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In the Studio

“This TV stuff—wow! It’s like being on a different planet.”

That’s how Liz Fentress felt after her first day of taping Liz’s Circus Story in the KET studio. For Liz, the studio was a new and sometimes confusing place. “People were walking around with headsets on, and I didn’t always understand what they were doing,” she recalls.

Vince Spoelker and Liz FentressIn advance of taping, KET director Vince Spoelker had talked with Liz about some of the differences between performing for a live audience and performing for the camera. “One general difference,” she says, “is that in a television performance, the camera lets you get close to the performer—right in their face. You can’t see that view on stage because you’re sitting back away from the actors. It’s a different kind of acting because of that. Onstage actions have to be much broader; you have to carry the emotion to the back of the theater. On TV and film, it’s much more subtle—you can convey a lot with the face.”

At the same time, some types of movement won’t work when taping for film or television. “Fast and broad movements won’t work,” Vince says. “For example, on stage, if someone tells a character, ‘Get up,’ they can just stand up. On camera, if you stand up too fast, your head would go out of the camera frame. You can still stand up, but you have to go slower. What you’re concerned about is how the movement and the shot look in the video frame.”

One of the biggest challenges for Liz was the difference in the way an actor uses energy:

Prentice Walker and Liz Fentress“In theater, basically you need your energy in about a two-hour chunk. If I have a 7:30 pm performance, I know I have to be ready and have energy until the play is over. In TV you have to pace yourself. I showed up around 8:00 in the morning, worked with Janet Whitaker on makeup, hair, and costumes—that usually took an hour or so. I didn’t have to have any energy for that, just sit there. Then I’d come in the studio and there would usually be some technical stuff that had to be arranged. I understand all of it now; I didn’t at the beginning. They’d have to figure out what is the set, exactly, for this shot. In the theater, by the time you get ready to do something, you know what the set is. But they would tweak the shot.

“At some point, after the lights were right and the microphone was right, they would rehearse the scene. I think some of the rehearsals were even for the camera people—see, they would talk on headsets, so I didn’t always know what was going on, but I think they were getting their shots—and then they’d want me to do a walk-through. Now this is a mistake I would make: I’d always sort of ‘go for it’ on the walk-through. Vince had told me not to do that, but I couldn’t help it. I guess it’s because in the theater you’re used to going for it, thinking, ‘Well, there are people in the room. If I just walk through it, they’ll think I’m a dope.’ Then ultimately they’d say, ‘Are we ready to try it for real?’ and you’d go for it. Lots of times Vince wanted to tape the scene from a different angle, or there would be a problem with something like the microphone or lights, or maybe I didn’t get the shot right. I didn’t always know why we had to do it again. After they had that shot, I would change my costume, the set would get changed, the lights would get changed, they would re-rig the microphone, and we would continue that all day long.”

Adjustments to shots, set, and costumes are part of film and television taping—no matter how much planning has been done. “There are about 400 shots in this show, and you can figure that about 15 to 20 percent of the shots you envision are not going to work when you get into the actual physical space,” says Vince.

adjusting lights in the studioThe rehearsal space at Horse Cave had been about one-third the size of the TV studio, so adjustments in how and where Liz moved had to be decided. As he had watched the rehearsal videotape, Vince had tried to anticipate which camera angle would best deliver the content—where the camera would need to be “tight” (close up) and where it would need to be wide; where Liz might need to slow her movements so the camera could follow her. Some of those plans had to be changed once shooting actually started.

“The thing about watching videotape made from the back of the hall is that you can’t see expressions,” Vince explains. “When you get in the studio, you sometimes realize that the shot needs to be different in order to get the point across. As a member of a stage audience, you can see the whole set all the time. Your eyes are where you want them to be. As a television director, you’re the eyes of the audience. You have to look at the performance and show what the audience needs to see to make the performance make sense and to carry the most emotional weight.”

The taping took five working days, 8:30 am to 6:00 pm—except for the last day, which lasted from 8:30 am to 11:00 pm. The play was taped in order—“You don’t have to do that, but we thought that would be more comfortable for Liz,” Vince explains—with multiple “takes” of each scene so that Vince and the tape editor would be able to choose the best performance while editing the program.

By the last day of taping, Liz felt more at home in the studio, but she was also exhausted. “I didn’t understand all of the different camera angles Vince used, and I was too tired, and it was too late, to ask questions,” she says. “He wanted me to look at one camera and say, ‘He doesn’t have a jaw,’ and then look at another camera and say, ‘I growl back.’ That was confusing to me, because in my mind I growl back at the same image that doesn’t have a jaw. Why would I change cameras? I think I probably could have understood Vince’s thinking if I weren’t so tired. I finally realized that I had to trust the fact that there were a lot of fabulous people working on this project and that they would make it work.”

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