Behind the scenes: Lee production company transforms skating rink into concert venue
When the wind picks up on a summer's day, William "Bill" Beautyman can be found at the helm of a sailboat off the coast of Maine. When he's back in the Berkshires, however, Beautyman helms Limelight Productions, the theater and film lighting equipment rental company in Lee he founded four decades ago in 1972.
Over the years, Limelight has illuminated plays, films and events near and far, from the Pope's visit to Philadelphia to Harvard's "Hasty Pudding" shows in Cambridge and Bermuda. The company's longest running production, for over three decades, has been transforming Berkshire School's ice hockey rink in Sheffield into a concert hall for Berkshire Choral International (BCI).
When the three-week BCI "choral camp for grownups" began in 1982, it performed in a quonset hut-style rink with sides opened to the elements.
"We started with nine dimmers and 18 lights on poles beside the stage," said Beautyman by phone from Maine. "We used only half the space. As the festival grew, the backstage curtain kept going further back and more seats were added until it reached capacity."
To light the additional risers, two 63-foot light poles suspended by aircraft cable from wooden beams became three and then four.
Limelight was and remains the Berkshires' only lighting rental shop.
"I'm not sure anybody else would be so foolish as I was to have started this," quipped Beautyman, "It's very capital and time intensive."
In the early 70s, while teaching at Berkshire Community College, "some folks came to the area wanting to do a movie about Norman Rockwell," he said. "They talked to me, and I decided I would buy the gear they needed to light the film." He even put plywood on his Triumph TR6 sports car to make a camera car for moving shots. The documentary short, "Norman Rockwell's World ... An American Dream" won an Academy Award.
After 5 years, Beautyman left BCC to run his business full time. Like the festival, it grew to include rigging installation, building stage curtains, and providing equipment for films including one recently directed by Berkshire resident Karen Allen.
In 2008, Berkshire School spent $30 million on a dual hockey rink complex. In a full-sized rink, Limelight installed steel I-beams with chain motors capable of lifting four 75-foot lighting trusses loaded with 130 light fixtures and half a mile of six-circuit multicable.
"Our truck is 22 feet long, and we have three full truckloads to get everything there," said rentals manager Jean Kalin. "The lights are hung 21 feet off the ground, and we get a boom lift that can go 60 feet, as all the 'pick points' we connect the chain motors to are at the top of the ceiling, which is pretty dang high," — and not for the faint-hearted, she cautions.
To soften the sound in the cavernous space, Limelight hangs velour curtains and places acoustical padding underneath and around the stage, and a landscape of 21 hinged 8 x 16 foot high acoustical panels behind the choristers.
The whole set up takes seven and a half days, "much quicker than in years' past," Kalin said.
"It definitely helps to have a crew that knows what the finished product looks like and the steps to get to it," said Beautyman. "Once you're efficient you can be fast without compromising safety."
It takes four days to tear it all down and load out — with a little help from the festival staff.
"It's kind of a fun thing," said BCI president Debi Kennedy. "About 8:30 a.m. on the morning after the last concert, all of the faculty, staff and apprentices go down and stack the chairs and music stands, roll up the electrical cord, pull up carpets, pull down drapes, all the easy stuff that just takes a lot of manpower. There's probably 30 of us, and we work for about an hour and a half, and have a great big brunch at the end."
Next year's festival will be bittersweet: it is the final year in Sheffield for BCI, which in the future will expand its touring schedule of holding camps in venues around the world, from Salzburg to Santa Fe. Still, the Berkshires remains "our roots and our legacy," said Kennedy.
With Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8 on the 2017 schedule, with "all the orchestra players, eight soloists, a children's choir and all the people that are going to want to do it," she cautions, "we're probably going to build out the stage a little bit."
As always, Limelight will be up for the challenge.
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