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The Craft Behind the Curtain

An inside look at the stage (and dream) makers at the Zach Theatre.

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In the Zach’s exuberant original production of Tommy, every aspect of the performance comes to life—from the dramatic framed mirror that mesmerizes the title character to the gyrating metallic gold bumpers of the stage-size animated pinball machine. Beyond the extraordinary vocal and physical talents of the actors under the theater’s spotlight, countless hours of expertise and labor have gone into realizing these dazzling moments by way of the costumes, props, scenery, and more.

On a recent Wednesday, a week before the anticipated opening of Tommy, a visitor tours the bustling shops and offices of the Zach campus. A strong sense of electricity imbues the sun-strong afternoon there. A gaggle of elementary-age children files along one of the shaded sidewalks en route to their next theater camp activity. In the meantime, teams of designers, carpenters, technicians, and seamstresses are hard at work in preparation for the musical’s upcoming run. According to Paul Flint, director of production, this creative process commences about six months out from the first performance when the crew receives the script and gathers for the initial concept meeting. “This is the meeting where all of the ideas get put on the table,” explains Flint, who has been with the Zach for seven years, witnessing its transformational growth from a $3 million company to an $8 million one with the beautiful Topfer Theatre at the center of this new phase.

Three weeks later, the team returns with more-refined ideas that are presented and discussed before the hands-on execution of the sets, props, and costumes begins. Over the coming weeks, Flint oversees the production and troubleshoots as needed on a daily basis. Enormous whiteboards, with the lineup for the upcoming season and lists of all of the principal production people on each show, cover the walls of his second-story office in the Zach Performing Arts and Creativity Center. “This is my battle station,” Flint says with a subtle smile. Before he arrived at the Zach, Flint gained his professional experience at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. (Flint has drawn upon all of his years of experience in theater production to write and publish a book, Managing the Creative Mind: A Technical Director’s Process.) “Camaraderie and collaboration are important to everything we do here,” he adds. “The challenge is to maintain artistic integrity and budgets while making it across the finish line.”

In the nearby Whisenhunt Theatre building, designer Susan Branch Towne and costume shop manager Blaire Hurry are adding the final touches to the vibrant costumes forTommy. Stepping into the shop feels like crossing the threshold into another world. Every inch of the space is dedicated to the creation of the costumes for all of the original productions. Small labeled drawers containing sequins, paillettes, pearls, and many other decorative items stretch across the lower section of one wall. Underneath the shelving sit cardboard boxes filled with different styles of men’s and women’s shoes. Near the back of the shop, row upon row of brightly colored spools—cotton-candy pink, royal blue, sky-blue, turquoise—are arranged on wooden dowels. Domestic and industrial sewing machines are positioned at several workstations. Colorful drawings of the costumes designed by Towne for Tommy fan out across one tabletop like a deck of playing cards.

For this recent production, the two women collaborated, with Towne creating the designs and Hurry implementing them with her crew of workers—from milliners to wig designers (all of them local talent). Both of the women gained their early experience during their academic studies before going on to work multiple regional and national shows: Towne studied at Carnegie Mellon and later the Yale School of Drama, and Hurry graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in costume design and technology. “As we work on a show together, we come up with a certain visual vocabulary that will become consistent from the first designs to the first dress rehearsal,” explains Towne.

For Tommy as well as other productions, Hurry collaborates with sound engineers, so that microphones and the necessary wires can be carefully threaded through wigs and hats. “There’s a thrill of seeing the designers’ illustrations going from the paper to being onstage,” remarks Hurry. The moment when an actor, such as the Acid Queen in her stunning red gown, steps out onstage can be breathtaking for the designers as well as the patrons. “There is a real immediacy to theater,” adds Towne. “Our work is a part of the experience for the audience.”

In the nearby prop and scenery shop, the electric whine of a power saw rings through the warm air. Here, a visitor finds properties designer Scot Groh, surrounded by his many tools and countless objects. “With props, it’s a lot of tricks and gimmicks,” he says. A few containers of washable blood sit near his elbow. Bare mannequin torsos, chairs, and stools hang from the industrial ceiling. The shelves are crowded with cans of spray paint, assorted ropes, and cardboard tubes. “Basically anything that I find can potentially be used as a prop,” Groh says. Plastic planters are transformed into oversize teacups with a coat of metallic silver paint and metal handles. Many of hours of design and construction produce a small army of human-size puppet playing cards that dance in tandem across the stage during the second act. “We shape reality, so you see what we want you to see,” says Groh, who studied theater production at Kent State before going on national tours with shows such as All Shook Up and Fiddler on the Roof.

“I love the fact that I never do the same thing twice,” comments Groh about his job. ForTommy, he and his team created four pinball machines (that seamlessly convert into tables during the course of the show) and modified a fifth, a vintage machine, by stripping it down and then reinforcing its metal frame in order to support the weight of Michael Valentine, who plays the older Tommy in the show. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding seeing a little idea become a reality and then resonate with the audience,” says Groh. Recently, Groh also made a miniature version of Funland that magically popped out of a chest for Pinocchio, one of the many shows produced for the family-curated series. (Upcoming performances in the fall season include a bilingual version of Cinderella and the popular A Year with Frog and Toad.)

On the second floor of the scenery workshop is an entire room dedicated to an extensive inventory of props—telephones, televisions, radios, books, glass bottles, pillows, and much more. In addition, the Zach maintains six off-site storage units around the city filled with other props that will be used for future productions.

Nearby, an enthusiastic group of young children gathers in a rehearsal space for warm-up exercises at one of the many summer camps for aspiring thespians. “Confidence, creativity, and collaboration are part of everything we do,” explains Nat Miller, director of education.“These are three skills that take you through theater and life.” In addition to offering an array of summer camps, the Zach brings theater education into the classroom and trains educators in integrating the theater arts into their curriculum; this program has grown considerably, thanks to a generous Austin Impact grant of $100,000 last year. Other goals of the program are to train the next generation of actors and to serve as an incubator for new works for Austin area families and kids. “With children’s theater, the only limits are children’s imagination,” says Miller. “We want to give children the experience of being part of the theater arts. They deserve it, particularly low-income children.”

The camp kids begin an improv game, the power saws and the sewing machines continue to hum, and the technicians figure out the best way to release balloons from the main stage’s scaffolding. And eventually, on opening night, the house lights dim and the rock opera in all of its brilliant glory is seamlessly performed. At the end of the show, the audience rises to give a standing ovation and thunderous applause. And everyone—cast and crew alike—bask in its warmth.

Credits

Photography by Annie Ray

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