By Lindsay Boeckl
When Bree Lawrence was in her second year, she waited for things to get dark.
When the lights on a stage go down, that is the cue for theatre production students like Lawrence to move set pieces on or off stage, or facilitate changing the colour of a light. By the nature of their work they move quickly and sneakily – production leaves little room for idleness.
But that wasn’t the kind of darkness she was waiting for. Lawrence had a different kind of stealth in mind. At the time, in 2012, she was head flyman on the annual Ryerson Theatre School (RTS) show Choreographic Works, a series of shows, usually in sets of 20, that span about five minutes long each.
Her responsibilities entailed hanging heavy lights and curtains on flys – pipes that are attached to a pulley system that take the equipment into the ceiling of the stage. She didn’t want to mess it up.
So she waited for nightfall before sneaking into the RTS offices to reference the show notes from the year before and make sure she was on the right track.
Two years later, that attention to detail has paid off for the now fourth-year student. This time, Lawrence is the technical director of Choreographic Works, only a rung or two down the ladder from the top job. She oversees all of the heads of departments including audio, props and even flys, the job she once held.
These days Lawrence doesn’t have to sneak glances at old show notes. She’s writing them.
As the dancers move about the stage to their own set of notes, a small army of production staff work through their own choreography. It’s as orchestrated as the movements of the dancers, but often overlooked by the casual theatregoer. The truth is that behind every production that waltzes its way across the stage at Ryerson Theatre, there is a complex system of lights, sounds and people. And to those people, the real show is behind the curtain.
Rehearsals combine a trifecta of lighting that has been designed, music that has been mixed or recorded and dances that have been choreographed.
One day in late February, a fourth-year dancer is working on her solo. She moves through the motions with practiced ease but that piece would never make it into the show. She dislocated her knee and was sent to the hospital.
For the producer of this year’s Choreographic Works and parttime RTS professor Kenny Pearl, this awful event led to something more heartwarming. “It was just very moving to see the care that she was shown,” Pearl says.
“The next day she came in on her crutches- that was quite moving.” As they say in the business, the show went on. Choreographic Works 2014 opened on March 7 and runs until March 15.
The pre-show set-up process starts two hours before the show begins and in the first ten minutes, Lawrence is asked as many questions.
Her job, in short, is to know where everyone and every piece of equipment is. She manages crew members and any issues that arise – swaths of her time are spent answering questions and even more are spent hustling about the theatre.
“A lot of what I do is just running around,” Lawrence says.
The theatre is a mess of people sweeping and mopping on and off stage, side stage and even the hallway surrounding it. In order to get by the wet floor, all of the crew has to step on top of the mops to clean the bottom of their shoes before continuing to run around.
Lawrence points to a piece of dust on the floor and says it looks like a dreadlock. In addition to all of her other duties, she has been picking dust bunnies out of brooms.
While she’s running around, a soothing male voice is heard over the theatre. “That was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ ladies and gentleman,” Brandon Barraclough says. The second-year head of audio likes to host a fake radio show during the pre-show. “It’s entertaining – at least, some people think it’s entertaining,” he says.
On the side, Barraclough (pronounced “bear clue”) is the front man for a band called The Bear Claws. These days, however, he spends more time mixing music than he does making it. For Choreographic Works he had the task of merging a song by disco pop band The Bee Gees with the ambient experimental band The Knife for the piece “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
In addition to preparing all of the music beforehand, during the show he mans the soundboard, which is located near the back of the rise seating that was custombuilt for the show. “I have a headset on to communicate with everyone backstage so the challenge there is keeping it on, talking to everyone backstage while mixing a show and making sure it sounds good for everyone to listen to,” Barraclough says.
Sitting next to Barraclough and the massive soundboard is the head electrician, third-year Joshua Lueck, with an equally impressive lighting board of his own.
The two chat about “Techy Dance,” an after-show special that happens once a year towards the end of Choreographic Works where the production team members mimic a few of the dances from the show.
“To an extent, it’s like saying yeah, I know we rag on you, but here’s us trying to do what you do and sucking at it,” Lueck says.
Lueck is looking down on the stage where third-year theatre production student and lighting design coordinator Nic Vincent has been sending dust into the air as he rubs lights with the end of his sleeve.
“Can I see the warm lights please?” Vincent calls up to Lueck. Vincent finds a dark spot where the lighting doesn’t hit the stage properly. In less than a minute, Lawrence arranges for someone to be in a harness heading up into the ceiling, or cove, to fix it.
“[RTS] pushes students to their limit,” Vincent says. “It does this on purpose, it tests you. It asks ‘do you really want to do this?’ And that’s absolutely what I paid for, is that confirmation. I want to know if I’m not cut out for this industry.”
The first dance piece in the show – “You Are The Sun” – begins and behind the curtain stage right, Adam Jules surveys a monitor with a live feed of the stage from the audience’s perspective. He watches four dancers move through the lighting setup he designed.
The dark theatre slowly becomes visible. The four dancers sitting on blocks are bathed in blue light. Across the stage from them is a bench with a rose in a vase and photographs facing the performers.
“[The choreographer] told me the basic story of what he was trying to portray in the piece and I just kind of took that and worked with that and created what he wanted,” Jules says. “[They] wanted a sense of either being in a funeral home or a cemetery.”
As one of two stage managers he “calls” the show, which entails making sure he’s communicating through the headsets. It’s all about making sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there.
He speaks with a no-nonsense tone. Jules works as a lighting designer professionally outside of the school as well. A Choreographic Works veteran, he’s worked the lighting for the show for three years through a myriad of junior positions.
To him, Choreographic Works is truly a collaboration of lights, sound and movement. The narrative of the piece is just as important as the audio for it, which he listens to while creating his designs.
“It’s one of the most diverse shows we put on at Ryerson,” he says. Once the show begins, Lawrence is not present backstage. Instead she watches from the confines of the production office on a grainy monitor. Minutes before leaving the stage, she runs through a last minute contingency plan to make sure the crew is prepared if an audience member faints. It’s part of her job to make sure they’re ready for anything.
But then Lawrence is in the production office – a narrow jumble of lights, tables and supplies – and it’s out of her hands. In a fitting finale to her role, she must put her trust in the people she has invested so much time in preparing, just as a technical director once did for her.
While the show runs through its motions, the crew and dancers move through their separate choreography.
Lawrence watches it all. “It drives you so much,” she says. “[This crew] is learning from me and I’m learning from them.”