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Learning Through Teaching

Jacob Coakley • Editor's Note • June 2, 2008

I read an article online today that takes the electronics industry to task about the upcoming digital TV crossover. In the article, the author Jeff Porten writes, “We have accepted the creation of a category of digital have-nots, who either rely on tech-savvy friends and family, or who do without.”
The problem with this is that the people “who do without” don’t actually want to do without. That’s where theatrical de-signers and technicians come into play. We are the tech savvy.

While he’s talking about consumer electronics, this piece immediately put me in mind not just of the divide between artistic staff members (who often demand the impossible) and their tech staff (who are left trying to figure out how to make it work), but even the divide between different technical folks. I heard a story recently from a technical director friend of mine who was asked to help out with the sets at a local elementary school’s spring pageant.

He went down to the elementary school expecting to paint — worst case, perhaps even build — some flats. When he got there he had to explain to an overly ambitious volunteer why rigging a household curtain track to the dropped ceiling, and then flying a child in a cardboard box hung from that curtain track across the stage, would be a bad idea.

That’s an extreme example, but consider this. A few minutes after I read the article about digital TV, I read a blog post from Nick Keenan, a Chicago-based sound designer and theatre artist, explaining how he uses a software program to streamline his technical rehearsal process, allowing him to wirelessly and remotely control the laptop that’s running sound for a show. It was an elegant, low-budget hack and has helped immensely in his rehearsal process. (You can go to Nikku.net to read the whole thing.)

In the comments section of the post, someone asked him how to do it. Not only did Keenan reply with a well-thought-out, clear guide to implementing this solution, he offered to let the commenter who had asked the question come into a rehearsal the next time he did this to get trained on the technique.

Point being that not only do we as technicians have to be continually learning and upgrading our skills — we have to continually be teaching them as well. Not only is everyone’s safety involved with what we do, but technology moves too fast now for any one person to stay abreast of it all.

Keenan wryly admits to this in the title of his blog post, “Chicken of the VNC: The already-obsolete design gizmo that you’ve never heard of.” So go ahead —  talk out loud to the artistic staff while you work through implementing a solution; take the time to explain to new stagehands why things are done a certain way; share your time- and cost-saving solutions with other designers. We may not ever be able to erase the tech-savvy divide, but we should be able to make things better for all creators along the way.

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