Director’s Notes: Technical Difficulties

This week, instead of getting done with the work I’d intended to accomplish, I have been coping with technical difficulties in the form of a non-working laptop. Although I’m sure this is a familiar refrain to modern life, it’s no less irritating, nor is the timing ever convenient. In this case, it’s just stopped my research project dead in its tracks, unable to continue until the situation is resolved. Vexed as I am about it, the truth is that I would much rather deal with my own personal, private technological hang-up than have anything go wrong at work, when problems affect everyone.

Stuff goes wrong in theatre. And the rule about more moving parts resulting in more potential for things to go wrong, means that these days, in most productions, there’s a fair amount that is just one power hiccup away from a problem. When it happens, it gets resolved as soon as possible (and bless the adrenaline spikes that my more technically inclined colleagues must live through when fixing it is their job!), and the usual question thereafter is, “Did anyone notice?” This generally means the audience, as you can be pretty sure that everyone involved was sharing in at least a flutter of the palpitations. The real question, though, is “did it matter”, because although there will always be some people who are attuned to such things, if the actors are doing a good job and the subject matter is compelling, most people won’t care about minor glitches. We’ve all seen someone sing through a microphone glitch, or ad-lib brilliantly when a cue got dropped; there’s a reason performers carrying on through illness or injury is stereotypical theatrical lore. Whether it’s due to technology or people, things go wrong, and you want everyone to keep going as if nothing had happened.

Sometimes problems are instructive and useful. Of course you’d rather have those lessons learned when it doesn’t affect a performance or an audience, but even then there can be occasion when it turns out surprisingly well. Although I rarely remember problems I’ve witnessed six months later, I’ve never forgotten one glitch that I witnessed in a performance. At the very climax, rather than telling the audience that one of the characters had died, the entire theatre just went black, before the lights returned to normal for the final scenes. Though my description makes it sound rather heavy-handed, it actually worked in a surprisingly effective and delicate matter. Afterwards, I complimented my friend, who had done the lighting, on that choice. “Oh, that wasn’t supposed to happen!” she told me. “That was a power problem.” But it had been so much more effective than the intended cue a few moments later, that I believe she went back and altered it to make the ‘mistake’ an intentional event for the rest of the run.

It’s rare that things go wrong quite so advantageously, but I think sometimes we should look upon those moments as challenges rather than “problems”. “Keep calm and carry on”, the classic British axiom, is one of the basic laws of the theatre. (Or, to put it in the terms with which I was raised, “If there’s a dead body in the wings, step over it and get on stage on time and don’t you dare drop character!”) The truth is that, although it’s uncomfortable, limitations sometimes push us further and create something stronger in the long run. If we have every “easy” solution right at our fingertips, perhaps we miss out on seeing something new and different and more interesting. I’m not advocating for technical problems as a solution to creative stagnation; I’m just suggesting that, when they do arise, hopefully we rise to the occasion and find something new in ourselves that we’re able to use in future performance, even if it’s only a stronger resilience through adversity. Difficulties during a show have to be solved right now; they demand our nerves and quick creativity.

Ironically, this tension between striving for flawlessness and the realities of fallibility is part of what makes live performance so appealing, both to watch and to create. Unlike film, there is no second take, no “do-over”. Every moment is on a knife-edge, a breath away from chaos. I suspect this aspect is subliminal in most audience minds, but when people ask me why I prefer live theatre to the cinema, part of the answer is probably that feeling of potential danger. In the grand scheme of life, it’s generally pretty low-risk, but it still manages to be high-adrenaline, mixed in with the dynamism of creativity and collaboration.

Domestic technological issues do not, unfortunately, come with any of these redeeming features. So it’s off to the repair shop, and goodbye to the academic work I had hoped to get accomplished in the next few days. But “there is no problem which does not come with a gift in its hands”: at least I can read through the scripts that are sitting on my desk and not feel guilty about temporarily putting that work first! Even in the cloud of ordinary, non-dramatic technical problems, a silver lining can be found.