Among the aphorisms about theatre that can be guaranteed to rouse a resounding hurrah—or “likes” and retweets, depending on the venue—is one that goes something like this, in a few of its variations: “Theatre is the original 3-D.” Or, “Theatre is the original virtual reality.” Or, more recently, “Theatre is the original social media.”
On the surface these may seem like little more than wishful self-congratulations, as if to say: “See, we stage folks are more relevant and up-to-date than all the doubters and naysayers claim!” Worse yet, such confidence in theatre’s self-sufficiency can sound like a convenient dismissal of technological innovation—for if theatre in its most elemental forms can be said to have anticipated, indeed to contain, every new way of seeing and experiencing narrative, who needs all these pesky new apps and upgrades?
There’s a complicated truth behind this theatrical originalism: The fact is that theatre’s liveness and real-time-ness does contain and embody many of the things we are always searching for, or always seeking to rediscover, in our narrative arts: immediacy, a sense of presence and relationship to what we’re watching, illusion and imagination, immersion. But rather than insisting on a purist version of that experience, theatre has survived for millennia precisely because it has welcomed and adapted technology as eagerly and as nimbly as any other medium—perhaps moreso, since it literally brings us all together into the same room, and those buzzing cellphones in our pockets aren’t the only new toys we inquisitive creatures bring into the mix.
Increasingly, all the lighting instruments and stage machinery in our mid-sized and larger theatres are programmed and networked via software, and operated from mouse-clicking desktops like the ones we all sit and type and stare at everywhere now. Increasingly, as audience members, we can’t tell if we’re looking at solid surfaces, projected images or some combination of the two, and we’re hearing sounds mixed and sampled like never before.
And yet invariably at the core of the experience are live performers, clothed and costumed by hand, moving through spaces built and designed and lit by artisans, and speaking or singing in their own human voices (if often slightly amplified or processed). Theatre’s essence is still irreducibly performative and inherently social, no matter how many programmed lights, fog machines or video monitors mediate it.
Theatre’s inextricably both-old-and-new essence is one thing we wanted to explore in our first special issue on Technical Training and Production. In a series of stories about the people who sew the costumes, program the lights, build the sets, and fine-tune the sound systems for today’s theatres, we look at the ways that the nuts and bolts of theatrical storytelling have changed on the ground for those charged with tightening and fastening those nuts and bolts, and the ways they haven’t changed. The group of craftspeople and artists we spoke to represent the same mix of dreamers and problem-solvers, big-picture thinkers and fine-grained tinkerers, that you’re likely to find in any sector of the stage business; only the job descriptions are different.
And, in the technical disciplines, those job descriptions are evolving all the time. In his excellent overview of the ways that technology is driving trends in training and hiring, Mike Lawler—theatre technician and author of the indispensable guide Careers in Technical Theater—cites a story from a professor at New York’s City Tech, who recalls hearing “an old Broadway general manager reminiscing about crew size for Broadway shows. When asked if the crews today are bigger or smaller than they once were, he explained that the number of technicians required to mount a production decades ago was quite the same as today—the difference is what the technicians are doing. Instead of moving scenery by hand, they’re operating automated scenery, for instance. You need the same number of bodies, in other words, but the skills they require has changed dramatically.”
There is theatre’s core strength in a nutshell: It is both ever changing and always the same. Inside, read about the folks who keep theatre’s technology train on track as it zooms through changing stations.