Let there be light, part 2

So what does a light board operator (LBO) actually do? In my case, the answer turned out to be “press a button on cue.” I jokingly told my family that it was a job that a trained monkey could do. There’s a bit more to it than that, however.
My first light board experience was on Once Upon a Mattress, a musical comedy. This turned out to be an excellent show to cut my teeth on, because it didn’t require anything complicated from the LBO, but it involved two spotlight operators as well, allowing me to observe their jobs as well as my own. And because the LBO sits next to the stage manager (SM), I got to see what that job involves as well.
Raleigh Little Theatre has two booths at the back of the auditorium, on either side of the balcony. On the left side of the balcony is the light booth, where the SM and LBO sit in front of a big plate glass window that looks out on the house and the stage. The blue rectangle you can see through the window is the main curtain, which was down when I took the picture. So you can see that the LBO has an excellent view of the stage. The overhead lights (which are turned up all the way in the picture) are dimmed during a performance, so the glare on the window you see here is eliminated. The booth also has a wall speaker that plays the audio feed from microphones above the stage, so we can hear the show as well as see it. Behind the SM and LBO on a raised platform are Spotlight A and its operator. (The platform allows the spotlight beam to shine over the heads of the SM and LBO, through the window, and down to the stage.)
To the balcony’s right is the sound booth, where the sound board operator sits at a similar window, with Spot B behind him or her on another raised platform. All of these people wear headsets and microphones, so that anything said by one is heard by all the others. Also wearing headset-microphones are the two assistant stage managers (ASMs) located at stage left and stage right, who are responsible for overseeing the cast, running crew, and props crew (making sure that people, scenery, and props go on stage when they are supposed to). The house manager (in charge of seating portion of the auditorium and the lobby) has a headset-microphone as well. If you’ve seen Apollo 13, you already know how this headset communication works. It’s very similar to the “loop” used by the Mission Control personnel.
The theatrical equivalent of NASA’s flight director is the SM, who runs the show from the light booth. And I do mean runs — the SM is the absolute ruler of the theater when a play is in progress. On Mattress, the SM was a woman named Ellen, who arrived for my first rehearsal with a ring binder that turned out to contain the musical score and script for the entire play, painstakingly marked to indicate when every entrance, exit, scenery change, light or sound cue, and curtain took place. These cues were numbered in ascending order from the beginning of the play to the end. It was Ellen’s job to make sure everything happened at the proper moment by calling off these cue numbers.
For each cue, Ellen would give a warning about a minute beforehand, a “stand by” about ten seconds before, and then a “go!” Thus, a typical light board cue would go something like this:

SM: Warning for light board cue 160.
LBO: Light board warned.
[About a minute passes.]
SM: Stand by for light board cue 160.
LBO: Light board standing.
[About ten seconds pass.]
SM: Cue 160 . . . go!
[LBO presses the Go button.]

If that seems simple, remember that Ellen was also calling off sound, spotlight, and deck cues at the same time. “Deck,” meaning the stage, indicated cues for the stage right and stage left ASMs (SRASM and SLASM). So in practice, the communication on the headset loop sounded more like this:

SM: Warning for light board cues 160 and 161; deck cue 165; deck, light, and spot cues 170 and 172; and light board and deck cue 180.
LBO: Light board warned.
SLASM: Stage left warned.
SRASM: Stage right warned.
Spot A: Spot A warned.
Spot B: Spot B warned.
SM: Stand by light board cues 160 and 161 and deck cue 165.
LBO: Light board standing.
SLASM: Stage left standing.
SRASM: Stage right standing.
SM: Cue 160, go! . . . Cue 161, go! . . . Cue 165, go! . . . Stand by deck, light, and spot cues 170 and 172.
SLASM: Stage left standing.
SRASM: Stage right standing.
LBO: Light board standing.
Spot A: Spot A standing.
Spot B: Spot B standing.
SM: Cue 170, go! . . . Cue 172, go! . . . Stand by light board and deck cue 180.
LBO: Light board standing.
SLASM: Stage left standing.
SRASM: Stage right standing.
SM: Cue 180, go!

For Mattress, LBO was me. The ASMs and spotlight operators had to have printed lists of their cues, but the light board kept track of all of mine for me. All I had to do was look at the monitor to see what the current light cue was, as well as the previous one and the next two in the programmed sequence. The board knew what to do for each cue, and all I had to do was press the Go button (indicated by the red arrow) when Ellen gave the word. Most of the other controls on the board were off limits during a performance, but there were a couple of other buttons that I would have to use if I screwed up. I would press Hold if I realized that I had started a light cue prematurely; this would freeze the lights in their current state. And pressing Back would tell the board to return to the previous cue.
That’s what my job was like during Once Upon a Mattress. On the next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, things got a bit more complicated. I’ll tell you about that in part 3.

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