It is always a great pleasure to welcome The Chameleon Theatre Group back to Chandler’s Ford Today. We are sorry their Spring Quartet production had to be cancelled and we hope it is not long before we see them again on the stage at Ritchie Hall. Janet and I very much look forward to our “CFT works outings” again in the future!
Meanwhile, for a fascinating look behind the scenes at sound, lighting, set design, and props, read on… and as ever many thanks to The Chameleons for the interviews and the photos. (Many thanks also to Janet Williams as there was a useful picture for this post in the CFT archives taken by her).
Sound is the first topic for this week. A sound plot can be very simple or extremely complex but music and sound effects are essential to creating atmosphere in a play.
Wayne Bradshaw was sound engineer for Atlantis and has possibly the most extensive experience as he needed all 80 cues allowed by our system!
Wayne, what do you find most challenging or fun about creating a sound plot for a production?
We now have computer software to run the sound for our plays and pantos, which makes things very easy. We can now do virtually anything, your imagination is your only limiting factor. Sounds can be mixed, merged, duplicated, played backwards all at the flick of a switch. Cues can be made live, set on timers or run automatically after a previous cue. The system works superbly well and is very intuitive.
The actual performance is straightforward, you just follow the cues on the script. As long as all the preparation has been done beforehand that is. You usually follow the director’s instructions, it is their play and vision and they usually know what sounds they require.
The opening and closing music sets the scene, sound effects like thunder, cars, birds etc are usually obvious and easily obtainable, then there are more interesting sounds/music to set atmosphere or mood which can be challenging and fun to find and use.
We have a computer with a sound cueing program nowadays, how did we add sound to a play before it?
As I say, it is easy to do now, but when I first started our sound system was a twin cassette deck. I taped the sounds we needed, often spent hours cutting and splicing the tapes with sellotape and the nearest I could get to special effects was playing two tapes simultaneously. I guess that shows how old I am.
Clare Britton, you have managed the sound desk three times now, what do you enjoy about finding the music or effects for a production?
The reason why I like doing the sound it adds another layer to the production; a sound can set a mood as it does in films. It’s something the ears are waiting to hear. It fascinates me, I always look at films with a sound or not and now have caught myself thinking, “ oh I wouldn’t have used that”.
I enjoy it as you feel a part of the play as you have to follow cue lines to be on time with a telephone ring or a door bell. I source a lot of sounds from the internet and manipulate them with the program.
Carrie Laythorpe, musical director for Atlantis, adds:
We have a large directory of sound effects, everything from automobiles to zoo sounds. If there are songs in the production then the director usually provides those. And there have been a few occasions when music isn’t available and I have recorded myself playing it on the piano.
The photo shows our tech desk set up, with Lionel Elliott supervising, Sheila learning about lighting and Wayne working on the sound and video laptop. Not the most exciting of photos, because we rarely take pictures of it, despite its importance to a production!
Allison: Isn’t it always the way of it though that the “unglamorous” jobs are often vital to the overall success of any project? That would be how most writers would see editing. You won’t see pictures of me editing. It would not make for a riveting photo but without it, I wouldn’t be published. Nobody gets it right first go!
This week we talk technical again. Lighting in a theatre is vital, otherwise you wouldn’t see the actors! Although there is one play, Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, where the lighting is reversed and when the lights are supposed to be on they aren’t and when the stage is supposed to be in darkness it’s lit!
As with sound, lighting changes add atmosphere to a production. They can be used to indicate passing of time, illuminate different areas of the stage or entrance and exit of certain characters. Think sparkling bright white or gold hued Good Fairy or dark green or dingy grey light for the Wicked Witch!
Lionel, our technical guru for many years, has summarised our lighting system:-
Ten years ago we identified the opportunity to computerise the operation of the ‘white’ lights as Simon Grey had developed sample software that showed the potential possibilities. We developed a Windows front end aka Graphical User Interface (GUI). Two hardware boxes were developed to convert the GUI instructions to run the Digital Multiplex (DMX) circuit and then to convert to run the ‘white’ lights.
The Chameleons first used the ‘coloured’ lights (DMX lamps) in 2006. Nowadays we can run ‘white’ lights, ‘Colour’ DMX lamps, Mini Spots, UV lamp and 4 switchable sockets.
Sheila, who is not terribly technical but can programme our lighting system, adds:
The stage itself has ten ‘white’ lights which can make the cast very hot, especially in the summer. The coloured lights are on the middle bar above the audience in the hall itself and we also have a UV light right at the back. A couple of years ago, our ordinary follow spot died suddenly and we bought a modern one which can give coloured light.
I wanted to learn how lighting can be used to complement the set, action and acting to add another dimension to theatre. I had a lot of fun with Jamie, our young lighting man, as we plotted dingy lighting or bright green follow spot on Surpia the Sorceress in Atlantis. Using the UV light was exciting in July for the Farndale Avenue comedy we shorten to Mars and learning about sequencing lights together to provide a disco effect as we had in Ali Baba’s party scene for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Allison: Since the above first appeared on The Chameleons’ Facebook page, the coronavirus outbreak has disrupted life for us all. Hence the following…
Sheila: Please note that all “interviews” have been email! Keeping safe so we can carry on when this is over ….
This week, we look at set design and how we can accommodate complex plays on our tiny stage. As our regulars know, the acting area at the Ritchie Hall is very small, with two small doors at the back of the stage accessed by steps and one large opening on stage left to allow us to set or strike large objects.
Over the past few years, we have invested in a new system consisting of aluminium supports bolted together with mdf fronts. This can relatively easily be put in place and varied where doors and windows are needed.
Sets can be as simple as black curtains or slightly more complex such as the use of side flats and backdrops as we do in pantomime. Most plays need a “box” set, three sides of a room with doors, archways, windows and these can be very complex.
In October 2003, Mike Morris directed Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel. If you have seen the play or the film, it’s set in a tiny cottage with a garden. We used a dais on one side of the stage with a step down for any cast acting in the garden. The narrator sat or stood on the forestage on the opposite side.
Mike, who designed the set?
The set was my own design although of course I did not have the skill to construct !!! As always, the Chameleons team built it from my drawings, which I still have! There were lots of props, including an old Marconi which was Roger’s (stage manager) pride and joy.
The photos show the empty stage with all the furniture and set dressing in place and the “garden” with Jan Bradshaw as Maggie, the second sister.
Our second set is that of The Ladykillers by Graham Lineham and directed by Liz Strevens.
Liz, please tell us about the set?
It was a very complex set because it has to feature several locations: A living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, a rooftop and a train tunnel. We also needed a front door to the house, which had a corridor behind, an obscure glass panel and was backlit so that when the sinister Professor Marcus appeared behind it he presented a very creepy silhouette.
There was also a hidden staircase that actors could be heard ascending and descending and an under stairs cupboard into which I crammed five actors at one point!
How did you set about such a difficult task?
Getting the feel of an old house was important and details such as yellowing the paint and wallpaper all added to the period feel and authenticity. I had to measure the stage carefully and made a detailed scale plan of it before we started construction. This was one of my favourite plays.
The photos show the main stage with all the entrances, the cupboard under the stairs and the kitchen, again built out from the main stage.
Allison: The Ladykillers is my favourite Ealing comedy and a great film. Sadly, I didn’t get to see The Chameleons’ production of it but I think the You Tube clip will bring back musical memories of a great story.
Allison: And now for an interview all about props! Props play a large part in comedy of course (Ken Dodd and his tickling stick to name but one. Eric Morecambe and his paper bag trick for another) but for stage productions they are vital. They can be used to conjure up era (this was particularly effective for the Blackadder production) and a production just wouldn’t work without some… For a play to work there has to be a setting and where there is a setting there are props to help bring that setting to life.
Now back to the Chameleons…
Our final topics for behind the scenes tasks are Stage Management and Properties. A stage manager needs to be well organised and Roger Hester has, over the years, overcome many of the issues involved in keeping tabs on what’s happening on stage. He has a board detailing all the set changes and nowadays also has a video link to his laptop so we can see what’s coming up!
A prop, formally known as theatrical property, is an object used on stage or screen by actors during a performance. In practical terms, a prop is considered to be anything movable or portable on a stage, distinct from the actors, scenery, costumes, and electrical equipment.
Consumable food items appearing in the production are also considered props. The earliest known use of the term “properties” in English to refer to stage accessories is in the 1425 CE morality play, The Castle of Perseverance.
The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first usage of “props” in 1841, while the singular form of “prop” appeared in 1911. During the Renaissance in Europe, small acting troupes functioned as cooperatives, pooling resources and dividing any income. Many performers provided their own costumes, but special items—stage weapons, furniture etc were considered “company property”; hence the term “property.”
We asked a few of our props persons to tell us what they had found fun, difficult or odd to create!
Sheila Hardiman said that the most difficult thing was a mobility scooter for A Bunch of Amateurs, the oddest thing to create was Cyril the twelve foot snake, made for Goldrush Mountain, and the funniest thing was having to cover someone in dip for some reason although I don’t remember what play!
Carrie Laythorpe says: My favourite thing to make was the beanstalk for Jack and the Beanstalk a few years ago. I had an awesome team of helpers too – Go Team Beanstalk!
Diana Mills: A crocodile that had to show either side of the stage, face one side and tail the other for Peter Pan.
Liz Strevens: It wasn’t difficult but the weirdest prop I ever had to source was the coffin for Dracula. Nick contacted the undertaker across the road from the Ritchie Hall and asked if they could lend us one and they did! They even came over and measured Simon, who played Dracula, up for it! A real coffin added enormously to the sinister atmosphere of the play.
I can’t remember the panto but I really enjoyed flinging a bucket of water through a ship’s porthole right in Terry’s face.
I’ve made so many weird things they all blur together; but making and painting Cinderella’s coach in my kitchen took many hours and was a labour of love (with a little help from Simon with a jigsaw).
Lorraine Biddlecombe: Mine were the cardboard uv painted props for 2 Farndales: sea creatures + space things. I remember them taking weeks to do — took over my garage, conservatory + hallway, stacked up everywhere waiting for one side/bit to dry before doing the next etc.
Pictures are: the beanstalk, the coffin, the crocodile, the uv sea creatures and the pumpkin carriage.
Allison: Many thanks to The Chameleons for a fascinating insight into life behind the scenes. Regardless of your walk of life, there are those whose work we all depend on but whom we rarely think about. For people coming to see a play, our first focus is on the actors and then on the quality of the script etc. Only later do we think about the lighting effects and so on.
Maybe one good thing to come out of the coronavirus outbreak is a deeper sense of appreciation for the so often unseen work. I do hope so. And best of luck to The Chameleons for the next production. I very much look forward to coming along.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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