Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Loneliest Liberal: What Big Pharma could learn from theatre production

Winning the Battle on Black Mountain

By James Knudsen

Well, here it is March, and I still have things to write about that happened in February. That’s not just a different month, as of a few days ago, that’s a different season. February, despite being the shortest month, was a busy month.
    A week after my day on the set of General Hospital, I was on a plane flying out of Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) to Mesa, Arizona for yet another theatre festival. The Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival (KC/ACTF) is a series of events I first attended as an undergrad in 1994, at what is now California State University, East Bay. This year’s event marked my fourth as an instructor and, while I have yet to convince the people who pay for school excursions that ACTF is not a bacchanalian orgy disguised as an academic retreat, perhaps a brief summary of my time there will help convince some minds otherwise.
    This year’s trip was unique because our department had been asked to bring our original production, Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain, written by Fresno City College (FCC) professor Chuck Erven and directed by his wife and colleague, Debbie Erven, to the festival.* It’s sort of like taking a show on tour, except you don’t get paid. Making the task a bit more difficult was the fact that the show had been originally performed the previous spring. Much of the set had been discarded. The lighting and set designer had moved on to a new position in a new town, and not all of the original cast members were available to reprise their roles. We managed to pull it together anyway.
    A new set was constructed, replacements were found for the missing cast members, and a truck was rented to haul the set to Arizona. But prior to taking the set to Mesa, two shows were performed at FCC to try and get all the kinks ironed out. The morning after our last show in Fresno, the set was dismantled and the company practiced loading it on and off the truck, because in addition to the actual performance, the technical side of the show, including loading the set on to the stage, is judged at festival.
    February 16, 2017, was the day of our performances at Mesa Community College. Load-in began at 7 a.m. The idea was that we would do a quick “tech” of the show prior to our first performance at 2 p.m. That was the idea. What happened was, at 1:25, five minutes before the house opened, we were still trying to get some of the lights to work properly. Our matinee would be our tech. At 6 p.m., our plucky cast hit the stage, lit with the proper light cues this time, and gave the packed house a show that I am proud to have been a part of...I ran the projector.
    Well, “projector” really doesn’t do justice to what the little machine, which I was in charge of, does. It is more accurately called a Hippotizer [“a software toolbox to display media for the live events industry” –green-hippo.com]. It projects images, but can also project images within images, as well as video clips against a backdrop that it is projecting. I just had to point and click a mouse to make it work – the real artistry was in the creation of the images and video, which were vital to telling the story. Besides this additional medium, the play had live musicians playing music and providing sound effects that punctuated the action, lots of stage combat (“battle” is in the title), and traditional Asian shadow puppetry – yet another medium – as part of each performance.


February 16, 2017 began before 6 a.m. for the cast and crew of Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain and didn’t end until 10 p.m. As an instructor, coaching other students still competing, my day would continue past midnight, and I would learn a valuable lesson about the acting process in the wee hours of February 17.
    A lesson I learned long ago is that theatre is a superb training ground for...just about anything. Back in the dark days of the Iraq War, I boasted that any problem being encountered by the coalition forces, having to do with the rebuilding of the country, could be solved by the technical crew of any well-regarded college theatre program in the United States. Plays are essentially 70 or 80 pages of problems that must be solved by the time the show is performed in front of an audience. And once show is up and running there are numerous problems that crop up during the performance that must be solved. This mindset is part of any good actor, designer, stage manager, or technician who works at putting live theatre on the stage. Scene changes that don’t work are rehearsed and modified until they do work. Prior to performing the first of our two shows at FCC, our final tech/dress rehearsal went on until 1:15 a.m.
    This insistence that things be figured out before the product is foisted on the public came to mind recently while I was pondering a very different industry – Big Pharma.
    I am on a new medication to “help” with issues I’ve had with focusing on the task at hand. After much testing, it was determined that I would benefit from prescription speed. It has side-effects, the most noticeable of which is dry mouth. This leads to another side-effect, frequent urination due to all the water consumed in a valiant, yet doomed attempt at combating the dry mouth.
    And I began to think about the now all-too-familiar disclaimer heard at the end of prime-time prescription drug commercials. The running joke is that the disclaimer is often longer than the actual commercial. I then posed this question to my theatre students; “Would a show with that many problems be allowed to open?” It wasn’t a comparison they’d considered, but the response was an immediate, “Noooooo!”
    I think that certain chemists would do well to spend some time in the theatre department. Just sayin’.
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* There was a story in The Fresno Bee about our taking the production to the festival: “For Fresno City College theater students, a chance to take ‘Mulan’ on the road.” It included this photo of me and the cast:


Copyright © 2017 by James Knudsen

1 comment:

  1. a good and interesting read, as ever. big pharma has sooo many things they need to learn, and they aren't even listening

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