It is a little over two months since I got my hands on the iPad (WiFi model). I did an update 1 month in and while this two month update may be a few days late, it is only because we’ve been working hard to open Wayside Theatre’s season opening production of Shenandoah. That happened Sunday night (the opening was a great success.) During the month since my last update there have been a few new apps and updates that have made the iPad a more worthy tool in my work-flow. What’s that you say? Work-flow? Isn’t it just a consumption device? Well, yes, but increasingly no. Thanks to a few app developers the iPad has found its way into my work day. Here’s how.
First, unless you’re really new to the pages of GBM, you know that I spend a lot of time taking notes as a part of my job as a theatre director. Some of these notes are taken in meetings, but most are taken in rehearsals. This is why I got into Tablet PCs to begin with. And, like many Tableteers I have been dismayed and saddened to see the move away from Digital Inking on Tablets in favor of touch. That’s a well worn story and we’ve all heard it too many times.
That said, taking notes is a very personal thing and how we do it depends a lot on the job at hand. In my case, sitting in rehearsal, taking notes means scribbling a quick note to share with an actor or staff member about a moment that is racing by live on stage. Preferably without taking my eye off of what is happening on the stage. Tablet PCs did and still do work very, very well for this kind of fast paced note taking. Many of those notes end up as chicken scratch, only decipherable to me. Over the years, I developed a system of printing the script into OneNote and taking notes on the script when the pace wasn’t so demanding. This helped me jog my memory about what I was remarking on. The bottom line for me, is that I need a quick method of scribbling something fast when it comes to the vast majority of my note taking chores. I emphasize this because it is important in context.
Several weeks back, before we got into the phase of rehearsals where I was taking notes furiously, the iPad app Penultimate was released. This had some promise for digital note takers (and those who like to sketch) because it offered what the developers call wrist protection, and what Tableteers call palm rejection. In other words you can lay your hand on the screen and take notes with a stylus without having stray ink scatter all over the capacitive screen. There are fundamental differences obviously from how this works with what we know and love as Tablet PCs. But, in short, after putting Penultimate to the test in a fast paced rehearsal environment, I came away impressed. It is not what I’m used to. The notes, even with my chicken scrawl are not as pretty, nor am I able to keep my eye completely on the stage. But in the end, I was able to communicate my notes to actors and staff after scribbling furiously on the iPad as rehearsals for Shenandoah flew by.
Does it replace a Tablet PC in my situation? That’s a close call and the answer is no. I can’t obviously do as much with notes scribbled into Penultimate as I can using OneNote on a Tablet PC. There’s no search. I can’t lay the script in to take notes on. I can’t Ink a quick email in rehearsal. The Inking is not as smooth. But, when push comes to shove, I can sit for a full day of rehearsal and take notes with a stylus on the iPad. So, why is it a close call? Although I had to change how I had been taking rehearsal notes a bit, I was able to do so. I miss my system, but during the next show, which starts rehearsal in a few weeks, we’ll see if that lasts or not.
The Dreaded Stylus
Speaking of s stylus. I tried using the Dagi Stylus, the Pogo Sketch, and a new stylus from Milano, that they call the mi-stylus. I ordered the mi-stylus just before rehearsals began. Although it isn’t perfect it became my stylus of choice during this period. All of these styli have to be engineered to work with the capacitive screen, and what attracted me to the mi-stylus was that its business end comes to an angled point of sorts. Don’t let this confuse you, it doesn’t give you more accuracy in writing or sketching, and you still need to use the broader part of the tip to lay down Ink. But for $4.99 it worked well enough to do the chores I needed it to. Some like the Pogo Sketch, but the mi-stylus is my choice for the iPad at the moment.
Files and Documents: Dropbox and Documents to Go
Going into this rehearsal period I anticipated not having much success because of the iPad’s lack of a file system. We send a lot of notes, schedules, diagrams, and documents back and forth during a typical three week rehearsal period. Most of these are Word docs or Excel spreadsheets and come as email attachments. While I had been using GoodReader and Air Sharing to transfer files back and forth, the release of the Dropbox App for the iPad during the rehearsal process changed everything. Dropbox is a cloud syncing solution that allows you to access your files on any device, as long as you save them into your Dropbox folder. What the iPad version does is make the lack of an OS file system almost disappear. Documents in your Dropbox folder can be opened within Dropbox for viewing. They can be saved to local storage as a favorite. While you can’t edit a document in Dropbox it allows you to save the document to be opened in another application. For most of the rehearsal process I was using the Pages app to edit these documents stored in Dropbox. But just last week, in the final days of rehearsal, the folks at DataViz released the iPad version of Documents to Go. Documents to Go gives you mobile versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint and I had used that quite extensively on the iPhone. The iPad version lets you access your Dropbox as the repository for these files. That’s thanks to the folks at Dropbox making their APIs available. One drawback, Documents to Go can’t read Office 2010 files yet, so you need to save files created in Office apps in earlier formats.
In my use case, both of these Apps and Penultimate bring the iPad closer to being the only tool I need during a rehearsal process for working with documents. But there are other chores that I still wish I could do with a stylus.
Quick Lists and Mind Mapping
One of the tasks that I do as I’m working on a show is mind mapping. I frequently sketch out ideas in a free form fashion and then organize them later. There is an excellent mind mapping tool for the iPad called iThoughtsHD that allows you to create mind maps, but obviously you can’t do so with Digital Ink. I used iThoughtsHD several times during the process and it works well for what it does, but it can’t replace MindManger on a Tablet PC just yet for that kind of work. There is something about mind mapping in digital ink that encourages the mind mapping process. At least for me.
I am frequently making and adding and changing lists during a rehearsal process. Those lists include what the order of work will be the next day, or what props we might need for the next rehearsal, or any number of things that need to get done. Scribbling out these lists in Digital Ink became something that I just did as second nature. When I needed to send these lists to others, I would convert from Ink to text and send them on. Apple included its rudimentary Notes app with the OS, but I have been using an App called SimpleNote to make these kind of lists for distribution. It is as the name implies, a simple note taking app. No frills. You can email an note to a contact once it is created. You can sync them to a computer via a desktop app if you like, but I didn’t use this feature. Simple and effective, but again, no Digital Inking. Could I have used Penultimate to do this kind of thing? Yes, but I don’t usually subject my team members to the horrors of trying to read my Inked notes.
Other iPad Uses
This particular show, Shenandoah, is a large musical with many different scenic locations, requiring a lot of set shifts. Our small professional theatre doesn’t have the benefit of a fly system or wing space, so for a show like this we start by creating an environment wherein everything we are going to use either lives on stage, or is brought on from backstage during the course of the action. This requires a lot of pre-planning and discussions between the director and set designer and other team members. An app I used to work through different scenic set ups is called Ideate. Created for designers to sketch, it allows me to bring in a copy of our ground plan for the set, and sketch different options on top of that plan. I am just really beginning to tap the potential of this app, but I think it will become a fixture in my toolbox down the road as I use it more.
A surprising use case cropped up late in rehearsals. The opening number for Shenandoah is a big production number called Raise the Flag, in which the story of the American Civil War gets set up. The number contains Confederates and Union soldiers singing back and forth in taunting fashion over who is going to win. Our version of this, essentially seeks to tell the story of that tragic conflict in music, movement, and action. To do so it required our lighting designer to create a large number of light cues as the action swings back and forth. These shifts evolve into quicker and quicker rhythms during the number and timing is the key to making them work. I hate to waste actors time on stage while we fine tune this kind of timing. It is more than counter productive, so we typically give it our best shot with some sort of audio recording and then fine tune from there. I had heard that the iPad’s microphone and recording capabilities were surprisingly good, so I downloaded the Voice Memos app, and recorded the opening number in rehearsal. (A recording app was included with the iPhone but not the iPad.) The recording and playback quality was so good and loud enough, that the lighting designer could sit in the light booth at the back of our balcony, and I could play back the song on the main floor and he could pick it up well enough via the house monitors to execute the cue timings. This saved us a lot of time, or I should say saved the actors lots of time.
Speaking of music and sound, using Dropbox, the iPad also works well for sound files to be shared and tested out among staff members.
Connectivity and Battery Life
As I have the WiFi version of the iPad, I rely on WiFi, or the Sprint MiFi card for connectivity. Rarely in rehearsal do I need to be connected, and frequently, even on later model Tablet PCs, I will turn off all the radios to save battery life. While in the past, the MiFi card would not draw a sufficient signal to use in our theatre, that seems to have changed of late. The few times I did need to connect, I was able to pull down a signal and connect via that device. Our Stage Manager, purchased the 3G version of the iPad and she seemed to also be able to get a sufficient signal throughout a rehearsal. The good news here (except for the MiFi card’s around 4 hour battery life) is that both of us could go an entire 8 hour rehearsal and not be concerned about battery life. No more turning off radios.
Summing it Up
To reiterate, my Tablet usage in rehearsals is a very specific set of processes that have evolved over the years, and probably don’t relate to your usage very much, if at all. That said, with a few key exceptions the iPad could conceivably replace all I do with a Tablet in rehearsal. Those key exceptions (mind mapping, quick list making using handwriting recognition, note taking directly on a script) won’t keep me from trying to use the iPad in our next show as my primary rehearsal tool. As I said in one of the posts I wrote about the iPad upon its release a little over two months ago, we won’t really know what we have until the developers start really creating apps that use the device. We’re just starting to see that happen now, two months in. I’m watching with a keen eye to see what others come up with, and what the developers of Penultimate and other note taking apps may or may not do down the road. Already the iPad is proving in my case that it can be considered a work tool as well as a consumption device.
Other Posts in This Series
- GBM InkShow: iPad Unboxing
- The iPad, My Mom, and Reactions from the Hospital
- GBM iPad Series: Review and InkShow
- GBM iPad Series: One Tablet PC Veteran’s Perspective
- Now About Those Fingerprints…
- GBM iPad Series: I Haven’t Really Lived Until This Moment
- GBM iPad Series: Stall Surfing and the iPad
- GBM iPad Series: Thoamsin Takes on the iPad
- GBM iPad Series: Docks and Keyboards
- Camera Connector Kit Seems to Do the Trick
- iPad Reading Shootout: iBooks Vs. Kindle App