Thinking outside the black box- production values and shoe string projects

As everyone who works in the theatre world is well aware, the perceived wonder of theatrical performance is created by a lot of hard work, most of it unseen and behind the scenes.  Set, lighting, sound, costumes, props, projection and special effects all contribute to production values and go a long way towards creating the world of a show.  Lighting can make a space creepy and shadowy, transformational set pieces can allow a story to move from place to place, snow falling over the audience can be a magical moment.  It’s an extremely diverse subject, but often these are the aspects that audiences remember most. I saw a show at the Unicorn Theatre recently which had a live rabbit in the final scene, and I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.  I’m sure the children in the audience enjoyed it too.

Are production values playing a role in why audiences are tuning in to So You Think You Can Sing/Dance/Whatever in such large numbers and often not turning out to The One Man Show in a Black Box?  Surely it’s not simply because of marketing or because of the stars on telly.  People have traditionally gone to the theatre to be awed and amazed.  It’s not called the MAGIC of theatre for nothing.  And too often contemporary theatre lacks those aspects of showmanship, so audiences are turning to television or other sources to get those thrills.  When audiences flock to Wicked, they are not only going for quality performances and a catchy score, but to see monkeys fly, a witch on a broomstick, and a girl with green skin.  As a studio performance with a cast in blacks, it might not have quite the same impact and success.  We love magic because we don’t know how it’s done, and we need to regain that sense of mystery in theatre.  It is easy for those of us who live in the world behind the scenes to forget the simple wonder of a character appearing in a puff of smoke.

For Wicked and other large scale shows, this is not a problem because the scale of production values tends to be directly proportional to budget.  This means that most shows are either large scale with big casts, live musicians, moving lights, elaborate set pieces, projection, flying, etc., or small scale with small casts and a bit of lighting and sound equipment (usually belonging to the venue), with little in between.  Furthermore, at the Edinburgh festival or a London fringe venue, creating a show on a shoestring is a matter of pride, and artists are often told that this should stimulate to think creatively.  Artists may even be actively trying to make their shows simpler, because they only have 15 minutes for their turnaround, or to make touring more economical.

As a result, many small scale companies focus solely on performance, with other elements being added on in the final day or two in tech, largely just because they are expected – a bit of walk in music, a few lighting cues, done.  Of course, some shows are truly best as pure performance, with little or no production values at all.  But surely it’s easier to think more creatively and produce more varied results with more potential tools in our arsenals.  More importantly, these decisions need to be actively made early in the process, so that composers, animators, and other creatives can be involved in the development process, integrating production elements into the show as a whole.

In recent years, with technology developing to the point where projection and animation aren’t just for experts, and shows experimenting with live streaming and audience interaction via Twitter and online voting, it seems like those on the low budget end are missing out.  Is it really true that smaller companies don’t want or need technology and equipment to integrate and improve their shows, or is this just something that we tell ourselves because we think we can’t have it anyway?  And is this even true?  Production values don’t have to be so far out of reach, and certainly don’t have to cost the earth.  I’m sure the live bunny at the Unicorn was paid a very reasonable wage.  And if a certain element is planned and budgeted for as integral to the concept of the production, it should be considered just as necessary as cast salaries or a tour van.  It could even pay for itself, as something that makes the show stand out or even brings in new audiences.

Venues are looking for good quality shows with high production values, and too often are finding that they have to choose between them.  At house, 3 of the 7 shows we have programmed for autumn 2014 are solo shows.  Audiences want to be wowed, and word of mouth is more easily created when a show has something particularly memorable and unique about it.  Production values can also help venues to attract audiences who might not be regular theatre-goers.  For example, a show with high video production values might more easily appeal to video gamers or film buffs, while one with a full-sized Ferrari onstage could appeal to car enthusiasts.

This does not mean that unnecessary effects and elements should be shoehorned into shows just to get a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the audience.  True production values are about setting our imaginations free and enhancing the story and characters by allowing them to do what our imaginations say they could and should.  It’s about saying ‘yes’ to creative ideas and thinking outside the black box so that theatre audiences can be startled and amazed by the magic of theatre, and forget about all the hard work behind it.  So, who wants to come see my new show where a live bunny flies a Ferrari?

Heather Rose

tour coordinator for house