On technology

One of my favorite things about working at TimeLine is an idea — one that, if you were to pop into our rehearsals or production meetings, you’d hear voiced at some point on virtually every show we produce:

We’ve really never done anything like this before.

This concept is integral to who we are as a company, and the type of work we do. As Production Manager, I oversee the technical elements of TimeLine shows, so this idea at times can be panic-inducing for me (“We need you to find six identical, 70s-era TV studio monitors — and they need to work!”). But it means we’re always pushing ourselves, always taking risks, and always finding new and better ways to tell our stories.

TimeLine’s Chicago premiere of “Enron”

When I first came to TimeLine in 2007, we had just begun using a computer in the booth for the first time. Prior to that, other than an antiquated light board, we ran things more or less as you might if you were putting on a show in your basement: Music ran from CDs (burned by the sound designer) each night (with a stage manager manually adjusting the volume for each track); when we used projections, they ran from a DVD. Running a show felt a little bit like piloting an airplane, with a million buttons, knobs and switches to track.

The computer gave our designers infinitely more control. It’s not an exaggeration to say that its specialized software, QLab, let us explore things with our shows that had never been possible before. And in the years since, we’ve steadily continued to expand technologies, with computers for video and a new light board among the pieces we’ve added.

Then last spring, we encountered a total game-changer. We decided to produce Enron. And hired the wonderful Rachel Rockwell to direct it.

It was crucial to Rachel that the Enron world be slick, modern, and hip — all things that are expensive to create onstage. So as we began discussing the show, it became clear that the only way for us to achieve her goal would be to try out lots of new things and embrace every bit of technology we could.

In other words, we took “never done anything like this before” to new heights.

The technology center that powers “Enron” every night

Running Enron now requires five computers, networked in the booth and controlled from a single button (the space bar, if you’re wondering). The show also integrates more than 30 different pieces of technology, at least five of which have never been used at TimeLine before. Some are obvious, while others are hidden away backstage, silently making everything smooth. And of course, fancy technology isn’t always the best answer: A few cues are still called by flipping the switch on a power strip.

After all, the point isn’t the technology itself, but the show it enables us to create. It’s exciting for us when a director says, “You know what would make this moment really hit home?” or “Here’s an idea that would really put us in this character’s shoes,” and we can make it happen. I’m not sure how we would have done Enron five years ago. Without the technology, it would have been much harder to immerse our audience in the company’s world and culture, and therefore really tell the whole story. And at the end of the day, telling the story is what all those fancy electronics are really about.

So when you come to see Enron, it’s fun to know about the elaborate setup backstage. But it’s even better if the show begins and you immediately forget that any of it even exists. Because when our audience members can dive in and completely immerse themselves in the play, that’s when we know our technology has truly done its job.

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