The Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry has been putting on Puppet Slams multiple times a year. What is a puppet slam, you asked? It’s just like a poetry slam, except instead of poetry, you have puppets. Basically, puppeteers sign up to each perform a short piece in the show. It’s really fun because you have no idea what each person is going to do, even though many of us know one another.
I have performed in the slams before. This time, however, I did not have a piece ready. Since I already told the organizer (Christine) that I would still help out with the slam in some way, and that the person that usually runs the sound cues (Adrian) could not be there for tech rehearsal that day, I was put on sound cue duty. This means that I would press play on my computer whenever a piece of music or sound effect needs to played.
Sounds simple, huh? However, sound is one of those things that when it’s done well, you don’t really notice it, but if there are problems, it’s very jarring. I would know. I’ve definitely seen my share of missed cues in college / community / amateur theater.
So, I really wanted to do it right. Besides, it just so happened that all of the people that have sound cues that day (Robin, Grayson, Alissa, Timmy) are my friends. I know how much they care about their art and really wanted everything to go well for them. I ended up going through a lot of preparation because of that. Some of it might be overkill, but hey, I wanted to try my best to get things right.
I actually started by creating a different user account on my computer. On this account, all sound effects like opening a window, and receiving a notification, are turned off. It is not running lots of programs at the same time, just to make sure that we don’t hear something that’s not intended to be part of the show. Notably, I disabled the sound that the Mac makes when you press volume up and volume down. This was so if I needed to adjust levels during the show, you wouldn’t hear the sound effects for that. (I went to a college show a few weeks later. They didn’t think of that, so you could totally hear the sound effects when they adjusted the volume. We wouldn’t want something like that.)
Then I listened to every piece to familiarize myself with them. I even opened them up as wave forms to see the levels to know which pieces were louder, and which were softer. Finally, I compiled them all into a playlist according to the order of pieces that was just given to me.
On the day of the slam, we arrived early at the theater for a tech rehearsal. We didn’t have time for a full run-through, but we did have a cue-to-cue. This means we basically practice all the transitions (moving set pieces, performers entering / exiting, sound cues starting / stopping, making lighting changes, etc.), skipping over most of the actual performance. Due to the lack of experience, I was starting music when I wasn’t supposed to, and forgot to cut music a few times. But hey, that was why we had rehearsals. As we heard the sounds on the sound system, I also wrote down what volume level each cue should be playing at and whether there was live vocals on top of them.
There were two things that really helped. One was that the video system had its own sound set-up so we didn’t need to worry about that part. Two (and more importantly) was that the audio tech, Noelle, was very experienced and was on top of everything.
Finally, it was time to open up the house and let people in. Kujal, the stage manager, wanted to put some house music on. Unfortunately I didn’t have any prepared. So she just set up a Motown station on her Pandora and connected her phone to the sound system. I also took the time to make a few silent tracks so I could insert them into the playlist so that one cue wouldn’t spill into the next one (which, of course, I’ve also seen in college theater, especially in the earlier days when we ran all cues from a CD player!). I was just using Spotify for this, since it was what I was familiar with, hence least likely to make a mistake during the actual show. Noelle suggested using a piece of specialized software, QLab, which would make all these problems go away. I noted that and will try it next time.
And then the show started. I have to say, running sound cues (for the very first time) is more nerve-wrecking than actually performing on stage for me. Though I was watching the show from the back, I couldn’t enjoy it as much as when I was just an audience member, because I had to think about the next cue.
As the host, Victor, introduced Robin, I got her cue ready. I waited for her to scratch her butt for the second time, and the pointing of the finger, and then set the first cue to play. And then it just went the way it was supposed to go. I sort of joked to myself, “Robin and I are still friend after the show, check.”
And then I got to watch the show a little more because there were some pieces that either didn’t use sound cues or were videos.
The next cue was for Grayson. It was a shadow puppet piece. I was to watch for a particular visual element to appear at about the two minute mark and fade the music. I was also adjusting the levels subtly throughout the piece, because she was reading a poem on top of the music. I’ve been to performances where the background music would overpower the performers’ voices. The music would sound great but then the words (and hence the meaning) would be lost. So I was very consciously making sure her voice wasn’t drown out by the background music.
I initially was a little concerned that I wasn’t able to clearly see the visual to fade the music. Good thing that was only because we didn’t turn all the lights off during the rehearsal, and the shadows actually read much better during the actual show. Greg B., who was on the lights, gradually faded the lights and I faded the music out when we saw the cue. I thought it was great that the people on light and sound cues are both performers. You can fade the lights and sound in many ways (fast, slow, gradual, abrupt, etc.) but I felt like we just had this instinct of how to do it in a way that served the piece.
Two down, two more cues to go.
Next is Alissa’s piece. Now, this was the very first puppetry piece she created a few years ago, so I know it was very personal to her. I also know how much she cared about the sound going the way it should. In some other venues we’ve performed in before, I know she would ask the music to be turned up to a certain level because those venues didn’t have monitors. (Monitors here refer to speakers pointed at the performer or those earpieces they wear.) It might surprise some that, without monitors, the audience might hear the music, while the performer couldn’t hear the music themselves. Or rather, they could hear a little bit of the sound bouncing off the wall from the speakers that are pointing at the audience, but once they started singing themselves, they could no longer hear the faint music. Yes, I’ve had that problem myself before, and couldn’t tell if I was singing on beat and in key or not.
To prevent that from happening, I walked onto the stage myself during the rehearsal just to see if she would be able to hear the music. During the actual performance, we had another problem, though: her wireless microphone had some interference and was buzzing. Since she has this beautiful, but more importantly, strong operatic voice, Noelle decided to dial down her microphone. Afterwards she told me she would rather have the performer less amplified than have the buzzing sound. In response, I also dialed down the background music. My fingers were tweaking the volume levels the whole time, though, and I was ready to turn the volume back up if it looked like she had trouble hearing. The piece went smoothly. This was another example of us making quick decisions on the spot to deal with the situation and serve the piece as a whole. This is a live show. We couldn’t just stop it and do it over, so we got to quickly make these decisions based on what we thought would be the best thing to do in that scenario.
After that we had a few more pieces that didn’t require my cues. Finally it was the last cue of the night. I just needed to play a track for Timmy and fade it out when the characters (well, really just two hands) walked off the stage together. Easy. And phew, I was done.
We had a special guest, Kate Micucci, to sing her “Puppets Understand” song (you should watch the video; it’s quite cute!). She was awesome. It was always nice to see someone that obviously loves puppets and interacts super comfortably with them.
While this was happening, I was putting my engineering skills to use. I figured that the final bow could use a little bit of music and the song Kate was singing would be perfect for it. Since I had no access to wifi there, I used my phone for tethering. This means I turn my phone into a wifi router so my computer can connect and use my phone’s cellular data plan. I buffered the music video to make sure that it would play smoothly without hiccups. When her performance ended, and the host called every performer onto stage to take a final bow, I already had the song queued up to play in the background. The song happens to be very appropriate for the finale. I kept it playing as people exited.
And I was done. Everything went smoothly. I am certainly drawing a lot from my past experiences. College theater taught me a lot about all these things that could potentially go wrong. Engineering skills helped me put in place solutions and safety measures for things that might go wrong. All the time spent performing on stage taught me how to better serve the performance pieces and fellow performers. Hanging out with these people helped me be very aware of their needs during the show.
If I am to do this again, I’m sure I would feel like no problem, I got this. First time running sound cues made me nervous but it was also very fun and rewarding at the same time. I actually was already interested in running the sound cues since my college years, but I either ended up performing on stage or stage managing, depending on what the group needed at the time. It was nice to have this opportunity to do it for the first time.