Dave and I were talking about theater. Surprise. We were discussing how technology was changing theater. From a technology standpoint it has gotten much more detailed.
When I started lighting, just after the invention of the candle, I had a 12-channel-2-scene-preset. I was so happy when I got a 24-channel-2-scene-preset. For those of you who did not grow up doing lighting, that all that means is that I had a light board that could control 12 channels. Each channel typically had 2 lights. The total was 24 lights, unless you needed some lights for “specials.” Specials are lights that were used for a special moment during the play. That might be just one light, or two specials per show. But once set aside as a special, you could not use the light during the rest of the show. For a 24 channel board, the same rules applied but there were 24 channels, so up to 48 lights.
The pre-set, meant there were 2 rows of 12 or 24 channels and second row of 12 or 24 channels. While one set of 12 or 24 were operating the lights you could set the second row up for the next cue. When the time came for the next cue, you used a cross fader to fade into the light cue you had set up on the row of channels that were not in use. At that point you could set up the first row of channels for the next cue and when the time was right cross fade back into that. Then set up the row of channels you had just cross faded out of for the the next cue. Back and forth, from one row of channels to the other for all of the cues in the show. This had to be done for every cue for every show.
There was no way to set up all of the cues in advance. So, there was some limit to the number of cues that could be done, just because there had to be time to set up the next cue, before crossfading into it.
I did many shows with 15 to 30 light cues. Rarely would a show have 40 cues. In a typical 90 minute show, that would average a cue every 2 minutes. Not much time to set up the row of channels for the next cue. This was the physical limit of the light board and light operator. You could only do some much.
Now a decent light board will run a near infinite number of cues, all programed in advance. While this creates work on the front end, the board operator now just pushes a “go” button and does not set the cues during the show. The skill needed for a board operator has fallen.
With LED lights and a good board you can make one LED light produce any color of light, and then change to another color without physically touching it. In the old days, one light was one color, unless you physically changed the color (called a gel). Because modern light boards and LED lights let you do so much more than in the “old days,” the directors and designers use those tools. They cannot help themselves.
It is not unusual for a show, now, to have 90 to 175 cues now. I hear of shows with 300 cues, more and more often. These are the same types of shows than years ago would have had 20 or 30 cues. Many of “extra” cues although they do something, they do not do much, but because you can have them you do have them.
Likewise, sound has changed. I remember doing sound cues on a 7-inch reel-to-reel tape player. To edit a cue you had to cut the tape and glue or tape it back together. You could not hear the cue while you cut it, so you could cut to much or to little. That was bad as there was no “undo.” To find a sound effect, you either had to record your own, or record them off a vinyl record).
Now, the internet is full of free or inexpensive sounds you can download. For example, I am member of a site that for every sound I upload, I get 5 free sounds to use, and there are hundreds of thousands of sounds on the site. Once you have sounds, you can use a program like GarageBand or other program, many of which are open-source, to create very complicated sound effects by laying one sound over another. Something that was hard to do in the past.
In the past, to cue-up a sound cue, you would turn off the speakers, and with a set of headphones move the tape reels with your hands to just before the sound effect you wanted started. Then turn on the speakers, and when the cue was called, you would turn on the tape machine.
Once the cue was over, you would turn off the tape machine and speakers, and using the headphones, and by physically moving the tape reels, adjust the tape to just before the next cue. Then turn the speakers on again. Then wait for the cue to be called before turning on the tape machine again. Then the process would start all over again.
In the past, there were physical limits to the number of sound cues you could do during a show.
Now there are open-source sound programs that will allow you to layer cues on top of cues. Again, shows have gone from 10 to 20 sound cues to 40 or 80 or more. Because you can add cues, you add them. Yes, they make a difference, but at some point, not so much.
There are also free or almost free programs that will run both the light and sound cues with just a push of a single button. Again a lower skill set is needed for an operator and more work up-front, before the show opens.
So what has all of this fairly user-friendly technology done to smaller theaters? It has made them tech heavy. You can’t blame the directors and designers for using these tools. The audience, trained on downloadable hundred-of-million dollar movies with mountains of special effects, expects to see some flash at a live play.
I remember lighting “I hate Hamlet.” The director wanted a special light to come on and off, just a flicker, every time the name Hamlet was mentioned, at least until the actor made his appearance. In the days of yore, I would have simply said that such excess was not possible. Now it was easy to do, but I am still not sure it was necessary. At least, I found it mildly distracting.
Having high quality technology easily and affordably available is a good thing, to a point. As Dave and I were saying, the problem with 200 or more cues in a 90 or 120 minute show is that not all of the cues can really move the plot line forward. So, it seems, for most shows there are still only 20 to 40 cues that really do much, and the rest are there because they can be, and hopefully they do not distract from the performance.