What’s Hidden Backstage?

Watching a live theatre performance is a kind of magic. You’re transported to new worlds, shown different perspectives and given an intimate glimpse into to the lives of strangers. Time stops, disbelief is suspended, your focus transfixed on the stage.

Your attention might be held captive by the goings-on of what’s happening before your eyes, but there’s also a great deal that goes on behind the scenes to make these stories come alive.

This audiovisual piece takes you behind the theatre curtain into the echoic corridors, brightly-lit dressing rooms and dark control booths to show you what’s hidden backstage at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) in Wollongong.

Merrigong Theatre Company manages IPAC and it’s here that we’re introduced to two of its staff, Blair Dutney and Steven Robinson, who take us back-of-house to share some of their industry insights.

Blair is only 24 years old, but his passion and talent for lighting has seen him secure a respected position as Merrigong’s Head of Lighting. He shared a few theatre secrets for this story, including a lesser-known rule originating from his colleague Will Jacobs: “Don’t take your shoes off”.

He explained, “Will took his boots off one day while he was operating and fell asleep on the ‘go button’. He clocked through about 150 cues in 30 seconds. It was one of his first operating gigs, mid-show, for Sydney Theatre Company. I don’t know if STC knows that he fell asleep, but we know!”

Steven’s role with Merrigong is that of Technical Coordinator, responsible for maintaining the venue’s toilets, garbage and air conditioning. “All of those three things are broken all of the time”.

There are plenty of secrets to making the magic happen onstage, but there are also people working behind the scenes with a few hidden talents of their own. Steve revealed, “There’s heaps of techs that are performing artists. I’m only doing this job because I had too many kids”.

“The backstage starts off as a way to pay the bills, and then suckers you in,” Blair added. “Are techs real? No. They’re just other artists that aren’t doing art right now”.

“I’d like to do a gig here and get all the people behind the scenes to do what they do on stage,” said Steve. “We could put on a Wharf Revue style ‘Merrigong Revue’ if we wanted to.”

“And, it’d save Merrigong money because they’ve already got their techs doing it!” quipped Blair.

View the story to see what other secrets of theatre are revealed.


Social Journalists

I’ve been following journalists Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Jenan Moussa and John Safran on Twitter. Twitter plays a big role in each of their respective practices. Whilst not claiming Twitter profiles to solely discuss their work – there are some personal opinions and interests being shared as well – they are all prolific tweeters who use Twitter to collect and share information, find sources and promote their own work as well as the work of other journalists.

When it comes to Facebook however, there is no professional profile for Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop. Jenan Moussa has a profile but you have to send a ‘friend request’, so it’s a private profile that isn’t openly accessible. John Safran is the only one of the 3 who has an openly-accessible Facebook presence. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post says journalists prefer Twitter to Facebook because of immediacy – often this is where news breaks first and where journalists report on news as it’s happening. John Safran’s focus is on documentary making and true crime stories. As such, there is great pop culture interest in his work and therefore a Facebook presence makes sense; it’s where a community of his fans can congregate and interact with him, and because of the nature of his exposés, there’s less urgency for him to get the facts needed for his work.

John Safran's eight-part comedy-documentary 'Race Relations' aired on ABC TV

John Safran’s eight-part comedy-documentary ‘Race Relations’ aired on ABC TV

I’ll show you what’s hidden

One of my great loves is the performing arts, both as an audience member and performer, but also as one who’s worked backstage to “make the magic happen”.

For my final JRNL102 assignment, I’d like to share the stories of people who work backstage at the theatre; sound and lighting technicians, directors, actors, stage and costume designers, stage managers and make-up artists. As well as exploring “what’s hidden” backstage, I hope to reveal something unexpected (hidden) about one (or more) of my interview subjects. It will give insight into the work they do, as well as their individual characters and unique, sometimes surprising, stories. Meta.

Local media capture photos and video of Bangarra in rehearsal at IPAC

Local media capture photos and video of Bangarra in rehearsal at IPAC

The story will take the form of a photo essay, with the addition of audio interviews with people who work backstage and ambient sounds of the theatre e.g. bump ins/outs, rehearsals, stage cues etc.

Playing Favourites

The convergent journalism stories listed below are all impressive in their own way; powerful, engaging and technically proficient.

Nuclear Nightmares: Twenty Years since Chernobyl
Marlboro Marine
Suspect America
Goa Hippy Tribe
Starved for Attention
Tomato Can Blues

Even though it doesn’t incorporate as many elements that a convergent story of today would, the story that particularly impressed me is Nuclear Nightmares. This project was produced in the early days of convergent journalism, when those of us who were privileged enough to have internet access were beginning to migrate from dial-up to high-speed connections. Although interactive storytelling online was still in the experimental, slow and clunky stage – unlike today where we can immerse ourselves in highly-refined, viewer-intuitive and fast-loading packages – it meant it was feasible for journalists to consider adding more elements to stories, like video and audio, because page-loading speeds were becoming less of an issue.

It isn’t as “tricked up” as the convergent stories we get today, but I still like Nuclear Nightmares because the black-and-white images are striking; they tell a thousand words.

© Photograph: Robert Knoth 2006

Aside from the first and second last pages, the text isn’t too overwhelming, just enough to give context or background, and when you hover away from the image it disappears so you can appreciate the full photo.

To finish, it has links for you to get more information and viewer responses, so you can gauge the effect it’s had on others. I like that these links aren’t ‘forced’ on you – instead, you’re given the option of engaging further. There wasn’t much focus on sharing capabilities in 2006 when this work was produced, so you’re not inundated with heaps of share buttons at the end. Instead, people shared the link via email, online forums and on some websites, which was enough for it to go viral. There was virtually no focus on a project’s capacity to be viewable on a mobile device, but even so, it still looks good on an iPhone.

This work is a perfect example of “less is more”.

The work that was my least favourite in terms of looking at convergent journalism, or interactive storytelling, is Suspect America. My reasons are purely semantic, because if you take it out of the context of convergent journalism, it is a brilliant video animation that does well to both captivate and inform the viewer. Back in the convergent journalism context however, I feel it lacks interactivity, resulting in the viewer being subjected to a passive experience. This story only offers 2 hyperlinks to other web content and has a comments section that has only received 2 comments in 3 years.

Suspect America - only 2 comments in 3 years

The video works well on mobile devices and is clever, controversial and educative enough that it has the potential to go viral if pushed through the right channels. Clearly, the producer hasn’t taken advantage of social media as well as they could have.

A Critique

This is a short critique of this emotional history task by a fellow Journalism student.

You’re drawn into the story from the beginning, after listening to the first interviewee describe the moment they were informed of their friend’s death by drowning. You can hear the grief in their voices. In the beginning of the track, it’s a bit unclear what is being said. A small moment of silence before launching into the dialogue may be beneficial in giving the listener a moment to focus their attention.

The music conveys a solemness, although it a bit too saccharine for my taste and sometimes a bit distracting. I think perhaps an instrumental track may have been utilised more effectively. I thought the German drinking song was a great addition because it complemented what was being said and its rhythm allowed you to imagine the pace of the pallbearers, to picture them carrying the coffin.

One minute the second interviewee is crying because she’s scared she’s going to forget about her friend, and the next she’s laughing because she’s remembering things he did. This constrast was a bit too abrubt, so perhaps an brief anecdote about a funny thing he did could have smoothed the transition from crying to laughter. It was a good way to end the story though, on a higher note instead of a sad one.

Audio Story Vision

I chose to focus on Jeroen’s relationship to the rehearsal studio because writing and playing music is one of his passions, and where there’s passion there’s sure to be a good story.

I also like the musical element. We’re accustomed to listening to polished, produced music so I thought it would be interesting, something different, to highlight the rough sounds of a rehearsal studio. I wanted to link the rawness of the rehearsal space sounds to the rawness of some of the stories Jeroen has about the place by incorporating the sounds of unloading vehicles, setting up and soundchecking, unproduced songs being played and mucked up, laughter and chatter to evoke the social aspects of being in a band.

The 1-minute length of the piece is also akin to the short lengths of some of Jeroen’s band’s songs, so I wanted to create a story that flowed similarly – with an intro that draws you in, building to a crescendo, then a finale that gives resolution to the story. I envisioned Jeroen’s words being the main feature of the story, with the ambient sounds and music to carry it along.

Access All Areas

In this audio story, Jeroen opens the door to his band rehearsal room at Kickstart Studios and invites us inside.

The Studios are located in a secluded industrial area in Wollongong. At night, when bands are there to rehearse, the dimly-lit car park and surrounding warehouses throw menacing shadows.

You might be vulnerable while outside, but this changes once you enter.

It’s cramped, dark and dusty inside. Old gig posters plaster the foyer walls and broken instruments hang from the ceiling. By the looks of it, these soundproofed rehearsal rooms and stained carpets could tell a few tales of their own…

But there’s an atmosphere of ‘esprit de corps’ – a sense of people coming together to do what they love – carried along by a throbbing undercurrent of bands exorcising and fine-tuning their masterpieces.

Easy Fix Ambience

I’ve focused on portraying my friend Jeroen’s key cutting, shoe repair and engraving business through sound because there’s some really interesting ambient sounds that happen there. There’s the jingling of keys, conversations with customers, different types of noisy machinery being used, and there’s also shopping centre sounds, with the hum of people talking and checkouts beeping.

The biggest challenge with portraying Jeroen’s work place through sound is that there’s vast differences in volume of each of the different types of sounds. The key cutting and engraving machines start off relatively quietly, but once the metal starts being cut, the volume jumps up in a big way. I found the trick to capturing these sounds without too much distortion was to adjust the levels on my audio recorder so that it would start capturing the audio at a lower level than normal. This meant that when the machine began cutting into metal and the volume jumped, it was capturing the sound at a normal level, retaining clarity.

For this exercise, I was also using a H1 Zoom Audio Recorder for the first time, so I had to get my head around things like using earphones while recording so I could hear exactly what was being recorded, and being aware of mic handling noise when I was adjusting the position of the Zoom, or when pressing the record button.

In future, when I know I will be recording sounds of varying volumes, I’ll make sure I do separate sound grabs of each type of sound so that I can have the levels on the Zoom adjusted accordingly.

Here’s my second sound portrait of Jeroen at work, with 3 sound grabs stitched together using Hindenburg.

News Stories That Draw You In

Photo by Sean Bonner

Packard Plant – Detroit 2012. Photo by Sean Bonner.

Multimedia journalism
is multidimensional, using interactive graphics, video, audio & text to draw you in and take you on a journey. The story is revealed by exploring the elements, putting together pieces of the puzzle, to find out the ‘who/what/when/where/how/why’. I’ve used Storify to curate some multimedia news stories with serious ‘wow’ factor like the Detroit Free Press story about the Packard Plant, as well as looking at how journalists use social media, video, text and online interactivity to draw you in.