Behind the Scenes: Stage Operations

Last week, at the meet-and-greet for Informed Consent and Stranded on Earth, Sean Daniels looked around the crowded room and commented that it “takes a village” to produce theatre. But just what do all those villagers do? In an attempt to answer that very question, I present to you: our new “Behind the Scenes” series. Each post in this series will introduce you to a department at Geva and explain how they help get our shows up and running.

Nils Emerson, Stage Operations Manager
Nils Emerson, Stage Operations Manager

There’s only one logical place to start looking “behind the scenes,” and that’s the Stage Operations department – whose office is literally behind the scenes in the Mainstage. The department is led by Stage Operations Manager Nils Emerson. His responsibilities fall into three categories:

  • maintaining the backstage area in a safe and organized manner
  • managing the deck crew for each production (“deck” is a synonym for “stage”)
  • other duties as assigned.

(Spoiler alert: the phrase “other duties as assigned” will be popping up throughout the Behind the Scenes series.)

Before the Stage Operations Manager position was created, the backstage area was, well, a little chaotic. If you wanted glow tape, you had to figure out where the last person who used it left it. If you needed somewhere to put a pile of black fabric, you might just leave it on the floor in a corner. If you were the first person to walk into the theatre one day, you might not be able to see enough even to find a light switch because no one set up the ghost light the night before. (The ghost light is the one light bulb we leave on when no one is working in the theatre. Before Stage Operations, according to Nils, it was at the center of an endless debate: “Stage management said, ‘It’s a light!’ The electricians said, ‘Well, it’s on stage!'” So no one ever turned it on.) Now, Nils keeps supplies organized, gets random piles of stuff off the floor, and makes sure the ghost light goes on stage every night. Safe and organized: check.

As deck crew chief, Nils hires the rest of the crew for each production, depending on the show’s needs. Some shows, like A Christmas Carol, require a large crew to move all the scenery around, while others need only one or two people. The crew’s job starts with preparing for tech rehearsals: sweeping and mopping the stage, helping to set up furniture and props, making sure there’s enough light backstage, and laying down carpet to muffle footsteps and cover electrical cables so no one trips.

Then it’s time for tech. On the weekend before performances begin, there’s an “8 out of 10” on Friday, followed by two “10 out of 12s” on Saturday and Sunday. That means that on Friday, the actors rehearse for eight hours, with a two-hour meal break in the middle, for a total of a ten-hour block. On Saturday and Sunday, it’s ten hours of work with a two-hour break, for a total of twelve hours. Those are already long days, but the crew arrives an hour early to set up, stays about an hour late to clean up or re-set the stage, and often uses the meal break to address the notes that came up during rehearsal. By the time the first public performance happens on Tuesday night, the crew has definitely earned a treat, so they’re ready to enjoy a long-standing Geva tradition, which we observe after every first preview: beer and pizza night.

The cast and crew of Clybourne Park, on the set for the opening night toast
The cast and crew of Clybourne Park, on the set for the opening night toast

Once the show opens (on Saturday night), Nils and his crew get to settle into their routine, sort of. Theoretically, they’ll be doing the same thing every night: moving scenery into place throughout the show. Usually, that means a lot of waiting and then a lot of work crammed into a short time. That’s certainly true of Clybourne Park, where almost everything the deck crew does happens during a huge intermission scene change that transforms the set. Nils, along with Production Assistant Katy Kepler, planned out how to make that shift happen smoothly with only a few people and a limited amount of time. They went through multiple drafts of the plan before tech even started, so that they wouldn’t have to waste rehearsal time deciding who moves what.

Stage Operations is also in charge of the upkeep on the set. Performances cause some wear and tear on props, furniture, and scenery, so Nils does repairs and paint touch-ups as needed. But the real fun happens when something goes wrong: when something breaks during a performance, or the computer that runs the automated scene changes crashes. No, seriously, that is the real fun – Nils says his favorite part of the job is problem-solving during a crisis.

So, what kinds of “other duties” get assigned to a Stage Operations Manager? Well, there was that time we sent him straight into the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to pick up some stranded actors… But a more common example is that Nils always helps with load-in (the period of a few days when our carpenters bring the scenery they’ve constructed at the scene shop over to the theatre and install it). An extra set of hands at load-in is a great thing to have, because as you can see, it’s a pretty frantic time:

(That’s a time-lapse video of our crew striking the set of Last Gas and loading in Clybourne Park.)

And there you have it: the Stage Operations department! Up next, in a couple of weeks we’ll be looking at the other side of the theatre with the Front of House department. In the meantime, if you have any questions for Nils (or cookies, which as you may have noticed above, he’s a big fan of), we’ll make sure he gets them.

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