Last week the world almost ended while I was at the Old 505 theatre in Newtown. I’d been here before, mostly in the audience, but over this five night residency I was the tech operator for Blind Tasting, a beautiful play by Paul Gilchrist, performed brilliantly by Sylvia Keays.
From the bio box I could view the stage, and watch both the audience and the performance through a rectangle cut into the partition that divides the original ballroom of the old Newtown School of Arts. It is now a theatre and a foyer with a well stocked bar. It’s comfortable, intimate and beautiful and if you look up, next to the rigging, you can see the original plaster ceiling panels. Not a bad place to be for the final showdown.
‘Teching’ a show is a little like being a DJ. I have a lighting board and a sound console and two computer screens, all with which to mix the mood for the play. And although it sounds complicated all I have to do is press the buttons in the right order. Our lighting designer had already created and programmed the light cues, and the soundscape had been taken care of by the director. It included rain and thunder, seagulls and cicadas.
By the fourth night of this five night run everything was going smoothly. I had wrangled my fingers so they tapped the cues at just the right moment. I was dancing back and forth between light and sound and feeling like Nicky Siano at Studio 54. But then suddenly disaster struck. I began to lose control of my console. I’d just activated Cue 5, the excited chatter and squawk of seagulls, when suddenly I heard the gentle patter of rain, Cue 8. In a panic I checked the screen. What was happening? Had I hit the wrong button? No. The arrow signifying Cue 5 still serenely blinked its little green light at me. Nothing seemed to be wrong but why could I hear two cues instead of one? And then sounds that weren’t even programmed into my QLab software began to tumble around me. The theatre revealed its own musical score, one that I had no authority over; the whistling of wind rattling old window frames and the rustling of paper, starting and stopping at uncanny moments.
I looked up expecting the audience to be looking around in confusion, the actor raising her voice to combat the shamble of sound, staring daggers at me that said, ‘fix this bloody mess now!’ But no. The show was blithely continuing on its amusing little path completely oblivious to the impending disaster unfolding in the bio box.
It was just me. And all of these computers. Suddenly I realized that those Luddite nightmares that had plagued me for years were about to come true. Any sane person knows that computers and robots are about to take over the world and force us into mindless slavery. More mindless even than consumerism. But I’d thought perhaps we had a few more years of human autonomy left; the remainder of my lifetime ideally. There was still so much I needed to buy. But alas it seemed that the time had come. A technical catastrophe preceding the final annihilation. An apocalypse. Armageddon. The end of the world. And our new technological masters had chosen to start their universal domination by taking over my soundscape!
I made myself calm down. After all, if it really was the end, I may as well enjoy it. If these computers were determined to take over the show, then perhaps I should use this as an opportunity to pop over to the bar and order a gin and tonic. I slowly edged away from the tech desk, and as I did, the sound of wind and rain got louder and louder, until it was all I could hear. But the beautiful Sydney summer day on the stage remained undisturbed. The audience didn’t know that it was raining. And suddenly I realized that it wasn’t the fabricated world that had gone awry after all. Apparently the ambitions of the machine intelligence before me were still dormant. It was the real world that had turned intemperate.
Let me explain. The bio box was actually the stage of the old dance hall we were in and behind me were the glass windows of the building, covered over with paper to keep out any light. It was through these that the sounds of rain and wind, that were whipping the world outside, were coming from. The audience were surrounded by walls and thick black curtains which is why they couldn’t hear anything except what was happening on stage. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, which did turn a few heads, as I leapt back to the desk just in time to press the next cue.
I’d been so excited to be able to watch each performance and, like an alchemist, or a high tech god, add sound and light to the world on the stage. But now I realized that I was the one in a performance, which had its very own soundscape, administered by the great tech operator in the sky. It was as if he or she had been watching me all along, like I’d been watching the audience and the actor on the stage.
“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”
Had Shakespeare been a tech operator too? Perhaps he’d also had strange behind the scenes experiences? Maybe I too would now be able to write thirty seven plays and one hundred and fifty four sonnets.
Theatre is a strange medium. Odd things happen. The space itself becomes a new character with every new play. With all this drama perhaps the walls retain the residue of all that’s been before. All of those characters created, and then left behind when the actors move on; each set laboriously made and then exuberantly unmade. And what of that old ballroom that preceded us, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d suddenly heard the whisper of satin slippers and the flutter of dance cards.
Theatrical productions are the result of a temporary illusion imposed on a permanent structure; a new way to look at the world, a view into someone else’s experience. In the theatre you can live vicariously the human drama, suspend reality for a time; enjoy for an hour or so, another world, another place. And when we emerge, and the lights come up, and the actor takes their encore, we slowly come back to our own realities. But we’ve experienced magic, perhaps we’ve had an epiphany; and hopefully that means we take a little more joy, or empathy, back out into the real world with us.
Image of Newtown School of Arts Ballroom, courtesy of Eastside FM