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Breaching the Great Wall

Dave McGinnis • TD Talk • March 1, 2007

Sometimes, it just takes a little talk to smooth out the world.

Many technical directors lament the seeming inability of administrative staff to comprehend the position. A TD in Texas I used to know had a frightening, but entirely plausible, experience with precisely this.

The artistic director of the theatre in question wanted a star curtain made out of Christmas lights. The TD immediately set about pricing what it would cost to get his hands on a star curtain, and the best option turned out to be to rent one. The AD could not comprehend how it could possibly be more expensive to build it than to rent it, as the materials themselves, while expensive, didn’t add up to the cost of the total rental. This was true, but this was not an academic theatre. All crews were paid, and this expense usually came out as the largest for an entire production budget. The AD simply didn’t know.

These are the nuances of tech direction that many artistic personnel seem to lack, but they are not malicious, and they do not intend to make a TD’s life harder. How, then, do we open lines of communication between personnel who speak disparate languages?

The Drive-By Meeting
As a TD, it is entirely likely that your office is located somewhere in the vicinity of the basement. While this facilitates proximity to the stage or shop, it impedes your access to administrators. It will often help to engage in what I call the “drive-by meeting.” These meetings take very little time out of your day and can remind the AD that you are present, that you do exist and that you work.

Instead of sneaking in through the back door because it’s closer to the coffee, enter through the front door closer to the office. Stop by the AD’s office for a quick run-down of the day’s upcoming activities. Ask any questions you may have. This way, you know anything that you need to know before you’ve even reached your office.

Make sure that these meetings take place in person. Do not accept “I sent you an e-mail” as a response. E-mails may give us quick answers to our questions, but they usually omit some necessary detail that can only be gleaned in person.

A Little Training Never Hurt
This refers back to that concept of no malicious intent on the part of artistic staff. Many seemingly ridiculous requests made by artistic staff usually stem from a lack of comprehension of what actually takes place in the shop, and the worst mistake that a TD can make is to answer any request with, “You can’t do that.” This common response immediately creates an atmosphere of contention and can give rise to the bully rumors to which too many TDs fall prey.

For instance, I was once in charge of hanging a lighting rig for a high school facility when, one day, the theatre director told me that she needed hard front light in the far upstage areas. This was an understandable desire, but the space could not accommodate it. Because the attic portals over the house were too narrow, we would have to cut into government property to extend the possible beam angles of any fixtures hung there. The circuits that existed in the space were already at maximum wattage draw, so no more power could be taken from them. Also, unless the school had the means by which to purchase, rent or borrow more fixtures, there were no more ellipsoidal fixtures to be hung, either.

I could have said this request was impossible and walked away. It would have been the truth, but the working environment would have suffered with a number of my techs and her students caught in the middle. By simply explaining, in detail, what kept us from being able to reach this goal, I not only kept the director happy with a negative answer, but I also shared a bit of knowledge that she could later draw upon before asking for something else.

The big trick to clear communication between the office and the shop is understanding. I like to think of directors as tightrope walkers. They need somebody there to catch them. You can’t do that if you’re yelling and walking the other way.

Let me know what you think about this article or any other TD-relevant issues by e-mailing me at

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