Shock Absorbers

Under a tight schedule, it takes eight weeks to replace one stage floor. Last summer, we had only five. And two enormous stages.

Life is not fair.

But, if you have a good sense of humor, it is funny.

Running The Straz takes an enormous amount of effort on what we call the “back end,” or, the aspects of show business that take place outside of the spotlights. The back-end includes building maintenance, groundskeeping, upgrading and repairing equipment, changing the umpteen thousand lightbulbs, replacing broken concrete on the walkways and other such things. We do our best to execute the work of the back-end during moments that are least disruptive to guests. Often, we get a slight lull in the action over the summer when we are between seasons. We dive into this lull tools a-blazing to address major projects, so when you arrive for the brand-new season you’re not greeted by backhoes, cherry-pickers and gates of orange construction netting. Instead, all is sparkly, shiny and ready to envelop you in a radiant bubble of wonderment, which is exactly why we’re here for you.

Last summer, we faced one of our greatest challenges yet. Because both stages sustained an exciting amount of action last season (compounded by the countless seasons before), replacing Ferguson and Morsani stages with upgraded materials landed on the top of the to-do list for summer chores.

Both stages. Ripped up, carted away, new flooring installed with tech upgrades, repainted and ready to rock and roll by Sept. 11. Which would have been okay if construction crews and our operations department had been able to start in June like normal. But, because we had Broadway summer shows and other gigs booked, the stages didn’t empty until the end of July.

Brand new Ferguson stage floor prior to being painted.

That circumstance left our intrepid and uber-busy Director of Operations C.J. Marshall staring down the barrel of a five-week deadline to replace both main stage floors on time and on budget before the biggest season in Straz history.

Insert sense of humor here.

“The first time we replaced Ferguson [stage], we had eight weeks to do it,” C.J. said. “So, yeah. It was a very, very tight timeline.”

C.J. sat down with pen and paper, sketching out a schedule of how to make it happen. He’d need three crews working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Then, maybe, the stages’ paint would be dry in time for Chicago to load in and the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show to set up on Ferguson.

Maybe. But there was no way they could do it if they had to complete the demolition, clean-up and prep before starting to lay the wood. “The flooring company normally sends about eight people to do the job. We had 22 people on-site. Once we demo’ed the initial 10 feet, the installers started working behind the demo team, starting to lay the new floor before the rest of the floor had been completely removed.” In this building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it manner, crew relieving crew relieving crew, they steadily raced against the deadline that tick-tick-ticked on C.J.’s calendar with all the charm of the Doomsday Clock.

As with most theoretical calculations, C.J.’s were based on a perfect world. In addition to being unfair, life is also not perfect. “There’s so much of the floor we couldn’t see – everything that was underneath the top planks. As we demolished, we uncovered sections that had to be leveled or cleaned and re-cleaned. The crew would open the floor, and I’d see the condition and think that’s another three days; that’s another four days, all the while the date pushed closer to Chicago’s load-in. Would we make it in time? We had to. Somehow.”

Florida’s humidity, especially in the summer, invites mold and mildew like its throwing a block party. C.J. and his operations crew built a tent over the entire stage to create a negative vacuum; inside, they ran several air scrubbing and air sucking machines that cleaned the air of all dangerous spores. This set-up meant that not only were the floor crews sweating it out under an ambitious and possibly laughable deadline, they were doing it in Hazmat suits and respirators.

August came and went.

September arrived, bearing down on the looming arrival of Chicago. When the director of the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show arrived ten days before their event to check on the progress of the Ferguson stage replacement, he saw a giant plastic tarp draped over what appeared to be a half-finished stage – read: the other half was a rectangular hole – filled by men lumbering around in Tyvek suits using power tools. In essence, a scene straight from The X-Files. C.J. assured him all would be well, and the early days of September raced by.

“During this whole project,” C.J. says, “ … there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we made it on time.”

In fact, C.J. and his crews put forth so much effort, they finished two days ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for Roxie, Velma and the outstanding small-business people of Hillsborough County to strut across our freshly painted, very dry, immaculately installed stages.

This cross-section of the Morsani stage shows the design details of a sprung floor.

“Ahead of schedule and on budget,” says C.J. “and we were able to install sprung floors on both stages as well as run about 12 miles of cable under Morsani stage to bring it up to digital standards, to give it a data and electrical infrastructure. Shows need connectivity on stage now, and we have it.” The sprung floors mean that a flexible brace under the planks provides “give,” like mild shock absorbers, to protect dancers’ muscles and joints from abrupt impact. The connectivity allows for access to power and network jacks without having to run temporary cables from set pieces to wall outlets. “I have to give a lot of credit to Ron Stevens of Trident Surfacing, who was our project manager, and Dave Reynolds, a Straz carpenter, who was our point person and really did a great job of keeping the crews going. We also couldn’t have done this project without the hard work of our production electricians, Leslie Bindeman and Jesse Perkins. We’re super excited about the new floors.”

So what happened to C.J. when they crossed the finish line 48 hours early?

“I left town and went and sat in the woods of North Carolina with no cell phone, no internet, no nothing for a week with my wife,” he laughs. “It was wonderful.”

Extraordinary Factoids about Our New and Improved Stage Floors

• Basketball courts also have sprung floors.
• The Morsani Hall stage floor can hold 9,000 pounds per square foot, about 50-70,000 pounds total.
• Both stages are Canadian maple.
• The Morsani stage is 9,500 square feet; the Ferguson stage is 5,000 square feet. That’s 14,500 square feet replaced in five weeks.
• The new floors should last about 20 years.
• Sprung floors also contain a little layer of neoprene, the same material of a wetsuit.
• The Morsani stage gets painted about four times a year because we have so many shows. There were 70 layers of paint on the old stage when they demolished it, adding up to almost a quarter inch.

How Did You Get That Shot?

Longtime Opera Tampa and Straz Center photographer Rob Bovarnick reveals the secrets behind capturing that Pearl Fishers photo.

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Cardboard box. Plastic bag. Three thousand white beads …

What sounds like either the making of a Mardi Gras costume or the making of a very bizarre murder comprised the basic backstage ingredients of one of the most popular graphic concepts in Straz history. Inspired by Annie Leibovitz’s iconic photograph of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a tub of milk, the “face” of the Opera Tampa 2018-2019 season became, literally, a face. Seen everywhere from region-wide advertising to billboards along I-275, the “Pearl Fishers photo” has created an unexpected bit of buzz for its arresting, unusual beauty—very much like the opera itself.

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Behind the scenes of the photo shoot. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The driving forces of The Straz’s in-house ad agency and PR firm are VP of Marketing Summer Bohnenkamp, Senior Director of Communications Paul Bilyeu and Creative Director Mei Crain. Prior to each season, they brainstorm with individual marketers to determine the creative “look” of opera, Broadway, Club Jaeb … everything. Last spring, Paul showed the photo of Whoopi for his pitch for the concept of a woman’s face emerging from a sea of pearls. It flew. He called longtime freelance photographer and friend Rob Bovarnick of Rob-Harris Productions, explained the idea and Rob began to visualize the shot.

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Time to add the pearls! (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

“We determined early on we wanted to use real beads, not photoshop them in after the fact,” Rob explains. “We carefully discussed the size of the pearls because we wanted it to look correct, scale-wise. We always need enough room for all types of marketing uses. Whether it be on billboard, which is usually a longer horizontal format, or on a vertical brochure. So, we brought multiple sizes of cardboard boxes to the shoot. We found the right shape and height for the model’s head. Since we were “floating” her head within the box, we used a plastic bag to seal the box which made a pillow for her head to sit in. We made sure she didn’t have any strain on her neck; then once we got that adjusted, we could start adding the pearls.”

The model, Mischa Temaul, had to keep her head perfectly still while Rob took the photos, otherwise the shifting pearls would ruin the picture. “It was like going to get a CAT scan. You have to hold extremely still, but she did great. We found that the overhead view was more dramatic and more universal for a multi-use in advertising. You have to think about leaving enough space for copy.”

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A few of Rob’s favorite shots from his portfolio of Opera Tampa photos. Clockwise from top left: Lucia di Lammermoor (2009), Romeo and Juliet (2006), The Barber of Seville (2008), La Bohème (2013).

Rob should know. He’s been creating most of the Opera Tampa promotional photos since 2006, when he landed Romeo and Juliet as his first assignment for the company. “We love working with The Straz. We appreciate when there’s something different, and we have to figure out how to make it happen. I’ve been working with Summer, Paul and Mei and the rest of the staff for so many years, about 13 years. There’s a comfort level with having us just run with their ideas.

And it’s great for us, we love the problem-solving challenge of trying to create something really unique.”

Rob Bovarnick - Photo by Eric Swanson

Rob Bovarnick. (Photo: Eric Swanson)

Rob-Harris Name Explained
Many people think Rob Harris is one person when, in fact, it’s two. Here’s the story:

“I started my business in 1987 with my former University of Tampa college photography professor, Lew Harris. When we were coming up with ideas for company names, we both felt that Rob Harris had a better “ring” to it than Harris Bovarnick. Shortly after naming our company, we went to a local bank to open a business checking account. The first think the bank teller asked us was “which one of you is Rob Harris?” That’s when we decided to put the slash in between Rob and Harris: Rob/Harris. Since the beginning of the digital age, we have had to change the slash to a dash and add Photography and Video in addition to Productions for better search engine optimization.” – Rob Bovarnick

A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing professionally. This week, we sat down with Gerard Siegler, Straz Center director of production services, who plays a huge part in making sure the shows work and the forty-billionteen details of a live performance have been handled.

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: What are production services? What do you do? Take us through a typical day in the life.

GERARD SIEGLER: Sure … there’s no typical day. The gist of my job and the job of any production manager is to deal with all the backstage needs. This would be the technical elements like making sure that we have equipment that shows need. Sometimes it means getting hospitality, booking hotel rooms, booking transportation, either to or from the airport and even sometimes air flights and things like that.

It’s a wide range of duties, sometimes it’s as simple as a speaker needing a microphone or AV equipment all the way to Broadway shows—making sure that their set is going to fit within our space and making sure we have the equipment they need.

CITA: How does this work? Let’s say we book The Phantom of the Opera, and you get the memo that Phantom is coming. Then what happens on your end?

GS: Sure. Every touring show has what we call a “rider.” A rider is basically a bible of what the show comes with, what labor they need, meaning stagehand labor—that’s something else we’re in charge of—what equipment they bring, and then what equipment they need. It also specifies how long it takes to load in a show, how long the show is. The riders are sometimes so in depth it goes into what kind of candle an actor needs for their dressing room.

When Phantom is put into the books, one of the production managers is assigned to the show. They go through the rider, make sure that we can accommodate everything that the show needs. What we can’t accommodate, we either supplement or we can redirect them to what we have and then come up with alternatives—if it’s a smaller rental. If they’re adamant about, “I need this amp for my guitar.” Then we will rent stuff if we don’t have it.

That production manager will work through the show. Normally the advance happens anywhere between a month to three months out, depending on how large the show is.

For Broadway shows, it normally takes about anywhere between 10 and 16 hours to load in a show. Most Broadway shows load in Monday, and we have our first performance on Tuesday. They’ll load in the entire show, they’ll do soundcheck, and then they load out … The production manager is usually the first person in and the last person to go. My typical day when I’m doing a show starts around 7:00 a.m. and gets done at 1:00 a.m. the next day.

CITA: You do that for four days in a row?

GS: Yeah, four days in a row. The Broadway shows are one of the easier shows to do. Morsani Hall is considered a roadhouse. A roadhouse means that we have most of the things that happen within Morsani, so it’s self-contained. For example, Phantom comes with everything they’re going to need. Broadway shows, for the most part, come with everything they need besides a few little odds and ends. They tend to be the easy ones. It’s the rentals, and the one-offs, and the concerts that sometimes end up being the most difficult for us.

CITA: Why is that? It seems like you’ve got a concert, you just get a mic, you plug in a sound system, you’re good to go.

GS [laughs]: It’s typically not like that. For instance, some of the smaller concerts just bring the artist and the artist’s guitar, and we supply everything else. What you see on stage is maybe 20% of the actual equipment it takes to run the concert. All you really see are the back line, the piano, the drums, a monitor … but to get all of that to work, it takes a while to load in.

Your dance shows even take longer sometimes, so your modern dance shows, like MOMIX, are very light[ing] heavy. We load in their lighting before they even show up. The day before they come in, we’ll have crew on that will set their lighting which is something that’s dictated by the show. MOMIX sends us a rider with a lighting plot, and we set the lighting plot even before they arrive. Sometimes what is a two-hour show takes three days to put together.

 

This is what the stage in Morsani Hall looked like when Wicked was loading in, 2017.

CITA: Right. A lot of what creates the magic and creates the illusion of theater is what production and costuming does. It’s the stuff that the audience doesn’t have to think about consciously. They can absorb lighting and music subconsciously and feel the feelings that they create. The catch-22 for you all is that nobody knows if you’re doing a good job unless you do a bad job.

GS: Exactly. We don’t get compliments, we get criticism. The only time you actually know we’re there is when something goes wrong.

CITA: Alright readers, so that means our production staff needs more compliments when you see a good show. When you see Gerard around, tell him that he did a good job. So Gerard, how did you end up here? First of all, tell us how long you’ve been at The Straz and then how does somebody get involved in theater production?

GS: I’ve been at the Straz … April was nine years. I started with the Patel Conservatory. I was one of their production people then moved over as a production manager to The Straz about five years ago. Last June, I became the director of production services.

I started out as an actor. I did theater in high school and performed on Ferguson Stage as a thespian. When I moved to college, I started a theater track for acting and needed a part time job, so I started doing work in the college tech shop. My technical director at the time took me under his wing and said, “You can make a whole career out of just doing this.” My sophomore year, I changed directions and did more technical theater.

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Gerard Siegler hangs lights for Blake H.S.’s production of FAME.

CITA: Were you at USF?

GS: No, I went to Flagler College in St. Augustine.

CITA: Did you find that you enjoyed the technical side more than you did the acting side?

GS: I did. I could see the product progression more, and that satisfied me more. But it’s more pressure because, like I said, you do one wrong thing and it makes or breaks a show. For me, though, building the set, running sound, running lights, putting all that together, that really interested me.

CITA: And then you got a degree in theatrical production?

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

GS: After Flagler, I went to the Shawnee Playhouse in the Poconos for summer stock. I was the assistant technical director. One of my friends who graduated with me, we both decided that since we were already in Pennsylvania, we should move to New York City for a year. That’s what I did. I moved to New York for a year, did some odd jobs, picked up some theater stuff here and there, and then moved back to the Tampa Bay area to get married. My wife, who is in the theater department at the Patel, said “Why don’t you just come out and be a summer intern for Patel?” The day before I came in for my interview for the summer internship, the technical production person for Patel had put in his one month notice that he was leaving.

CITA: Whoa!

GS: I was hired for that position, and that was my start.

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

CITA: Okay, so here you are, and you’ve been doing this for a while. You got seasoned out there in the world on your career trajectory. Do you still get nervous before a show goes up? Do you ever have feelings of, “Oh my gosh, I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope we did the lighting just right, I hope—”

GS: I get nervous the morning or the night before, thinking “What did I miss? What is going to go wrong?” Really, all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong and it can throw the whole day, especially when you’re dealing with different personalities. I’m dealing with local stagehands anywhere from … Three is normally our smallest crew, to some Broadway shows where you’re looking at 75-80 labor hands. Not to mention the actual tour, they’ve come with their own staff. So there’s always that sense of “What did I miss? What happened? What’s going to happen?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter how much pre-planning you do. When you get here and you get on the grounds, half the time the plan gets thrown out the window within the first 30 minutes.

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

GS: As for the show itself, the only time I get nervous is when we’re falling behind. With The Straz being as well-known as we are, we sometimes get the first stop on tours. Once, a Broadway show had issues with their automation track. The floor that you see for Broadway shows, sometimes it’s painted elaborately, and that’s not actually our stage. It’s another deck that gets put on the stage. Sometimes they have what’s called an “automation track,” which is grooves within the stage that moves the furniture on and off.

For this show, we’re the first stop. Five minutes before I was supposed to open up the house and have the audience come in, their automation track broke. This is opening night of the first show of this new Broadway tour. I have to hold opening the house until we can get the track fixed because if we don’t get it fixed then the effect doesn’t work. That was nerve-wracking.

CITA: Did you get the automation track fixed in time for the show?

GS: Yeah. We were 20 minutes late opening up the house. We have a great usher staff and front of house staff that helped with the audience. We started only five minutes later than we would normally start.

CITA: We love these behind-the-scenes stories because it’s the show that people don’t see. It’s the high drama, the high tension of getting it to go flawlessly, or start on time. When you have all of these moving pieces in live theater, you don’t get a do over. Is that kind of excitement what drives you as part of technical production?

GS: I get my most joy from show to show. If you’re an actor touring, doing the same role for a year and a half, you’re doing the same role for a year and a half. Whereas, within a year and a half as a production manager, or the director of production services, I’m in charge of a couple hundred shows a year. I have a team, so it’s myself and there are three other production managers. Between the four of us, we are in charge of all the theaters except TECO theater.

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Gerard Siegler works shows from all genres which includes being backstage with one of the dinosaurs from Erth’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo.

CITA: Which is almost unbelievable, that a staff that small can do that many shows. Because we don’t book shows in just the theaters. We’ve got Live and Local, we’ve got Straz Live in the Park, we’ve got Fourth Friday. We have so many other events that are happening outside of the theaters, too, that just the four of you make happen.

GS: Yeah. It’s not just the shows themselves. For instance, opera has two performances that they do, but the average opera takes anywhere between two to three weeks on the physical stage to go through. You’ve got a week of loading in the set and lighting and a week of tech rehearsals. Then you have two performances, and then you load it all out in one day and you’re on to the next one. That to me is what gets me going. It always changes. Hamilton is going to be here for four weeks this season. At each show there will be some new challenge that pops up, whether it’s, “My costume ripped” or “We ruined a costume.” Or, “The washing machine went out.” You’re always on your toes.

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Close-up view of a sound board.

CITA: For people who want to be in the theater but not on stage, how do they get to where you are?

GS: I started in high school. I was one of three boys in my high school theater department, so I did a lot of stuff onstage, but I also did a lot of tech prep work. I helped with the sets, helped with the lights, even though I didn’t think about it as a career until college. If you really, really, really want to get a job nowadays behind the scenes, you either become an audio engineer or something with video. Those are the two things that are not going anywhere right now. We’re always looking for someone in audio, visual and lights. You have to be very good at what you do because as much as the actors are onstage doing their best, sometimes we’re the ones that break the performance because mics are popping.

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

CITA: We have classes in technical theater here, right? Workshops for students?

GS: Yes. Patel has a stage management class and we’re going to try to work with them this year to make a technical theater class that deals with a little bit of everything. I give tours all the time to college and high school groups, especially that are technical theater oriented to come. They look at our stage; they can go into the booths.

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Inspiring the next generation of production managers, Gerard and his son Maddon on Carol Morsani Hall stage.

CITA: That’s cool.

GS: They go up to the fly rail—10 stories up. CJ Marshall, who’s our director of operations, has really tried to spearhead getting younger people interested in technical theater because when you go to a high school program, you get 30 kids who want to be actors and maybe two or three who want to work back behind the scenes. We’re trying to invest in the future.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Do you love your job?

GS: I do love it. Like I said, it’s a new thing every day. It always keeps me on my toes. This summer we’re updating and renovating a lot of our old equipment. We’re excited in the production department. We’re taking on a lot, especially with the next season almost here. It’s always fun.

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

A family affair – Audrey Siegler, Patel Conservatory theater department managing director and Gerard’s wife, with their daughter Ellie, Gerard and son Maddon. Gerard is testing the new assisted listening system while the family enjoys Paw Patrol.

Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

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A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

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Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

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The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

Tools of the Trade: Theater

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on theater.

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Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.

 

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Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.

 

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Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.

 

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Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.

Tools of the Trade: Dance

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on dance.

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Rosin Box

Slippery dance shoes? Slick flooring? No problem, thanks to this useful trick-of-the-trade. Filled with small clumps of dried pine sap called rosin that break into sticky crystals, this box lurks in some corner of the stage or studio. Dancers crush the rosin on their pointes or jazz shoes to provide a much-needed grip in dicey dance conditions.

 

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Pliers, Hammers, X-Acto Knives

Guess what? Ballet dancers literally have tools of the trade. These hand tools are must-haves to break in a new pair of pointe shoes. Pliers remove nails, hammers beat the box (the part where the toes go) into submission and X-Acto knives score the tips for traction.

 

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Athletic Tape

A dancer’s toes know. This tool of the trade belongs in studios and dance bags all over the world. Toes and feet need TLC and/or mending after hours hard at work in a pair shoes, be those shoes pointe, tap, salsa, ballroom or jazz sneakers. Barefoot dancers keep tape around for toes as well, often with a companion roll of gauze for blisters, broken skin and the occasional rehearsal sesh that involves parts of the foot’s skin falling completely off.

 

face cream

Preparation H

Dancers love to prepare, and perfection is often the goal. We’re probably going to get in big trouble for revealing that a trade secret (for actors and other performers as well), is using Preparation H on wrinkles before showtime to create a plump, youthful face. Gentle readers, this trick-of-the-trade may not be the best idea for treating your maturing skin at home, but it works for a minute onstage. Ah, there’s no business like show business.

 

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.