The Waiting Room Tech

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Director Larissa Kokernot shares a light moment with Stage Manager Elizabeth Nordenholt during tech

It is Easter Sunday and we’re sitting in the dark. Again. We’re in tech for “The Waiting Room,” by Lisa Loomer, directed in this BA Only incarnation by Larissa Kokernot, here at USC School of Dramatic Arts. I should be having a strong sense of deja vu, as I was the SM for a workshop production a gajillion years ago, at the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Plays, directed by David Schweitzer at the John Anson Ford Theatre.  I know I attended the production when it moved to the Taper in August of 1994. There have been a lot of productions since then, and the “old hard drive,” aka my brain, needs defragging; it is almost like I’ve never read this play before.  I sat in rehearsals for at least two weeks, probably more like four when we did the play before 1994. Only a little more than 20 years ago. Sigh. Anyway, here we are now, and the three women who make up the characters of this play, Forgiveness from Heaven, Victoria, and Wanda are sitting on their respective clean white gurneys, designed by Sarah Krainin, and lit by Adam Blumenthal, in a triangular pattern arrayed on the set.

Sound Designer and Composer Colin Wambsgans builds cues during the last break of the night.

We’ve just finished teching what Director Larissa Kokernot refers to as the (spoiler alert) “Gurney Ballet,” and which I will always call the “A.R. Gurney ballet.” (I know; it’s a cheap way for me to add a tag to my blog to increase readership among scholars and theatre goers and generally swanky folk.) The A.R. Gurney ballet, masterfully choreographed, lit and with sound by Colin Wambsgans, serves as one of a dozen transitional moments in the play. The play transitions nine separate times in the first act, so as a director, one has to come to the table with some magical solutions. Hence the ballet. Larissa is a straight shooter. She is practical, straight forward, with a strong creative overview of all the play’s elements.

This production sports a lot of gurney-like objects. We did a serious purge of extraneous backstage furniture to accommodate the many silver-legged-white-topped furniture pieces. This followed a complete reorganization of tools we use in the space all the time: ladders, the “leg cart,” which holds the pipe that supports our audience risers, and the genie lift. Sarah and I poked our head into the dressing room yesterday, and Sarah said, “that table’s not doing anything.” I watched as the crew members, Shannon and Emily, who were sitting at the table using it for their homework began to look sad as we planned to remove their island of comfort. Those islands of comfort are critical for survival of tech. But backstage space is as important as on stage space. Designers and stage managers discuss stage real estate in production meetings. But for now, the storage issues have been solved and we are marching through the cue building. The actors are, during tech, in a metaphoric waiting room. The focus is not on them, but as I said to one of them during a break, “This is valuable time for you, to work out things that have bothered you that you haven’t had time to figure out.”

197 is Wanda’s line. 198 is Wanda’s cross.

Guest and Alum LD Adam Blumenthal works with THTR 130 student Casey Dunn on the light board in the McClintock Theatre.

It is great having Lighting Designer Adam Blumenthal back in the theatre with us, though this space didn’t yet exist when Adam was a student here. Adam graduated in 2007, and is now an accomplished lighting and scenic designer, as well as a magician. He works bicoastally, which is nice for me. I never hesitate to call him because he has defined his workspace as both Los Angeles and New York. Take note, designers, this is useful if you can swing it.

We hire guest designers to work on our shows sometimes; they are professional role models and give mentorship for our current students, augmenting our full-time design faculty. There is a also a magical theatrical echo effect when one of our alums comes back to play with us. On The Waiting Room, it happened when we were shuffling the furniture around the space and Adam saw the park bench we were using for the show. He greeted it like an old friend.

Hey, that’s the bench I designed for “A Boy’s Life!”

We have a guest stage manager, guest lighting designer and guest sound designer on this production. Elizabeth Nordenholt has worked with us before, as the stage manager last spring for “Fortinbras.” She has a wonderful easy way of working and demonstrates complete respect for actors, designers and her director. She keeps the room tone light and moving along. It is probably the most important role a stage manager plays – that of host or hostess of the creative tech process.

Let me know when you are done, Adam and Colin.

She nudges us all along, reminds us when to keep our voices down so that she can continue to communicate with the designers. She always takes a beat to ask the designers what they need before running a scene or moving forward. She cues the actors respectfully, and starts each scene with clear instructions.

We’ll be taking it from Nurse Bruce’s entrance. Whenever you are ready, Ladies!

Scenic Designer Sarah Krainin taking notes during tech.

I am often asked by students: Do you have to go to every tech?  Their eyes are usually wide with incredulity when they ask this. I’m not at every tech, but at about 90% of them. What allows me to keep my sanity? Perhaps this blog helps, but what keeps me engaged is the alchemy of constructing a show during tech. The designers work fervently, quickly, convening creatively after building their cues, the stage manager calling new sequences which are now much more than the sum of their parts.

As we worked the last transition, the women saying good-bye, the last tableau unfolding, leaving Forgiveness and Wanda on the last gurney center stage. I’m thrilled to report that the play has in large part, returned to me, powerful images and certain iconic scenes, which I will not spoil for you, tickling my memory.

When we finish tech in a few minutes, we will run-through an hour or so of the play in the time that’s left; the actors will take their play back, new and improved with lighting and sound and fluid transitions.  Tomorrow we’ll add costumes.

And on Thursday, we’ll hopefully add you, the audience!

Tickets for The Waiting Room

The Great ShakeOut Flash Theatre Day

They just kept pouring floor after floor. We had bets on whether we would lose the US Bank building view. We can just see the crown now.

The other day, Brian James Polak, a recent graduate of the USC MFA in Dramatic Writing posted on his FB page that his play was being produced in a Flash Theatre Event sponsored by the Chalk Repertory Company, directed by Larissa Kokernot, performed in the new high-rise apartments at 8th and Hope in Downtown LA.

Nearing the top with the exterior glass.

Our family  has watched this building rise over the past several years. In recent weeks, we watched from afar as the hip denizens of downtown began to move into the building. The particularly irksome thing over the past few weeks has been watching every damn light in the place on at night, exposing empty apartment after empty apartment. I guess that’s the point, it makes us want to move in, right?

So when I saw Brian’s post, I was intrigued and also frustrated, because I will be working this weekend, unable to attend.

Today was a particularly long and tiring day at work. As anyone with a pulse who lives in California knows, today was the Great ShakeOut, the statewide earthquake preparedness drill which we have practiced for about 4 years. At the University, this drill has been so fine-tuned that today, when we set up our DOC – sorry, I can’t remember what that acronym stands for – designated outside center? Departmental Outside Center  we BERTs were like old pros. (Building Emergency Response Team members)

The drill instructed us to set up our DOCs, and then to do the duck and cover drill at 10:16AM. We had a great time setting up our DOC, pitching the pop up tent, and wiring up the inverter to the battery on the utility cart so that we would have power to charge our phones should the need arise.IMG_2942

The SDA Status Board
We visited the School of Cinematic Arts’ DOC on our way back to the office.

The whole exercise, setting up our station two hours before the scheduled earthquake is a touch ridiculous, because of course, we won’t have that kind of notice when the real thing happens. However, having seen the Ebola situation in Dallas unfold, I am a new and staunch believer in the value of practicing a protocol until everyone feels pretty damn secure with it.

Virginia and Helga are ready for any challenge that this drill brings! Virginia even brought breakfast for us all.

Having set this station up twice now, we know where everything is, and we all know what needs to be done. So when the day comes, and it is coming, my friends, instead of running around like chickens with our heads cut off, we will know exactly where the bullhorn is, the emergency triage supplies, etc. The DOC status board, which listed the rather mundane tasks we accomplished in checking our inventory today, may one day list important information about the location and condition of SDA Staff and faculty and students. There was an air of joviality today, as we got ready for a major earthquake event.

Once the drill was over, we returned to the office and finished the day out with two production meetings. I arrived home at about 7:30PM.

My husband and I sat in our dining room to eat the pizza I had resorted to ordering when I got home. I looked up and out the window toward the brightly lit 8th and Hope building. There, I saw a group of adults standing in an empty apartment, and I said to Jimmie, “Hey, I think that is the audience for Brian’s play over there.” We both went to the window to look across, and could see the audience members and a trio of actors having what looked like an argument in the center of the room. Trippy,  right?
So I took some photos.IMG_4112 This is pretty much what it looks like from our balcony without any magnification.IMG_4110 And this is what we can see when we use the 30X camera lens. I went back to the Flash Face book page and this is where it got really weird. I posted the pictures and within about 4 minutes, I had heard from both Brian and Larissa. This world is just too wild. Real time reporting and  reaction. Are there any limits to what is possible given the technology and tools we have?