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Behind the curtain: A tour of technical theatre on campus

When the curtain falls, we applaud the actors, the directors and the producers for a job well done. But often, we forget the person who made sure the curtain fell at the right moment, lit the actor’s face in the most flattering way or worked for hours to ensure the costumes fit both the actors’ and the director’s vision. These people make up a small community of students on campus who work in technical theater. In high demand and often juggling multiple shows at once, these students turn the visions of dance companies, theater groups and directors into reality.

Technical Directors

Technical directors are involved in nearly every aspect of the production behind the scenes. They help build sets, paint and manage the team of students, and avoid burning down the building in the process through fireproofing. This particularly tedious task must be done to every piece of the set and involves applying substances to the surfaces of the set to ensure they don’t catch fire. Building the set and hanging the necessary lighting must be completed before tech week, the week before the production opens, even begins. For Sonya Hayden ’16, technical director of Princeton University Players, responsibilities also include loading and striking the set.

“It’s a huge collaboration of a ton of moving parts, so something inevitably goes wrong. Being a technical director, you have to be on your feet and problem solving,” Hayden said.

Marissa Applegate ’16 and Matt Volpe ’16, co-technical directors of Theatre Intime, expressed similar sentiments. “The most rewarding is when you think of a clever solution for something, and it actually works,” Applegate said. The major work of a technical director ends when the show opens, but watching the show can evoke different reactions.

“There will always be moments of ‘Look I did that. That’s great,’ and moments of ‘God, I know that should be half an inch to the left,’” Volpe said.

Costumes

Ordinary clothes do not usually suffice in a production. It’s the job of the costumer to create outfits for the actors that will ground the production in the correct setting and era. There are two roles involved in costuming: the costumer and the costume manager. The latter holds a more administrative position, keeping track of where all of the costumes that belong to a theater are located at a given time.

Costumers have the more creative role of choosing the color schemes, era, finding the cloth and often sewing the costumes themselves. They have access to all of the theater groups’ costume rooms, in addition to the theater department’s costume collection, where they begin their search for the perfect costumes. Keeping track of costumes can be stressful, but it all becomes worthwhile during the dress rehearsal.

“The whole feel of the show really changes,” Abigail Kelly ’15 said of the production after costumes are added to rehearsals. Kelly has costumed for Triangle Club and other productions, including “Merrily We Roll Along.” She has also experienced the benefits of good costuming as an actor: “When I’m in my costume, as an actor, being in character is a whole different ballgame,” she said.

Costumers become experts at creating outfits that can be switched almost instantaneously, often crafting ingenious Velcro fasteners to speed the changing process. Although their role officially ends when the show opens, costumers may lend a hand with quick changes backstage and discover shortcuts to make these changes go as smoothly as possible.

“If you spread the dress out over the floor so the skirt is in the center … you put the shoes in the middle so the person can step into the shoes, whip up the dress, and then someone is doing the buckles on the shoes while someone else is zipping up the dress,” Kelly explained.

Props

Props managers are crucial for a dynamic performance. As a props manager for Theatre Intime, Rachel Xu ’17 acts as a liaison between Intime and the other theater groups on campus to facilitate the lending and distribution of the highly demanded items. As props manager of Triangle, Reina Gabai ’16 is responsible for creating and buying props for all of Triangle’s shows. After seeing one of Triangle’s shows, anyone can imagine the eclectic prop demands Gabai has faced. Her stories range from figuring out how to create a calculator with printer tape that transformed into a ribbon for a dance number to buying a tandem bicycle from a guy named Lenny. Props managers must also register all props that resemble weapons with the University, which involves meeting with the dean, locking them up, concealing them when walking across campus and sending a letter to Department of Public Safety.

For groups like Triangle and other shows that have been produced off-campus, going on tour presents a different kind of experience and additional responsibility for the props manager. “The most stressful thing is when you’re on tour, and you don’t want to lose anything or break anything,” Gabai said. Whether on campus or on tour, during the show, the Props manager must ensure that props are in their proper place and available to the actors to keep the production running smoothly.

Sets

Many productions on campus cannot have intricate sets due to the limitations on space in the small blackbox theaters some of the companies use. Thus, most students who design sets perform other roles in a production as well. Applegate, who designed her first set for “Rent” which closed last week, found that code issues and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements complicate set designing. David White ’15, who has held positions as house manager and props manager, has designed sets and painted scenery and backdrops for several shows. Designing sets can be a complex and nerve-racking endeavor.

“There’s often the fear that you will end up biting off more than you can chew,” White said in an email interview. “What the set looks like will often determine how much tech work will be needed for the production. It is really easy to accidentally make a lot of work for yourself and the other people involved.”

In the end, White has found the work to all be worthwhile, noting, “The best projects to finish are the ones where you thought initially, ‘How in the world are we going to do this?’ ”

 

Music

The role of the music manager is to act as the liaison between the musicians on campus and the theater group. As music manager for PUP, Alice Terrett ’16 gets musicians involved in productions and works with the conductor and director to put together the team for the pit. The music manager is also in charge of loading and unloading the pit for the show and auditioning freshmen every year to play. Terrett will often play in shows herself, as well. For her, the most stressful part of the production process comes when she can’t find musicians in time, or one of the members in the pit has to drop the show. But when the curtains open and she gets to watch the performance, “It’s definitely relaxing,” she said.

 

Lighting

For students who design lighting for performances, a lot has to happen in very little time. Lighting designers do not begin hands-on programming of the lighting until the Sunday before the show opens, because often the theater or dance group does not have access to the performance space until that day.

“It’s a lot of hours in a very short period of time. Between the Sunday and Thursday of that tech week you’re talking … maybe Sunday eight hours and then at least five to six hours a night working on the show … if not more depending on how intense the show is,” Sydney Becker ’17 said. Becker is a lighting designer who has worked with PUP, Princeton Shakespeare Company, Theatre Intime and a variety of dance groups.

Though occasionally stressful, the experiences have always been positive for Becker and Applegate, who is a lighting designer in addition to being technical director at Intime. When the show opens, the lighting designer’s job ends, and a board operator implements the actual cues allowing the designers to sit back and watch the show — at least, in theory.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I tend to nitpick at it and find little things to fix, so a lot of times I’ll see a show once and then force myself not to see it more than that … because I end up obsessing over it,” Becker said.

Stage Manager

Stage managers have two main roles: one during rehearsals and the other during the show itself. As a stage manager for Triangle, Charlotte Sall ’16 schedules rehearsals, books spaces and attends rehearsals during which she takes notes on blocking and takes care of organizational needs. Sall has also stage managed other theater productions; most recently she managed “Rent.” During production, however, stage managers work in the lighting booth directing the board operators to implement the next cue. For Triangle, a group that takes its shows on tour, Sall’s responsibilities include respacing choreography based on the accommodations of different stages. A highly demanding responsibility, stage managing requires many hours of input for scheduling and a knack for organization and handling stress.

“Funny things happen all the time that require quick problem solving and that you can’t tell the actors about,” Sall said. “You have to keep a straight face and get through it, because if you stress them out before or during a show, they might not perform their best. It’s definitely a role where you absorb a lot of stress.”

Community

The small size of the community of students working backstage means that nearly everyone knows each other. “There’s not enough people who do technical theater on campus, which means we all get the same emails from the same people. We all get asked to do pretty much every show,” Applegate said. Though their roles are highly involved and demanding, working behind the scenes and seeing that work come together in the final production ultimately offers a uniquely rewarding experience for these students.

“When you are down to the wire with a show and you are sitting in a theater at 3 a.m. stapling fabric to create a bed skirt because that’s what you need, you have moments where you sit there and realize, ‘What am I doing right now?’ ” Volpe said. “And then you step back and watch the show and realize how great it is.”

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