Until now, from my limited vantage, I would have charged that stagehands make up a group distinguished primarily by their prodigious consumption of doughnuts and coffee and their nocturnal habits. So when I got a call to do a “load in” story about Disney’s Beauty & the Beast at the National, I thought, “What’s up with this?”
When I arrived, I found a hive of professional activity, appreciable as skilled workers on task are, fascinating because of their focused intent. The crew had been working since 8 a.m. This was Day Two, and the workers were in the process of dropping lines and tying the fly-in scenery onto batons. A behemoth yellow “wave,” punched with so many lights they looked like the rings on an octopus, dominated the downstage spot and, at 2,000 pounds, was taking up a lot of attention. I thought of the elephant keeper at a zoo, who supervises the care and feeding of a star attraction, one that’s sexy but dangerous.
At the same time, a series of special stage “cranes” hoisted guys up into the flies where they worked silently like bats in the gloom.
There are over fifty people working backstage on the NETworks tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and they include department heads with as many as eleven crew members in each department that then expands to include “locals,” in this case, the twelve union members at the National, five of whom would remain with the show for the duration of the Washington run. These people remain invisible and mostly forgotten during the show, and this is the way they like it.
Beauty and the Beast has been on the road for two-and-a-half years, and this was city number one hundred and forty-eight. The team travels and stays together. The production was built for speed in-and-out. It tours with all its sets, props, costumes, lights and sound system self-contained in five trucks. (In comparison, Cats tours in eighteen-twenty trucks.) Shows often have an icon set piece. “Les Miz” (Les Miserables) had its mega turntable. Phantom of the Opera had the huge chandelier. I wondered if the 2,000 pound “octopus-ringed” wave would count.
It’s also well known to crews that very theatre in every city has its idiosyncrasies and challenges that are only revealed when the team arrives backstage for the “load in.” A space that had been planned for one activity would be taken up with a piece of equipment that hadn’t been in the drawings. A cinema screen might be permanently affixed and immutably in the way of the set design. What if the live sets aren’t usable? If in a theatre there’s no backstage space for the wig shop, would they have to use one of the trucks? In some theatres, they’ve had to “call the show,” (the moment to moment conducting of lights, sound, set changes and performers)from the basement or even an alley. What about the fast costume change? Production Stage Manager David Zack loves his job because, in part, it’s always about accepting the challenges of an individual theatre space and improvising new solutions.
The National theatre is like a New York style house, elegant and intimate. But also, from the crew’s perspective, it poses special challenges.
The National comes “undressed” and bare bones. It meant the load in was tight; actors would take the stage that afternoon at 5:30 p.m. There’d be no actual rehearsal because the stage hands would have been entrusted to build the world in proportions exact and familiar to the performers within the confines of each theatre. But sound levels had to be adjusted for the acoustics of the individual space. At seven the same evening, the house would open. Another opening, another show.
I wondered – what makes someone choose this life, sometimes putting in twelve-sixteen hour days, living out of a suitcase, and sleeping in strange digs. Sure, there is an opportunity to see the country and sometimes the world. Zack listed for me the other pluses: getting paid to play, not having to punch in at a nine-to-five job, and not having to wear a suit. On the other side of the ledger, there’s the toll it puts on family and home life. You have to love it. And mostly, you have to be young, though as I looked at the several silver-haired and matured bodies, dressed in the ubiquitous dark t-shirts-and-jeans “uniforms” of backstage workers, I thought, maybe just young at heart.
There’s a pack mentality in this sub-culture, a tight-knit group, and the Beauty and the Beast crew represents our continent with all the fresh hopes of folk from across the country. Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, L.A. – all were represented – from sea to shining sea.
For Zack, who’s toured to every state but Wyoming, there’s always the adventure in a new town: to show up and find the best food. In his off time, he searches the food network shows for great tips. He wants to know what’s recommended in our nation’s capital.
If a person wanted to join this roadshow, I asked, what were they looking for and did one have to migrate to the Big Apple or L.A. like most dancers and musical singer-actors to be seen at auditions, selected, then sent out on tour. I was assured that, with the internet, resumes and good references afforded “techies” the opportunity no matter where your base. Zack let me know that the biggest requisite is to be up on the current technology, that, and experience. Work everywhere you can was his advice.
Perhaps the thing that most surprised me was the passion and loyalty the crew members have for the show. The investment these people put into every detail of set, costumes, props, lighting and sound brings to them, just as much as to the performers on stage, is paid off by the audience. If the show is smooth but the house is small and quiet, it reflects in the mood of the crew. Tonight, with Beauty and the Beast, they believe it will be a Justin Bieber concert with rock star audiences.
And when I returned to the show at night, and the lights went up, I saw stage pictures saturated with colors like gorgeous pop-up story books with their filigreed cut-out pictures. Basil Twist’s puppets leapt and twirled. Dancers gave us Busby Berkelee under the bling of a 2,000-pound octopus–wave of lights. Little Chip appeared as a head without a body perched on a see-through teacart. The Ensemble’s nighttime raid to “kill the beast” was fearfully stunning, and all managed simply with evocative lighting and a state-of-the-art sound system. And the Beast’s transformation was a 3D spectacle of wonder. No one would have suspected the many elves who had wrought the magic. And not one was visible, unless the gargoyles and gridirons that came to life and rolled the set pieces into new configurations hid black t-shirted uniforms.
Three-hundred days days a year, eight-hundred and seventy shows. That represents a whole lot of doughnuts. And more. It’s the magic behind the magic. Everyone who is part of theatre and who loves to go to the theatre has a great debt of gratitude for these marvelous designers and technicians who make it all possible. A standing “O” for David Zack and his crew of Beauty and the Beast!
– When Disney’s Beauty and the Beast closes this Sunday night, June 24th, crews will immediately begin the load-out. Zack and his crew will make the seven hour drive to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, NC, where they’ll have the show set to go by Tuesday night, June 26th. –
NETworks tour schedule for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
The work of the mighty stage crew seen in the 2010 NETworks tour