Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shrek Backstage

Happy Thursday, Memphis! Today we have a special treat for you. Our lovely intern Angela was able to watch Shrek the Musical from backstage during its run here at the Orpheum, and she was kind enough to share her experiences with us! Check out her guest post below:


Hey Everyone, my name is Angela, and I am originally from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Currently I am a third- year Stage Management student at Webster University in St Louis, MO; and as part of our SM program, each student does a semester Internship with a professional theatre company. Last year, I started working with the Marketing Department of the Professional Theatre Awards Council in St Louis. So as I was applying to different companies for an internship, I also looked into different marketing internships available. The Orpheum Theatre is a nationally well-known theatre, and they happened to have an intern opening for Marketing. Which is how I made it all the way down south to Memphis!



The first thing most people do the moment they get their marquee is they sit down and look at the cast list. As someone who has been involved in theatre for many years I always scan the first few pages looking for that magical list of names, which is almost always in the same order. Director, choreographer, which is then followed by a series of designers, and then my favorite name, is the very last one listed, the Stage Manager.

For anyone who is a little fuzzy on what exactly a Stage Manager does, it’s this; every single thing you see happen on the stage during the production is monitored and controlled by a single person. Every change of light, every movement of scenery, and the entrances of actors happens because that one person says “go.”

The Stage Management team is responsible for making sure that every member of the company, including actors and every member of the crew has arrived on time and is ready to work when that magic curtain rises. They are responsible for making sure that the work environment for the performers is safe, and that everything in the show runs smoothly to allow for the actors to work. Finally they are the people making sure that the performance seen on opening night is exactly the same as their 200th performance, which is the same as the shows closing performance.

Stage Management is one of those jobs that you pick up primarily by gaining experience through working under another person or watching someone with experience. No two Stage Managers work in exactly the same way, the key is to find out how you can operate to ensure that the show runs as close to perfect as it can. One of the ways that a younger stage manager learns is through watching or shadowing a member of the Stage Management team during a performance, which is exactly what I got the privilege of doing during one of the performances of Shrek the Musical.

Just before the show was about to start, one of the Assistant Stage Managers lead me up to backstage and briefly let me look at the SM desk. Often Stage Managers will call the cues of a show from backstage, instead of a typical lighting booth. This allows a stage manager to have direct contact with anyone backstage in the event of an emergency. In a traveling show, like Shrek, this also gives the stage manager much more consistency between shows as they move from venue to venue.

However, in order for the Stage Manager to be able to accurately call a show, they will have a desk, which is also equipped with a series of broadcast monitors. This not only allows them to view the show from the audience’s perspective, but the SM will generally also have one or two live feeds showing the stage from above with infrared cameras so they can watch any scenic movements that happen without lights.

As the other two members of the Stage Management team joined us backstage, they informed me that I would be following one of the Assistant Stage Managers during their track. I followed her to the opposite side of the stage and wound up in a tiny alcove just off Stage Left where I would not be in the way of anyone, but would still be able to see most everything as it happened.
As the curtain speech started up, I was introduced to a few of the tech guys who primarily stay SL, and amidst their regular duties they were jokingly assigned to be in charge of making sure that I didn’t get run over by any of the automations as they moved on and offstage. I know how funny it sounds, but even the most diligent person can get caught off guard simply from not knowing exactly what is going to be moving and when. There are some productions that do not allow non-employees to be backstage during the run of a show because of lack of space and the fact that it can be dangerous.

For the rest of the show I alternated between standing in my tiny alcove just watching the show and getting to experience the atmosphere of backstage and following two steps behind the ASM, asking any and all questions that pop into my head. Before each new element went onstage the ASM brought me to it and showed me how it worked. *Note: If you want pieces of the show to remain a surprise, this is my spoiler alert. I won’t be revealing all of their secrets, but I will try and explain a couple of them. *

For those of you that saw the show, you most likely noticed the backdrops moving. Normal drops are large pieces of canvas (or other materials) that have been painted to represent a specific location within the story. But unlike drops that you may have seen in other shows which most of the time don’t move, after these drops were painted a photo was taken. Then a series of single images of the drop were slightly altered and projected in a sequence on top of the still drop during the show to create the movement. A few examples of this are the torches in Farquaad’s dungeon the clouds over Duloc as Shrek and Donkey, as well as the flames just before and within the dragon’s castle.

One of my favorite reveals from that evening was Lord Farquaad and how they made the actor appear short, but still give his movements a realistic quality. When he was not onstage, he walks around on his real feet and you can see that there is a connection between the heels of his fake boots and his kneecaps so that his legs bend naturally as the actor moves.

Towards the end of the show, Fiona undergoes her transformation and levitates for a few moments. During this part, they were letting me watch and showing me how it was happening. One of the tech guys made a comment about how they were ruining the magic of the show, by letting me observe. My reply was that seeing the completed show from the audience perspective is like Christmas Eve, you have all these shiny packages and you don’t know really what is in them, you can guess and if you are really good, maybe even figure one or two of them out. But being able to watch from backstage, is Christmas morning, you get to slowly unwrap each of the presents and understand how they are done. For me, getting to appreciate the work and the creativity that goes into designing each of the small little tricks, the ones that capture the audience and keep them enthralled, that is what makes the magic of the theatre real.

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