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Vince Spoelker on Directing

What does a producer/director do?

VinceProducer/director is one person doing two jobs. The producer job in some organizations means finding money. In this organization, your role as a producer is to manage the money. I come up with a budget, based on my experience in doing these kinds of things; outline how many days are needed to shoot and edit; determine other production needs; and negotiate with the artists—make sure all the business aspects are in line. As director, my role is more creative, more conceptual—working with the set designer, lighting designer, costume designer; coming up with the look and concept of where Liz is going to move, what kind of space she’ll be in, what she’ll look like and how she’ll dress. And then you have to figure out the camera angles and how she will be miked; how many cameras.

How did you prepare for the taping of Liz’s Circus Story?

First, Nancy [Carpenter, director of arts programming at KET] and I met and talked about the show and the fact that we really needed it to be edited down to an hour show. We had several meetings with Liz to talk about how this could be accomplished. Then we left her alone with Warren Hammack to craft the show. They worked on it about a year. When they had something new, she would mail us copies of the script. We would read it and offer feedback: “This works, that doesn’t.... This would be hard to shoot.... This would be hard to convey visually.... This isn’t really getting the idea across.” We worked with Liz a long time shaping it down to an hour. Losing 60 minutes off a piece is really hard work, and Liz had to lose a lot of stuff she really loved to make it work for television.

After she got it trimmed down, we had to figure out a way to get it re-staged: This play had never been performed. We worked with Robert Brock, director at Horse Cave Theatre, to re-stage it. I’m really not a theatrical director; my background is in television. So I felt like we needed Robert’s input in crafting the stage performance. I would go down to Horse Cave and sit through rehearsals and look at it. That took another couple of months.

Why did the program have to be 60 minutes long?

Several reasons. Two hours is a little long for television. It’s hard for people to focus on a show that long. And as a broadcast organization, it’s easier for us to find a place to put a show if it’s an hour. It’s easier for us to use as a broadcast product.

And when I read the play, what jumped out at me was the impact Wayne Franzen had on Liz. His drive, his passion to start this circus and to overcome amazing obstacles, really gave Liz the courage to pursue the dream she had to be an actor. To me that was the core of the story and the through-line.

What were you looking for when you watched the rehearsals at Horse Cave?

I was watching the movement and thinking about what kind of shots we would need. For example, I might note an important moment that would need a tight shot, or plan for a wider shot where there is a lot of moving around. I’d look for places where we would need to have Liz move more slowly so the camera could follow.

In my process, what I need is a videotape of the performance. To plan for taping a play or ballet or whatever, you need to know where and how the performers are moving. I took a home video camera and set it up in the back of the auditorium and taped the whole performance from start to stop. That way you get the entrances, the exits, where people are going to be standing, where they sit down, how they’re moving.

How did you use the videotape?

I took it back to my office and sat with the script and envisioned the shots, starting with scene 1, shot 1. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle: You need to move from here to here on shot 1, you need to pick them up someplace else on another camera for shot 2, and so on. Then you come in the studio and find the stuff that doesn’t work and fix it. I guess in this show there are 300 to 400 shots. Probably 15 to 20 percent of the shots you envision working off a videotape won’t work for some reason. So you have to adapt your plans.

What are some of the reasons a planned shot might not work?

One thing about watching videotape shot from the back of the hall is that you can’t see expressions. When we get in the studio and I actually see the movement on camera, I might see that the information of the scene is being conveyed by the person being spoken to instead of the person speaking, and that’s where the camera needs to be. As a television director, you’re the eyes of the audience. You have to look at the performance and figure out what the audience needs to see to understand the performance, to carry the most emotional weight, because if you don’t see it and don’t show it to the audience, they’re not going to see it. It’s not like a stage performance where, as an audience member, your eyes are where you want them to be. As a television director, you have to take the audience there.

What instructions did you give to Bob Pickering, the set designer?

This was the first time I had the opportunity to work with Bob, although I had seen the work he had done for other productions and was impressed with it.

What I gave to him were a lot of photographs Liz had from her time in the circus. I tried to include Bob—and Janet [Whitaker, makeup and costumes] and Don [Dean, lighting designer]—in the meetings as soon as we had gotten the script solid, because the more that they knew about what we were doing and why, the better job they were going to be able to do.

In terms of creating the atmosphere we needed for this show, Bob came up with amazing stuff. Liz said it was a lot like being on the circus grounds, seeing his set.

This is new for me—the idea of leaving people alone and letting them do their job. When I first started as a director, I thought I needed to have control over every single thing. Now I realize I need to be part of all of it but that I also need to let people have the creative space and freedom to do their jobs. Bob came up with stuff that in my wildest dreams I could not have come up with. Letting him have that space added so much to the show. His ideas gave me ideas, gave Liz ideas, gave Janet ideas, gave Don ideas. It’s that kind of creative interchange that really is the fun part of this job.

Was there any rehearsal in the TV studio?

The rehearsal process really happened outside the studio, at Horse Cave [Theatre], but the space there was probably a third the size of the KET studio. So what happens is you create the essence of the performance down there and you bring it in here and all of a sudden it expands: There’s so much more space to work with, different props. I brought Liz and Robert Brock and Bob Pickering and Don Dean in one Sunday before we started shooting. The set was in place, but lighting hadn’t been done. We walked through the play scene by scene and took what we had done in the smaller space and put it in a larger space. That gave Liz a week to get used to the idea that she had this much more space and different props. It gave Don an outline of where in the studio we were going to be working, so he could work on the lights. And it gave Bob an idea of props changes that would be needed.

Then you bring the camera operators in and you go through the show, block the shots scene by scene, number each of the shots. For example, in the first scene there might be 25 shots, and each camera has so many of those. It takes a little bit of time for them to get familiar with the production, to get the angles right.

And once we get in the studio with everybody in here, we need to walk through the scene once or twice—making sure the actress doesn’t give the performance. All she’s doing is saying the lines and marking where she’s going. This can be a difficult concept for stage actors to understand—that they have to marshal their energy. In TV and film, it takes time for everything to fall into place. And if you give your performance while the cameramen are marking shots, while the audio people are adjusting the microphones, while the lighting guy is doing last-minute fixes, then it’s not going to be there when the camera is rolling. As director, you have to watch your actors and make sure they don’t give their performance until it’s time.

This is difficult for stage actors, especially, because the stage is very ephemeral. A performance happens once and is gone. With TV or film, it’s going to be a long day. You’re not going to do the whole show—sometimes not even the whole scene—but your energy needs to be consistent throughout the takes.

How long did it take to shoot Liz’s Circus Story? Did you shoot the scenes in sequential order?

It took a little over a week, five working days, and we did shoot it in order. We didn’t have to, but decided to do it that way for Liz’s comfort. The day lasted from about 8:30 to 6:00. The last one was 8:30 to 11:00 pm, and Liz was pretty tired at the end.

How many “takes” were taped of each scene?

It varied. As a director, you have an idea in your mind of how a scene ought to be played. You don’t want to go out and read it for the actor; you want the actor to find it. It becomes a game, almost, of trying to get them to see the things you see in the scene and to be able to give that reading. They read it; you tell them, “Be a little less this or a little more that” or “Let’s try it this way.” Obviously if they flub a line or a prop drops, you do it over. I think the most takes we ever did of a scene was eight or nine. I’ve worked on shows where people have done 26 takes to get a scene.

What happens in the editing phase?

In editing, you take those parts of a performance that are best and create a whole performance out of that. You take those seven or eight takes and decide that this line is best in that take, that line best in another take. That’s what editing is: making decisions about what you like. That’s where a director can really affect a performance and the show.

How long did it take to edit Liz’s Circus Story?

It took about five weeks to do a rough cut. That’s where I sit in a room by myself with the tapes and make those kinds of decisions: which take I like, which line I like. I do that myself in a little room with equipment that is fairly inexpensive. Then we go into an online suite where we have an editor, much more sophisticated equipment, and an audio person, and we make the show. The reason you do that is so you don’t have people standing around waiting while you make decisions about where the cut should be. I can make those decisions without tying up other people’s time.

What can television give an audience that a stage performance can’t?

In general, in a television performance, you can get in somebody’s face. That’s the thing—you can be close to the performer. You can’t see those kinds of things on the stage because you’re sitting back away from the actors. It’s a different kind of acting because of that. On stage, actions have to be much broader; you have to carry the emotion to the back of the theater. On TV and film, acting is much more subtle; you can do a lot with just the face. And you have to be thinking about what you’re doing because the camera will show that.

Many of the performances you have taped for television were taped in the performance hall. What’s the difference between doing that and taping in the studio?

As a director, you have a lot more control in the studio. You can start and stop, do seven or eight takes. You can move the cameras around. For example, in this play we used hand-held cameras with the animals’ points of view, so the audience was looking at Liz through the eyes of the elephant or the tiger. In a theater you can’t do that. You’re, in that setting, pretty much just documenting the performance onstage, not helping to create it.

Why were graphics and sound effects added to Liz’s Circus Story?

As I was editing, I realized that we could really flesh out the world of Liz’s Circus Story by creating a rich audio bed. So I cut all of the dialogue on a submaster tape and gave that to Audio so they could start looking for sound effects and music and places to put music. What we didn’t have in our sound effects library, they had to go out and find. For example, a small circus came through town, and Charlie [Bissell, audio engineer] spent a day with them, recording the sounds as they put up the big top. In the meantime, Bob and our graphics people were working on what’s called interstitials—graphics between scenes to help tie the scenes together.

What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

I hope that people take away the idea that you can achieve your dreams. Wayne did. Liz did. If you believe in something and really have a passion for it, that’s the way your life needs to be directed. You don’t do things in your life for the money you can make; you do what you love. That’s the way Wayne and Liz lived their lives, and it gave them a great deal of joy.

What is your background?

I’ve been at KET 30 years. I went to the University of Kentucky and studied telecommunications. I started at KET in 1973 as a camera operator and worked my way up. I didn’t know much, but I had the opportunity to work on different shows and learn. As a director, I started out doing talk shows, and then I did some instructional shows. Then I had the opportunity to do performance stuff, which is what I really wanted to do. For the past 15 years I have been doing musicals, plays, and other live performances, and I love it.

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