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sciri
01-22-2010, 06:23 AM
Hi all,

does anybody know where I could find some good description of how the backstage of a theater works and how is it made? Maybe some useful links on the web? I need it for a scene in my WIP and since I'm still unpublished I feel a little shy about calling up the local theater and asking whether they would allow me to browse back there... I'll definitely do it at some point, but for now I need some info for the sole purpose of getting the first draft of the ms down.

Thanks!

Update: I found something interesting: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10732196651

underthecity
01-22-2010, 05:41 PM
I feel a little shy about calling up the local theater and asking whether they would allow me to browse back there
Your better bet would be to call your local university's theater department and speak to a theater professor. The professors are all directly involved in theater and design and will be happy to answer your questions.

I was a theater minor and spent lot of time backstage in building sets, etc., so I know some first-hand knowledge, at least at the college level.

I know it isn't quite the same, but my newest book has backstage shots of a 1950s nightclub. Click on the "trailer" link in my sig line to see a few samples.

Rhoda Nightingale
01-22-2010, 08:07 PM
I did some work as a dresser for my college theater, and got to know our backstage area quite well. And don't be shy--theater folks is good people. They'll have NO problem about letting you have a browse back there, especially if you're writing a story and using it as a setting.

A few questions for you: Is it just one scene you need the theater for? What's the context? Because "backstage" is a HUGE place. There's the set shop, the dressing rooms, the make-up rooms, the costume shop, the prop room, the green room, and the area directly behind the curtain with its own set of nooks and crannies--and that's not even getting into the lighting equipment and the catwalk. Could you narrow down what you're looking for?

sciri
01-22-2010, 10:18 PM
Thanks for the info!
It's a short scene: my main character has a friend who is directing a play, so she goes see it with him one night; they enter together through the back door and get to the area directly behind the stage where (I assume) everybody is fretting around and getting ready for the play. I just need to give a sense of the equipment, the prompt desk, the fly equipment (am I using my terms right), maybe have a person on a ladder giving a last minute check to the lights... Would that be realistic?

What's the green room?

Thanks so much!

ChristineR
01-23-2010, 12:48 AM
Well, actually, the area right behind the stage is usually pretty small. People don't hang out and wait there, because there's too much chance of making a noise the audience will hear. It's full of special stuff--curtains, backdrops, scenery and is usually pretty crammed, because you want the usable part of stage to be as large as possible most of the time. Mostly you will find stagehands there, waiting for their cues. The prop people would be going down their checklists, making sure all the props are where they're supposed to be for the first act. The light and sound people might be doing some basic checks, but actually most of that would have been done long before the play started. If a light bulb burnt out, they'd probably have figured it out during the last performance or rehearsal, but it's not impossible that someone would be up on a ladder and replacing one. Most lights are actually on catwalks, though, as noted. The stage manager would be in charge of all this. Everyone will be wearing those radio headsets so they can whisper to each other. Stagehands usually wear black so that they can move scenery in the dark, but sometimes you'll have stagehands in costumes that match the play.

The actors would be in their dressing rooms, getting dressed and putting on makeup. This takes a long time, and the actors will be pretty isolated from the immediate backstage area and will probably not leave the dressing rooms and green rooms until just ready to go on.

The green room is the room backstage where the actors wait for their cues. Nowadays it will probably have a closed circuit TV monitor; certainly it will have an audio monitor. The costumes shops and dressing rooms and the like are never right in the immediate backstage area. Sometimes they're in the basement, or even in a separate building. It really depends on the layout of the theater--a lot of theaters were not built as theaters.

Kitty Pryde
01-23-2010, 12:53 AM
I had to do some research on this subject for a previous WIP. Then someone randomly gave me a book at a book festival called "How Does the Show Go On?" and it was a very fortuitous gift (The woman even said, "I have a feeling you're really going to enjoy this." Freaky!). It's specifically about how the different Disney musicals are put on on Broadway, like Lion King and Tarzan, so it's on a larger scale, but it's generally about all the different places and crew members and technology and the timing and planning of everything in a show. It might be helpful.

underthecity
01-23-2010, 12:59 AM
If you want to SEE what goes on backstage, what it looks like, and the kinds of activities that sort of go on, rent the movie Noises Off. Or buy it; you'll want to watch it again and again. It's an awesome movie version of the stage play Noises Off and shows the whole backstage area. This might give you some perspective.

underthecity
01-23-2010, 01:08 AM
they enter together through the back door and get to the area directly behind the stage where (I assume) everybody is fretting around and getting ready for the play. I just need to give a sense of the equipment, the prompt desk, the fly equipment . . . maybe have a person on a ladder giving a last minute check to the lights... What's the green room?

I'll just piggyback on what others have said.

The "back door" could also be called the "actor's entrance" or also the "stage door." The area behind the stage is "back stage," and like Christine said, it's pretty small. Most the immediate activity takes place in the "wings," the areas immediatly backstage left and right. One part of the wings is where they "fly in" the stationary props or scenery (suspended on wires above the stage, so they raise and lower it as needed). Some theaters use ropes and pulleys, other theaters have electric motors.

Last time I checked, theaters are unionized and each person does his one specific job. AND, an outside company coming in to do a show employs the workers in the theater to run the props, lights, etc.

There is an outside light booth and sound booth. These are usually located front-of-house (behind the seats).

The prompt desk is off to the side. You can see it quite a bit in Noises Off.

A guy on a ladder giving a last-minute check to the lights. Weellll, maybe, but it would be a pretty high ladder. Lights are located up in the ceiling area. In my limited experience, I had never seen them adjusted right before a show. Also, all light cues are done using a pre-programmed set, almost like a computer, unless that is what they use nowadays.

The green room isn't always green. It can be any color. But it's where the actors wait for their cues.

WildScribe
01-23-2010, 01:21 AM
The SIZE of the theater will make a huge difference, too. I have worked in theaters with professional tech rooms, a great sound and lighting cage (it is literally caged in so that it can be locked and protected when not in use - some of the non-automated controls are in there, as well as the power switches for a lot of stuff), a nice green room with separate dressing rooms and big mirrors, etc. And then there was the little local theater I acted in. OMG so different.

I enter the back door an hour before the house opens. Cheryl is half in costume, smoking on the back steps. She blows smoke at me as I step over her, and I "accidentally" kick her a little, being careful of her costume. The door leads into the backstage area, where I nearly trip over a banana tree that is supposed to be on stage by now. Wendy, the stage manager, is swearing at a prop that has come apart - she's the only backstage tech on the show, her husband Ron does lights and sounds from the booth behind the audience. The room is cramped and crammed full of props and chaos. I step over some loose wires, collect my mic, and head downstairs to the ladies' dressing room.

There are costumes flung everywhere. I claim my usual corner and dig out the dress that I have to wear for the first scene. I get the undergarments on, including the tights and the fishnets (yes, both, bare legs look WHITE onstage, and fishnets over bare skin looks horrid). I'm sitting in my bra and tights when the director runs in, prompting his daughter, the heroine, to scream at him. She's not quite finished getting dressed.

He ignores her. "Has anyone seen Renna?" He's out of the room without waiting for an answer, yelling at Cheryl, who enters the room to retouch her makeup and finish getting dressed. It takes me 15 minutes to put my face on - I'm fast - and another 5 to get my wig situated. I pin the mic onto my tights, tape it to my face, and put on my dress. Renna shows up at 10 minutes to house and ignores the director's ranting as he goes upstairs to change. He's the lead, he's not really in trouble. And he's always this late.

"Has anyone seen my fucking eyelashes?" Cheryl digs through a makeup kit the size of a tackle box. Beside her, Apryl is applying blackout to some of her teeth and fake brown tobacco stains to the rest. I grimace and then go to apply blush to my husband, who refuses to do it himself. This is a melodrama. We go to greet the audience as they come in, then at 5 minutes to curtain we all go to our places. I have a half hour before I go onstage, but immediately after my first appearance I have a 30 second costume change, another couple of scenes, and I have to help with set changes.

WildScribe
01-23-2010, 01:24 AM
The prompt desk is off to the side. You can see it quite a bit in Noises Off.


I have never had a prompter. :( I wish I had... oh boy! Again, depends on the size of the production.

In the last show I did, the actors had to do our own stage changes. Whee!

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 01:38 AM
What type of theater is this? Is it a small local theater putting on a show, a high school with a nice theater, or like something off of Broadway? Generally what you will see when you go backstage just before a show are- now this depends on the type of the theater your in, some theaters dont have a green room and makeshift dressing rooms (In the case of no green rooms actors wait on what is called the wing before going on)

*actors putting the final touches on their makeup
*the stagemanager checking the mics on the actors-like to make sure they're in properly in their costume, they would have already been checked for sound
*If its like a high school setting you might see one kid kinda freaking out but usually theres someone there to comfort them
*Actors just hanging out before they go on, most of the plays I've been in the backstage area was generally pretty calm before the show, we didnt have all of this running around...we did however have awesome directors that made sure none of that happened
*Also a lot of plays will do a warm up right before the audiance/house lights come on. They might play some games, pray, or the director will say a few kind words about how he/she has enjoyed working with you
*If the audiance hasnt come in yet and its a musical, you might hear the actors doing their warm ups or if stretching for the dance stuff...I would stick to the vocal warmups though

Hope this helps

sciri
01-23-2010, 02:12 AM
wow guys, this is awesome, thanks so much!

The setting is a small town, so I was thinking a town auditorium....

mscelina
01-23-2010, 02:24 AM
Thanks for the info!
It's a short scene: my main character has a friend who is directing a play, so she goes see it with him one night; they enter together through the back door *the stage door* and get to the area directly behind the stage where (I assume) everybody is fretting around and getting ready for the play.*backstage* I just need to give a sense of the equipment, the prompt desk, *there is no such critter as a prompt desk. The stage manager may or may not have a desk at which he/she sits right offstage in the wings to give cues to light and sound, but if an actor bites it he/she better hope someone on stage is clever enough to save his/her ass* the fly equipment (am I using my terms right) *the fly system is a weighted system of ropes and pulleys against the walls at the very back of the wings (the sides of the theater, not the back of the stage which is usually home to the scrim* , maybe have a person on a ladder giving a last minute check to the lights... Would that be realistic? *no. It is not realistic for anyone to be on a ladder checking lights if the actors are already backstage. Besides, most lighting systems are several stories in the air have techies must use cherry pickers to get to the lights. Also, light checks are run from the lightboard, which is usually in the technical booth at the back of the house (place in the theater where the audience sits). The majority of the lights will actually be hung from catwalks over the audience's head--at least the lights that require cues. The lights over the stage are hung on booms (long poles suspended from the fly system) and can be lowered or raised (if there's not a set in the way) to hang the lights. But only under extremely rare circumstances would there be any technical work done on the lights themselves right before curtain on any play--circumstances rare enough that the director would be called in and wouldn't be free to escort his friend backstage--which, again, is also very unlikely. Theater people do not want to break the fourth wall for anyone--not even family and friends--before a show. Ever. It's bad luck for one thing and bad business for another.*

What's the green room?

Thanks so much!

The green room is the lounge where actors hang out when they're not needed onstage. It's someplace they can sit and be comfortable while in costume and makeup, where no audience members can see them. It's usually backstage well beyond the dressing rooms.

For professional theater, you need to be very specific with the details or the reality of your scene will flop. Actor's Equity has extremely specific rules about the backstage area (for example, actors may only use 18 inches of counter space in the dressing rooms and in order for a stair unit to be approved for union actors to work upon, there must be a double railing, screwed and bolted with specific length screws and bolts, and the railing must be double taped to prevent splinters). Best bet would be to check with not only the Actors Equity union, but also the IATSE union (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) for guidelines and regulations.

sciri
01-23-2010, 04:25 AM
The SIZE of the theater will make a huge difference, too. I have worked in theaters with professional tech rooms, a great sound and lighting cage (it is literally caged in so that it can be locked and protected when not in use - some of the non-automated controls are in there, as well as the power switches for a lot of stuff), a nice green room with separate dressing rooms and big mirrors, etc. And then there was the little local theater I acted in. OMG so different.

I enter the back door an hour before the house opens. Cheryl is half in costume, smoking on the back steps. She blows smoke at me as I step over her, and I "accidentally" kick her a little, being careful of her costume. The door leads into the backstage area, where I nearly trip over a banana tree that is supposed to be on stage by now. Wendy, the stage manager, is swearing at a prop that has come apart - she's the only backstage tech on the show, her husband Ron does lights and sounds from the booth behind the audience. The room is cramped and crammed full of props and chaos. I step over some loose wires, collect my mic, and head downstairs to the ladies' dressing room.

There are costumes flung everywhere. I claim my usual corner and dig out the dress that I have to wear for the first scene. I get the undergarments on, including the tights and the fishnets (yes, both, bare legs look WHITE onstage, and fishnets over bare skin looks horrid). I'm sitting in my bra and tights when the director runs in, prompting his daughter, the heroine, to scream at him. She's not quite finished getting dressed.

He ignores her. "Has anyone seen Renna?" He's out of the room without waiting for an answer, yelling at Cheryl, who enters the room to retouch her makeup and finish getting dressed. It takes me 15 minutes to put my face on - I'm fast - and another 5 to get my wig situated. I pin the mic onto my tights, tape it to my face, and put on my dress. Renna shows up at 10 minutes to house and ignores the director's ranting as he goes upstairs to change. He's the lead, he's not really in trouble. And he's always this late.

"Has anyone seen my fucking eyelashes?" Cheryl digs through a makeup kit the size of a tackle box. Beside her, Apryl is applying blackout to some of her teeth and fake brown tobacco stains to the rest. I grimace and then go to apply blush to my husband, who refuses to do it himself. This is a melodrama. We go to greet the audience as they come in, then at 5 minutes to curtain we all go to our places. I have a half hour before I go onstage, but immediately after my first appearance I have a 30 second costume change, another couple of scenes, and I have to help with set changes.

I love your story! That's exactly the kind of chaos I would have imagined.
I am trying to depict an amateur theatrical company in a small town.
So, the expression "10 minutes to house" means 10 minutes to the beginning of the show, correct?
Thanks!

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 04:30 AM
Yeah I've never really seen family or friends of a director(or anyone for that matter) backstage before a show, they usually have ALOT to do. Maybe the scene could take place after the play is over?? I think that would be more realistic. Also if you're talking DIRECTLY behind the stage area then that again is a rather small place where set pieces are stored and you probably wouldnt see any actors-just again set pieces and the cyc (a big piece of fabric I guess, not sure though, where lights and a backdrop can be displayed)

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 04:33 AM
10 minuets to house means that its 10 minuets until the house lights-theater lights where the audience sits to come on. That means that the audiance will soon be coming in and everyone needs to shut up

I've done some small town theater-its amazing I love it-and its really not all that hectic before a show. Everything has been taken care of at the previous night's dress rehearsal. Also if its small town/ameture theater company they might have a smaller theater. The theater where I perform has a green room/backstage/and marked off dressing room all rolled into one. They had walls set up for the dressing room bit so it was legit

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 04:35 AM
Forgot to add this: Usually the director/stage manager will say "5 minuets" and the cast will respond "thank you five" to ackowledge that they have heard them

sciri
01-23-2010, 04:35 AM
The director would be called in and wouldn't be free to escort his friend backstage--which, again, is also very unlikely. Theater people do not want to break the fourth wall for anyone--not even family and friends--before a show. Ever. It's bad luck for one thing and bad business for another.


Really? Even if it's not the opening show?
What if he just lets her in through the stage door and then escorts her to take a seat in the audience, and they just walk through the theater wings and she just gets a glimpse? Would that work or is it still very unlikely?

Oh, and thank you for the clarification History_gal, I just saw your post. Sounds like I really have to change it...

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 04:37 AM
Opening night is a big deal and the director could meet the friend out in the lobby of the theater where she COULD come in with the rest of the audiance and then they could go backstage after the show or something...the director really has alot to do espically on opening night and it would just seem more likely that he/she would have the friend come in with everyone else.

sciri
01-23-2010, 04:41 AM
No, but the show is NOT the opening night, so I thought things would be a bit more relaxed.... I'm stuck on the fact that she doesn't have a car and so he's driving her there.... I know, I can fix it, no big deal, just in the process of figuring things out right now....

johnrobison
01-23-2010, 04:44 AM
I describe the backstage environment at a rock'n'roll show in Look Me in the Eye. The chapter One With the Machine describes the feel of the lighting system; other chapters talk of the setup of the performance. LMITE is pretty widely available in libraries

blackrose602
01-23-2010, 05:06 AM
In my experience (large international award-winning community theater and several smaller venues), there's no reason in the world that the director couldn't/wouldn't escort his friend backstage on a non-opening night.

According to theater etiquette, the director doesn't stay with the show after opening night--at that point control passes to the stage manager and the director moves on to his next project. But a lot of directors really like their shows/actors and like to come visit...they're pros at getting in the way, but we love them so we put up with them :tongue

I've also never experienced a theater that had any problems with friends/family backstage before the show as long as they're not in the way. That said, you could stir up a little drama if the friend is clumsy...bumps into the prop table, trips over a wire...the stage manager/prop master/actors would be annoyed, but since she's with the director they wouldn't want to say anything.

I'm honestly scratching my head at some of the other experiences that have been shared...nobody backstage that's not with the cast? Director busy with the show after opening night? I'm guessing different theaters have very different conventions. So...write your scene however you like, and it'll resonate with some and not with others :Shrug:

sciri
01-23-2010, 05:08 AM
Ha ha, good point! Actually, that's in line with what I found last night during my little google search, that after opening night directors are off the hook... Thanks!

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 05:12 AM
well they did say it was a small town theater which can be different from bigger productions. Directors are usually more involved in those venues and like to make sure everything is going alright. In my expirence the director is there every night and either watches the show from the house or backstage. Alot of times the director does an opening speech about exits and no smoking, and of course a thank you for everyone turning out. I mean I've never seen the director bring anyone before a show and they typically want only the cast back stage before and during a performance

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 05:15 AM
Is it like a professional small town community theater with a payroll and all or is it just people acting as like an extracircular activity, like for fun?

sciri
01-23-2010, 05:26 AM
You mean extracurricular? Yes. So, this director does it in his spare time and in a couple of years has put together a local theatrical company with people that have different day jobs but they are passionate about theater and so they get together and open a couple of shows in the year. I know somebody who really does that in my town, which is small, but people love the entertainment, and actually the plays are pretty good. So that's the story.

mscelina
01-23-2010, 05:30 AM
*shrug*

You can take it or leave it, but throughout my twenty plus years as an actor and director, there's always been an ironclad "No one but cast or crew backstage" rule at every theater I've ever been involved with from high school to community to regional to summer stock to non-union professional to Equity professional to Broadway tours to off-Broadway and beyond. It doesn't matter what level of theater you're talking about, no director is going to take someone not involved with the production backstage right before curtain. From the time the actors arrive for their makeup call, no one goes backstage.

Hell, the director doesn't go backstage. After opening night, it's the stage manager's show. The director doesn't even need to be there and if he did go, he would be out in the house with the audience or up in the technical booth with the lighting and sound crew.

sciri
01-23-2010, 05:36 AM
Mhm... OK. Need to do some thinking now.
Thank you all for the input, this has been great!

Belle_91
01-23-2010, 05:38 AM
there's always been an ironclad "No one but cast or crew backstage" rule at every theater I've ever been involved with from high school to community to regional to summer stock to non-union professional to Equity professional to Broadway tours to off-Broadway and beyond. (sorry dont know how to qoute on here) but yeah thats what I've expirenced espically small town which I too have had my hand in where auditions for the next play-if done by the same director-arent until after the first show...so they didnt have something else to work on, they were completely devoted to their current

blackrose602
01-24-2010, 07:32 AM
Just out of curiosity, whose "ironclad" rule is this anyway? Director? Stage manager? Theater director? Because only the theater director is higher on the food chain than the director, and most theater directors I know wouldn't dare "pull rank" on the director for fear that he/she won't want to direct at the theater again...so what's to stop the director from breaking the rule?

I'm just trying to picture some of the directors I know, cocky as they usually are, being told by anybody that they couldn't escort a friend backstage. Heads would roll.

*shrug* It makes no difference to me, since I'm not the OP, but I'm just really curious who's saying no to the director in all of these theaters.

sciri
01-24-2010, 06:53 PM
OK, so I wrote my scene. I also talked to a friend of mine who has been usher at a theater in Manhattan for a few years, and she said that as long as the director gets there with his friend say about an hour before the show, it happens all the time. So I wrote my scene: the two get there from the stage door, walk through a first hallway lined up with folded chairs, dollies, and stuff like that. Next hallway is the one with all the changing rooms, the doors are all closed because the actors are in there changing, but you can hear them blabbering about where is this costume, and where is that, and what am I going to do if, etc etc. Next, they get to the wing. The stage manager is wearing a headset and conferring with the prop people and light people, etc etc. The director introduces his friend and then escorts her to the auditorium where she takes a seat and waits until the performance starts.
Sounds reasonable?

I have a couple more questions:

1) you can see the fly system from the wing, right? At least one side of it? And from the POV of somebody who has no idea what the thing is, would it be a rough enough description to say that she saw a set of vertical ropes pinned to a rod with numbers? The weights aren't there, right? I read somewhere that the weights are placed up on the bridge, but then I have seen pictures where the weights were on the floor by the ropes...

2) Would it be unreasonable for a town auditorium to have the light and sound switchboard at the back of the house but NOT in a closed booth? Do all reasonable sized theaters/auditorium have a closed booth for them?

Thanks so much!

WildScribe
01-25-2010, 02:36 AM
I love your story! That's exactly the kind of chaos I would have imagined.
I am trying to depict an amateur theatrical company in a small town.
So, the expression "10 minutes to house" means 10 minutes to the beginning of the show, correct?
Thanks!

Nope! House is when the front doors open to allow people to take their seats. The story was actually a typical day in the life at the local theater.

underthecity
01-25-2010, 06:38 PM
So, the expression "10 minutes to house" means 10 minutes to the beginning of the show, correct?
You might try "10 minutes to curtain."


The description you wrote sounds fine to me, although the "changing rooms" are "dressing rooms."

Someone else mentioned upthread about how the director usually does not bring guests backstage and the actors might not like it. It IS true that on opening night, the director's part is done. He will sit in the audience and watch the show, or leave, preparing to direct his next show. However, there are never absolutes, so it's feasible that the director would invite a friend backstage on opening night, where there will be a lot of hurried activity and tension.

So, if you want to boost the tension in your scene, you might have actors come out and comment on the intrusion of this visitor. After all, the visitor is unknown to them and likely not wanted to be there. And the actors are going to be hyped up for their show, and maybe even in character already. Plus, they probably all won't be in their dressing rooms all at the same time.



1) you can see the fly system from the wing, right? At least one side of it? And from the POV of somebody who has no idea what the thing is, would it be a rough enough description to say that she saw a set of vertical ropes pinned to a rod with numbers? The weights aren't there, right? I read somewhere that the weights are placed up on the bridge, but then I have seen pictures where the weights were on the floor by the ropes... Yes, you would see the ropes in the wing. The weights will be up high if the object they're flying are down. For instance, the curtain is counterbalanced by weights. If the curtain is UP, the weights will be DOWN. If the scenery is down on stage, the weights will be up high.


2) Would it be unreasonable for a town auditorium to have the light and sound switchboard at the back of the house but NOT in a closed booth? Do all reasonable sized theaters/auditorium have a closed booth for them? I don't personally think a town auditorium will be structured the same as another theater. IOW, one theater won't necessarily look exactly like another theater in another town. For instance, that town theater could have stood there for over a hundred years. In the early 1900s it was a vaudeville theater, movie theater, and/or they showed stage presentations. Over the years, they added on to the theater, including a tech booth. Maybe that booth was never enclosed? It probably was, because of security reasons. All that stuff costs money, and could easily walk out if not locked up.

But yes, in a typical theater the tech booth is enclosed, but visible from the audience through a window in the back of the house.

mscelina
01-25-2010, 09:00 PM
In theater a lot of the cues are visual one, especially in a theater where the stage manager doesn't have a headset system to talk to the booth. The lighting booth is ALWAYS somewhere so the technicians can see what's going on on the stage. In a large theater, there might be a back sound board in addition to the main one, but that's not the kind of theater you'd find in a small town.

abctriplets
02-01-2010, 11:12 PM
Just saw this question - my wife and I were both theatre folk back in college. And theatre folk love sharing their craft, so I'd agree with what a lot of people said here - you can cold-call a theatre/department, and easily be put in touch with someone who can describe to you everything in intimate detail, or more likely, provide you with a tour.