The plot gets old fast and the dialog is less than scintillating. And, frankly, the costumes were lackluster: jeans, t- shirts, muscle shirts, tool belts. But the action is non-stop and visually compelling, coming at you at a breakneck pace with an element of suspense and a hint of potential danger in the wings to keep it interesting. The ensemble is about as well-disciplined, dedicated and unselfconscious as any you’ll find in professional theatre. You can tell they care. And their coordinated effort is like clockwork.
The show is a must-see. But the thing is, you can’t get a ticket. Because this was just a set change, not an OSF play. I was a guest of the director and choreographer, Tom Curtis, an 11-year veteran as Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s stage operations manager.
Sitting in Row C center amidst an ocean of empty blue seats in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, I watched and Tom narrated as his crew of a dozen stage hands dismantled and stored “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and then seamlessly hauled in and assembled the set for “Measure for Measure.” Wielding Allen wrenches to separate sections of the floor, they started at 9 a.m. (after doing group stretches to limber up and “get on the same page.”) By the time I left at 10:20, the transition was mostly complete. (I’d recently seen a time-lapse video of another changeover; in real time, it appeared nearly as magical.)
“The big tyrant here is time,” says Tom, who describes his crew as having “longshoreman bodies and artistic hearts.“ Last year, when many of the sets were particularly complex, his crew completed most changeovers in two hours, but even that was barely enough time between some shows. With the three-plus-hour matinee of Hamlet starting at 1:30 and the doors opening for the evening performance at 7:30, there was little leeway if, say, a “put-in rehearsal” was needed get an understudy up to speed. (In fact, because so many of the stagehands’ tasks are specialized, each of them also has an understudy.) “We don’t want to be the ones to hold the house,” says Tom.
Over a 10-month, 12-show season, the work, says Tom, “is relentless,” with the pressure building as the weather heats up. Once the Elizabethan stage opens, the 30 or so hands are responsible for five changeovers a day, two in the Bowmer, two in the New Theatre and one on the outdoor stage.
At the Bowmer, with one set up and the three others in the rotation in storage, planning and logistics are critical. And, though the backstage area appears vast –it’s 26 feet deep and the width of the stage—the space is barely sufficient for the often complex three-dimensional sets. (The theatre, which opened in 1970, was designed in an era when scenery was mostly painted flats.)Two below-stage levels used for additional storage are accessed by an 8- foot x 24-foot elevator, which makes the changeover seem even more wondrous.
Maintaining safety with so many moving pieces and so much going on at once, the changes require “teamwork on a high level,” said Tom. That was acutely clear as the crew prepared to “float” the 1,800-pound suspended steel grid ceiling, a key structural and design element in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” (The play is set in 1970’s urban America.) Operating a hand-held control box a few rows back, Tom deftly worked the various chain motors both independently and in unison to raise and adjust the ceiling height. With his people working below, there was no room for error. “I have control issues,” he said, smiling.
“Boss, are you ready?” stagehand Kyle Strait called out after the chain hooks were set. “Okay,” Tom hollered back. “Everybody’s cables happy? Let’s take the whole thing up.” (In order to make sure he could repair a chain motor if it and its back-up were to break at a critical time, Tom even took an intensive week- long course at a “chain motor school” this year during the off-season.)
“Tom’s story of how he got into the business is a variation of a familiar theatrical theme, where an understudy gets a break when the star goes down. In 1979, Tom, a New York City native, was dating an actress who performed at the theatre at New York University. He figured out quickly that if he wanted to “hang with her” he’d have to hang at the theatre. One night, when a stagehand didn’t show up, Tom volunteered to fill the breach and “fly a curtain” at the appointed time.
The work agreed with him and the mechanics of it clicked. But most important in a business that can be all-stress-all-the-time, he discovered he was uniquely well-suited. “I don’t get nervous,” he said.
After watching for an hour or so, I mentioned to Tom that his crew’s precision work reminded me of moving men. He laughed and told me about the time one of the crew asked his teammates for help with a move.
“So we all showed up with two big trucks and a pick-up, and 90 minutes later, the guy was in his new place and unpacked.” And nothing, Tom added, was broken.
“We are in fact like a moving company,” he said. “the only difference is, after we move what’s in your house, we move your house too.”