Tales of the Followspot Operator

May 15, 2013
Dancer in Spotlight (Source: http://graypictures.com/#ballet-dancer)

Image by William Gray (Gray Pictures, LLC)

In memory of Rube Werner, who passed away on May 31, 2013.

 

Question: Do you see the photo to the left of the dancer doing the beautiful jete´? Do you find yourself wondering how could this miraculous collaboration between art and technology ever be possible?

Answer: It’s the followspot operator!

More specifically,…

The followspot, also known as the spotlight operator, plays a crucial role in a performance by using lighting to direct the audience’s attention towards a significant focal point on stage.

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The followspot’s job is not only crucial, but difficult.

In fact, there are….

Ten Commandments for Spotlight Operators – link

    1. ALWAYS turn your headset OFF before moving it.
    2. NEVER let the performers head get out of your light.
    3. In a body spot, keep ALL of the performers body parts in the light.
    4. Listen carefully for YOUR cues, there won’t be time to repeat them.
    5. Run the light at Full Heat unless otherwise directed.
    6. Keep your light OUT of the audience unless otherwise directed.
    7. During ballads, keep the moves Slow and Smooth.
    8. Match the Senior Operator’s spot.
    9. NEVER change adjustments on another persons spotlight.
    10. Know HOW to operate the spotlight.
    11. Don’t make excuses for mistakes, LEARN from them.
Ok, so that was actually eleven commandments. Just thinking about this brings to mind a particular scene from the 1936 film “Swing Time” that involves a dance number with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Although the dancing is marvelous, it is difficult to ignore the intense concentration, stamina, and skill required of the followspot operator.

Just watch the video, and see for yourself!

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performing “Waltz in Swing Time” from 1936

It’s not clear why, but there is something mesmerizing about the spotlight in that video.

It’s almost like being hypnotized with a watch, and I find myself just wanting to stare at that moving light!

Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty (Source: link)

Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty (Source: link)

This may lead a person to wonder…

Can spotlight operators actually hypnotize themselves with their own followspots?

And if you think that sounds crazy, here’s another one.  For instance…

Some musicians may have played a show (the Nutcracker is common) for many years. It is not unusual, however, that they may have never actually witnessed what happens onstage because they’re either sitting facing the opposite direction or they’re too busy playing the music. One might wonder if something similar may hold true for the followspot operator.  In other words, could the job require so much concentration that, although the followspot is looking directly at the stage, they may never actually ‘see’ the show?

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There is one thing that is certain. The followspot operator has the magnificent power to…

Keep a tight rein on a snooty prima donna!

Who flipped the switch!! (source)

Who flipped the switch!! (source)

One can only imagine, however, that a true diva might come prepared for any situation by carrying one of these!

Flashlight please!!!

Flashlight please!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or better still,…

By having a backup plan ready in the wings at all times!

 

(Marvel: source)

(Marvel)

Mind you, the spotlight operator is no pushover!!!

How could they be pushovers if they get to use something like THIS?  This particular model of spotlight is known as a “Strong Super Trouper“.  We’ll hear more about it ahead when we interview four of our unsung heroes, the followspot operators.  For this feature, we were fortunate to interview Rube (pronounced ‘Ruby’) Werner and Andrew Sproule (both living in the San Francisco Bay Area), Jenn Thompson who works in Kentucky, and Bert Morris from Washington D.C.

Strong Super Troupers (Image source)

Strong Super Troupers (Image source)

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Rube Werner (California)…

Rube Werner: Followspot formerly at the Lesher Center, Walnut Creek, CA

Rube Werner: Followspot formerly at the Lesher Center, Walnut Creek, CA

Has been a followspot operator in the San Francisco Bay Area for 24 years. He has worked in many different venues including the Lesher Center for the Arts, Pleasanton Playhouse, The Bankhead Theater in Livermore, and the El Camponil Theater in Antioch CA. Even though Rube’s brief Twitter profile describes him as a “retired old guy from the San Francisco Area”, don’t let it fool you. We recently caught up with Rube to ask him a few questions.

DanseTrack  – How did you get started working in theatre?

Rube Werner – I got started because my wife told me that she didn’t think I would do an audition. Ultimately, I did the audition (for “Hello Dolly”) and actually got two parts: one in the chorus and the other as the court reporter with two lines! I continued acting and, over time, played back-up leads in so many shows I can’t even list them all. My favorites were playing the gangster in “Kiss Me Kate” where I actually had to sing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with my gangster partner in front of the curtain. Other times, I was “Jawan” in “Kismet”, the Butler in “Sound of Music”, and the Angel who escorts Billy Bigelow home in “Carousel”.

How did I get started on followspots? I was on a break between shows and was in the theater when the spot operator got very ill. The stage manager said, “Hey Rube, go upstairs and run the spot @2 House Right. I told him that I had never even seen a spotlight before. He said, “I’ll show you”. Then, he gave me a 5-minute “this is this and that is that” speech. The rest I just learned all by myself, practicing for about an hour prior to each show. Over the years, I’ve found that my experience as a stage performer has been incredibly valuable. Not only did it give me a better feel for lighting, but it improved my understanding of how to use lighting  to enhance the performance.

“My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra” – Production Followspots: Rube Werner & Cindi Gozza

L to R: Hailey Yaffee, Anthony Finley, Chloe Condon, Michael Kern Cassidy & Jessica Fisher (Production followspots: Rube Werner & Cindi Gozza - Image: Mark & Tracy Photography)

Left to right: Hailey Yaffee, Anthony Finley, Chloe Condon, Michael Kern Cassidy & Jessica Fisher (“My Way”; Lesher Center for the Arts production followspots: Rube Werner & Cindi Gozza) – Image: Mark & Tracy Photography

DanseTrack – What have been some of the most elaborate, challenging or otherwise memorable productions you’ve worked on?

Rube Werner – The most elaborate production was “West Side Story”, where we used 5 spotlights: three up top, and two in the lighting wings that shined horizontally on the actors.  The two biggest challenges were “Sunset Blvd” (a marvelous production where we had to pick out the actors in the dark.  Try that!) and both “flying shows: “The Wizard of Oz” (where the Witch enters stage left at about 100 miles per hour and at a different elevation each time) and “Peter Pan” (where he/she is never ever in the same blocking for the entire run).

By the way, for a dance routine (like in the “Swing Time” video above), the followspot operator MUST know the choreography to each step in order to follow the dancers properly. I wish I could tell you the number of times where we have to ad-lib the light to cover for any un-choreographed steps or when performers are not in their proper blocking. Remember, the followspot should enhance the scene, not steal it. If the audience notices the spot too much, you’re not doing a proper job. Also, we do not ever just POP ON, unless the lighting designer wants it that way. We glow up slowly whenever possible. The same with ‘off’. Only ‘pop off’ at the lighting designers cue, otherwise, glow off. It really is an art.

One of the most dreaded moments is any time a bulb burns out during a production. We (my partner Cindi Gozza and I) pick up for each other whenever possible and we have to change the lighting mechanism on the fly. Fortunately, we both know the show very well by production time and are able to kick in. Horror story? Once, the main stage light panel blew out. There were no lights on stage. The spot operators had to do all the lighting we could until the panel was fixed. That was a wow.

Fiddler on the Roof (Image: Source)

Fiddler on the Roof (Image: Source)

On another note, I can’t do “Fiddler on the Roof” any more. It is just too taxing on me. I cry through so many of the songs that it’s frightening. The worst is “The Sabbath Prayer” scene. By now, I’ve done the show four times, and stage managers know to absolutely not try to talk to me during that particular number. The line that starts me off is “May you be like Ruth and like Esther”. I can’t even write about it. I just now started to cry.

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Next, we talked to…

Andrew Sproule (California)

This earlier photo of Andrew reminds us of that guy from tv's "Workaholics"!

This earlier photo of Andrew reminds us of that guy from tv’s “Workaholics”!

Andrew is a Theatrical Stagehand – Electrics (IATSE, Local 16) and works spotlight for the San Francisco Ballet. Andrew has also worked for the San Francisco OperaSan Francisco SymphonyIsland Creative ManagementAmerican Conservatory Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. We asked Andrew to describe a particularly memorable piece running follow spot.

One of my most memorable experiences doing followspot at San Francisco Ballet was the first time I ran one of the booth spots for “Giselle”. I was not a regular crew member at the time, and at 6:20pm that evening, I received a phone call from Dennis Hudson, who was the Master Electrician of the ballet at the time. He told me that one of the spot operators for the 8:00pm show had called in sick and asked if I could come in and run a booth spot.”
Vanessa Zahorian in SF Ballet's Giselle (© Erik Tomasson))

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson’s Giselle (© Erik Tomasson))

“Now, I live in Concord, CA and I knew I would never get to San Francisco on time if I drove in. So, I went straight to BART (Bay Area subway system) and managed to get a train right away. I got to the city at 7:30 and was in the lighting booth 20 minutes before curtain. I had not run one of the booth spots in a long time, and they use “Super Troupers” which are big xenon spots that are not very user-friendly. I had not seen even “Giselle” nor worked any rehearsals for it. So in other words, I had to run an unfamiliar spot for a show I’d never seen before without any notice. I didn’t do too badly, considering the circumstances, and I was done after Act 1, so that was a relief. Since then, I’ve run spot a couple of times for “Giselle”, and it is still tricky, but it will never be as hard as that first time.” – Andrew Sproule

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Followspot Excuses

We’ve noticed a common theme here.  It seems that the followspot operator must often come to the rescue because someone else has called in sick. We know that dancers have favorite excuses, e.g. 1) What’s wrong with my shoe?! 2) My partner ran into me and knocked me over. 3) The light struck me in the face and I went blind. 4) What’s wrong with this floor?! 5) I would’ve kicked higher but wardrobe sewed my costume too tight! 5) My partner was breathing so loud I couldn’t hear the music!

Dancer Excuses

Dancer Excuses (Image by John Lund Photography at http://www.johnlund.com)

Apparently, spotlight operators have a list of excuses too.

Favorite Followspot Excuses – link

  • I thought this was the Dress Rehearsal.
  • My chair got caught on the light.
  • I was eating pizza and my hand slipped.
  • I was watching Wheel of Fortune.
  • My headset broke and I couldn’t hear the cue.
  • I wasn’t invited to the production meeting.
  • My caster got stuck on the carpet.
  • I thought you meant “House Right”.

Next, we asked Jenn Thompson how many times she’s heard any of these excuses from members of her crew or even (shhh, don’t tell), used them herself.

Jenn Thompson (Kentucky)…

Works at the Carson Center for Performing Arts in Paducah, KY, primarily as the lighting director. She has also worked for Santa Fe Opera, Birmingham Chlidren’s Theatre, the B Street Theatre, the Sacramento Theatre Company, among others.  We asked Jenn to first describe her job and how she got started.

Jenn Thompson doing her other job as flywoman

Jenn Thompson doing her “other job” as flywoman

“I am 40 now, but started at the tender age of 16 as a lighting and sound person for Terry Mike Jeffrey, a local performer and family friend here in Kentucky. He knew I was interested, and cultivated that interest. I remember a lot of venues giving us odd looks loading in, but once the lights were up and going, there wasn’t a problem. So, I have been involved in theatre for a good while in various capacities.”

“At the Carson Center, I make sure the touring light plots fit our building and, once the touring lighting equipment has arrived, I make sure that it is loaded in and working correctly, while acting as liaison with touring crew heads. A big part of the job involves followspots. We have 4 in-house “Strong Super Troupers”. (Yup. Just like that ABBA song.)”

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DanseTrack  – Which of the “Followspot Excuses” have you encountered? 

Jenn Thompson

Followspot Excuses

Followspot Excuses (Image source)

1. My chair got caught on the light. –  “I have had a guy fall off his stool during a show before.”

2. My headset broke and I couldn’t hear the cue. –  “This does happen a lot. Sometimes you are moving your light and you can loose your headset from your head rather easily. Hopefully, after you say “help, help!” a few times in the booth, the guy by you can relay cues until he is free to help you get your headset back on. It happens.”

3. I thought you meant ‘House Right’. –  “ALL. THE. TIME. When I call spots, I start out with “I call stage directions. To clarify, stage left is house right.” The operators at our house are very well versed in this. Their union works all over Illinois, Missouri and Western Kentucky. Sometimes though, your body’s natural response is to zig when you should zag. After a few shows under your belt, that tends to go away…but it happens to EVERYBODY….at least once!”

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DanseTrack – Considering that you’re supposed to be relatively quiet during a rehearsal or performance, have you ever found yourself in a position where you couldn’t help but laugh out loud?

Jenn Thompson – I was running followspot along with a 19 year old fella for a wildly popular Celtic dance show once and the lighting director says to us over headset “OK. Spot 1, you will hit the girl with the red hair and the green dress entering from upstage right. Spot 2, stay with your target.” The other spot op looks at me and says “Um, they all have green dresses and red hair!” He hit the right one though! There were at least three gals that entered that way…all with green dresses and red hair!

Follow the one in green with the red hair!!  (Source)

Follow the one in green with the red hair!! (Source)

When I was in my twenties, I did a lot of Country music shows because my university was really close to Nashville. I got the call to do a show running followspot for an outdoor affair that was taking place at the fairgrounds. When I showed up for the call, the guy working with me says “Are you afraid to climb scaffolding?” I said “No, not at all.” He nodded and we started climbing up to where they had the follow spots and settled in. As soon as we got up there he says “You do much outdoor spotting?” I said “No. This is my first time” and he grinned and put on these yellow tinted sunglasses that looked like safety glasses.

Could that have been Steven Seagal?!!

Could THAT have been Steven Seagal in those yellow glasses!?!

We started with the opener and got through that all right, despite the wobbling of the scaffolding every time we moved stage left or right, and I was feeling pretty good. By now, it is starting to get dark and the guy still has these glasses on. I get the call to hit the emcee downstage and as soon as I open my douser, the biggest moth I have ever seen flies right into my face attracted by my light. All I hear beside me is this guy laughing at me, then over headset I hear “Hey, spot 2, did the state bird of Tennessee fly into your nose or something! Hold that light still-you are all over the place!” Next outdoor gig I did in the summer, I had added some sunglasses into my gig bag!

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DanseTrack – What was the most challenging production in terms of lighting requirements that you’ve worked on?

Jenn Thompson – As far as technical challenges, shows with illusionists can be the trickiest. Bring that light on at the “wrong” moment and it is not a good day!

Darn those illusionists!  Wait! That's Jenn Thompson.

Darn those illusionists! Wait! That’s Jenn Thompson.

“Dance productions and Broadway shows are also a challenge for a spot operator. There is always a lot of movement that goes by quickly. Spot operators have to listen closely, must be quick on their feet, and generally have to do three things simultaneously. 1)Your right hand guides the instrument and changes the different colored gels in 6 frames. 2) Your left hand controls –  a) the douser (which adjusts light intensity and is also used to black out, and open the light), b) the chop (or ‘guillotine’ which can also be used to black out and open the light), and c) the iris (which determines the size of your light beam). 3) Also, with your right hand you can “run the horn”.  That is the “trombone” lever that controls how sharp the instrument can be.”

[By the way, this great photo of Jenn was taken by Deb Livingston at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. This is an an all-female (including all of the tech crew!!) cultural event, held every August near Hart, Michigan.]

To illustrate how a spotlight is operated,

Here is a video from the National Theatre in London

DanseTrack – What have been some of the most rewarding moments working followspot?

Jenn Thompson – The most rewarding moments are at the end of the show when you get that “Great job y’all. See you when you hit the deck!”  It is always appreciated.

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Going back to our original theories…

Not one of the followspots we talked to mentioned self-hypnosis with a spotlight. Similarly, no one seemed to have the problem of focusing so strongly on their target with the light that they’d miss actually seeing the rest of the performance onstage.  In fact, if there’s anything to be known about operating a spotlight, a good person to ask is Bert Morris. 

Bert Morris (Washington, D.C.) 

 
Among many accomplishments, Bert Morris is President and CEO of Theatrical Technicians, Inc. and is credited for the world’s first patented followspot sight: the Perfect-Pickup Followspot Sight.  Bert is a member of IATSE Local 22, has trained numerous followspots and is the author of “Getting The Most From Your Followspot – An Operator’s Handbook“.

DanseTrack – Referring back to the list of the “Ten Commandments for Spotlight Operators” mentioned above. Do you have any comments, suggestions or advice for beginner followspots?

Bert Morris – Forget the “Ten Commandments of Followspot Operating.” While clever and interesting, they don’t begin to address the true craft of operating. Also, it omits the first fundamental ‘rule’ if you will: always check to see that the douser is closed before doing ANYTHING. This is a regular part of all IATSE followspot exams.

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Image source: Link

Image source: Link

So, there you have it.  Just remember — Close the douser!!

Finally, because as performers, we owe so much of our success to the individuals working backstage and in the lighting or sound booths, it is important to show just how grateful we are. After all, they too are artists, only they work their magic behind the scenes.

So, how can we do it?   Here is a partial list from ConradAskland.com.

50 WAYS TO APPRECIATE YOUR TECH CREW (The complete list  is here.)

  • Learn their names.
  • Smile at them.
  • Bring them a cookie.
  • Clap when they enter the building.
  • Leave anonymous “Thank You” notes for them backstage.
  • Wear deodorant.
  • Ask for their autographs.
  • Dedicate a performance to them.
  • Stay out of their way when they are trying to do their job.
  • Pick up after yourself.
  • Take their picture.
  • Tell them they look good in black.
  • To the fly rail guys say “Oooo, you’re strong!”
  • Wave at them in the parking lot.
  • Offer them an Altoid.
  • Knit them a black sweater.
  • Write “Thank You” messages on a banana (peel) with a Sharpie and give it to them.

Thank you Jenn, Andrew, Rube  and Bert, for your invaluable contributions to this story!

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