Technical Theater Know-Hows to Enhance Your Recital

Dramatic lighting can greatly enhance the mood of your performance.

You know in your mind’s eye exactly what you want your recital to look like onstage. But when you get to the first tech rehearsal, you end up spending an hour trying to find the right words to explain your concept to the technician running the lights. Here is a primer in technical theater to help you go from dress rehearsal to the final curtain call with ease.

Who’s Who Backstage
First, it’s important to know who you’ll be working with to turn your dream performance into a reality. Of foremost importance is the technical director, who will figure out how to build your set, then oversee construction. He or she is sometimes in charge of lighting as well. Another key member of your crew is the stage manager, who calls cues during the performance and helps keep the backstage organized and running smoothly. If you can find a stage manager with dance experience, even better. The stage crew chief decides how scenery shifts will be accomplished and assigns the stage crew, who work backstage during the show, their individual jobs.

For lighting, the lighting designer decides where the lighting instruments should go, how they should be colored and which ones should be on at any given moment. The electrics crew hang, adjust and operate the lighting instruments, supervised by the master electrician. The sound engineer operates the sound system during the show.

If hiring all these technical specialists seems hopelessly daunting, not to mention expensive, remember that if your recital takes place at the local high school or college auditorium, your crew will most likely be made up of students, who can usually be hired for a reasonable price. Since rental arrangements vary widely, Drew Campbell, author of Technical Theater for Nontechnical People and an associate professor of theater technology at University of Texas at Austin, suggests asking the following questions when you’re thinking about booking a theater space:
-Does the venue require a technician or technical director?
-If so, do they know how to operate the lighting and sound systems?
-If so, are they available to run the show?
-If the answer to either of the last two questions is no, then does the theater know of anyone who can be hired to run the show?

If you’re renting a theater in a union house (in which the crew are members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the stage manager is a member of Actors’ Equity Association), there will be an additional labor cost separate from the rental. Finally, keep in mind that lighting designers generally work on a one-time fee that is negotiated directly with the designer.

How well you work with your crew will directly affect the success of your recital. If you delegate tasks and allow the crew to have creative input, you may be pleasantly surprised. “Many of us would like to be very much in control, but for me the best results were when I let go of that sense of control,” admits Ella Ben-Aharon Salonius, who has taught dance in Israel and recently formed a dance company, T E A (Trans-personal Education & Art), in New York City. “Allow the designers to bring their talent into the show, not just as decoration.”

Lights & Sound
Lighting for dance is traditionally done from the wings of the stage, as side lighting is the best way to illuminate the outline of the body (versus theater lighting, which comes from the front and highlights the actors’ faces). Side lights are mounted on a long pole, called the dance boom, at four different heights: the shin buster, which lights up the lower leg of the dancer; the crotch light, aimed at the hips; the mids, for the torso; and the heads (you guessed it).

Square pieces of colored plastic, called gels, can be inserted into the front of each lighting fixture with a gel frame in order to create colored light on the stage. A metal pattern, called a gobo, adds to the texture of the lighting design. The gobo is also inserted into the front end of the fixture and throws a patterned shadow across the stage.

So that’s the basic vocabulary, but when you’re in the theater, and you’re talking to the lighting designer or technical director, how do get across what you want? Campbell suggests playing the music for your lighting designer as early on as possible. “It really starts and ends with the music,” he says. “Then the lighting designer can understand what you’re after.”

Invite the lighting designer to a rehearsal and discuss what each piece is about, and what the dancers are trying to convey. Yvonne DeKay, owner of the Yvonne DeKay School of Dance in Ironton, Ohio, has been teaching dance and producing recitals for 40 years. Whether DeKay is working with a college student or a professional technical director, she always takes the time to discuss the moods of each dance. “You have to explain what’s going on—if it’s death or if it’s love,” says DeKay. “You have to explain the scene—especially in ballet, where there are a lot of emotional changes.”

As for the music, sound design has been made infinitely easier over the past decade with the advent of CDs. Almost anyone can burn a CD, hand it over to the person doing sound for the recital and be done with it. One sound tip: You may want to ask for an extra set of speakers in the right and left backstage wings to make it easier for the dancers to hear cues.

Backdrops & Sets
One of the first questions the lighting designer will ask is, “What are you using for a background?” A black drape hanging down the back of the stage can be just as effective as a cyclorama or cyc, a specialty drop that can be illuminated from below with cyc footlights to become any number of colors.
Backdrops have studded metal holes at the top of them, called grommets, which are attached to a metal pipe called a batten with black tie line. The batten is then raised into the air, with the drop hanging below. If you want to rent backdrops, ask for recommendations of local sources from the technical director or do some online research. Many backdrop companies have online catalogs and offer an extensive number of drops (particularly for classic ballets such as The Nutcracker) that can be shipped anywhere.

Feel free to use your imagination when considering the backdrop for your recital. “You can really keep it simple in dance and get abstract,” says Campbell. “There are very few rules.” One of Campbell’s most successful drops was a silk parachute purchased at an Army/Navy store. “We moved it up and down and it became different shapes and lit beautifully,” he says.

A scrim is a specialty drop that changes appearance depending on how it’s lit. With a bright light coming from the front, a scrim looks opaque. But when dancers standing behind the scrim are lit, it appears translucent. DeKay used a scrim during the performance of one of her ballets, in which a girl is turned into a butterfly. “She was behind the scrim dancing as the butterfly [while] the prince was in front,” explains DeKay. “We had low lighting in the back of the scrim and brighter in the front, to get the effect of him wishing that she was there.”

For props and set pieces, parents can be a valuable resource. Any parent with a knack for painting can help create background scenery, and one with carpentry skills can assist with building simple sets. In the theater, sets are often made out of flats, wooden frames covered with plywood or canvas that can be stood on end and braced from behind. If you need to add texture to your flat, consider covering it with Styrofoam, which can be purchased at your local crafts store. Use a screwdriver or knife to carve the surface and then paint it to create remarkably realistic (yet lightweight) stone or brick walls.  

Ask if the theater has a counterweight line set system, an elaborate pulley system used to fly in scenery and backdrops during a show. If there is one, there should be someone on the crew trained to run it. If you don’t have a trained crew member, don’t touch it—rigging systems are terrific for changing backdrops between dance numbers easily and quickly, but can be extremely dangerous if used incorrectly.

When Good Recitals Go Bad

Of course, there will always be minor mishaps. Costumes will fall off, dancers will bump into the backdrop, and light and sound cues will be late. But the theater, with its dark wingspace and heavy battens, is a place where safety should be taken seriously. Line the edge of the stage with glow-in-the-dark tape, so dancers can see clearly where it drops off, and remind them not to lean or pull on any equipment. Also, ask the lighting designer for a spotting light—a single lighting fixture with red gel at the back of the house—so the dancers have something to spot on while they’re turning.

Be careful when using fog, smoke, snow or bubble machines to create special effects. DeKay learned the hard way, when her high school ballet dancers slipped and slid through a pointe routine that immediately followed the use of a bubble machine. Any effect that causes a slippery stage should be eliminated.

If you want to find out more about what goes on backstage, check out your local college or continuing education program. Twelve years ago, DeKay signed up for every theater course her local community college had to offer, including classes in makeup, costumes and lighting design, and says that her recitals improved dramatically.

Despite this extra learning, DeKay believes that “you are never really ready; there’s always more that you should have done.” Her one piece of advice: “Each show is another learning experience and you just have to hang in there. Every year, it gets better.” DT

Fiona Kirk is the editor-at-large for
Stage Directions magazine.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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