Archive for April 12, 2011

What I learned from working on the play

I mentioned a while ago that I decided to be part of a play, inspired in part by Seymour Papert’s recommendation to always go learn something new. I have been meaning to report back on some of what I learned.

The play performances were in February, and it’s taken me quite a while to catch up after the play.  (There is a video on-line of the one scene where me, Barb, and our daughter were all on stage.)  A couple weeks before the first performance, I was asked by one of the directors to be part of the stage crew in the rest of the scenes.  In terms of the time commitment, agreeing to do that was an enormous time cost, since I had to be there early to set up, never had down-time during the play, and had to stay after for cleaning up.  In terms of learning, it was terrific — I got to see and do even more.

The amount of planning required was absolutely astounding.  Every scene was meticulously choreographed, both off-stage and on-stage.  One example (out of 20-30 similar activities): While Maria was singing about “having confidence,” I had to hand Steve (another member of the set crew) the drapes to go on the flats that would soon become the walls of Maria’s bedroom, which were the same flats that used to have stained-glass windows in them for the Mother Superior’s office, and I had to be done in time to be stage left to move another flat during the next scene change to create the Von Trapp’s home.  The directors made up maps and plans for every scene and every scene change which told us who did what jobs, where the smaller pieces should be found off-stage (e.g., the drapes were hanging on the closet door in the music room) and where the larger pieces should be moved (e.g., the stained glass windows went off-stage left for re-installation at intermission).  The number of moving parts, moving people, and props and set pieces was beyond my ability to juggle objects without variable names or data structures.  (My biggest challenge in the play: Moving a seven foot tall wardrobe up and down a ramp in the dark. I so worried about it tipping over and taking out the front row!)

There was a lot more mathematics and geometry than I had realized previously.  Part of the set for the church where Maria and Captain Von Trapp marry was this huge, beautiful, hand-painted triptych.  One panel was double jointed, which seemed unnecessary to me when I first saw it.  I then realized that the double joint was key to getting the triptych unfolded and folded (part in the stage wing, where there was enough room) without touching the curtain.  I don’t know who figured out how that could possibly work, but somebody did, and we had mere inches to spare.

There was new vocabulary to learn.  “Upstage/downstage” and “stage left/right” are not that hard to understand, but I had to rehearse for some level of automaticity .  When the stage manager whispers to you, with only a couple measures left for the orchestra before the lights come up, “The stage left tombstone is positioned wrong — move it three feet upstage,” you have to be running in the dark while you finish mumbling “stage left from the actor’s perspective, upstage away from the audience.”

As a computing educator, I look for examples to use in class when talking about computing.  A play is all about algorithm — it’s all about getting a process down that you can repeat, flawlessly, for every performance, both backstage and on-stage.  However, there’s almost no abstraction.  There are roles, but when it comes to the stage crew, everything was special cased.  For example, Mark gets the stage left flat unless Keefe has to be changing into his Nazi costume or Mary’s not available from the last quick-change of the children so Mark has to get her table and someone else gets the flat but it’s all different if Mark is changing into his tux for the party scene.

Something I found interesting was the work and my relation to it.  I didn’t need my college degrees for this.  Age didn’t matter either — past experience on other plays and practice on this play were what mattered.  My skill became more specialized by the time of the performances, but I was the least skilled because I was least experienced.  I was the newbie on the stage crew — everyone else had done it many times before, from the mid-50’s leaders of the stage crew, to the two 15 and 11 year old boys (who had worked on several plays previously) with whom I worked most closely.  It was very satisfying work–maybe it was the sense of community in working with the large group, or maybe it was the good cause.  (We ended up raising $17K for a local homeless shelter and food bank.)  At one point, the director asked the stage manager if she could use me to take the place of an actor who was ill, and the stage manager exclaimed, “You can’t have him! You can’t have the bedroom or church scenes if you take him!” And I was quite pleased — I liked the fact that my work was valued, despite the fact that just about anyone could have learned to do the job.

I had enormous fun doing the play.  I enjoyed working with everyone, I liked doing the dancing and being on-stage, I enjoyed feeling that I had a job that needed doing, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all that talent.  Wow!  The singing and dancing ability of my neighbors and fellow parishioners so impressed me.  I don’t know yet if I’ll do the play again next year (or in future years).  I work a lot in the evenings, like most academics.  I lost a lot of that time for well over a month.  I got teased for doing grading off-stage, holding my stage crew flashlight under my chin while I worked.  (A role for the stage crew that I never realized before: As the only people onstage with flashlights, we were often used as movable lightpoles — “Go stand there and shine your light on the floor so that the children can find their way off stage.”)  We’ll see how much I remember the fun and forget the pain by Fall when auditions for the next play start.

April 12, 2011 at 8:23 am 3 comments


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