Tech Blog: Ruddigore 2008

by Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

The 2008 production of Ruddigore would be the last where I was properly in the driving seat as Technical Director. MD for this show was Fiona, while directing was left to Chris Charlton (returning after directing pirates) and Andy Lawson (widely believed to be one of the best comic actors of the society turning his hand to directing). Ruddigore is one of the few shows that actually requires a technical effect for the show to work, namely the ghosts appearing in Act II, this combined with the total scene change from happy outdoor village of Rederring to the horror-inspired interior of the baronet's castle is what makes it perhaps the most demanding show to perform.

Traditionally, the ghosts appear in Act II by stepping through their portraits, which are built as doors for the cast to enter through in blackout. This doesn't tend to work well, and there are even reviews going back to the original production that mention it. Other productions, such as Opera North go slightly more high-tech, with painted gauze hiding the ghosts, who would appear when lit - with the internal lights down, they looked like normal canvas portraits. If you're really posh, you can do that trick with a 45 degree mirror to reflect an apparition, or perhaps projections or any number of fancy methods that look incredible but are difficult to pull off in a theatre environment.

Given the limits of budget and of Central Hall, however, the directors came up with the idea of having the ghosts appear behind the audience and having the portraits go black to represent the characters having disappeared from their frames. Trying to figure out how to do this was a little more difficult, spinning them around was out, as was flipping down a black cover - the method had to be both quick, quiet and reversible. The idea quickly evolved into dropping a curtain but the brief still required the curtain to raise up, so it had to be more complicated than just letting a curtain rapidly drop under some weight. Starting with solenoids and motors and a ton of high-tech ideas, the curtain was eventually done by threading three-four pieces of cord through each sheet so that it would bunch up correctly when pulled (disappearing behind the frame) and the cord was threaded through the back of the set where it could be operated by the two stage hands, Vinca and Natalie. It was extremely lucky that the cords had just the right amount of tension and friction to keep them in place, but enough weight to allow them to move easily when the stage hands lifted or pulled the bar backstage. Once one prototype had been made, it was a "simple" case of replicating it 6 more times in different sizes and scales. In the DVD these got some After Effects treatment, glowing green as the ghosts appeared - perhaps an effect we could do for real given some clever lights and mirrors… actually, no. The actual pictures themselves were the only remaining "high tech" aspect of the portraits, as each was a custom print of the cast members, with a suitable Photoshop filter to make them look like paintings, rather than actual paintings, which would have taken a far longer time to get right and would undoubtedly have looked comical.

Switching between the two acts still proved difficult; the frames would have to be a permanent installation in the set - although we managed to alter the middle one to hang it and thread the cord through in the interval, doing it to all of them would be impractical. Each portrait was securely screwed to a flat, and we managed to get Jim's large upright one in position by inverting the usual orientation of the flats on one side. We also had the central entrance as built for Kaleidoshow to contend with (more on that later). Opera North's production had the advantage of a proper theatre and the ability to create something truly stunning that was wheeled in from the wings, and previous society performances have resulted in entire set changes during the interval, or unfathomably complex folding out flats. The result for 2008, was to make the entire set the basis for Act 2, with the flats all painted a nice pillar box red with the frames ready attached. Act 1 could then be achieved by mounting a series of new, lighter flats in front of the main set which were unscrewed and dismantled in the interval - during one show the wooden frame did snap, but this was repaired for the next performance and at least something didn't snap that was needed then and there. The central entrance received the same treatment using a removable archway to go over the top. With most of the red flats and frames revealed during the interval, there was still and 8 ft by 8 ft section that was originally the central entrance and this was covered with a modular fireplace (the same one built for The Little Sweep). The fireplace used the same system as Pirates to slot the pieces together and the frame was built to snugly fit into the central entrance with a few bolts - remarkably, the joins between everything were difficult to see, probably thanks to the busy look of the set with the gold leafed portraits and painted fireplace. The set took the longest time to get ready, with much of the first two rehearsals done without the first act set at all. In fairness, this was my fault for not getting on to the physical building quick enough, it was only Julia's production of Sweep that kicked us into building the fireplace in December and many of the flats were painted red in L/028 during rehearsals (combining set building and rehearsals have advantages and disadvantages, but this year it was done out of necessity).

The central entrance was used for some big reveals throughout, and rarely for anything else. In the first act, the stage hands (who probably had the most to do during the performance itself out of all the shows) erected a white screen behind the entrance and pulled back the curtains to allow a silent film to be projected on to it. This was synced in to the music by help of a click track playing in Fiona's ear. The main trouble with this was that the projector in Central Hall is very limited as to where it can point, so the film was restricted by re-rendering it at the right size once everything was in place, which took at few attempts to get spot on. The effort of setting up the click track and resizing it to fit was worth it, as I've seen projections used in many shows and this is the one I think was pulled off the best, even out of professional ones (including the Theatre Royal's panto, which invariably includes a very funny video montage, but it doesn't interact with what is happening on stage at all). The second point involved Despard's first entrance, with the curtains pulled back as ominous red lights beamed into the audience from behind him - perhaps one of the best entrances of a character ever, we don't even need to hear him sing "oh, why am I moody and sad?" to get the point that he is thoroughly bad. This was quite a contrast to the Opera North production that played Despard's entrance entirely for laughs. The next major reveal was James' ghost emerging from the fireplace in Act 2, which followed much the same pattern using red lights.

Given Andy Vick's involvement with the lighting, we got a few extra treats in the form of the spare parcans that live in Central Hall - something that I didn't know were there until Ruddigore. A few were placed on blocks 1 and 5 in Central Hall and faced the stage. These were used to great effect every time a character said "Ruddigore"; the main lights would dim and the cans would flash, complete with a thunderous sound effect which the cast reacted to in different ways (playing the rule of funny as to whether they were aware of it or not). This special effect certainly gives a whole new meaning to Old Adam's line "it's like eight hours at the seaside". We also managed to upstage James Duckworth (oh yeah…) by unexpectedly carrying on the flashing for a good 10 seconds longer than needed on the final night; this worked in the context of it basically being the last time the effect was used, and he did manage to claw back some face with a deadpan improvised "hmmm, yes…" at the end of it.

Ruddigore was best known for its major technical fudge-up on the second night. The sound effects used to announce the ghosts were keyed from a laptop, but on the night iTunes was still open and instead of a mysterious gong, the audience were treated to about 20 seconds of what we think was Hawaii-Five-O - it was thankfully too quiet to be too bad.

See also:
Ruddigore 2008
Ruddigore 2008 at the G&S York main page
Ruddigore at the G&S Archive

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