’d like to get your help:

  • What important technologies am I missing (again, to be included it has to be in widespread use today)? Please include product names dates/references if you have them.

  • What additional milestone shows (and why they are important) am I missing?

  • What dates do I have Incorrect and what am I missing? Please include any references you have.

Thanks! Please use the contact form below. I’ll close the timeline on March 4 at 9am.

Theatrical Snobbery's Impact on Aspiring Technically-Minded Live Entertainment Students

Snob: a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people (Google)

As a fan, I am passionate and opinionated about the kinds of art that I like, and live shows without a fourth wall (as I wrote recently) are my favorite form of all. But I try hard not to look down on other art or performance that doesn’t connect with me; if someone likes it, and the artist is connecting with an audience, that’s great. I firmly believe, as the great Penn & Teller put it, there is only one “show business”, and that incorporates everything from the side show performer at the state fair to the opera star; from the Broadway actor to the singer toiling in the rock club; from the ballet performer to the birthday party magician; and from the orchestra musician to the acrobatic “showtime” kid about to kick you in the face on the subway.

And working backstage professionally in the live entertainment technology industry for a few decades now, I feel the same way about my work. To me, a wrestling show, concert, superhero stunt show, corporate event, or an ice show are all part of the same show business as a Shakespeare play: they all use live performance to tell a story. Some stories are told purely for the purposes of art; some are for commerce, some are to get some message across, and many are something in between. And for technically-minded people like myself, theatrical, non-theatre shows are often the most interesting and challenging.

However, while a few schools (like mine, City Tech) have developed to address the backstage needs of the broader live performance market, the majority of the training and educational infrastructure for live entertainment (in the US, anyway) is centered on traditional theatre and is actor focused, and sometimes exploits the “techies” (a term I always took as a derisive insult). A theatre conservatory can be a very effective training ground for actors, and in a pure numbers game, you could make an argument that there are many more actors in these programs than those interested in working backstage, and so the actors’ needs come first (even though only a tiny percentage of actors will succeed professionally). When I went to theatre school in the 80’s (BFA and MFA), this situation was justified; concert touring had only started getting big in the previous decade or so; the world of large, spectacular corporate and special events was just getting started; and Cirque du Soleil was still a small local troupe in Quebec. But in the 21st century, where “legitimate” theatre is only a small part of the overall live entertainment market, it’s a very different world.

Snobbery

I think some of the rejection of non-theatre theatrical forms in theatre schools is based on tradition and inertia, but it seems to me that also at the core—for some—is plain, old-fashioned snobbery. Of course, anyone is welcome to be as snobby as they like in their personal art preferences, but, if they carry that attitude into career advice—actively advising young people away from areas in which they could be fulfilled, have an interesting, challenging career and make a living—they are doing their advisees a disservice.

And I have argued for decades now that not offering adequate technical opportunities and support shortchanges not only the technically-minded students but the overall creative process. As I wrote in an award-winning article in 2002, “Whatever you may think of the cultural impact of these new forms of entertainment, the audience is voting with its dollars, and the language of live-performance storytelling is now evolving fastest outside the theatre world.” This seems even more true to me today.

I’m updating that 2002 article now as part of my sabbatical, and I was wondering if my idea of snobbery was a long-dead straw man from my decades-ago college and grad school experiences. So I did a bit of poking around, asked some questions on the Control Booth forum and on Facebook, and got an earful. Sadly, it seems that snobbery against “spectacle” or “entertainment” is still alive and well.

One friend from college who makes his living in the events world reported that he still experiences, “daily derision, all the time. Many theatrical lighting designers use the same shops, and when we run into each other, I hear it. ‘Oh? Working on a show for Dell Computer? How boring’.” Another Facebook friend reported that in a recent staff meeting at a school they were talking about the Entertainment Industry and a professor interjected to say "It's not entertainment, it's theatre!" A grad school classmate reported, “I was asked by an old college friend/classmate if I thought I’d wasted my education by working as a Local One stagehand. He’s a TD at a top tech theater program. I just asked him how much he makes per year.”

A poster on the Control Booth forum reported that the snobbery “is not just against spectacle, it's a general contempt for that which falls outside of the traditional art form of production design for theater. When I told my academic adviser in my BFA program that I wanted to get into systems design and theater consulting, he encouraged me to drop out and find a community tech school somewhere to study at. I had to switch to a different adviser who was more interested in related fields like design and installation.”  This person went onto a career working in entertainment as a consulting engineer, and said that “I'm sure in the eyes of my first professor, I may have a healthy career, a reliable paycheck, and a 401k, but I didn't slave for my art and sacrifice like he did using the barest set of tools available and therefore my work is a disappointment to him in comparison to other graduates… It's the fundamental difference between "theatre with an -re" and "theater."

Another poster on the forum reported, “I argued this point once in my BFA program. I wanted to go work at the roadhouse on campus not attached to the theatre dept for a bus and truck that was coming in. Load in was during the day and I'd miss some shop time or something. I was told ‘you don't need to learn how to do that, our goal is to teach you so you don't have to do that kinda thing’. When I pointed out that our program had produced 10+ full time working technicians and zero full designers in the last five years I was told that was no reflection on the program. Jump forward two years I skipped out on a day of class unapproved to go do an in/show/out for 20+ truck arena show. For those hours I missed the dept. TD decided to fail me for shop that semester... once again citing ‘you don't need to learn that stuff. Now I run a two venue roadhouse producing 200-250 events a year full time, with state benefits, and easily make twice what the professors at my college make.... plus have more design work then I can handle on the side. We all can't be designers. Many ‘professional’ designers I know also have a teaching gig in order to make ends meet. A lot of my friends who did go grab their MFA are already back teaching.... some never even ventured out into the real world. It's one of the reasons that the way ‘college theatre’ is produced happens."

And this has been going on for a while. One graduate from my school, who left a conservatory program to attend our program and has been working successfully in our field as a Local 1 stagehand for some years, reported that the university he left, “would talk down about becoming a stagehand from the first informational session you attended at the school, like stagehands were lesser people. Meanwhile, few of my classmates from there are actually working in the design/SM/PM/TD roles that the program insisted they were training for. A good percentage are completely out of the business. Another sizable percentage are doing stagehand work, many as Local One members. The percentage that is actually doing design/SM/PM/TD work seems smaller than the percentage doing stagehand work, and the percentage doing it at the highest levels (ie Broadway) is a fraction of that. To this day, I am convinced that my decision to do concert touring the summer after my freshman year was the reason I was pushed out of that program. I’d had a glowing review to end the spring semester, only to receive a letter in the middle of the summer that I was being placed on ‘warning’ for some BS reason or other. From there, it was a slippery slope where I constantly felt set up to fail. That same program later would attempt to kick out a student before their senior year because they had declared an interest in becoming a lighting director instead of a lighting designer. They were only allowed to stay after the head of the lighting program came to their defense, and that was only because that particular professor did most of their professional work as a lighting director. The rest of the faculty was ready to show that student the door because they no longer fit their mold.”  

In my own school a few years ago we had a (fortunately now retired) theatre PhD from another department take one of our best students aside and tell her that she was wasting her talents, and should find another area of study because she was heading to a life of "setting up lights in parking lots" (the student went onto be a successful member of Local 1). And just yesterday, one of my current students told me about her high school drama teacher deriding her desire to work on live shows for Disney, since that wasn’t “art”.

Advice for Snobs Giving Advice

Of course, if someone you are giving advice to loves the theatre with an unending passion, wants to/needs to/has to be a theatre artist, and understands the challenges ahead, then by all means encourage them. But if you’re a theatre snob, then please open your mind at least to the professional opportunities available for technically-minded students, and don’t discourage those who want to follow that path. And maybe you should consider broadening your horizons. Go see one of these shows you think are trash—you just might find some interesting, beautiful art that belies your expectations.

A New Animatronic Character for the Gravesend Inn

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Our original animatronic character, eventually named “O’Skully”, first appeared in The Gravesend Inn in either 2001 or 2002; I had originally gotten the character back in 2000 or 2001 as a teaching tool. He was made by KX International (no longer in the animatronic business, apparently) and had been a demo unit. He got damaged in shipping and I had to get a friend in to do machine a part for neck surgery, and after that he lived in our light lab, and even graced the cover of a 2001 Stage Directions magazine in an issue for which I wrote an article about our program’s approach.

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At some point, probably in 2002 (our records are a bit fuzzy from back then), we started incorporating him in the haunted house. As the attraction grew to the point of being unmanageable for students, the faculty started taking on the design roles, and Chip Scott and Norma Lee Chartoff, our production designers, eventually made him a new home in the Gravesend Inn, (Lighting by John Robinson; you can see the back of his head in the Stage Directions cover above).

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We started with a Gilderfluke control system, which I can see from my early cue sheets was only connected to the main show control system via a simple “running” contact closure. In 2004 I started moving things onto the network, and by 2008 we moved to A/V Stumpfl, and at that point he was running a stand-alone system but integrated over the network with (now Barco) Medialon Manager running the main show. In 2013 we moved to Weigl animatronic control hardware (writeup here), with which we happily remain today, using Weigl’s excellent Conductor software..

O’Skully was used when we got him, and over the years his joints started wearing out. We replaced the seals on his valves and so on, but eventually his fingers stopped working (broken cable inside his arm bone) and his torso got so shaky that I started programming more and more axes out each year. And then, a few years ago our attendance started increasingly dramatically (along with a reduction in downtime) poor O’Skully was running about every 90 seconds during the shows and it became apparent that he was due for retirement. Thankfully, the increase in audience numbers meant that we were able to afford a replacement.

I got in touch with Mike Blasko at Weigl, and he connected me with Bret Woodbury at animatronics maker Life Formations at IAAPA a couple years ago. Brett said he had a used character on the shelf that he could refurbish for us. On my way way back from storm chasing in 2016, I stopped in to visit her in Ohio.

She is very well built but was a bit rusty and needed a bit of TLC. Our General Manager Sue Brandt got the payment worked out, and she arrived, shiny and updated early in 2018. Knowing this was coming, I had already expanded our Weigl system, and included a full backup, seen here during testing:

The new character, who Norma eventually named “Oshkiloni” has many more axes of control, and different wiring, so we had to create a new interface box. Dominique Hunter, a graduating student, took the construction of the box on as her senior project:

And this led to a test of all the movements in the shop:

With all the pieces in place, and a new scenic design by Cory Einbinder, the old O’Skully’s wharf was disassembled under the direction of our scenic supervisor (and Department Chair) John McCullough.

And our new character moved into her new home.

We brought in the dark creative genius Todd Robbins to direct the new animatronic show, and he even did the makeup himself:

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Todd brought in Courtney Hansen for costume design:

Norma had written a new script, and Todd oversaw the creation of a new voiceover. Sound designer Sam Kusnetz integrated all that and then I spent a bunch of time last summer programming her movements. John Robinson did a new lighting design, and she rolled out for Halloween 2018. We got a very good response, and the whole system worked flawlessly for over 6000 attendees. There are videos online, but to really experience the show you have to see it in person! And, there will be a few new surprises for 2019…

I Love Live Shows But Not the Fourth Wall

Ann Courtney of  Mother Feather

Ann Courtney of Mother Feather

The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. wikipedia:

I grew up in the middle of nowhere, saw my first concert in 1977 (Led Zeppelin), and wanted to work on this kind of stuff and so I went to school for technical theatre in 1981 because it was the closest thing I could find in those days to concert touring. Working backstage on theatre productions was really fun, and that took me into a long run of working on all kinds of shows, into grad school in 1987 and into a bunch of theatre sound design. It was all fine but I think sometime around 1998, when I did my last theatrical sound design, I finally realized: I don’t like the fourth wall.

I mean I’ve seen or worked on probably literally a thousand shows, and I knew this all along, but somewhere in there I realized that the shows I most enjoy--music, variety, comedy, circus, vaudeville, magic and even educational lectures--all acknowledge that the audience is actually there.  In the same way that I don’t like realism onstage (when film does it much better) it just seems very weird to me to have the performers pretend the audience isn’t there. Of course, the boundary is always mutable, and some decorum must be maintained. And I especially like it when, in fact, the performers have a give and take with the audience.  But isn’t that why we’re all there? We are there for the performers and the performers are there to be with us. Why put up a barrier?