Every second counts ...

Changeovers at Williamstown Theatre Festival are theatrical construction sites

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WILLIAMSTOWN — "Safe aggression!" Alex McNamara commanded as a crew took down a wall from "The Closet" set on Saturday night.

The play's final show had finished less than two hours earlier, but the associate technical director of Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage had a sense of urgency about her: "Lempicka," a new musical inspired by the late Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, was set to begin performances on the same stage in less than a week.

The religious supplies shop that served as the setting for "The Closet" needed to be entirely dismantled before the sets for "Lempicka," with their different flooring, massive Eiffel Tower rendering and pool (yes, an actual pool), could be built. Over the course of a week, hundreds of workers would essentially fashion the show's home from nothing, a changeover that every one of the festival's plays requires. According to Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield, starting from scratch so often is uncommon, and doing so during the festival's condensed time frames between shows (perhaps 10 percent of the hours for any similarly sized theater, she estimated) makes it an unprecedented endeavor.


"We do something that no one else does," she said on Wednesday.

The process begins with what director of production Dylan Luke calls a "choreographed demolition." Mere minutes after the curtain closes on a play, a crew, largely composed of college students and recent graduates, starts attacking a set. With drills, hard hats and beeping vehicles, the scene onstage Saturday night most readily evoked a construction site, but the constant flurry of activity among this athletic, youthful bunch also conjured some futuristic CrossFit outgrowth. Various combinations of workers would mill about for the next 48 hours.

"You have to be proactive," McNamara said on Wednesday of her "safe aggression" remark, stressing that workers need to anticipate others' movements to avoid injuries.

The disassembly starts with "the valuables," according to Luke. The myriad items lining shelves at "The Good Shepherd" supplies shop were snagged early on. Wall props, such as a cross and a depiction of "The Last Supper," came later. Finally, the back walls came down. McNamara both watched and participated in various feats of strength, precision and effort. Passivity wasn't tolerated; when a group was idle during a wall removal, she ordered, "Everybody needs to work on getting that out of here."

"I'm a very big disciplinarian. If they yawn on my stage, they have to do 10 jumping jacks," McNamara, a Yale School of Drama student, who is working her fifth season at the festival, said later.

McNamara, Luke (sixth season), and Main Stage technical director Jen Seleznow (third season) were among the production leaders who guided the young crew throughout the multi-day process.

"We do often describe it as a teaching hospital," Seleznow said on Wednesday.

The stakes are high; a floor placed incorrectly can cost nine or 10 hours, "a true tragedy," Luke said. Yet, sets' impact can be lasting. Luke described "The Visit," a musical at the 2014 festival, as "one of the most beautiful sets we ever built."

"We still advertise it as one of our crowning achievements," he said.

By Sunday afternoon, the inklings of the festival's latest musical had emerged. Two rows of seats had been removed to extend the stage to its typical length. Long black tables for the stage management, scenic design and costume design departments had been set up across different rows of seats. ("Direction" would later be added.) Most compellingly, a 14-foot-long rectangular patch of center-stage was missing. The space would eventually hold a six-foot deep pool.

Workers lingered near the dark gap until one of the many hooked chains hanging above them began falling. Shouts ensued as people scampered to the stage's edges in a fashion that resembled well-choreographed modern dance. They watched as a pile of chain formed stage-right. The motor holding it had malfunctioned.

"I want to pause work," Seleznow said to the unharmed crew.

Luke and others studied the chain like an intruder.

"That was a failure of equipment in a very abrupt manner," Luke said afterward.

After investigating the problem and determining its cause, the crew returned. By Monday, another two rectangular patches of floor were missing — cut-outs for the orchestra. A piece of the Eiffel Tower at the back of the stage was erected that night. By Wednesday, the white flooring was done (workers wore white booties to protect it), the lighting was being tested and various set pieces — a movable bar featuring four empty wine bottles and shot glasses, a spartan bed, large-scale hammer-and-sickle symbols — conveyed tantalizing bits about the play. The stage was often bare, but that doesn't mean it was an easy build.

"You can hide a lot of things" on a busy set, Seleznow said, whereas minimalist designs require "perfection on a grand scale."

Greenfield agrees.

"Simple is the hardest to achieve," she said alongside Luke and Seleznow before the production leaders returned to their posts on Wednesday night. There was still work to be completed over the next day and, as McNamara had said earlier than night, "Every second counts."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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