Tech blog: The Sorcerer 2010

By Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

I was quite surprised to see The Sorcerer selected as a show back in 2009. Being Gilbert and Sullivan's first proper operetta (Trial By Jury is technically a cantata and Thespis doesn't really count and is lost anyway) as well as being slightly short and a little odd, it's not very often performed. James Knowles of Kaleidoshow directing fame took the job as director, while Jenny Draper juggled assistant directing, chairship and costumiere at the same time. The musical director was Anna Stephenson, who will probably never walk into an orchestra pit in high heels again thanks to last night pranks courtesy of the crew. The show managed to pull in a good group of enthusiastic freshers who are now spearheading the committee and directorial team for The Gondoliers in 2011. So, you know the format by now, let's get it over with - now that I'm recalling all the technical aspects of the show, this may take a while…

Technical Directors for this show were originally planned to be Mike and myself. As we were both now very much in full time employment (albeit with remarkably flexible hours) neither of us had the time to do the whole TD job ourselves. Mike would sort out anything that had electricity moving through it and I would do anything that required a hammer and saw. However, come the Joint Committee Meeting to pick directors, we had a rival team in Nick Hall and Abigail Richardson and the indecisive oiks committee put it to us that all four should do the job; Mike as overall TD, myself as Stage Manager (fine by me), Abi and Nick doing sound lighting management respectively. So it pretty much panned out 95% of how we figured it would.

The Mikado had successfully seen off the last of our usable flats and so we embarked on a quest to build some new ones. These were a radically different design (radical as far as building flats are concerned, at least) and used a much higher grade of wood, a different frame set up and properly dove-tailed joints for extra stability, not to mention proper screws rather than a couple of nails. Bolt holes were also pre-drilled in an evenly spaced repeating pattern so the flats could be put up in any order or any combination. The theory behind the whole design is that they can also be used to make 3D buildings as well as large flat backdrops, as the wood is thick enough to have another set of bolt holes perpendicular to the usual ones. Starting in the Easter break and Summer Term 2009, we managed to make 5 flats that were given their first blooding in Dialogues of the Carmelites by the spangly University of York Opera Society. We did have well intentioned plans to complete the set and bring us back to a working compliment of 11 plus doors but never quite got around to it - plans for The Sorcerer were beginning to formulate and we weren't sure if we'd even need them all anyway. Mark and Mike's original pipe dream (from as far back as April, I think) of a giant 18 ft tall Victorian mansion was eventually scaled down to a chapel house and by November and the concept was finalised and designed properly. This is possibly the most far in advance a set has been properly designed and remained unchanged; short anaimation of the concept was uploaded to YouTube on November 8th and is pretty damn close to the finished product. Truly this was the only time where our concept image looked anything remotely like the end result.

The chapel was mostly erected out of the flats we had built months ago, painted yet again with bricks. The new feature that we had never tried before was the doorway with actual working doors, which proved trickier to hang right so they would open freely on stage, especially with something as "flexible" as set rather than a solid house to mount them on. Unlike our previous double entrance, these frames were made from scratch and had a reasonable chance of holding some weight. The gabled roof and bell tower were custom built mostly in show week itself - indeed, we were stuck for exactly how to pull this whole bit off until show week because of the height. In the end, the bell tower was put up in two sections; once the roofing joists were in place the bell and a frame went up and was screwed on, the bell tower itself was then slid across it and secured using a curtain to act as the back of the tower. The bell tower, naturally, featured a working bell. It was originally meant to be made of papier-mâché but this was too weak and was taking the cast far too long to make. A chance discovery in Barnitts lead to us using a plant pot that was turned upside down - indeed it looked more like a bell when inverted than a plant pot the right way up. The mechanism was built out of an old bike wheel, but wasn't too sturdy and partially slipped off during the opening of the matinée - it was too high to repair in time so the final performance was done very carefully. The look of the chapel was completed with some stained glass windows made of cut up plastic and electrical tape (classy), and lit with some spare parcans. In all, the chapel looked awesome, and the AV staff even said it was the best looking thing they'd seen in Central Hall for years - too many years of CHMS productions that looked like they were performed in generic junk yards, perhaps?

With this attention lavished on stage right, the opposite side was a simpler affair featuring a gazebo. This was hastily, but sturdily, constructed and covered in material that Mike had pre-cut to the right size. The whole thing was quite rustic looking, but the ease with which an entire section of stage was set makes the idea worth coming back to. Worth mentioning at this juncture is the costumes for The Sorcerer. Without doubt these were the most lavish seen for many, many years and were about as far removed from the costumes for Ida as it is possible to get. Each member of the chorus had their own costume made, constructed or altered especially for the show - crinolines and top hats featured heavily - and seeing a group of actual characters rather than a gaggle of identical and generic chorus members was a refreshing change. The standout two were Helena's green dress with a sizable bustle and Hannah's tavern wench, but of course, I'm biased.

Still, the set and costuming was relative child's play compared to the rest of The Sorcerer - the clue is in the title, really, there is going to be some sort of magic somewhere and there were a good few technical set pieces to work on. From early on the director wanted JW Wells to just "pull a table out of nowhere" for the banquet scene. Originally this was to be hidden in the gazebo, in fact it was the entire reason for the gazebo, but the mechanism was complicated and no one could figure out how to pull it off. With the set design sorted by November, this table was on our collective minds until well into February. We eventually built what would affectionately become known as Sparky The Magic Table, a small banquet table that would magically expand to twice its size at Wells' command. This was no easy feat and had little time for errors and rethinks once we had started. Obviously, an expanding table would have to come in folding sections - there is no other practical way of doing it considering our budget and equipment. I should mention that the brief included resting things on the final expanded table, so no tricks of just stretching some cloth over empty space. The major breakthrough, then, was realising that these sections could actually fold down and weren't restricted to folding up - in hindsight it's incredibly obvious, but we were stuck going down set paths and needed a kick in the right direction. You see, when Terry Pratchett describes Disworld's wizards as standing near a blackboard constantly shouting over each other, stealing chalk from each other and franticly rubbing bits out to put their own thing on just as someone rubs that out to put their bit on, he was describing the design process for Sparky. So, a quick change in concept from "pulling it out of the gazebo" to "just a table that expanded" meant we could do things a little different and the design took off from there. Sparky consisted of three parts; a central piece that essentially didn't move, and two side pieces that would shoot out on rails under the tension of a lot of shock cord - I'll one day work out exactly how much force that thing was under, if the improvised bracing and reinforcement was anything to go by it was a lot. The gaps would be filled by folding sections that were also primed with shock cord to snap in an open position, both holding it firmly enough for things to be put on the table, and fully opening the table once the main bits of elastic had ran out of tension (I think Ben takes the credit for that idea). Sparky worked flawlessly only on two of the performances (receiving a spontaneous applause from the crew who were relieved to see it actually work) and in none of the rehearsals. On the first night, one of the wheels ran over the table cloth, jamming it and preventing one side from fully opening and in the matinee it triggered early, leaving Chris and Megan who were stage hands dressed as waiters to move it on in its fully extended and unweildy form. I can only imagine what the matinee audience was thinking, seeing two people move a table that was clearly too big to fit around the corner on to the stage. So, 65% successful?

Our next major special effect was UV - that is, ultraviolet to the uninitiated - effects. Using some specially bought paint, we could touch up pieces of the set to glow under UV light, which was used fairly extensively throughout. We touched up one or two costumes and props with it, but the main feature was the giant magical circle painted on the floor. Since Ruddigore in 2008, we had been using hardboard flooring to cover the otherwise dangerous and tacky surface of the Central Hall stage blocks and we decided to exploit this by painting it with UV. The design was inspired by the transmutation circle from Full Metal Alchemist and I think several people noticed what it was without prompting - less obvious was the 8-pointed Star of Chaos on the gazebo (Wells is definitely a Tzeentch cultist, definitely). The circle lit up magnificently and was pretty much invisible unless you were close up and looking for it. The UV panels that produced the light were a bit more troublesome; as two of them were left over from the CHMS production of Rent the week before, this is hardly surprising. Somehow they refused to switch on properly and instead only responded to noise - quite how or why is anyone's guess, something to do with DMX channels, just ask someone who knows what they're talking about. This was eventually solved after a lot of trouble shooting by the lighting guys and a lot of frantic phone calls to figure out exactly what was wrong with them.

The next effect would be the use of dry ice in Wells' teapot. With the UV lights turned on, the transmutation circle appeared exactly around his table and he began mixing the love philtre. This was originally going to be simple pyrotecnics - and we had working concepts the previous summer - but the health and safety approval was lacking (Mike and James didn't attend the pyro course until two weeks before the show and they needed three weeks notice "to inform the council" or some such bollocks). Anyway, I managed to source some dry ice, which was put into a foam cup that remarkably fitted inside the teapot perfectly. Thanks to pre-heating the water in Wells' bottles with the backstage kettle just before he walked on, the effect worked well, and was finished off with an ominous spot that lit most of the vapour in an eerie red glow. Wells' "gig bag" also contained a vial of glowing fluid, expertly extracted from some cheap blue glowsticks by myself (I have the recipe to make large quantities of the chemicals involved and briefly pondered doing so). I'm not sure how well these could be seen in the end, but at least the call for Aline to drink it on stage was dropped.

The final effect was the most punishing, at least financially. This involved a smoke machine, which is a cheap and effective theatre effect that pretty much anyone can use. Except we needed to pay call out charges to the University to switch off Central Hall's fire alarm (well, switch it from "smoke" to "heat" detection) and then back again once the show was finished. This in total amounted to £500 and we weren't made aware of it until about three days before. A charge that was doubly galling considering that the duty porters - which we have to pay to be there anyway - are more than capable of doing the job and indeed they normally do, until the rules changed about a year or so ago. But that's the University for you, although at least I got to see the most expensive turn of a key ever that didn't involve arming a nuclear weapon. The smoke was used primarily to hide Wells' sudden exit at the end; we had the screen pulled down just far enough so that he could dip out under the cover of smoke and red light and no one was any the wiser that he had slipped through an apparently solid wall of black. Was the effect worth it? Perhaps. It would definitely have looked shit if done any other way.

So, that's the last of the main shows for now, the longest post for the most demanding show yet. Why am I still doing this again?

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