9 - TELEVISION AND THEATRE
by BERNARD A HODSON
My philosophy in life, apart from my Christian Faith, has been that if I thought something was interesting, and I could do it, then I would try.
While working for Imperial there was a national television program put on the air by two University of Toronto professors, called "Two for Physics". This struck me as rather an interesting thing to do so I suggested to my friend and colleague Robin Wells that we should see if anything could be done locally along the same lines. He also thought it was a good idea and we approached the local television station to see if they might be interested. They were, and suggested we develop a pilot program for their review, which we did, and which they liked. We called the program "Physics in Space" and were assigned a weekly slot, subject only to being bumped by special sporting events such as the occasional football or wrestling match. We did not know how long this program might last and were quite flabbergasted when it went on and on, eventually completing nineteen programs.
It did become a little hectic, doing a weekly program, so we picked up a couple of our colleagues to help out on occasion, because we were all travelling extensively with our employment, one of whom was Ross Dutton, the other Stephenson.
The programs were carried live (it was before the days of taping) so we had to be prepared for anything to go wrong, which occasionally it did (such as a film sequence breaking), when we had to do some ad libbing. The shows were not scripted but we had a general idea of what we would be talking about, and the cues that we would pass to the cameramen. We used props in support of each program, wherever possible, and found excellent co-operation from whoever we approached to provide props. One program was done on the concept of time and we received considerable support from a local clock dealer (even though no credits were given). We spoke about number systems, computers, atomic bombs, jet engines, oil, whatever it was that interested us and we could be comfortable talking about.
One specific occasion does stand out in this regard. Robin and I proposed to talk about the pros and cons of the nuclear industry (peaceful and warlike) and flipped a coin regarding which of us was pro nuclear testing and which opposed.
Normally we did not get a lot of audience reaction but in this case Robin, who had come down on the "pro" side of the coin, was lambasted by callers in to the studio. There were no such things as audience ratings but it was surprising to find ourselves being frequently recognised by people who "thought they knew us", who had seen us on these television programs. The activity also became included in Imperial's "newsletter" which went to all staff.
When I later went to Manitoba I was also involved with television, this time for both national networks. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) asked me to do a series of four programs for their schools broadcasts, on the subject of computers. The other national network, CTV, asked me to do a series of ten presentations for their University of the Air series. The difference between the approach of both networks was quite a revelation.
The CBC asked me to prepare scripts and each half hour program took about a day to put on tape. After the first program I suggested they scrap the script idea, which they agreed to, provided that I followed the general outline of the program I had prepared. We would do a take, and then another take, and then another and another. By the end of a session you were sick of the words, trying to make them sound interesting even though you were bored to death with them. They paid me for the work and I received a 75% residual fee for any repeats that took place.
The title of the series was Thinking Machines and there were programs on "the anatomy of a computer", "a computer earns its bread and butter", "computers in action" and "masters of the computer". As with the series in Calgary I had no problem getting suitable props to go with the programs.
CTV's approach was to have no script but would follow the guidelines I established, and respond to the cues I gave to the cameramen. Their philosophy was to tape the half hour show and if it was ok to accept it. I do not recall any that needed a retake. They also paid a fee for the initial work but did not believe in residual payments for repeats. At least one of the tapes was requested by United Aircraft in the USA, to be used in their training programs. The ten programs covered various aspects of computers along with their expected use and impact on a variety of industries, and we taped them all over a single weekend.
For most of my life I had seen the theatre from the audience. The experience I will now relate, however, gave me a new perspective from backstage and it proved to be very fascinating. It all came from an announcement on the radio that the local professional theatre group was looking for 2 men between the ages of 45 and 65 to play the part of wedding guests in a production of the play Little Murders by Jules Feiffer.
It had long been my ambition to appear in a play sometime during my lifetime. In addition it is desirable for a writer to obtain as much background material as possible, to use as required in his writing. This seemed an ideal opportunity to score on both counts, the only snag being that I was a few years under the lower age limit. A phone call, a short audition and the part was mine.
When the wedding guests joined the rehearsals the principle actors had been hard at it for 2 weeks and there were 9 days to go to opening night. The first thing we did was watch a run though of the scene in which we were to appear, with the principle actors going through their lines without our participation. Following this the guests were given direction as to their lines and actions and rehearsals went on a pace with the entire cast.
Initial rehearsals took place in a room in which the boundaries of the stage set were outlined on the floor with tape and odd items of furniture were used to represent the main props. Five days before opening night rehearsals were moved to the main stage with most of the set in position and the majority of props available. Throughout the rehearsals different ways or doing the scenes were tried out over and over again until the director and the cast were happy with the sequences. It is important that the play flows smoothly and that no awkward movements or pauses arise, which means that the positioning and movement of players in relation to the set has to be meticulously planned.
The timing of the play will vary slightly from night to night and so cues have to be established between the actors themselves and between the actors and the various staff backstage. The batteries of lights have to be programmed for the play so that the correct lighting effects are achieved. This is done through a master control unit which is almost like a computer. Blackouts occurred in our play, indicating an electric power failure, and it was important that these occurred at the precise moment they were required in the script, necessitating cues being established.
The same precise timing was required with sound effects. In the course of our play several gun shots were required, achieved by using blank pistols and rifles offstage. Some of these required the sound of broken glass to follow the shot. The total number of activities required during the running of the play was large and a director at a master console just off stage co-ordinates the whole operation, advising actors when to be ready, backstage personnel when to be ready to trigger lights, sound effects, curtains and other items. The master console is linked to all areas of the theatre.
The technical direction involved is quite staggering. How, for instance, do you cause blood to flow on stage when an actress is shot, so that it looks realistic. How do you make up an actor so that he looks the part exactly. In our play a meal was eaten in one scene. A meal was literally cooked for each performance and placed on the table. Twenty four tureens of soup and 24 casseroles were prepared during the run to make the scene realistic.
Eventually all was satisfactory and the dress rehearsal took place before a live audience. The effect was quite interesting because the timing of the play was now dependent on the audience reaction. The actors had to adjust their pace so that no aspect of the play was lost as a result of audience reaction such as laughter and clapping. In fact the interaction with the audience took place throughout the play's run and almost every performance was different. Audiences vary and, as the days progressed, actors implemented innovations which, either by accident or design, had generated an audience reaction in a previous performance. The performance itself steadily improved as the run progressed.
First night followed the dress rehearsal and, in spite of the live audience the night before, it was the first night that produced the nervous tension among the cast. All actors experience this tension to some extent. The party that followed first night was probably more useful in calming the nervous tensions built up in 3 weeks of rehearsal than in the celebration of the success of the opening performance.
Each actor literally lived his or her part during rehearsals and at each performance. At each intermission, sitting in the green room, the actors' lounge, the actors often called each other by their current part name, rather than their real name. Prior to the rehearsals each performer had researched his or her part through discussions with clergymen, lawyers, businessmen or whatever their role called for, so that they might act the part with some authenticity.
Eventually the run ended and a final night party was held late into the next morning. The participation as a performer rather than as an onlooker was a most interesting experience, one I would repeat if given another opportunity.
Because of my interest in computers I was shown in detail the "computer like" console that controlled the offstage activity, and how they had their own script with "cues" so that they knew when to create appropriate sound effects and lighting. While it had many of the same elements as for the television shows I did, it was quite a bit more complex. For television I more or less had only to worry about the cameraman and director (who arranged that film clips and props would be available when needed) but in the theatre setting there were more variables, the props, the sound effects, the lighting, the other actors and of course the audience.