How a Low-Budget Theatre Can Still Go High-Tech

Back to School   How a Low-Budget Theatre Can Still Go High-Tech
As local theatres tackle Broadway’s most technically demanding shows, new resources—from keyboard programs to prop exchange to tablet-ready scripts—provide a helping hand.
JJ Pearce High School&#39;s Production of <i>Heathers</i>
JJ Pearce High School's Production of Heathers

Producing theatre at the local level has its inherent challenges. Few, if any, community theatres or schools have the kinds of budgets that Broadway producers do when they’re putting on a show, which call for creative thinking for sets, costumes, and staging.

Junior_Theatre_Festival_2017_New Works Showcase Play On Players- Mary Poppins Jr. 3_27_HR.jpg
Play On Players in Gainesville, GA perform Disney’s Mary Poppins, Jr. at the Junior Theatre Festival 2017 Marcus Woollen/MTI

Though this challenge is nothing new, technological advances on Broadway—particularly in the last 20 years—have raised the bar if local theatre artists want to aim for Broadway-like aesthetics. From sets with elaborate mechanization for lightning-fast scene changes to keyboard parts in the pit that require complex programming and equipment, local theatres face a new multitude of challenges when choosing to tackle a modern show.

Should small theatres shy away from newer titles when planning a season?

Danny Henning at Music Theatre International (MTI), a leading licensing company for musicals like Les Misérables and Ragtime, says absolutely not. “Technically demanding shows may seem daunting, but it creates an incredible opportunity for creativity and growth.”

Fortunately, there are also a host of new resources available to help smaller theatres tackle difficult shows, many direct from the licensing companies themselves. For Samuel French President Nathan Collins, he aims to empower theatre companies by bringing theatre licensing into the 21st century. “Samuel French’s commitment to innovation requires that we invest in developing and adopting new technologies for use in the theatre community. By working closely with playwrights and theatre producers of all sizes, we identify and solve pain points in the licensing and performing process.”

One of the easiest places to get help these days is in the orchestra pit. Most Broadway musicals now feature multiple keyboard parts in their orchestrations, designed to run on systems with complex programming to achieve a variety of patches (or sounds) and effects. The typical setup? A keyboard connected to a computer running software like Apple’s Mainstage. For local theatres, Samuel French offers programming for keyboard-heavy shows, like Rock of Ages, Heathers, and Chess. All you need is a musical keyboard and a Mac computer. MTI will rent out the programming and the necessary equipment.

The Keyboard setup at <i>Kinky Boots</i>
The Keyboard setup at Kinky Boots Alexandra Kirshner

There’s also help for theatres that cannot amass full orchestras to begin with. Systems like MTI’s OrchExtra and Samuel French's SFTracks use technology so theatres can augment live musicians with a keyboard-operated system to fill in for any missing instruments, while syncing with the tempos and vamps of the live players. It’s a particularly ingenious solution for theatre companies that may not have the physical space for a full orchestra, or access to enough adequately trained musicians.

As for special props and costumes, MTI offers a Community Marketplace connecting theatres that have these items available for rent and sale to theatres in need. From the complete design elements for Peter Pan to a can of Ultra Clutch Hairspray, MTI’s marketplace is a go-to resource—and a place to find inspiration and connect with other theatre-makers around the country.

MTI&#39;s Prop Shop with their <i>Avenue Q</i> and <i>Little Shop of Horrors</i> puppets
MTI's Prop Shop with their Avenue Q and Little Shop of Horrors puppets Music Theatre International

MTI, specifically, licenses two shows that rely heavily on specific puppets (Little Shop of Horrors and Avenue Q); so they have a complete set of professionally-made puppets for both shows available for rent.

And it’s not all bells and whistles. Samuel French has gone back to basics and updated script distribution. With a growing number of people today reading on phones and tablet devices, Samuel French leads the pack in bringing work to the digital space. Their Abbott interface renders many plays and musicals in Samuel French’s catalog available for purchase or rental on your mobile device, tablet, or computer.

“Abbott came from the commitment to ensure that everyone has instant access to great plays, while also protecting the work of all the talented playwrights we represent,” Collins tells Playbill. “We wanted to be able to have safe, immediate ways to be able to share our authors’ works with everyone, from an artistic director to a student who needs a copy for their scene study.”

Abbott’s growing library of available titles even includes plays from outside Samuel French’s catalog; they currently have works published by Nick Hern Books, and more publishers will join in the future.

Users can access Abbott for research (or pleasure), but the program also features tools for industry professionals. A dramaturg can take notes in the margins that then become bookmarked throughout the script for easy reference; stage managers can highlight lines by selecting them individually or by selecting a character; actors can use it for memorization help by using the blackout feature, and artistic directors can build lists of favorites and create digital libraries of plays under consideration. These capabilities put Samuel French far ahead of what is available to current Broadway actors.

Students from Theatre Under the Stars Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in Houston perform from <i>Disney’s Aladdin Dual Language Edition</i>
Students from Theatre Under the Stars Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in Houston perform from Disney’s Aladdin Dual Language Edition

Both MTI and Samuel French also offer revised versions of shows in their libraries that have been adapted to meet the needs of different productions, either allowing for different cast sizes, younger performers, or fewer technical demands. Want to do Grease at a high school? Samuel French has famously had a parent-approved school version script for years. MTI offers three versions of Ragtime, including the original Broadway version, an adaptation designed for high schools, and a version of the show that toured the U.S. and played London’s West End—perfect for companies looking to minimize cast size and scenic needs. MTI and Samuel French both offer adaptations for middle school and younger kids to perform.

Theatre is and always has been a creative art form, which makes it a perfect place to work on a demanding piece, even if the circumstances might seem insurmountable. Combine the resources available to assist theatre companies with the brilliance of local theatre artists and companies will discover there is no need to fear the technical demands of any story they want to tell.

Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research, and curator of Playbill Vault. @loganculwell



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