A Peek Behind the Curtain

Backstage at the Milligan Center with Thacher's Tech Crew.
Thacher’s Milligan Center for the Performing Arts opened in the winter of 2006. I feel a special connection to the space because my daughter Isabel CdeP 2006 had the title role in the theater’s inaugural production, Peter Pan. And, as an Ojai-based performer, I have sung on its stage several times. I have always been impressed by its obvious physical virtues but equally so by the efficiency and professionalism of its behind-the-scenes technical staff, many of whom are students. As the Thacher Masquers prepare their March production of Guys And Dolls, this seems a good time to find out what makes everything run so smoothly.

 – J. B. White (Father of Emma CdeP 2001, Mary CdeP 2003, and Isabel)

The Milligan Center is impressive. A 450-seat auditorium, a large proscenium stage, an orchestra pit, and backstage facilities that include commodious music and dance rehearsal spaces, and practice and dressing rooms. The School mounts two large-scale theatrical productions each year in the theater (including one musical) and several student shows. Additionally, Assemblies are held in the space, and numerous speakers and performers appear. The events and performances are uniformly excellent in their presentation. But what happens in the theater doesn’t just “happen”: It requires a lot of planning, preparation and elbow grease. Someone is ensuring everything comes off smoothly.

That “someone” is the Thacher Tech Crew, composed almost exclusively of students and directed by Claire Kendrick CdeP 1999. Though, Claire is technically the “boss,” she is the first to acknowledge it is the students who “really make things happen.” Every play and musical…every guest speaker…every performer…whatever happens or whoever appears in the Milligan Center (or elsewhere on campus), the tech crew is there—whether the audience is aware of them or not. They are, for the most part, students who have taken or are taking Claire’s Technical Theater course, a Fine Arts Department elective.

Now nearing the end of her third year as technical director, Claire has been able to train students through the ranks. Her sine qua non team leaders at the moment are seniors Chris Allison (stage manager), Wils Dawson (lights), and John Callander (sound). In the trenches with them on a regular basis are fellow seniors Kendra Carter, Leandra Cooper, and Sondra Oxley; juniors Iona Hughan, Hampton King, Morgan Krey, Sarina Patel, and Tom Wilkinson; sophomores Sienna Courter, Bryanna Lloyd, Trevor Mulchay, and Leeah Stickelmaier; and freshmen Margaret Cowles and Alice Hyde. Guys and Dolls, this year's musical being readied for performances on March 20 and 21, will require a huge crew (details below).  Among the many students on tap for its crew are juniors Wohona Delgadillo, Sophie Subira, Charlie Sun, and Brandon Tate.

Before the Milligan Center was built, Sandy Jensen, the Director of the Drama Department, trained, staffed and supervised that crew, but the greater demands and potential of the new theater cried out for a full-time technical director to oversee operations. That’s where Claire Kendrick came in.

As a Thacher freshman, Claire auditioned for a play.  When she wasn’t cast, she joined the tech crew—and the seeds of a career were sown. During the next four years, she worked on almost every play produced at the School, as stage manager and technical director. Upon graduation, she enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, as a student in its esteemed theater program. After graduating with a degree in theater design and directing, she relocated to her native San Francisco, where she worked as a professional stage manager at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater and taught at area schools.

But always, her eye was on Thacher, as she closely followed the planning and construction of the new performing arts center. When work was completed and the first production announced, she jumped into action, offering her services as a consultant on Peter Pan. She was part of the stellar team, which included Mr. Jensen, Susan Hardenbergh, and ZFX Flying, who brought that hard-to-stage musical to life. Recognizing the need for someone with Claire’s training and experience, in the fall of 2006 the School hired her as the theater’s first (and thus far only) technical director.

Let’s Put on a Show
So what exactly is entailed in “putting on a show” in the Milligan?  It depends on what the “show” is.  A guest speaker or performer will need, at the very least, a microphone, which could be on a stand, hand-held, wireless or lapel, and, in most instances, a podium. But he or she might also need a projection screen, a computer to power a presentation, a laser pointer, special lighting, etc. Mark Nizer, a juggler who recently performed at the School, required three mics, video projection capability, and specific lighting cues (blackout and full stage wash). VOCO, a female vocal quartet lead by Moira Smiley, needed six mics, a special audio line for a cello amp, a full sound system, floor monitors, and a concert lighting set-up.

In order to ensure that guests like Mr. Nizer and VOCO have what they need, the School sends them a rider designed by Claire, a series of questions (“Are they bringing their own equipment?”…”How much stage space do they need?”…”Any specific lighting requests?”…”Any special needs?”…etc.). The tech crew’s goal is to have everything the speaker or performers need set up and ready to go when they arrive.  The theater is well-prepared to do that. Currently in its inventory: 18 portable mics (wireless, hand-held, and wired); permanent hanging mics above the stage and five floor mics; two permanent sets of monitors; eight moveable monitors; three main speakers, each with a sub-woofer; a 24-channel mixer (soon to be augmented with the ability to digitally record performances); over 130 lights, six of which are automated (i.e., their color, shape, and position can be controlled from the light board, which is also automated). When a performer needs more sound engineering than the theater can offer, Desmond Warren, a local sound technician/guru, is called in to help.

When everything goes according to plan (and it almost always does), the evening’s performer arrives between 4-5 p.m., the technical “footprint” already in place, leaving ample time to try out the theater’s acoustics, do a sound check, and warm up. It is critical to performers that the technical side of their shows work and work well; it allows them to concentrate on what they do best (sing, play, juggle, inspire). How good a job does the School’s tech crew do? When Ms. Smiley and Mr. Nizer, seasoned performers, were asked, “How would you rate your experience at Thacher in terms of the crew’s expertise and ability to give you what you needed?,” they answered “Very good!” and “Excellent,” respectively.

Of course, putting on a stage production, especially a musical, is much more challenging. In addition to the actors, director, choreographer, conductor, and musicians, a typical Thacher play or musical enlists over thirty people behind the scenes, both before and during the performance: a half dozen or more to build the sets; a stage manager and two assistants (one on either side of the stage, one downstairs with the cast); a stage crew of twelve (which includes the fly captain and his team); one or two prop-masters and assistants; a costume designer, head of makeup, and a wardrobe and makeup crew of six or more; a light operator; two sound operators; and the ever-important gofers.

Although Claire supervises every technical aspect of a production, as much as possible she assigns student “masters” the responsibility of executing them.  She offers input and guidance when necessary, but the master is in charge of his or her bailiwick.  For instance, the prop master will make a list of all the required props, divided into those that need to be bought, borrowed or made, and those already on hand. It is then his or her job to find, buy or make props, and, during the show, be in charge of keeping the prop table organized.  Other masters are responsible for sets, costumes, lights, sound, etc. And what do those responsibilities entail?  Let’s take a look at Guys and Dolls.

There are eight locations in the play that need sets (although some pieces can be used in more than one); to augment the sets, the School is renting five backdrops; the play calls for 60-70 props and almost the same number of costumes (most actors have more than one); and there will be between 100-150 lighting cues.  As is the custom, sets are being built either on the stage, in the scene bay, or (in clement weather) on the theater’s loading dock.  (On Claire’s wish list for the already well equipped theater are greater set-building capacity and more storage space—often lumber has to be discarded or donated after a show, because there is no place to keep it.)

By nature, theater “techies” are usually content to stay in the shadows.  Their gratification is a job well done, which means helping to pull off a performance—whether small or ambitious—where neither the strings nor the seams show.  A lone speaker pacing the stage, his or her vocal dynamic perfectly modulated, the spotlight never off-point; an electrifying musical performance where the sound is just right; the perfect theatrical light cue; a costume that dazzles; an on-stage living room that feels like a living room—if any of these works on-stage, you’re not asking, “Who did that?”; you’re enjoying the moment.  In other words, the tech crew has done its job.

Their biggest fan, without question, is Claire. "Working with the students is always both rewarding and entertaining. They're hard workers, eager to learn, and creative (even when they don't think they are). It's great to see the look of pride on their faces when they make that awesome light cue, or the set piece/costume they built/painted/sewed gets noticed onstage.” Unless a student is enrolled in Claire’s tech class, he or she receives no academic credit serving on crew, so for many it is truly a labor of love—and Claire appreciates how delicate a balancing act that can be.  “Some are good about finding a balance; some occasionally need to be reminded that schoolwork needs to happen too.  The crew is required to do homework during rehearsal down times and between scene/costume changes, so as to maintain as steady an academic standing as they can.  Sometimes this also involves doing costume fittings or bits of painting during free periods.”  But though demanding, the experience is deeply rewarding.  “The crew can become somewhat of a family, one open to anyone willing to put in the time to make shows happen—which inevitably leads to moments of hilarity and exhilaration that only live theater can provide."

The students agree.  “It's a commitment of time and effort to work on tech, and only a little of it is directly seen by others, but when it all gets done the effect can be very impressive; on crew you learn to appreciate subtleties of presentation.  And I get to use power tools, and who doesn't like that?” reports Sarina PatelAlice Hyde says, “Working on the tech crew has shown me how much teamwork goes into a play or musical; we all contribute something to what we hope will become a fantastic show.”  Wils Dawson, who was promoted to light board operator as a junior (it is a job usually held by a senior) says he has “gained the skills to express” himself artistically.  And Sophie Subira surely speaks for them all:  “Without us the actors would be naked in the dark on an empty stage.”

So, even though they’re content to stay in the shadows, the next time you enjoy an event or performance in the Milligan Center for the Performing Arts, remember the people in the light booth…behind the mixer…backstage and downstairs—and direct some of your applause their way. They richly deserve it.

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