A Theater Tech Blog by Gordie Felger

Volunteering at Theatre Cedar Rapids (TCR) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has allowed me to combine my dual passions of theater and creative writing. "Making Magic," my contribution to the official TCR publication, is a regularly-featured column about various elements of theater tech. This space serves as a repository for my past articles.

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
May 2018

Allie Hagerman really knows how to make an entrance. As the Narrator in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," she literally descended from on high, perched in the crook of a towering, glistening J (for Joseph) lowered from high above the stage where she performed the show's opening number about twenty feet in the air.

Hagerman said of her aerial arrival, "The first time we performed for an audience, everyone clapped and cheered at my entrance and got really excited. It was just a really cool and surreal feeling and really satisfying, because I knew we had successfully surprised a full house of people."

As safety measures, Hagerman held on to a handle mounted to the back side of the J and wore a harness "with lots of buckles and clasps, and a big metal ring on the back" under her costume.

"It can feel a little hindering," she said, "but only because a portion of the harness loops around my legs, and it can just feel weird when I walk. Also, everything is adjusted very tightly . . . when I move, I have to fight against those restraints just a little."

At the end of her number, Hagerman--still seated on the J--descended to the stage where two fellow actors unclipped the harness. She removed the harness offstage before re-entering for her next scene.

"We had a production meeting, and they had brought sketches and models of the set," Hagerman said. "One of those was a sketch of the giant 'Joseph' sign. The set designer [Bret Gothe] asked who the Narrator was. I sheepishly raised my hand. He showed me a sketch of the sign in which a little person was sitting in the crook of the J. He looked at me and said, 'That's you.'

"I was definitely scared when they told me that was how I was going to be making my entrance," she continued, "but I was also really excited. The biggest fear I had to overcome was just the idea of being so high in the air . . . while singing and pretending it was no big deal."

When asked to describe the view from her lofty roost, Hagerman said, "If I look straight ahead, I'm looking at the back of the proscenium. If I look down, I see scaffolding and lights for the stage and the children playing the prologue. If I look to either side, I can see crew and cast waiting in the wings. I just don't like to look down too much, because it can get a little disorienting."

To Hagerman's relief, the flying portion of the show lasted only a few minutes. She took her place on the J behind the closed stage curtains just before the overture began. The music concealed any sounds the fly system made when the "Joseph" sign was "flown out" (raised into place). As the overture ended, she appeared like a lyrical angel floating overhead. A most unique, wondrous, and--I would say--"amazing" entrance.

Billy Elliot: The Musical
July 2017

For "Billy Elliot: The Musical," I had every intention of describing the enormous papier-mâché effigy that made a brief appearance during the satirical number "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." But near the end of and immediately following the closing night performance, I was privileged to see a whole other kind of theater magic.

I first noticed it during the final dance routine. One of the cast was showing an initial outward indication that something amazing and so dear was coming to an end. A few more tearful eyes joined hers at the curtain call. Closing night is an emotional time for a cast. I'd seen it happen before.

But what I witnessed moments later in the lobby was a scene so moving that I wanted to share it with everyone who missed it. Many cast members sobbing without regard for who saw or heard. Long, tight embraces, like those shared among close family before a separation. Brave smiles through streaming tears. Hurried signatures scrawled on souvenir posters. Heartfelt good-byes. This touching display swept the youngest cast members, but a few adults were affected, too. As powerful as the onstage performances had been, they in no way compared to the utterly real emotion expressed by performers simply being themselves.

I write as an outsider, never having been an actor myself. But I have been an admiring member of several production companies in other ways. I know that the deep bond that forms between a cast comes from spending nearly every day together for two months or more, pushing themselves and each other in the process of artistic creation. Learning lines of dialogue, choreography, music and stage movement takes enormous time, energy and stamina. Performers bring together their passions, their talents and their love of others to produce a wholly unique--yet necessarily ephemeral--production.

And then one night, the joy, the toil, the "electricity" of working, creating and loving together just stops. No doubt, they were all sharply aware of the end's approach, but that does little to ease the pain of loss. There are promises to stay in touch. Surely, many of them will see each other again in future productions, in theater camps and classes, perhaps at school or at work. But everyone knows that this singular moment will never come again. And as sad as that is, it's a good thing. If the most special of times were repeatable, they would no longer be special.

We should all find ways to live life as passionately as they.

Peter Pan
June 2017

You might think that in writing about "Peter Pan," I would tell how the children flew above the stage--the most obvious technical element of the show. But I told that story the last time TCR staged "Peter Pan" in 2005. Instead, I'm writing about a much subtler effect: the stars in the Neverland sky.

Already familiar with the story of the boy who wouldn't grow up, I was more intrigued by the twinkling lights that changed colors. This is what I learned from Lighting Designer Amanda Mayfield.

Special backdrops-called star curtains, star drops or star drapes-were rented.

"We ended up getting two panels because of the width of our stage," Mayfield said. "Each panel has hundreds of LED lights sewn into the curtain. They are sewn in various star clusters so that I can choose how many stars I want to use, as well as where the stars are. The curtain itself looks like your standard black curtain that you'd find onstage, until you turn the lights on. Because they are LED lights, I have full RGB [red-green-blue color] mixing capabilities for creating different colors."

Mayfield's clever lighting design included color changes depending on which characters were featured. She explained her concept like this.

"I picked the colors based off the world that they were living in, the costumes they were wearing, and the lines they were saying or singing," she said. "For example, the Pirates are red because the first time we meet them, they are singing 'We are Blood Buccaneers' and they repeat that theme quite a bit. The Lost Boys are living in the jungle, so I went with green. Tiger Lily has lots of references to nighttime and being quiet, so I picked blue. When we deal with Tinkerbell, they are white or yellow, but after she is revived, they become a rainbow."

Mayfield said of her design ideas, "Sometimes the audience notices, sometimes they don't." Well, this audience member noticed and appreciated the wonder of the color-changing stars.
Disney's Beauty and the Beast
December 2016

Artificial fog is sometimes used to create a mood, to enhance a setting or to conceal action. In TCR's production of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," a light haze gave the Beast's castle a dank, mysterious feel. A thick, concentrated cloud appeared when the Beast transformed into the Prince. But what is this "fog," and how is it made?

According to a Wikipedia entry, the fluid--or "fog juice"--used to produce artificial fog can be a mineral oil, glycol or glycerin and water mixture. A fog machine heats the fluid, vaporizing it, then pumps out the resulting mist. Fog forms when the vapor condenses in the cooler outside air.

Haze machines--or "hazers"--are like fog machines, but create a lighter, less dense effect.

Two different fog machines produced the cloud during the Beast's transformation: a Chauvet Geyser P6 and a Chauvet Hurricane 1000. Both machines use water-based Chauvet Fog Fluid. TCR main stage productions often feature Ultratec Special Effects Radiance Hazers with Luminous Haze Fluid--most recently "Sister Act" and "Disney's The Little Mermaid," in addition to "Beauty and the Beast."

The light board operator, positioned in the light booth at the rear of the balcony, controls the hazers while the fog machines can be run either from the light board or remotely backstage.

"There were a couple times when the crew had to operate the fog machines backstage because of a lost data connection during 'Beauty and the Beast,'" said Lighting Designer Amanda Mayfield.

I often cough when around stage fog. I'd always assumed that it was a psychosomatic reaction: I'm breathing a smoky haze; therefore, I feel the need to cough. It turns out that glycol fog can dry or irritate the throat. For most audience members, breathing artificial fog for a short time does not pose a health risk. However, constant, long-term exposure can result in respiratory problems.

"I use the Equity [referring to the actors' trade union] guidelines to make sure we are safe," Mayfield said. "Most of the special effects we use are water-based formulas, not only for health, but also for safety. The last thing I want to create is a slippery floor! One of the main problems with using haze/fog effects at TCR is the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system. It tends to suck haze/fog away from the stage very quickly, so if I want it to be very foggy for a long time, I have to program it to be denser earlier. At the same time, knowing TCR's HVAC system, I know that the health risks are minimized because the atmospheric effects are being dissipated and sucked up so quickly."

Green Day's American Idiot
July 2016

This column has traditionally been devoted to the technical side of my volunteer experience at TCR. However, after seeing the theater's production of "Green Day's American Idiot," I was inspired instead to dedicate this space to the music of Green Day. After all, above all else, the music is what this show is all about.

I was first turned on to the sound of the post-grunge, alt/punk band when I heard the high-energy song "Basket Case" in 1994. My admiration continued to develop over the subsequent years with the songs "When I Come Around," "Holiday," "21 Guns," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," and "Oh Love."

Yet, after a list of popular favorites, I did not consider myself a Green Day "fan" in that I didn't collect any of their songs, and I didn't take the opportunity to see the band in concert, but I did revel in the sound of whatever tracks I caught on FM radio.

I still remember the day when I heard a radio announcement saying that Green Day was soon to open a new stage musical in California. Coincidentally, I was volunteering at the TCR scene shop when I heard the news. Without knowing anything more about the show, I resolved to see it at the earliest practical moment.

That moment came when a touring production of "Green Day's American Idiot" came to the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls. As expected, the cast members were all young adults, both male and female, and ethnically diverse: the youth of America. The show itself was kinetic, fast paced--90 minutes with no intermission--and brightly lit. The set was sparse and industrial, the most prominent feature being an array of mounted video screens, which displayed a mish-mash of pop culture images throughout the show.

After my first viewing, I found the story line a bit thin. It follows three young guys, dissatisfied with their suburban existence, who plan to hit the road for the big city. Each takes a different path before reuniting in their hometown. I attributed this feeling of limited depth to the fact that the show's creators are rock musicians and not playwrights.

This is not to say that I did not thoroughly enjoy the production. I did! I loved the look, the energy and the emotional power in the performance. But even more, I loved how the familiar tunes were brought to new life on a chorus of twenty-some youthful voices. I rarely feel an emotional connection to a song the first time I hear it, but I did with "Dearly Beloved." The melody and the actor's voice were just so alive and pure.

I immediately added the show to my list of all-time favorites.

Since that first time, I have attended performances at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, at the University of Iowa and now at home at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Each production was slightly different and each contained its own unique, fun surprises.

And with time, as I've learned more about the creation and the intended message of the show, as I've taken time to listen more deeply to--and to actually read--the lyrics, I've gained a fuller appreciation for the story itself. It's about more than just these three punks who want to run away from home to chase adventure.

It's about having your youth interrupted by a horrid national tragedy, about the overwhelming media onslaught of the 21st century, and about learning to live in a post-9/11 America where you can't always tell the good guys from the bad until it's too late. It's about shattered innocence, betrayal, despair, hope, rage, love, friendship, and trying to put your life on the right path when you've lost the road map. It is the anthem of our youth in the new millennium.

One might expect a show like this to be all "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." While those themes are represented, the lyrics also employ vivid imagery, romantic poetry and clever wordplay. Here are a few of my favorites:

"Last of the American Girls/She's a Rebel"
She puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland

And she's holding on my heart
Like a hand grenade

"Last Night on Earth"
You are the moonlight of my life every night
Giving all my love to you
My beating heart belongs to you

"Too Much Too Soon"
She packs her bags and says goodbye
And bon voyage
Farewell, we'll see you in hell
I hope you rest in pieces

Following one performance--I saw the TCR production four time--I told a colleague,"Every time I see this show, I get so excited!" I've been entertained by theater for many years, and I have a short list of titles that I consider true favorites, but there are very few that I can say really excite me like this one.

I am truly and deeply grateful to the staff and volunteers of Theatre Cedar Rapids for bringing "Green Day's American Idiot" home.

Disney's The Little Mermaid
June 2016

How can the undersea world of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" be believably translated to the stage? This was the main question in my mind before seeing TCR's production.

The lighting plan incorporated blues, greens and purples. Skillfully designed areas of juxtaposed light and dark, plus a hint of stage fog, combined to create a hazy, shadowed scene.

Actors "flew" on cables to simulate rising to the surface and sinking to the ocean floor. At the same time, the "ocean horizon" backdrop was raised or lowered, adding to the sense of vertical movement beneath the waves.

My favorite props, by far, were the school of illuminated "jellyfish" that floated up and down the aisles during the song "Under the Sea." Each of the dazzling creatures comprised a child-sized clear plastic umbrella, several flowing white cloth strips, and a length of flashing, brilliant neon rope light in various colors.

Going in, I was prepared to be amazed and delighted. And I was!
Calendar Girls
September 2015

In "Calendar Girls," sunflowers represent hope and optimism. It was fitting, then, that the set prominently featured a field of bright sunflowers under a summer blue sky.

This pastoral scene was printed across four "legs" (tall, narrow stage drapes used to mask the wings on either side of the stage). In this case, the legs were made of vinyl mesh, which allowed light to pass through them. At 25 feet high and 6 feet wide, they weighed 20 pounds each.

The sunflower design was a collaborative effort of Director Angie Toomsen and Scenic Designer Daniel Kelchen, who created a composite of images found on the Internet. The result was then printed on vinyl by Echographics, an outside company that has previously produced similar vinyl pieces for TCR.

In the play's final scene, the four legs were drawn inward toward center stage. In so doing, the legs were transformed from a mere motif to a representation of an actual English hillside.

Mary Poppins
June 2015

"Mary Poppins" featured a number of cool technical elements, but what most intrigued me was seeing a kite "fly." It was clear that the kite was lifted by a length of wire. What aroused my curiosity, though, was what could be at the other end of that wire and how it worked.

After interviewing Technical Director Derek Easton, I learned that the kite flying mechanism was far simpler than what I had imagined in my head. A backstage crew member pulled the free end of the string through a pulley that was attached to a batten, thus lifting the kite. Battens are the metal pipes that are suspended over the stage on which lighting instruments and some set pieces are hung.

This simple device illustrates that creating theater magic does not always require a complicated solution and that assumptions made by those of us in the audience may not always be accurate.

Clybourne Park
April 2015

This column is normally dedicated to theater tech bits. However, after seeing "Clybourne Park," this time I am compelled to take a different focus.

"Clybourne Park" is uniquely structured. Act One is set in a suburban home in 1959. Act Two is set in the same house fifty years later. Both acts feature the same cast - each actor playing two completely different roles two generations apart. There is much to like about the script, but what prompted me to write this story was the portrayal of Betsy, a deaf character, by Jordan Hougham, a hearing actor. Within the span of a few weeks, Jordan had learned to convincingly speak as a deaf person speaks.

Of preparing for the role, Jordan said, "I did a lot of listening to deaf speakers, as well as researching more about deaf culture to better understand their challenges on both an individual and community level. I tried to understand more about the physical implications of speaking as someone who has been deaf since birth. For instance, if you've never heard someone pronounce the letter R . . . determining how and where that sound is made is incredibly challenging. All of those pieces together helped inform my choices for Betsy's sound and tone."

These are two of Betsy's lines from the script (the italicized text included):
  • Ahneemah-umbrayah! [I need my umbrella!]
  • Nooooo, ahhhh fiieee, Behhhh, reeeee. [No, I'm fine, Bev, really.]
Sign Language Interpreter Aimee Lee Bodensteiner was recruited to help the cast add signs to their spoken dialog. Jordan continued, "Her help was invaluable and layering signing into my conversations, selfishly, helped greatly in my ability to connect with Betsy."

When asked why she thought playwright Bruce Norris might have written Betsy as a deaf person, Jordan answered, ". . . there's a certain amount of poignancy to placing a deaf character in the midst of a room of people who aren't really listening to each other. A deaf character who, in many instances, seems to notice more about what's going on . . . than her hearing husband."

Jordan summed up her experience by saying, ". . . my biggest personal challenge in accepting the role was to honestly and lovingly portray Betsy. It is something that can easily turn into a caricature and it was my goal to avoid that."

The Great Gatsby
April 2015

At a rehearsal for "The Great Gatsby," I watched a scene in which the actors pantomimed riding in a car. I didn't think of it again until opening night when, to the wonder of the audience, a yellow convertible roadster with whitewall tires rolled onto the stage! That was the moment I knew that I'd found the subject of this column.

The car, based on the 1929 Duesenberg Model J, was custom built for the show in the TCR Scene Shop. While scaled down to fit the performance space, the car accommodated two people side-by-side with one more perched on a "jump seat" on the back.

Simply described, the car comprised a stretchable fabric pulled tautly over a steel frame. It was battery powered, driven by a 24 volt scooter motor.

For Tech Director Derek Easton, the greatest challenges in building the piece included shaping the car to resemble the original design and scaling it down while still making room for three people. Derek suggested that the Model J was selected for the show, because it "was a pretty popular car of the time, especially for wealthy folks," such as Jay Gatsby. Derek estimated that it took 40 to 50 hours to complete the work.

February 2015

"Dreamgirls" featured a stage arrangement that, while not unheard of, was unconventional. That is, having the musicians onstage instead of hidden in the orchestra pit. This has been done occasionally at TCR, including recent shows "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Spring Awakening."

As I watched "Dreamgirls," I wondered how this choice impacts a production. I asked three TCR staffers (Artistic Director Leslie Charipar, Music Director Janelle Lauer and Technical Director Derek Easton) to get a variety of perspectives.

Leslie, Janelle and Derek all agreed that the main challenge was sound mixing. Leslie: ". . . when there are instruments in the same proximity as voices, it becomes very complicated to mix that sound and get an even balance of instruments and voices -- vocal mics may pick up the instruments and amplify the band more than we like, pushing up the vocal mics to ride over the top of the band becomes very difficult, there's no barrier to soften or dampen the sound." Janelle: ". . . having horns right behind people with those headset mics was difficult sound-wise. Back in the day [1960s and 1970s], it wouldn't have been an issue, because those mics weren't around and the singers would have used handheld mics with cords. These are more sensitive and, therefore, more of a challenge."

The three directors each gave a similar answer about the benefits of this arrangement, but Janelle's response summed it up best: "Having the orchestra onstage puts us right in the action at all times. This particular show has moments when the cast is 'performing', as if at a concert. Having the band visually behind them made perfect sense for the time period. It was beneficial for this show, because the actors knew that I, as their Music Director, was right behind them at all times." Leslie added, ". . . [having] a band onstage means that the band is an important part of the overall show . . . either they're another group of players that assist in the telling of the story or they're a part of the picture that the Director and Scenic Designer want."

As with the many other aspects of theater staging, the placement of musicians is a choice that affects the overall production.
Into the Woods
October 2014

I have a secret to share about "Into the Woods," one that only those directly involved with its production knew. As sometimes happens in theater, a design concept didn't work as planned. In this case, I refer to a particular piece that I helped to assemble at the scene shop.

It was a long, rectangular cabinet (16 feet by 9 feet by 10 feet) topped with an ornate arch that was to be moved around the stage by a crew of two concealed within, one person in each end of the unit. Its purpose was, according to Artistic Director Leslie Charipar, to "... provide much of the 'magic' of characters' appearances and disappearances."

However, during rehearsals, some mere ten days before opening night, Leslie explained, "... I realized that I had misjudged its size. We worked with the piece for a night onstage. At that point, it became obvious to [Scenic Designer] Bret [Gothe], [Tech Director] Derek [Easton] and I that it wasn't working. In fact, it was often in the way of important pictures and characters and it couldn't move very far or very much because of its large size. So on the second night onstage, we rehearsed without it at all. Again, it became clear to me that that wasn't the look we were going for either. So, Bret, Derek and I spoke about it and decided to take the piece apart and use the two column boxes in the way that we intended to use the one large piece."

Derek reported that it took Assistant Tech Director Ben Godwin and him about 90 minutes to rework the piece and about an hour for Scenic Artist Daniel Kelchen to touch up the paint.

The tech staff "... had the two pieces ready for me to use on the third night of rehearsal onstage," Leslie said. "While it took some significant reblocking of a handful of scenes, the two separate pieces worked much, much better ..."

Leslie and Derek both said that deciding to redesign a major set piece that had required so much time and work was difficult, but agreed that it was the right choice for the quality of the show. This one incident illustrates the fact that a theater production evolves and that flexibility is key.

Les Misérables
June 2014

My favorite scene in "Les Misérables," technically speaking, was Javert's suicide, because it comprised several technical elements. Already familiar with the story, I knew that the police inspector jumps to his death and, from the audience, I wondered how the act would be achieved.

This is what I saw. Two parallel, steel frames (a bridge's hand rails) were lowered to the stage (i.e., they were "flown in"). A thick layer of machine-generated haze rolled in, suggesting a foggy abyss. As Javert (Adam Nardini) sang his number, he scaled one railing and appeared to cling to the fog-shrouded ledge. When he let go, the hand rails were quickly flown out, giving a sense that Javert was dropping while Adam mimed falling though open air. A subtle lighting effect added to the feeling of downward motion, ending in a sudden, full blackout.

The layering of these technical effects resulted in a truly climactic sequence.

Monty Python's Spamalot
March 2014

The Challenge: To suggest rainfall on stage without soaking the cast, ruining the set and creating a slipping hazard.

The Solution: To project a video loop of a rain shower onto the set.

A visually appealing effect of gently falling raindrops was used in "Monty Python's Spamalot." A video loop is a short clip that is played repeatedly for as long as needed. The rain loop was downloaded from the Internet for free.

This effect called for a 10,000 lumen projector, twice as bright as the one used to screen movies at TCR. This heavy duty model was purchased specifically for this purpose. While the movie projector is mounted at the front edge of the balcony, the rain effect was shown from the light booth at the rear of the balcony. The added distance was needed in order for the image to fully fill the width of the stage.

Miracle on 34th Street
January 2014

Belief and imagination are core themes of "Miracle on 34th Street." Susan Walker, a child raised to be practical and sensible, learns to imagine and to believe even when common sense tells her otherwise.

Artistic Director Leslie Charipar wrote in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of "Marquee" ("Making Movies into Theatre"), "We, in theatre, have to stay within a modest budget and stay in the same spot for the duration. As a result, we have to enlist you, the audience, to use your imaginations as we represent and indicate locations without breaking the bank or leaving the building."

An efficient and, I thought, clever way of asking the audience to imagine in "Miracle on 34th Street" was by employing a simple device: using a single desk and lighting effects to represent different locations. In back-to-back scenes, we traveled in an instant from Mr. Macy's office to Mr. Gimbel's office by dimming the lights stage left, rolling the desk stage right while bringing up the lights there and then switching out nameplates.

And so is the magic of live theater. With a simple, well-choreographed quick change and a little imagination, the audience is transported from here to there.
Jesus Christ Superstar
November 2013

Sand in biblical Judea makes sense. But 8.5 tons of sand covering the TCR stage . . . well, my guess is that it had not been done before this season's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Sand was at the center of the set design and its use affected nearly every aspect of the production.

From the outset, Set Designer Bret Gothe had envisioned using sand: "My first sketch was simply a floor of sand; no other elements except a cross. By the time we had our design concept meeting, I had 'contained' the sand in a large disk. The disk did not create a visually unified playing space for the story, so Leslie [Charipar], Derek [Easton] and I decided to 'open' the front edge of the disk and let the sand be on part of the actual stage floor. One of our biggest challenges was protecting the orchestra from sand, [so] Derek added a vertical board to the front of the stage to protect the instruments."

LL Pelling, an asphalt paving company, donated the sand, its delivery to the theater and its removal after the show closed. A bucket brigade of TCR staff and volunteers hauled the sand into place by hand.

Artistic Director Leslie Charipar observed: "Directing people on sand was fascinating. We knew it would look cool. And we knew that it would shift and change throughout the show for an interesting surface for lighting. However, what I didn't anticipate was how it would influence the way actors moved . . . it helped create a kind of movement from the actors that was an organic and authentic struggle. Additionally, the men in power (priests, Pilate and Herod) spent the better part of their time on a hard surface, which made their movement easier. It created a really interesting comparison between the powers-that-be and the regular people struggling against the laws of that society."

The sand also affected costume choices and maintenance, according to Costume Designer Joni Sackett: "The sand made us change our footwear choices from shoes to boots, for the most part. The sand also made pants knees very dirty and discolored Jesus' sneakers. We had to shake sand out of pants pockets before we washed them!"

Stage Manager Rachel Potthoff described the sand maintenance ritual this way. Between performances, scattered sand was swept up and returned to the pit. The sand was then raked to produce a smooth surface and sprayed with water to reduce airborne dust. A pile of surplus sand was kept outside to periodically supplement the pit.

From set design and construction to directing and costume choices to the performers' movements, the use of sand posed many challenges, but the end result was a truly rare theater experience.

Spring Awakening
August 2013

Having studied the German language throughout my life, the element of the "Spring Awakening" set that most interested me was the synthetic fabric flooring, which depicted German text.

In order to understand its relevance, one must first know the show's history. The "Spring Awakening" that was staged by TCR is a modern musical adaptation of the same-titled play written by German playwright Frank Wedekind in the 1890s. It openly addresses such socially sensitive themes as sexuality, religion, child abuse, premarital sex, teenage pregnancy, abortion and suicide. As can be imagined, it was not well received in ultraconservative Victorian Europe.

The floor covering used in TCR's production depicted actual dialog from the original Wedekind script with some of the words covered, as if they had been intentionally censored. The reason for the stricken text, according to Set Designer Scott Olinger, was to represent "the Victorian era perception of the need to protect adolescents from their own sexuality." So, even as the characters spoke their lines, they were not allowed to see all of the words that were there beneath their feet.

Scott added that copies of the "Spring Awakening" script can be found online as part of Project Gutenberg, which makes literary works freely available, but finding it in its original German was considerably more difficult than finding its English translation.

This was not the first use of printed synthetic fabric in a TCR production, but this was the first time that it was used as a floor treatment. The images used in the show, which were sent to a company called Echographics for enlargement, were glued to the stage and sealed with a layer of varnish. There was concern that the images might become worn or damaged throughout four weeks of performances, so only cast, crew and staff personnel were allowed to walk on the covered areas of the stage and only with clean, pre-approved footwear. Tech Director Derek Easton reported that, while the covering held up better than expected, at a cost of $2,500, the technique is likely too expensive to be used again.

The Wizard of Oz
July 2013

The greatest surprise about the Wonderful Wizard of Oz was his wonderfully booming, menacing voice. Listening to it from the audience, I guessed that there must have been a number of audio effects going on to create such an elaborate recording. Later, I asked Sound Designer Jim Kropa to describe his process.

The original recording of actor David Medin delivering the Wizard's lines was made in the Dave Schmoldt Creative Suite on the fourth floor of the Iowa Theatre Building. The six separate audio effects were added later: 1) a pitch shifter; 2) a second, even lower pitch shifter; 3) delay; 4) reverb; 5) reverse delay; 6) reverse reverb.

In Kropa's words, "Throughout the Wizard's speeches, the intensity of each effect was constantly shifting relative to the others, instead of remaining at a fixed level.

"A pitch shifter changes the pitch of the vocal tone, like playing a 45RPM vinyl record at 33RPM, but without changing the speed the way a record player does.

"A delay effect creates one or more echoes of a sound, repeating the same sound after a pause and with stereo-expanding distortion.

"Reverb simulates the effect of speaking in a 'live' space such as a cathedral or a stadium, [but] not the same kind of echo as a delay.

"Reverse effects are made by playing the original sound in reverse to apply the effect, and then reversing the effect track. Reverse reverb is familiarly used in horror movies to make eerie ghostly voices.

"[Director] Leslie [Charipar] had told me to have a listen to the movie, and I tried to focus on evoking the sense of power under pressure, as though a steam boiler were driving an electric guitar amp. I knew for certain I wanted reverse reverb in the mix, because of its special strangeness."

Kropa said of his design process, "I try to think first of how the sounds could be made acoustically, by performers on stage as part of the action. If using recorded sounds, I like to position them near where the source of the sound would be on the stage instead of always using the 'main' overhead speakers."

Legally Blonde
March 2013

"Legally Blonde" is by no means a show of subtleties. It's vivid, kinetic and carries a buoyantly uplifting message. That's why my favorite technical effect was one that was less obvious. In fact, it was several scenes into Act I before I even noticed the common theme.

The backdrop for every scene was a plain, white fabric cyc (short for "cyclorama"). The only difference from scene to scene was the inspired lighting design of Tech Director Derek Easton. Each of 90 small lights, secured to the stage in a row and concealed behind a 2-foot-high black panel, were focused up toward the cyc. These lights held a repeating sequence of pink, green and blue gels. A gel is a thin, transparent sheet of polycarbonate or polyester, placed in front of a lighting instrument in the path of the beam to give the light color. A similar rail of larger lights was hung above the cyc with each lens aimed downward.

Which lights were on during any given scene determined whether the cyc appeared a solid color or a blended composite of two or three colors. This is how lighting was used to achieve the desired mood for each scene.

The Summerland Project
January 2013

Sometimes the most compelling technical effect in a show for me is the one that I see first. So was the case with "The Summerland Project."

Before the play even started, it was impossible not to notice the twin projection screens that displayed colorful video clips of robots of various forms: humanoids, animals, even one whose face looked eerily like a young woman's. Amazing to watch!

The screens themselves were of a special-purpose, rear projection vinyl stretched over 11-foot by 8-foot welded steel frames. Rear projection means that the projector for each screen was positioned behind with the images shown on the back surface, but visible from the front.

Throughout the show, the screens creatively presented a variety of images for the audience, such as laboratory walls, a medical scan or an Internet search as seen through the mind of the artificial human, Amelia Summerland. In addition to these programmed graphics, five cameras (three mounted overhead and two on the front of the balcony) captured live shots as they happened on stage. Video operator David Bates moved and focused the cameras from a laptop computer backstage. They had preset positions programmed into them so they would go to the same locations for every performance.

Tech Director Derek Easton said about designing the elaborate, full-length video presentation, "It started with the script, going through and 'storyboarding' the entire thing so I would know what would be on the screens when and why." This use of projection reminded me of TCR's 2007 production of "The Rocky Horror Show" in which video clips, stills and live action scenes were mixed to produce a montage that ran the entire length of the show. But for Derek, who came to TCR in 2008, the most similar he had previously designed were "Altar Boyz" and "The Laramie Project" at TCR Lindale [which] both had some video element almost the entire show, but not as extensive or interactive. It was a hard task given the limited equipment we had and the time available, but it's a rewarding result listening to patrons' [comments]."

"The Summerland Project" was first staged as part of TCR's 2011 Underground New Play Festival in the 90-seat Grandon Studio. Playwright Rob Merritt compared his original presentation with this season's main stage show, "The Grandon production had minimal sets and its action happened just a few feet away from the audience. I thought it was interesting that I did everything I could to scale down 'Summerland' for the Grandon and yet when Derek and Leslie [Charipar] came to see it, both of them immediately envisioned something much, much bigger."

When asked about the use of projection in the 2012 version, Rob replied, ". . . this was entirely Derek's vision. However, Derek did ask me to get some footage of Carter and Amelia in their life together before the accident. We filmed Angela [Meisterling Billman as Amelia] and Christopher [Cole as Carter] celebrating Christmas, learning how to cook, walking in the snow -- just basic things that any couple would do. Derek then took that footage and had the clever idea of running it in the background of the final scene."

The pre-show video program was designed by Assistant Tech Director Ben Godwin. Thanks to Kristen Aller for suggesting the topic of this issue's article.
Meet Me in St. Louis
December 2012

For most, an undeniable highlight of "Meet Me in St. Louis" is "The Trolley Song." It was my favorite scene of TCR's production, too, but not for the reason you might think. It wasn't the singing, the choreography, the nearly life-size trolley that rolled across the stage or even the internationally beloved song itself. What made the scene for me was the backdrop.

A white canvas, nearly the size of the stage proscenium, was used as a great projection screen. This Cyclorama (Cyc for short) was used to show a short, vintage video clip that was actually shot from aboard a moving San Francisco trolley in the early 1900s. The black-and-white, point-of-view film depicts a wide city street lined with tall buildings. All manner of traffic passes beside and in front of the trolley: horse-drawn wagons, early automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles, even other trolleys.

When asked about how he acquired this film gem, Tech Director Derek Easton said that he simple downloaded a digital copy of it from the Internet (youtube.com).

If you've attended any of the movies shown at TCR during the past year, you would have already seen this Cyc in use as a projection screen. The same projection system, with the projector mounted at the front of the balcony and operated from the sound/video booth at the rear of the balcony, is likewise used on movie nights.

Being a history enthusiast, this simple effect, which was probably largely unnoticed by most in the audience, was indeed my favorite element of the show.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
October 2012

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated with the evolution of the American flag, knowing that each configuration of stars and stripes corresponds to a distinct period in our nation's history. It's no surprise then that the first thing that struck me about the "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" set was the larger-than-standard American flag hung at one end of the stage.

During Andrew Jackson's actual lifetime (1767 - 1845), there were seven occasions when our flag gained one or more stars, from the original 13-star "Betsy Ross" to the 26-star flag that marked Michigan's entry into the Union.

The 8 foot by 5 foot flag used in the show, while not exactly period to Jackson's life, was still a dramatic addition to the set. This 48-star version would have been in use anywhere from 1912 to 1959 when Alaska achieved statehood.

When asked about the flag's origin, Tech Director Derek Easton replied, "We found it in storage about two days before the show opened. We were cleaning in props storage and came across it by accident."

Accident or not, it hung justly as a symbol of both our country and our county's history.

July 2012

Technical effects do not always work as originally envisioned. An example was the use of confetti and streamer cannons in "Hairspray." This kind of "cannon" uses compressed air to project its contents outward.

Streamers were to be used in Act I while confetti was to set off the show's big finale. However, when the streamer cannons were first fired during a dress rehearsal, the steamers draped themselves among the overhead stage lights and hung down obtrusively throughout the remainder of the act. The lighting battens had to be lowered to remove the dangling streamers. That would not do during a public performance. Set Designer Bret Gothe considered moving the confetti to Act I and saving the streamers for the finale, but the clingy Mylar confetti does not sweep up easily. The streamers would have to be pulled from the show.

As I watched the first act on opening night, I mentally lamented, "This is where the streamers were supposed to be." It was but a fleeting disappointment as I continued to enjoy the fun-filled performance. When the final number drew to a close, I was happily surprised to see the air over the stage emblazoned with a double shot of confetti and streamers!

In such a large-scale production, hundreds of small-but-significant details have to come together to produce a polished product - many times more than most of us in the audience ever realize.

Alice in Wonderland
May 2012

TCR's productions of "The Wedding Singer" and "Alice in Wonderland," which ran back-to-back on the main stage, shared an interesting technical device: a 5-gallon plastic bucket.

What's of interest is not the bucket, itself an ordinary object, but how it was similarly used for different purposes in two consecutive shows.

In "The Wedding Singer," the bucket, filled with water, recreated the "chair dance/splash" scene from the 1983 film "Flashdance." In "Alice in Wonderland," playing cards showered down onto the stage.

Here's how it worked. A c-clamp secured the bucket to one of the battens, the steel pipes suspended above the stage from which lights and scenery pieces are hung. An electronic solenoid, which converts electric current into a magnetic field, was used as a release mechanism. This solenoid was controlled from the light board at the rear of the balcony. On cue, the light board operator activated the solenoid, causing the bucket to release and tip over, spilling its contents onto the stage below.

The bucket's position was adjusted slightly, but required no special adaptation to go from one production to the next.

The Wedding Singer
March 2012

"The Wedding Singer" was not the first TCR show to employ a turntable to rotate the set. A much larger turntable was used in "Noises Off" to turn an entire two-story house 180 degrees and back again between acts. A six-person crew was needed to manually move that one.

The difference this time was that the turntable was operated by a single crew member with just the push of a button. "The Wedding Singer's" 16-foot diameter turntable was chain driven and powered by a one-horsepower electric motor. A simple control panel had one button for clockwise rotation and another for counterclockwise."Limit switches" ensured that the turntable stopped in the right position.

A wall divided the surface into two semicircles. One side represented Robbie's bedroom while the other side held the stage upon which his band performed.

The turntable was controlled from backstage by TJ Robb.

The Importance of Being Earnest
February 2012

A TCR Scene Shop volunteer since the late '90s, I take special notice of the technical and scenic aspects of live theater wherever I see a show. While these elements are designed to enhance a performance, not distract from it, I often find myself momentarily enchanted by a particular set piece.

Such was the case with the towering elegance of the tree in "The Importance of Being Earnest." What impressed me was not its authenticity, but rather its creative suggestion of a tree.

Tech Director Derek Easton described how it was made. A billboard company was hired to print a tree silhouette on a 20-foot-square vinyl sheet. The image was cut out and backed with a thin mesh. Virtually invisible to the audience, the mesh provided both a support structure for the tree and a framework from which to hang it. It was then spray painted black to reduce the vinyl's natural gloss.

During performances, the tree was suspended out of view. When needed, it was lowered into place by means of the stage's fly system.

This impressive image, as well as the the remainder of the set, was designed by Scott Olinger.
A Christmas Carol
December 2011

One of my volunteer tasks for "A Christmas Carol" was to base paint Scrooge's front door. It was wooden with an oval opening near the top.

Familiar with the classic story, I recognized the scene. Upon returning home on Christmas Eve, Scrooge finds that his door knocker is momentarily replaced by the spirit image of Jacob Marley's face.

I imagined, "OK, Marley will hide behind the door and then poke his face through the hole." Pretty standard for every production of "A Christmas Carol" that I'd ever seen.

When I saw the show a few weeks later, however, I was pleased--but not all together surprised--to see that Tech Director Derek Easton had taken a more imaginative, high-tech approach.

The door itself rose silently from beneath the stage. The specter of a lion's-head door knocker peered from the portal. It glowed ghostly white in the dimly lit London winter's night. Then the lion's head morphed into Marley's grimacing visage for a moment before returning to its original form. It was a real how-did-they-do-it moment.

A flat screen video monitor was mounted behind the door so that only the center portion of the screen was visible through the oval. The images of the lion's head and of Marley's face--portrayed by Ben Fashimpaur--had been pre-recorded and edited together so that they changed from one to the other and back again. On cue, the video sequence was played on the monitor.

For theater tech fans, it was a highlight of this production.

Damn Yankees
October 2011

In "Damn Yankees," Mr. Applegate (a.k.a., the Devil), portrayed by Mike Wilhelm, lights a cigarette seemingly by magic.

Mike let me in on how the illusion was done. A wooden matchstick was inserted into an herbal cigarette with the match head just breaching the cigarette tip. The striking surface from a cardboard matchbox was strapped to Mike's wrist. He had only to strike the match on the cardboard strip to produce a brief, but noticeable, flare.

When asked to comment on performing stage magic, Mike said that "it's always about safety first. And that there's no right or wrong way; just whatever is effective, looks good from the audience and is safe . . ."

Mike noted that it took little practice to master the trick, which he executed flawlessly throughout rehearsals and performances.

Scenic Artist and Properties Master Ali Allender-Zivic and her husband, Jonathan, tech director and lighting design professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, designed the effect. After rejecting other options, like a flash paper gun and a magic case that holds lit cigarettes, Ali chose the matchstick cigarette, because "it seemed like the safest and most cost effective way . . ."

Guys and Dolls/13: The Musical
August 2011

Summer hiatus. Time was when there was a discernible break between the end of one theater season and the beginning of the next. As the TCR season has expanded over the years, the summer hiatus has dwindled until this year when there was no break at all. The "Guys and Dolls" set was transformed into the "13: The Musical" set literally over night.

From about 10:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. immediately following the final performance of "Guys and Dolls," a portion of the set was dismantled. A crew of painters then worked until 4:00 a.m. to repaint what remained. Later Sunday morning, final set work and painting concluded, followed by a tech rehearsal for "13: The Musical" less than 24 hours after "Guys and Dolls" had closed. The transformation involved 15 to 20 staff and volunteers.

The "Guys and Dolls" set was designed before the new season had been decided. The design was not originally intended to serve both shows. The challenge was in reusing what had already been built.

The re-purposed elements included a bridge platform, two rotating building units, the Times Building facade that represented New York City in both shows and a set of arches. The rotating units served as various locations in both productions, including a night club in "Guys and Dolls" and a teenager's bedroom in "13: The Musical." The arches were a Havana exterior in "Guys and Dolls," but a middle school interior in "13: The Musical."

"It was much faster than we are used to doing, but not impossible if planned right," said Tech Director Derek Easton.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
June 2011

Visual effects often comprise two elements: that which can be seen by the audience and that which cannot. The wardrobe in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was one such example. The hidden component was the hydraulic lift that raised and lowered the wardrobe to its position onstage.

When Lucy Pevensie entered the wardrobe, it seemingly disappeared downward into the stage. A collective gasp of awe rose from the audience at the sight of this. Their reaction made me smile inwardly.

The lift itself was located in the basement beneath the stage and supported the wardrobe from below. The lift's main driver was a large, industrial hydraulic cylinder, which raised and lowered the supporting platform via a system of pulleys and weighted cables housed inside a steel frame. The controller was a simple pair of electric push buttons: one for UP, the other for DOWN.

When the lift was in its down position, the top of the wardrobe was flush with the stage. The actors entered and exited the wardrobe through a false back of dark fabric. The lift operator knew when to raise or lower the wardrobe by viewing the onstage action on a video monitor placed next to the lift.

April 2011

While this column has historically been dedicated to tech-related topics, I turn my attention this time to a script. Sara Ruhl's use of language in "Eurydice" is quirky, poetic and a genuine delight to hear. A Quad Cities native, I was especially surprised to hear such familiar place names as Middle Road, Duck Creek Park and the Mississippi River. It's not every day that you hear your home community described within a play. I was eager to learn more.

It comes in the final scene when Eurydice's father tries to remember how to get to the river. Mind you, the river referred to is located in "the underworld," but Ms. Ruhl chose to include directions from "the real world." The route from suburban Chicago to the Quad Cities location is as follows:

Take Tri-State South 294 to Route 88 West. Take Route 88 West to Route 80. You'll go over a bridge. Go three miles and you'll come to the exit for Middle Road. Proceed three to four miles. Duck Creek Park will be on the right. Take a left on Fernwood Avenue. Continue straight on Fernwood past two intersections. Go straight. Fernwood will curve to the right leading you to Forest Road. Go two blocks. Pass the first entrance to the alley on the right. Take the second entrance. You'll go about a hundred yards. A red brick house will be on the right. Look for the Illinois license plates. Go inside the house. In the living room, look outside the window. You'll see the lights on the Mississippi River. Take off your shoes. Walk down the hill. You'll pass a tree good for climbing on the right. Cross the road. Watch for traffic. Cross the train tracks. Catfish are sleeping in the mud, on your left. Roll up your jeans. Count to ten. Put your feet in the river and swim.

When I asked Artistic Director Leslie Charipar about this, she said that she believes Ms. Ruhl's father lives in the Quad Cities. Ms. Ruhl herself is originally from Chicago. This would suggest that the route tells how to get from one "home" to another.

Sweeney Todd
March 2011

I knew that I had a great story idea the moment I saw the "Sweeney Todd" barber chair in the Scene Shop. I was delighted by its skilled assembly and was immediately curious to learn how it all worked. It was several weeks later, however, when I attended a technical rehearsal that I first saw it in action.

The infamous chair sat atop a seven-foot-high platform. A narrow ramp, when lowered, extended out away from the front of the chair. When a side lever was pulled, the seat dropped away, sending the occupant sliding down the ramp, through a trap door, into the basement and safely onto a four-foot thick crash pad. The overall drop measured about twelve feet.

Here are more details about this mechanical marvel. The power for the ramp, which was controlled by an electric wench and a system of weighted cables, was provided by a car battery and was remotely operated. The ramp was carpeted, as Tech Director Derek Eaton explained, to provide a "controlled slide." Without the carpeting, he found the ride dangerously fast. When the ramp was in the up position, two pneumatic locks kept it securely in place.

When asked about the inspiration for his design, Derek sited a combination of on-line research and his own technical experience and ingenuity.

In all, five actors braved this thrill ride throughout many rehearsals and four weeks of sold-out performances. I asked Jen Boettger and Bryant Duffy about the experience.

"I was often asked if the drop from the chair was as terrifying as it looked," Jen said. "And to be honest . . . I didn't have time to be terrified. That moment in the show just sort of comes at you whether you want it to or not, so I just learned to put my faith in others and go with it . . . there was an army of people solely concerned about . . . safety, which made it much easier for us to just let go and focus on telling the story."

Bryant reflected, "I was eager to start working with it, until it came time to actually sit in the chair and then look down and see where you're going, down two levels of the set, my heart would be racing . . . But Derek and his set crew made sure the 'ride' was completely safe and the audience seemed to really enjoy it!"
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
October 2010

My favorite element of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" set was the amazing "gym floor," created by Scenic Painter Becky Buhlig. It looked so realistic from the audience that I had to go right up to the stage to see that it was actually an elaborately painted design. Becky shared with me how it was done.

The simulated wood planking was painted by the "dry brush" technique, which uses watered-down paint solutions. The brush is dipped, then most of the paint scraped off, so that when the brush is dragged across the surface, it leaves a streaky, inconsistent texture. A three-inch frizzy brush was used. Becky noted, "When a brush seems to have reached the end of its useful life, it is just then becoming a good woodgraining brush. The key to a realistic woodgrain is to keep the lines straight and to have a light touch. The weight of the brush is often enough to produce a subtle grain."

Becky started with a base coat of warm beige, then used a chalk line to snap reference marks at twelve-inch intervals. The woodgrain was painted in a light tan-orange with stops and starts that established the placement of each "board." An inconsistent application of a rich yellow wash, followed by a medium brown wash further defined each "board" and increased the contrast between them.

The basketball court lines and circles were then added on top of the woodgrain finish. Finally, the whole floor was covered with a thick, clear coat of oil-based polyurethane to give it that gym floor shine.

In all, a 1,200 square foot area was painted with from two to seven layers, including the base coat and two coats of red-orange for the center circle, plus the layer of polyurethane. Becky estimated that about nineteen hours of work went into the creation, including help from tech staff and volunteers. But not all of it was done on hands and knees. Paint brushes and rollers are often attached to sticks and used from a standing position.

Becky concluded, "I was excited to hear people asking if the floor was real. That's probably the best question for a painter to hear."
White Christmas
December 2010

It was snowing the night I saw "White Christmas," outside as well as onstage. If you've ever seen a holiday or winter set show, you may have seen artificial snow, but what does it take to bring the outdoors to an indoor stage?

A snow machine called the ProShowmaker was used for this production. The ProShowmaker is essentially a 48-inch-by-13-inch trough with holes in the bottom and is filled with white shredded plastic that resembles snow. Five of these devices were hung from battens, the metal pipes suspended above the stage.

Tech Director Derek Easton described how the snow machines were used: "To fill them, you bring the pipe to ground level and scoop fake snow into the top . . . a motor that moves a piece of plastic-looking chain-link agitates the snow and makes it fall through the holes. The motor is powered electrically by plugging it into a wall outlet or, in our case, a lighting dimmer." In this way, the snow machines were controlled on cue from the light booth at the rear of the balcony.

The ProShowmaker was first used at TCR in last season's production of "Rent." When I began volunteering in the late 1990s, a cruder device called a snow cradle was used. A snow cradle is typically made from a sheet of muslin with a field of small holes covering about a third of one side. Hung between two adjacent battens and filled with plastic flakes, one batten is moved up and down slightly, allowing the snow to filter through the holes.