Friday, May 05, 2006
What makes "Wicked" Run--Part Deux
Dave's staff consists of three sub-stage managers (one of whom does nothing but call cues for the five follow spots in the show) and two assistant stage managers who are hired in each of the tour cities and who work off-stage while the other managers are in the control booth. When Dave joined us, he got us out into the center of the stage, corralling us into an area where no scenery could hit us, and the pre-performance technical check began.
The first thing that happened was that Glinda's Bubble flew in directly in front of us. The Bubble is a welded steel construction in the form of a double ring circle with five small bubble machines and eight miniature stage lights in it. The Bubble has two of its own steel trusses that travel with it and are rigged right behind the proscenium arch. One of the bubble machines had been disconnected as the bubbles got into the actress's eyes and face. Cables built into Glinda's costume terminate in the area of her lower back with a carabineer that locks onto the Bubble's frame. While it rested on the stage floor, the machines were refilled and tested and the lights fired up to make sure all were operating properly. Although it's all shiny metallic and modern, the Bubble is mechanically identical to the flying clouds that brought gods and goddesses onto the stage in the antique theaters of the 17th and 18th centuries.
While Dave continued his story of how the show is managed and operated. Three stage electricians came on stage to observe every lighting instrument in the show being turned on and off in succession to make sure the lamps hadn't blown. There are just under 500 instruments in "Wicked," and over 300 lighting cues, the most concentrated number coming in the first ten minutes of the show where Dave said it's just non-stop. Then the "dogs," steel slugs set into the tracks into the show's stage floor, began to move under our feet. Dogs have a slot in them into which a knife-like tab on the underside of moving scenery fits securely. When a shift cue is called, braided steel airplane cables in the tracks propel the dogs and the scenery locked into them wherever on the stage it's needed for a scene. The show's portable floor also had ducts built into it to pump fog on stage, or air to cause costumes to billow.
Finally, the side wings and drops began to come on stage in progression from downstage to upstage with all their clockwork gears spinning, and when Dave's assistants declared everything to be operating properly, he led us off stage left while vacuums worked to make sure the tracks were clean and the stage floor was mopped.
We gathered at Daves stage management console under scenic pieces--beds, huge statues--that were hung about twelve feet off the deck in "storage" until they were needed on stage. He told us that the Opera House provided nearly ideal amounts of off-stage space. In Hartford and Providence, by contrast, there hadn't been more than ten or twelve feet off-stage. "The first couple of performances, we weren't really sure what was going to get onstage and what wasn't," was his laconic comment. Each stage manager, sub, and assistant is wired with at least one communication device, and several of them have two.
Dave's console is equipped with six monitors: one gives a view of the entire stage from out front, another is focused on the conductor, two more show what's going on off stage left and right while the last two, equipped with night vision, show what's going on high up in the dark, crowded fly loft where all the drops and heavy framed pieces await lowering into place on cue. And on the nights when it all breaks down, he says they just operate by by the seat of their pants and hope for the best.
As the director never travels with the show, Dave is responsible for keeping things on stage exactly as the director wanted them, and for rehearsing understudies regularly. Each lead has two or three understudies from within the Ensemble. The day we were visiting, neither of the female leads was well, which meant Dave had to decide which of the understudies was in the best shape to replace them. Then two of the Swing performers go in to replace the Ensemble actors. Swings have to cover each and every one of the Ensemble parts and be ready at a moment's notice to take over.
The company moves across the landscape like a small army as it travels from town to town. Tech crew, Ensemble performers and Swings are limited to two 50 pound (maximum) suitcases, into which they have to pack clothing for all seasons of the year. He said that he's psychologically equipped for touring--he was born to it--the constant packing and unpacking, the unfamiliar cities, the boredom of the road. Others aren't so adaptable and have a really hard time. If and when they drop out, he has to rehearse replacements into the show from scratch. He has several long rolls of cloth strips with numbers on them that correspond to positions on the stage. If the theater has a rehearsal hall, fine. If not, he commandeers whatever space he can find (in the Opera House it's a downstairs lounge), lays out the strips and works with the new actor until he or she is ready to take part in one of the weekly on-stage brush-up rehearsals.
At this point I slipped away to get some dinner before the performance I was attending that night at Opera Boston. I walked back across the stage, past the green, anatomically correct baby Elphaba, a flying monkey or two, the magic broom that flew up through the stage floor in New York but has to fly on from stage right on the tour (Dave says it's actually a better effect), and a group of wardrobe people changing shoes and other costume items to be ready for the evening's substitute performers. A big, bearish flyman stage right was testing out Elphaba's flying harness and hoist. I noticed the stage crew mostly were wearing at least one item with a Red Sox logo. It was quarter to seven, fifteen minutes before the company would arrive, and the calm before the storm.
Just scroll down to the May 1 entry and you'll see my comments on "Thais." I had a lot of fun--but I've always been a fan of 19th century French oriental erotica. The only thing the production lacked were enough half-dressed boys.