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2016 January 18

Theatrical weekend

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This weekend has been a busy one for me—I went to three different theatrical performances:

Saturday night: 8 tens @ 8
Each year, the Actors’ Theatre puts on a show consisting of 8 10-minute one-act plays, which they select from submitted manuscripts.  (I wrote a little of the history in 8 Tens @ 8 in 2016). My wife and I went to see the A show on Saturday night—we’ll go to the B show in a couple of weeks.  The plays were not all of equal quality—not in the writing, not in the directing, and not in the acting.
Our favorite of the A show was You Too, by Tim Woods, directed by Scott Kravitz.  The lines were good, the characters believable, and acting and directing spot-on.
Also excellent was A Shared View, by Mary Caroline Rogers, directed by Audrey Stanley.  The script was a little less strong, but the acting and directing were excellent (both MarNae Taylor and Marcus Cato were well cast).  Good Medicine by Rod McFadden was fun, but very predictable. Flirting with Age, by Jack Spagnola (the only author without a blurb in the program), was a pretty predictable farce, but we enjoyed seeing MarNae in a very different role than she had in A Shared View. It is always a good idea to end with a farce (or at least a comedy), so that people leave feeling good about the show. Flirting with Age was a good choice for this position (though Good Medicine might also have worked, it wasn’t quite as fun).  
Threatened Panda Fights Back was too silly for the somewhat serious theme of extinction—the costuming was fun, but I was not otherwise impressed with the play. The Italian Prisoner by Paul Lewis had directorial problems (the singer was much too loud relative to memory of the boy Joey Rosen), the acting was a bit wooden, and the script too obviously borrowing from Tosca. Following Ms. Sergeant was a good effort with a rather flawed script—the sudden confessional mood seemed out of character for both characters, and the resolution too forced. Janis Gives Comfort was trying to handle “death and sex” as a theme in a nostalgic vein, but it didn’t resonate at all with me—perhaps I just didn’t care enough about Janis Joplin, who the main character was obsessed with.
Sunday morning: Winter’s Tale
The Del Mar Theater had the broadcast of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale performed by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company from the Garrick Theatre.  The Winter’s Tale is not often performed, because it is a somewhat muddled combination of a number of themes (jealousy, young lovers in disguise, rustic merriment, …) better handled in other plays. Branagh assigned himself the choice role of Leontes, but then over-acted the part. OK, it isn’t the subtlest part Shakespeare ever wrote, but it doesn’t call for crumpling up on the stage with stomach cramps all the time.  Setting the initial scene at a Victorian Christmas party exchanging token presents also seemed rather forced. Judi Dench as Paulina was very good, though, and the dancing in the rustic scenes quite impressive (if a little more balletic than country).  It was worth going to see The Winter’s Tale, but there’s no reason be sad if you missed it.
The Del Mar had put the broadcast in one of their small upstairs theaters, which sold out—I think that there was a high-school class getting credit for attendance. It would have been better in the larger theater downstairs.  But the Del Mar was definitely the right theater to show the broadcast in, as it has the closest that Santa Cruz gets to the gilt plaster ornamentation of the Garrick Theatre.
Sunday evening: Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard
West Performing Arts did a theatrical performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, using only 6 actors (5 female, 1 male) and 3 musicians. The actors were fairly young (middle school or early high school, I think). One review on a homeschool mailing list said “Very different from everything else I’ve seen going on locally in this age group,” but it seemed to me to be pulling together many of the theatrical techniques I’ve seen WEST developing over the past few years with their teen actors. 
They did a lot of chorus work, like at the Shakespeare conservatory; they did a lot with solid colored lights and backlighting (using their LED floods); they had movement pieces like the ones S. Kate Anderson had done for Call of the Wild; there was a “seduction” scene done in single-word lines, inspired by a Carol Burnett sketch that my son and another teen actor had performed at AFE (under WEST direction); and the actors kept changing roles, with a hat or a shawl to mark the characters (also from a Shakespeare conservatory). They had a dance scene under blacklight with fluorescent makeup (WEST has learned something since the days they tried Star Wars with glow-in-the-dark paint—fluorescence is much more visible and controllable than luminescence).
They were pretty true to the plot of the book, while making a very theatrical production, and I was impressed by how well they pulled off a rather difficult bit of theater.  The next generation of WEST actors is going to do well. I was only sad that the light rain had kept people away, and the house was only about 80% full—the performance was good enough that they should have been selling out every night.  (Of course, with only 6 actors, the built-in audience of family and friends is smaller than when they have a larger cast.)

My weekend was busy (in addition to the theater, I did a bit of blogging and spent most of a day putting together a course fee request for two-quarter version of the Applied Electronics course), but my wife was even busier, as she went to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday morning, at a different theater chain than the Shakespeare broadcast on Sunday morning.

2016 January 7

8 Tens @ 8 in 2016

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I just bought my tickets for the 8 Tens @ 8 shows for this year. I did not manage to get opening-night seats (sold out), but had no trouble getting other nights I wanted, even though the performances will be at Center Stage, which has a tiny house (89 seats).  They’re scheduled to perform from tomorrow 2016 Jan 8 through Sunday 2016 Feb 7, with six shows a week (a total of 26 shows).  The shows usually sell out, so the total audience will be about 2300.

This is an annual event for Actors’ Theatre, consisting of 8 ten-minute one-acts.  Each year they solicit scripts and produce the eight that they like best. A few years ago they started doing another 8 semi-staged readings of another 8 runners-up (“The Best of the Rest”), and last year they started doing two full sets of 8 plays each, as they are doing this year. So there will be 13 performances of the A set and 13 performances of the B set.

They started with 53 plays submitted in summer of 1999 and have grown to almost 300 submissions this year (so each entrant has over a 5% chance of their play being selected to be produced—not bad odds for a $10 entry fee). [Numbers from a Good Times article, info about submission fees from!play-submissions/cxkq]

They’ve managed to get 17 different directors for the 16 plays this year (two directors for one of the plays) [!auditions/c21ka], so the styles of each play will be rather different, though the sets can’t be very different, as they only have one minute to change sets between plays.  If it is like previous years, several of the directors will also be acting in other plays and many of the actors will be in several plays (probably just as well, as Center Stage has only a tiny backstage).

I understand that Jewel Theatre is still managing Center Stage, as well as the new Colligan Theater at the Tannery.  It’s good that they have two stages to manage now, as the 8 tens @ 8 performances are on some of the same nights as Jewel Theatre’s performances of Fallen Angels.

Picking 8 tens @ 8 performances we could go to was a bit tricky, because we had to avoid conflicts with Jewel Theatre’s Fallen Angels, with West Performing Art’s performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, and with the Santa Cruz Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s 1st. In order to fit everything in, we’re having to double up one weekend, with performances to go to on both Saturday and Sunday night.  (Weekday nights with work the next day are a bit tough for us.)

2016 January 5

Santa Cruz Shakespeare asks for letters

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In Our Quest for Our New Home: A Call to Action!, Mike Ryan has requested that supporters of Santa Cruz Shakespeare write letters to the Santa Cruz City Council:

This summer from the stage in the Glen, I told all of you to make sure to follow us so that I could let you know when the time was right to reach out to the City Council in support of our move to DeLaveaga. I am extremely excited to announce that now is that time. A few of you have already written to the Council or spoken at our community meetings, and for that I am grateful. It would be wonderful, however, if everyone who read this blog took a moment to do the same. The letters need not be long; a few simple sentences requesting the City Council approve the use of DeLaveaga by Santa Cruz Shakespeare is all that is needed. There is a single email address that will reach everyone on the City Council:

If you are interested and have the time to write a more detailed letter, all of us at Santa Cruz Shakespeare would be extremely grateful. Below, I have listed a number of questions that might help with crafting such a letter:

  • Why do you believe the city should provide space for arts organizations, and to Santa Cruz Shakespeare, specifically?
  • Why do you believe DeLaveaga is a great location for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s performances?
  • DeLaveaga is designated a ‘community park.’ Would the Festival’s presence bring new faces to an old community space?
  • What has Santa Cruz Shakespeare meant to you or your family over the years?
  • Why does Santa Cruz Shakespeare improve the quality of life in Santa Cruz?
  • Do you believe that Santa Cruz Shakespeare provides other benefits to the city besides the obvious cultural/artistic ones?

These are, of course, merely jump-start questions. I’m sure each and every one of you has unique and articulate reasons for asking the City Council to support our move. Whether you use these questions, or write your own thoughts, or whether you write a long letter or a short one, please write! It is very easy to assume that someone else will write a letter, and it is sometimes more difficult to write in support of projects we love than against those we oppose. A groundswell of support for the festival and the move to DeLaveaga will remind the Council just how valuable Santa Cruz Shakespeare is to our entire Santa Cruz community.

I will write such a letter, and this blog post will be a rough draft for the letter.

I’ve been attending summer Shakespeare performances in Santa Cruz for about 30 years, and I regard the festival’s productions as one of the high points of the summer.  Santa Cruz Shakespeare (and its predecessor, Shakespeare Santa Cruz) have been an important part of my family’s life, and an important cultural event for much of the community.  Shakespeare Santa Cruz provides one of the most family-friendly theater events in the area—the average age of the audience at their performances is significantly lower than at most of the other theater troupes in the area (excepting the numerous groups that provide theater classes for children—theater is a very popular activity in Santa Cruz).

The liveliness and diversity of cultural attractions in Santa Cruz are largely what account for Santa Cruz being such a desirable place to live (compared to other cities in the area that share the climate), but that desirability drives real estate prices up, which makes it difficult for the artists, actors, and musicians who provide the culture to continue to do so—performance spaces are in short supply, housing even more so. In the past the City Council has recognized the value of supporting various cultural events and organizations, including some pretty big projects like the Tannery.  Providing unused space in DeLaveaga Park at a reasonable rent to Santa Cruz Shakespeare would continue this tradition of supporting the arts, without a major expense to the taxpayers.

For several years, the festival has partnered with West Performing Arts to provide a summer Shakespeare conservatory for training teenage actors, using the professional actors, dramaturges, and other festival staff to pass on the knowledge and love of theater to the next generation. My son has participated in this conservatory for six years running—it has helped enormously to cement his love of Shakespearean drama (not to mention the improvements in his acting skill).  This conservatory is the highest level of actor training that West provides (their other classes cover grades 1–4 through grades 8–12). Although West would survive the loss of the Shakespeare conservatory, it would diminish them.

The Festival Glen at UCSC was an ideal location for the festival, but since UCSC has short-sightedly cut themselves off from one of the best cultural events in Santa Cruz by refusing to allow the Festival to rent the Glen any more, it has become important for Santa Cruz to find an alternative site or risk losing one of the best theatrical events on the West Coast.

Although the proposed site in DeLaveaga Park (approximately 36.994386, -121.995820) is not as conveniently located as the old site at UCSC, particularly for those who use public transportation or bicycle, it is probably the best site available within the City limits—or even within several miles of the city.  I’ve not been out to the park to look at the site in person, but I’ve looked at the site with Google Maps and Google Earth—it seems to be space that is currently idle in the park (since the Stroke Center was moved to Cabrillo College) and that would work for Santa Cruz Shakespeare.  If they can solve the problem of inadequate transportation (perhaps by having low-cost shuttles from downtown Santa Cruz), it should work well as a performance site. It is certainly a better use of the space than expanding the already under-utilized and water-hungry golf course.

Of the various uses one could imagine for this piece of  the park, I can think of no better one than an outdoor theater, and of the organizations that could build and maintain the theater, I can think of no better one than Santa Cruz Shakespeare.


2015 December 27

Theater lights

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My son and I have started on his summer project while he is home for winter break—to build a moderately bright, adjustable color theater light for WEST Performing Arts, the children’s theater troupe he has worked with for the past 11 years (including the two years before they split off from Pisces Moon).

The design is still very much in flux (we’re on our third processor choice already), and we haven’t done any parts ordering or physical prototyping yet, just thinking about circuits, parts, and layout.  We are currently planning an RGBW light with DMX control, with 20W each of red, green, and blue LEDs, and 40W of warm white LEDs, all mounted in a PAR-38 can (using an old can from WEST, rather than buying a new can).  The light will be a simple flood, which is easier to construct than a fresnel or spot light, because we don’t have to concentrate all the light into a small spot for manipulating with lenses.  Currently WEST uses 75W or 100W incandescent bulbs in their PAR cans, so the LED light should be three or four times brighter.  There are RGBW lights from China that are about the same brightness as we’re aiming for, but they are larger and more expensive—we’re aiming for a budget of about $100 a light for parts.  (We’d not be able to sell them any cheaper than the commercial lights—this is just a hobby project to make one or two lights for the theater.)

The theater has a few 15W RGB lights with DMX control, the American DJ Mega Tripar Profile, but they are only 5W per channel (not really bright enough) and it is not clear what functionality the DMX controller for them has (we didn’t look at it or find out the model number).  Because the set was a very cheap lighting set, it probably can’t handle the greater functionality we’re planned for the RGBW lights, so we’ll probably have to find or design a simple DMX controller that can be run from a Mac laptop. There are some open-source DMX controller projects on the web, but their user interfaces may be a bit too complicated for the kids (or non-techy staff) running the light booth for WEST. It is not clear whether we can design a simpler interface for a small number of lights that provides easy access to all the functionality of the lights.  There is also the question whether a traditional control board with sliders or an all-virtual laptop-based controller is a better interface for beginning lighting techs.

We might even want to look at an iPad-based controller, like Luminair ($90), LightingPad (discontinued), and RunTheShow (free, but limited to controlling their particular hardware). LightingPad says that they have pulled the product until they can update for iOS8, which was released over a year ago—since iOS9 has come out before they updated to iOS8, it seems unlikely that they will ever be able to keep up with the churn in the iPads (a complaint I’ve heard from other iPad app developers—Apple makes it very difficult for older apps to keep running, requiring a full-time developer just to keep up with Apple breaking things on each release).  Hmm, I seem to have talked myself out of developing an iPad app, but we probably should make sure our hardware can run with controllers like Luminair.

For laptops, there are open-source projects like Elios and WhiteCat.  Elios is an open-source project in Java, but it hasn’t been updated for a couple of years, so may be a dead project.  WhiteCat seems rather complicated, based on the screenshots at, and most of the documentation is in French, which neither my son nor I reads.

Since we’re mainly interested in running on MacBooks, the OS-X-only code from LightKey may be usable.  They have a free version with 24 channels that might be usable, though upgrading to more channels gets into an expensive subscription model.

The controls we are planning for the RGBW light were 16-bit PWM on each of the 4 channels, plus a strobe frequency (in units of 0.1Hz, with 0–5 and 250–255 having special meanings—probably always off and always on).  Because the DMX512 protocol only has one byte per channel, the light would need 9 channels, and the free version of LightKey could only control 2 such lights.

The Tripar Profiles can be configured as anywhere from 1 to 7 channels:

  1. choice of 16 preset colors (“color macros”);
  2. 16 colors plus 1-byte dimmer;
  3. RGB;
  4. RGB plus master dimmer;
  5. RGB, dimmer, color macros;
  6. RGB, color macros, strobing, master dimmer;
  7. RGB, color macros, strobe or program speed, preset programs, master dimmer.

The preset programs are mainly for running the light as a standalone light show without a DMX controller, so we would not want to emulate that.  The 4-channel RGB,dimmer function is intended as a workaround for the low resolution of 8-bit PWM control—you pick the color at full brightness, then multiply by the dimmer setting to get the overall effect.  Since we are planning to use 16-bit PWM, we can get more precise color control even at dim light settings.  If we mix our light with the Tripar Profiles, we would probably use the Tripar Profiles in 4-channel mode (unless we needed strobing, in which case we’d use 6-channel mode).

I mentioned above that we’d been through three different processor choices.  At first we thought of using a Teensy board, because we’re familiar with ARM programming, the Teensy boards are easy to program, and they can be treated like a through-hole part for doing prototyping (by adding some header pins).  But the boards are a bit large, and a bit expensive ($11.65 for a Teensy LC), so we next considered using an ATtiny2313A processor (again, the ATtiny is easily programmed and I have some experience with the ATtiny13, which I used for the PWM on my desk lamps).  Unfortunately, the ATtiny2313A provides only 2 16-bit PWM channels (plus 2 8-bit channels), which is not really adequate.  Using two ATtiny2313A chips would work, but for less money and less board real estate, we can use a PIC32MX110F016B-I/SP and get 16-bit PWM on a 40MHz clock for a 610.4Hz PWM frequency.  The flexibility of the pin remapping on the PIC32 is attractive here, as it can simplify the routing of the board.

The processor not only has to interpret the DMX commands and provide PWM outputs, it also has to support the RDM (remote data management) protocol of modern DMX devices (the Tripar Profiles don’t, but there is no real excuse for not supporting RDM these days).

Here is a rough block diagram of the current design:

Each LED here is nominally a 10W LED module.

Each LED here is nominally a 10W LED module.

We’ve given some thought to the heat sink, fan, and mounting brackets for everything, but there is still more work to be done to make sure that we can really dump all the waste heat and keep the LEDs sufficiently cool.  We’re currently looking at about $80 in parts for the light (not including the can, which we’ll get from WEST) plus another $15 to make a USB-DMX interface that can handle the RDM protocol.  Those numbers may change a fair amount as we play with the design.

The two boards are each about 10cm by 5cm, which cost only $12 (for 10 copies) from Smartprototyping.  My son has done preliminary layouts of them, to see how big the boards would be and determine any mechanical problems we might encounter.

2014 November 17

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2015 season

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Santa Cruz Shakespeare  has just announced their 2015 season:

Get your picnic baskets ready! Our 2015 Season proves to be…

Wickedly Romantic

featuring Mike Ryan’s favorite comedy Much Ado About Nothing

Wickedly Funny

featuring David Ives’ cheeky adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar

Wickedly Powerful

featuring Macbeth, Shakespeare’s haunting tale of ambition

Join us starting June 30, 2015 for a season of romance, ambition, heartbreak, and seduction. Tickets go on sale in April 2015, or you can become a member and get access to advance tickets and discounts. We look forward to seeing you in the Glen. Play on!

Santa Cruz Shakespeare | 500 Chestnut St, Ste 250 | Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 460-6396

I’ll be getting season tickets soon after they go on sale.

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