The Sunday Interview: Lindsey McGowen

This is a first: a Sunday Interview with a technical improviser. In this case, Lindsey McGowen, who, since moving to Austin a few years ago, has become a fixture around town, helping to stage manage and technically manage dozens of shows, along with countless one-off shows. 

And it's one of my favorite interviews because (a) Lindsey is very thoughtful about this stuff, and (b) it's a new perspective on this activity we love. 

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Age: 32

Years doing improv/tech: 2

Web presence (if any): www.lindseymcgowen.com

Troupes/shows you're involved in: 
I am the Co-Technical Director (along with Cindy Page) of the Hideout Theatre in charge of all technical aspects of the main stage productions, as well as maintenance on all of the light and sound equipment.

Currently I am actively involved in the following shows:

  • History Under the Influence
  • Control Issues
  • Savage Swords
  • Austin Secrets
  • The Black Vault
  • The Jukebox Musical Project (as Music Director)

Why do you do technical improv instead of talky improv?
My bachelor’s degree is actually in Technical Theater. I took several acting classes when I was in college, and I really just detested the attention. (Apparently this does not hold true while I am singing, but that’s a different story…)

I love creating the environments that really make a play a truly theatrical experience: lights, sound, set, costumes. Anything that allows an audience to feel more, to relate easier, to feel like they are sharing this moment with the actors on stage is my favorite part of theater.

And as for improv, I love that I am also improvising along with the stage improvisors. I get to “direct” the shape of the show from the booth, as I’m one of the few people involved in the show who actually gets to see the big picture.

What are one or two misapprehensions that improvisers have about technical improv? 
1) Tech is scary.

I can absolutely see how sometimes the boards with all of their buttons can be overwhelming for people new to tech, but it’s really not. In particular with the sound board, most of the faders and knobs can be completely ignored. You really only need to know two of the faders and you can ignore all of the knobs. Don’t be scared of the boards! They don’t bite!

2) Stage instincts are the same as tech instincts.

To me, tech is about the big picture and is, at its core, about support - knowing when to heighten an emotional moment with music and when to heighten with silence.

Like with film editing, with tech you’re telling the audience something about what’s happening on stage that the actors may not even be saying directly themselves, or give insight into where a particular scene is heading, emotionally. At its best, tech takes those emotions the actors are putting out and makes them even more vivid, more clear, and more powerfully affecting to the audience.

Paradoxically, this can allow actors to dial back their own intensity, or play it closer to the chest. 

Two stage improvisors, playing (say) a Mafia don and a lackey, could have a banal conversation about the weather. But if I see something ominous to that dialogue, I can use tension-filled music, isolating lighting, rain, and a well-timed thunder clap to transform the conversation into a cat-and-mouse game. Suddenly, the words are ostensibly about the weather, but the conversation is about something else entirely. ("Yeah, Dino.  It's gonna rain for days." *thunders*)  

Techs are able to play that level of subtext more broadly than the actors themselves, and help the audience see through to what is really “true” about the scene they are watching.

What's the hardest part of technical improv? What's the easiest?
The hardest part of technical improv for me is knowing when to make an offer, or when to just let the moment “sit."

Tech can be distracting when done wrong; if you pick the wrong song for the moment, then the emotional beat of the scene the stage imps were going for is ruined. Finding the nuance between support/heightening and melodrama is always a fine line.

Easiest is having troupes or a Maestro where the needs are few (the lights should go on and off, and I should be able to see the actors when they’re on stage), but honestly easy is boring. 🙂

Do you collaborate with directors on improv shows, or do you come with your own vision for the technical aspects of the show, or both or neither?
I typically sign on for a show with ideas of how it should go, but I always collaborate with the director on how those ideas get put into practice. I love having directorial input on tech so I can ensure that I am creating the director’s vision for the show.

What's something that you'd technically like to do in a show, but haven't yet?
I have a dream of having a cyclorama (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclorama_(theater)) built into a set that I can light with color bar type lights to change the mood or location of a scene.

Who's the funniest person you personally know?
Courtney Hopkin. She is an amazing improvisor and sketch writer and I am lucky to work with her so regularly on the Jukebox Musical Project!

Who's the funniest person you don't personally know?
Lewis Black, circa 2000.

Let's say that you make a "mistake" from the technical booth --- how do you react, respond, deal with it? Or ARE there mistakes in the first place? 
There are always mistakes: a random gunshot goes off, a blackout happens at the wrong time, a song suddenly and unexpectedly changes volume.  When those happen, I  just try to calmly move on. Sometimes those mishaps are acknowledged, and sometimes they aren’t, and either is fine.

Some tech 'mistakes' are actually blocks from the stage improvisors, and you have to field those just as smoothly.

I once started a scene with the stage lit dark blue, and only a single light aimed at the actors.  It was clearly nighttime... until a stage imp announced that it was a beautiful afternoon! I did my best to ease the lights towards bright yellow to reflect the new reality.

Tell me about a memorable experience you've had in a show --- a moment when your work from the booth and the improvisers work onstage melded perfectly. What made it so good?
My favorite sound improv moment to date was during Jordan T. Maxwell and Melissa Patterson’s duo night of Wanderlust.

I wasn’t even supposed to be teching that show (I was filling in for Michael Yew on scoring), but they were traveling to New Orleans to visit their grandfather, only to have him die before they got there. I was able to play “Awake My Soul” by Mumford & Sons, which starts out very slow and melancholy with lyrics such as “In these bodies, we will live, in these bodies, we will die, and where you invest your love, you invest your life…”

Once I had established I was using this song, Jordan immediately keyed into the song and its message, and, as the song began to pick up as all M&S songs typically do, called for party on Bourbon Street to celebrate his grandfather at the exact moment when the song turned into a joyful chorus the song is most known for.

I love it when I can make an offer as a technical improvisor and have the stage improvisors notice and take those to heart because it truly makes for a theatrical experience.

You occasionally teach technical improv workshops. What do you hope to achieve with those?
I hope to train more technical improvisors! As the community at large moves towards more and more theatrical shows that involve proper theatrical lighting and sound work, we need more techs to fill that need, as I do need to sleep occasionally. 🙂

What's one thing that most people don't know about you?
Over the course of my life, there are at least 15 people who could have, at one point or another, claimed to have been my grandparent.

Anything you want to plug?
See more shows! Come talk to me at Happy Hours! Learn to tech! AND COME TO SAVAGE SWORDS AND SEE THE NEW TOY ROY LET ME HAVE.

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