I generally like to think that I’m pretty laid back when it comes to the workplace. My students would surely disagree. The cool demeanor I try to put on dissolves when my anal-retentiveness shatters the facade. “Keep the script pencils over here instead of there” “Don’t bend the lamp gooseneck because it’ll wear out [maybe]” “Load the first sound cue just in case the hard drive spins down, even though the drive is set to never spin down and it would be a matter of milliseconds to spin back up, and the first cue’s timing doesn’t really matter too much anyway.”
I hope that this tendency leads to a reduction of stress in the sound booth and during the show; accomplished by having no extra stuff in the way, with all necessary elements given a designated and functional place to exist. I try to create a “feng shui” environment that allows the board operator to give their entire being to the show. And if you’re wondering how my cabling looks – it’s immaculate. Not only is it orderly and secured, but it’s perfectly functional. For the show Aladdin Jr., I clearly remember taping multiple power strips to the table so that there would be no straggling cables on the ground asking to be disrupted. This was the first production in which I used QLab – it was October 2006, and with the complexity of a show with music tracks, scene music, and sound effects, I didn’t want to rely on a minimum of 3 sets of CD players/tracks to execute the playback. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I stole a PowerMac G4 from my old high school, and began my still-ongoing relationship with QLab version 1.
The failure incubates…
Given the lack of resources, there was no possible way for me to run a redundant computer for if something, anything, happened to it during the show. I barely had the one computer in the first place! I know there’s no excuse to let the well-being of the production rest on such a fragile single element, but please believe that I went above and beyond with my $0 budget and $500 Sound Designer’s fee for the 129+ hours I put into this show (I actually documented my hours for this one). Furthermore, if I was very careful with setting up all the elements and even MORE particular about how I routed the cables, there shouldn’t be a problem. Enter: Becca.
From that show forward, it became necessary to “Becca-Proof” the sound playback computers. I’m not sure if I ever told her that I used the phrase endearingly. She was a fantastic board-op, and I appreciate how seriously she treated the role while still enjoying the process. Not to mention that she accepted and implemented my directions very well, and without complaint. Becca, if you ever read this – I have you to thank for giving me the knowledge of how to avoid a massive failure in the future. And for the 12 years following that I did sound design, I never had one.
To the Disney copyright executive reading this, I humbly recommend skipping to the previous blog post instead of reading this next section.
We didn’t use the original music tracks as intended. They were honestly a little bit lame, which I can suppose is because they had to distinguish Aladdin Jr. from the indefinitely showing production of Aladdin at the California Adventure theme park, as well as to make it an accessible production for elementary schools and non-performing arts academies. We may or may not have finessed the tracks to better represent the beloved score of the original film, with some extra key changes, dance breaks, underscores, and the like. This created a higher dependence on the music tracks working because the show had been reconstructed to feature the music so much more. Given that this was the first show this theatre company had ever produced that relied on recorded music tracks, we had the music director behind a piano at the front of the stage – just in case something went wrong. And waddaya know… something DID go wrong. Why do you look surprised?
Becca, in what I can only assume was a frantic stupor of sleep deprivation, somehow managed to kick the power strip supplying the computer’s lifeblood, just before one of the big numbers in the show. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I was told she had to leave the mixer (with mics still live) to run down and tell the pianist to shuffle through her music and play the song that the actors were presently pretending wasn’t supposed to be happening yet. The pianist played the music, the actors sang the song, and the 8am elementary school kids were none [much] the wiser. Becca scampered back to the sound booth and restarted the computer… and the following number played as intended.
I subsequently found an uninterruptible power supply in the disheveled sound lockup that I had never noticed before. It was used from that show forward, (until I installed the new $26k sound system 6 years later. If the power strip were ever kicked again (it wasn’t), the computer would stay on, the music would play on, and the show would go on.
Funny enough, 13 shows later this exact fail-safe would see some active duty during the production of Mulan Jr. wherein I thought the closing performance could use a little extra oomph…