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A Closer Look Behind the Curtain of Robsham Theater

The lights dim. The audience quiets, settling in for the evening’s performance. The stage is empty, except for a table and a few chairs. A backdrop depicts a glimpse of the landscape. Lights are brought up, illuminating the scene. Performers appear from behind the curtains that are draped on the edges of the stage. They obscure the tables of props and racks of costumes, rows of lights and painted scenery hanging high in the rafters. These are all that keeps the audience from seeing the sets being built in preparation for the next show—just a thin layer of cloth shield the audience from the explicit knowledge that the events on stage aren’t truly real.

Of course, everyone knows it’s just a play. But the curtains alone are what blur the edges between reality and fiction.

It’s easy for a Boston College student to decide what production to see at Robsham Theater on any given night—just choose between a Bonn Studio show or a production on the main stage.

For the theatre department, the choice of what plays to pick isn’t so easy. Each spring, the department’s faculty decides on the six shows that will run during the following academic year. Two of those six are suggested by students and pitched to a committee for a performance in the Bonn. The shows the department decides on must be carefully chosen, as there is often a theme for the season. This year, Russell Swift, the production manager and technical director of the department, said the theme focused on gender roles and diversity. All of the shows come to an important question:“What are your important relationships and how do you form those?”

The directors are chosen, students audition, and the department decides if it needs to hire out any freelance designers or artists. Then, the work can begin. The actors, director, and stage managers are usually thought of putting on a show, but the people doing the brunt of the work are often overlooked. There are many hours spent creating everything in the production that isn’t the actors or the script. This process usually takes about four weeks to finish the entire build.

“We build it, we paint it, and we put it into the space,” Swift said.

All of this happens before the technical rehearsal—a period of practice for the cast leading up to opening night—can happen.

Building the show is much easier said than done. The director, scenic designer, stage manager, and technical director must all figure out how the play will appear. That includes scenery, props, lights, costumes, sound, and everything else the audience experiences outside of the actors themselves.

The most readily apparent part of a production that must be made behind the scenes is the scenery. The scenery sets the play in time and space, and every piece of scenery must be painted. These painted pieces allow for a deeper level of engagement, both for the actors and the crowd.

“Scenic painting defines a space for the actors, creates a visual world for the audience, and brings the construction of the designer’s idea into a finished product,” Liz Goble, scenic artist at BC, said in an email. “Without paint, the set is incomplete.”

The designer can decide on a certain color for a piece of scenery, but it is up to the scenic artist to create this in real life. While mixing paint samples for the designer, Goble must carefully keep track of the ratios and colors of each sample. Without this preparation, she will be unable to make a larger amount of the color the designer chooses.

“They don’t need to know how I did something, but I do,” Goble said.

Though the scenery and stage are set, the actors remain cloaked in shadow. They have nothing to wear, and no props to use.They cannot do anything that involves more than their body. That’s where Larry Vigus, BC’s props master, steps in.

“My personal philosophy about props is that they are there to help the audience,” Vigus said. “But they’re really there for the actor.”

Props give the actors something to hang on to when they act. The audience can’t see any small details on the main stage, but the actor will. The more the actor can attribute to an object, the more meaningful their use of said object will be. Vigus showed this example by using a simple pencil. At first glance, a pencil is merely a writing utensil. But with the actor, it can be so much more. It can be a love letter to a partner, which sets the stage for an entire relationship. Vigus believes one prop can set the stage for an entire character.

“It’s just a pencil,” Vigus said, “but when you imbue with a fully blown-out story, it becomes more.”

Finding just the right object is often the most challenging aspect of the props process of a production, according to Vigus. For example, the director wants one character to stab the other with scissors. The prop master can’t just get a scissors—he or she must figure out how they scissors will look before and after the actor uses it. That prop then determines how the actor will stab their opponent, and the prop master must make sure it is done safely, too.  

In such an example, Vigus described the process by which he solved this problem. He made four pairs of scissors. The first was a normal pair of scissors, used to cut paper in the previous scene. The second was a pair of scissors that had been taped shut and painted to look real. This way the characters could fight while holding the scissors safely. The third pair of scissors was shortened to the handle and a small part of the blade, and a piece of cloth with a strong magnet was attached. The last pair was a backup. When the character gets stabbed, the third pair attaches to a magnet hidden in his costume, and the fabric attached to the scissors conceals the place of joining. Problem solved.

Anything that allows the actor to more easily get into character, and to make the experience more believable for the audience is certainly necessary for the play. Costumes are an obvious, but sometimes underappreciated aspect of this transformation from actor to character. But according to Quinn Burgess, costume shop supervisor, they as equally help express the character.

“For the audience, the costumes help set the mood for the production,” Burgess said in an email.

The visuals of the play are now complete. But the stage remains dark—there are no lights. The audience is unable to see any of the beautiful scenery, the detailed props, and the intricate costumes. The lighting designer must create a light plot—a diagram that shows where the lights will be hung, where they will point, and where they will be plugged into the circuitry.

“My job is to get what the lighting designer wants,” said Andrew Andrews, BC theatre’s master electrician. “I get everything up in the air, and make it safe, and make it functional in an organized fashion.”

Safety is paramount in a production. From the very start, the faculty chooses and approves plays that are compatible with the levels of the students involved. The set must be built so that it does not break or fall when the actors use it, and the props must be made in a way that, even in the case of an accident, the actors do not hurt themselves or each other. Additionally, the lights must be hung so that they do not fall onto the stage, as well as circuited in such a way that there are no electrical hazards created.

Once all of this preparation has been completed, comprising hundreds of hours of labor by the faculty, as well as the students, a play can run in Robsham. The curtains can open, allowing the actors to transport the audience to another time and place for a brief period of time. But even the best acting cannot stand alone.

The play needs scenery, props, lighting, and everything else to make the events on stage believable and entertaining. The audience needs all of these things, but the actors rely on them even more. Every small detail makes the transition from reality to fantasy easier for the crowd and for the cast. Soliloquies are delivered, songs sung, tragedies and comedies alike take place in the theater. From the back of the auditorium, these talented staff watch with pride as their creations come to life on the stage.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

February 22, 2017