Ariel Benjamin and Jonathan Dillard get their start as “Assistants To Mr. MacDevitt”
If you happen to be lucky enough to get a seat to Broadway’s hottest ticket of the year, The Book of Mormon, turn to the back pages of the Playbill. You’ll notice two names listed as Assistant to Mr. MacDevitt. “Mr. MacDevitt” in this case is Brian MacDevitt, who won his fifth Tony Award designing the lighting for this award-sweeping musical, and is now teaching at the University of Maryland.
If you enjoy the biggest hit of the year, you may well envy one of those assistants, Ariel Benjamin. Among the things she had to do for MacDevitt was sit through two whole weeks of performances of the show – tough work, but somebody’s got to do it!
MacDevitt had two grad students acting as assistants at the time that his work on The Book of Mormon was coming to fruition: Benjamin, who had her Bachelors from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and Jonathan Dillard, whose undergraduate work had been at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
They helped in his office in the Clarice Smith Center on the College Park, Maryland campus doing research, maintaining records, keeping up with the filing while helping him keep current on his chores as an Associate Professor of Lighting Design in the University’s School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies.
For the pair, it was an opportunity to get not just a view of work on a single show, but of the processes that have served him well over a lengthy career as a lighting designer. His career includes over fifty Broadway shows during the past two decades and stretches back to a short time as an assistant to William Mintzer working on shows at DC’s Arena Stage and a longer stint at the old Harlequin Dinner Theatre and the touring company that grew out of its repertoire, Troika Entertainment.
In 2007, MacDevitt decided to relocate from the New York area, where, he realized, he was taking on altogether too many shows to allow any time to be part of the lives of his wife and their two children. He wanted to return to the teaching he had so enjoyed when he was on the faculty of his alma mater, the State University of New York at Purchase. He chose the University of Maryland under the leadership of Daniel MacLean Wagner.
The Masters of Fine Arts program at Maryland has between fifteen and seventeen students enrolled at a time, each taking classes, working on University shows, conducting classes as teaching assistants and doing conceptual design projects. They also work twenty-hours a week earning a stipend through the student assistance program. Among the duties they perform is assisting members of the faculty such as MacDevitt.
MacDevitt gives his assistants the opportunity to work on a specific show. As is his habit, he took each to New York as the project they were assisting on came to fruition so they could see first hand how a Broadway show gets up on its feet.
Dillard was the first to travel north. He witnessed “Tech Week” – that intensive time in the life of a show when the set, costumes, sound, props, special effects and lights are installed, tested, rehearsed and refined. He sat in on all the tech run-throughs, sat in the back of the room when the creative team worked through their notes from each one and then saw the work involved in fixing the problems that had surfaced.
Benjamin’s turn came next. Her job was to be MacDevitt’s eyes from different spots in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on New York’s West 49th Street. That’s the same theatre where crowds form at six o’clock every Tuesday – Saturday evening hoping to win the lottery for two of the twenty seats put on sale at the last minute. (No such lottery last weekend, however, when all of Broadway shut down to wait out Hurricane Irene.)
For her time in New York, she attended the performances, reported to her boss on what she’d noticed and also spent hours photographing the equipment to document the setup. Her first time seeing the show was the “Invited dress rehearsal,” that traditional feature of final preparations for Broadway shows when the cast and crew are allowed to invite friends and colleagues to witness the last dress rehearsal before the first public preview performance. Then she sat in on previews for the next two weeks. During the days when there weren’t matinees she would sit in on rehearsals and notes sessions.
Most of the time, she sat near the lighting design station which, in the O’Neill, is in the last row of the orchestra section, but for some performances she sat in the last row of the mezzanine near the moving light programmer, David Arch. She also sat in the boxes on the right and the left side of the house to check lighting effects from different angles.
Among the major changes she watched being developed and implemented was the addition of stage fog to the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” sequence. She says “That was one of the numbers that Brian kept coming back to during my time there, which is not surprising since it is one of the larger production numbers in the show. They added some fog pockets in the deck, which was a big job for all involved, and it took a few days to get the desired effect.”
Both Benjamin and Dillard graduated this spring with their Masters degrees. Dillard has remained in the region and is preparing for his marriage while working on shows, principally in the Baltimore area. Benjamin has landed the assignment of designing lights for the No Rules Theatre Company’s production of Stop Kiss which opens September 7th at the H Street Playhouse under the direction of Holly Twyford and of Associate Lighting Designer for the Goodman Theatre Company of Chicago’s production of Chinglish, the new drama by David Henry Hwang. That production is transferring to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway and she is remaining with it. As a result, when it opens in October, she will be listed in the playbill as a full member of the artistic team.
As she drives up the New Jersey Turnpike for the “Tech Week” for Chinglish she will have the CD of The Book of Mormon in the player – perhaps playing “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”