Out of the Limelight
Theater crews perform their magic to make the show go on
It’s just past 8 p.m. The curtain moves slightly and an attractive, gray-haired woman appears in the spotlight. “Welcome to Jacob’s Pillow,” Ella Baff says warmly. She makes a few comments about that night’s performance and closes with an enthusiastic, “Let’s dance.”
Aside from this brief interlude, Baff, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, and her cohort of backstage helpers never appear onstage—but their presence is keenly felt. Without them, Jacob’s Pillow would not exist.
This year, the Pillow welcomes 52 companies to the Berkshires and stages more than 200 free events. Baff constructs her offerings to appeal to a wide array of dance enthusiasts, weaving together a prolific mix of dance theater that is driven by the diversity of both performers and audience. “The Pillow is a place where people can see every form of dance, from classical ballet to tap and hip hop to fusions of dance that are not easy to categorize,” says Baff, who, like other executive directors, shapes the season at her company.
But for individual productions, the directors create the shows. Their vision influences lighting, set design, sound production and cast selection—even what the actors wear. At Shakespeare & Company, costumes are a major production in themselves, orchestrated under the creative hand of a single individual for more than 30 years. “Most costumers would give their eye teeth for this environment,” says Shakespeare & Company’s costume director Govane Lohbauer, gesturing toward the full expanse of windows in the second-story, air-conditioned costume shop at the Elayne P. Bernstein Performing Arts Center at the Lenox campus.
For Lohbauer and other Shakespeare & Company designers, the process begins as much as a year before the play is produced, as they sit with the director and talk about the production. They consider when and where it takes place, and also how best to create the mood and emotions of the production. Next, the designer creates sketches of possible styles. “It’s a collaborative process,” says Lohbauer. “The actors are involved. They know their characters better than anyone.”
The company has a rich inventory of costumes, but Lohbauer and her crew create plenty of new ones each season. Every show has at least one wardrobe person whose job it is to care for the costumes and attend to cleaning after the performance, and while most actors are self-sufficient, quick changes or complicated lacings require more than just two hands.
Stage production is another involving process. Pete Durgin, director of production and facilities at the Berkshire Theatre Group, supervises three stages during the summer, each with multiple designs. While the director is working with the actors to block the scenes and refine the action, the set is being built. It all comes together onstage for the technical rehearsal. “We look at every moment of the show,” says Durgin. “Every light change, every sound cue, to make sure it all works together. The real show might run two hours, but it takes days to run through a production this way.” Then, at the end of a run, crews work day and night to strike that show and set up the next one.
The labor behind this enormous effort comes from paid seasonal staff and from interns who are attracted to the Berkshires from all over the United States. At Barrington Stage Company, the internship program is a carefully designed educational experience for 30 students, 60 percent working in production and 40 percent in administration. Their program begins with a three-day orientation and includes weekly training courses that will introduce the interns to other aspects of theater production.
A legion of volunteers, many at the other end of the age spectrum, round out summer staffing. The cadre of 264 white-and-black clad workers at Barrington Stage, as elsewhere, are mostly senior citizens, some in their 90s. Though their work is simple—stuffing programs and cleaning up after the show—they are also the face of the theater to the audience. “We couldn’t do our productions without the volunteers,” says Brad Schiesser, development services manager at Barrington Stage, who was a house-manager intern for two summers before being hired full-time in 2011. He found the volunteers were good workers no matter their age, recalling a time when a program change required six ushers to restuff 520 programs a half-hour before the doors opened. “We didn’t even have to hold the house to do it,” he says.
The Berkshire theater scene includes both producing houses like Barrington Stage and presenting houses like Jacob’s Pillow and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, which provide the venue for shows that travel the country. Company manager Tina Pagliasotti’s job is to care for the Mahaiwe’s artists during their brief stay in Great Barrington. The details of their needs are carefully spelled out in their contracts. “The requests range from the color of the towels to the wattage of light bulbs in the dressing rooms. They even specify the type of Starbucks coffee they want, which, of course, we can’t supply. We’re a small town,” Pagliasotti notes.
Last year, the Mahaiwe staged a dance troupe from China. The performers wanted authentic Chinese food and didn’t speak a word of English. In the end, Pagliasotti connected their manager directly with someone at Koi Chinese Restaurant who spoke their native tongue. And the sauces they produced were delicious—like nothing Pagliasotti had tasted before.
For every performance, she’s the first to arrive and the last to leave. Besides special requests from performers, Pagliasotti provides transportation when necessary and a spread of food and drink in the “green room,” where performers hang out when not onstage.
So this summer, as the actors take their final bows, give an extra round of applause for all the professionals backstage and the hundreds of interns and volunteers who are listening and watching, ready and waiting to perform their special magic