The Story Behind the Theatre; Offstage and Backstage Personnel
If. You are from New York City the theater capital of the world Riverside radio WRVA are brings you the story behind the theater. We're back stage today at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City in about 40 minutes the curtain will go up on the 200 first performance of porter and most of the audience engrossed or not by what they see on the stage will be completely unaware of the cast behind the actors they're watching. The stage manager as props man costume fitters and electricians the indispensable the unseen members of the production staff. Now Lyle Dai Jr. takes the WRVO microphone backstage behind the
actors on the set to talk to the craftsman in the minutes before the lights dim in this performance at the Phoenix Theatre in New York. I don't think any show on or off Broadway could be more typically backstage than is oh Dad Poor Dad which is apt. Running at the Phoenix. The real core of any theatrical production of course is an officially handled backstage area simply because the magic time won't happen on stage at 8:40 every night if there's not a very skilled and equally dedicated crew working backstage to create the illusions that an audience sees and probably is always unaware of and takes for granted. But it's not quite as easy as it may seem from out front too. For instance make moonlight come streaming through a window on cue or to smoothly inefficiently shift from one set to another in a matter of seconds as they do right here at the old Dad Poor Dad. However despite the fact that backstage personnel are usually the unsung heroes of the theater to audiences they're highly valued Of course by any good director and producer and frequently can command better
salaries than actors by becoming expert in any one of many backstage areas down color and stage manager here what are the general backstage departments that work on your let's say the production stage manager the various crews. Well you'll find the prop department scenery Department wardrobe department and electrician. How Related Are any of these various departments in other words. How many people are involved when the production stage manager gives a light cue. Just go through a chain of command. Nordan basically not you if you have too many people between you and the actual result you you can have too many legs. Basically it's to one person straight from the stage manager to one person. What can the light and sound people see the stage. These people can't. Like people can't run out that the lights are out front and the lights are out on therefore they're looking down at the stage
therefore they see. But sometimes they can't because well here we have a great deal of FX all over the place so it's a stage manager that must see and therefore if he notices something it's not. Right he immediately will tell them something. Such and such a light is not in focus or to take something out where you say he tells them but specifically how do you communicate when silence backstage is so important in other words you can't you can't yell across the stage what kind of an intercom system as well as simply ear phones. Eyes stage when you have your phone microphone which I talk through which is in direct contact with the person on the boards the light portions. As far and anything on I simply talk to them so only they and I can hear each other but it's not blaring across from me but these are all verbal You don't do anything really series are like switching on or off. We do one song that's simply done by lights on off a light goes on as a warning.
When it comes time for the cue of course of life and that's where what about the actors how much today hear this and how can you communicate with them on the intercom system goes to the dressing room too. Is that it uses and there's a buzzer system to the actors so they know when they should be on series of buzzers. Basically the best crew the best stage manager. Is always there but never obviously there to the actors. For. An actor should never really be. Our way or in a sense of awareness that he is there like on top of him but he will know that it is always there and you have three union men that are professional process where not yours. Electrician stage and you know there is one of them right here was the one carpenter. The stats are basically his responsibility and he was wrong to suck up to him to keep working on. Right. Well Ben for instance does he does he ever have are the stage manager
I have to take an early call just for a technical rehearsal. You find after a show running for a while you get sloppy they don't have to do this. You don't have to. Do is a production stage manager will have notes to give to them and they in turn will come a time before the show the following day to fix them up. Nothing once you have the show set. You won't find many major things going on except in an emergency some time and the other is Mr. Brady's carpenter there that comes in early every night to check the show to check anything special in it to see that nothing's falling apart for example. Maybe some drapes the night before coming on cue right because someone or something happened. The lines mean following up so we don't get a break and warmth comes and fixes it and it's done by using the time to show how frequently do backstage emergencies come out in other words like oh.
Prop breaking before the curtain goes up or something not working properly on stage during a performance. You can go for four weeks seemingly weeks with nothing happening and you have a series of scenes from the long. Basically it's very infrequent and with just our costume mistress or just anyone just want to see if we can get this. One. It's funny you were in charge of wardrobe here. So what does this mean to you every night is a pretty much a routine or do you find there's always something new word or something coming out always something new. Very interesting so that you get here early every night to take care of anything that that might happen. But does it ever get more or more exciting than let's say a snap missing or breaking breaking news the worst that's never been or what about to come now that you just said you passed your what 200 performers and customs begin to wear out.
They remainders it up to you to just keep costumes. Well you know I have made a ton of costumes for one of the understudies. But do you find I suppose now that there's a good deal of repair work that has to go. Oh yes every night so that you and then you're here straight through the show already. Once the show gets up you don't leave because if there's a person on a Stick it will sit in the middle of the show. I'm sure we know when they're in the drawing room. JULIE. Peter Peter Peter Jones you know as well as a nightly job you come in every night to do gel changes. One of us is. Another of the same joke. There are a few alternates of the two drills which take approximately three seconds to change. Its meaning to the everyday and this is what you have to do every night he was around. WHAT ABOUT TO DO you come in early to check out
lights for instance a child before shows up or do you just wait till curtain and assume they're all gone. I don't mind coming early but this is your job. No it's not the electrician's assistant. You're going to Jenny who comes in before the show checks her lights. Or spotlight turns on the air conditioner's falls down again what are some of the. Special effects. In the show as far as to come see. Me. On the stage this is not a revolving stage or is it. But you do have what the tracks that were brain where you have one that's a very fast Scene shift. And yes we have a scene ship which changes from supposedly a living room into a bedroom right. Well how is this achieved in what a matter of seconds if it's not a revolving stage is why things simply slide out on tracks. You have tracks you have. Flies what we call flies. Things are
flown. Now this means going out into the area into a fly area out of sight of the audience not going to stay on the stage or coming back in. Well I have stage you have a series of like using sound cues which I set up before the scene is to take place and once it takes place it simply my throwing cue. What happens is a couple rows in a bed in a closet comes out in a few drapes fall on top of that and we hope nothing connects in each other because it can be connected while one time it did happen. What happened something got stuck. Yes something did get stuck one of the when the drapes came down and then the line broke and so there it hung. So we had a problem how we were going to get it back out so that when it came time to go back into the living room that there would be no draperies. Mr. Brady immediately we got a hold of him. And he slung a
wire or rather a line from the bottom of the drape which was hanging loose. This is while the show was going to be going on in the dark and with a little flashlight and so forth he was swinging a rope. In the bottom of the drape. Over a light boom and when the time came sort of he had a makeshift sling away one. Another is just the way the the magic time. TIME What is all this we see here for instance. Strangway I'm the backdrop series of lines and wires and line wires are set up we call them our Christmas tree lights. I one pointed a nice big scene in the show. And on cue when Adam rose petal comes in waltzing in the lights. Everything is decorated up and they blink on the afternoon Well I say Well again back to these special effects how do for instance these great flowers grow. How does the the corpse fall out of the closet on cue the courts must be human corpses.
Well it's all by magic. Now explain the magic the magic is simply again cubes you hold your whole business in theaters. Q Thank you's don't make them work out of the flowers grow. Well we have a man on the ropes Let's go over there and maybe by looking at them I can play better. There were a series of ropes which the plant itself is tied to and at a beginning of the show is hooked to the floor. Then during the show the ropes draw attention to the Fly Traps themselves. Later they make them look like they are alive these day are a combination of crew and actors themselves who put these fly traps on their hands and stick them through the grating. And the wall and everything is moving very fast and furiously. And again on cue as one of the actors Jonathan by name. Attacks them with an axe he finds on the wall why they die. And
this is simply done by. Putting tension on ropes which causes a pin to straighten itself out which has been before and they fall so that the Jonathan isn't actually doing anything to them at all with his axe when he's hacking at them. Sometimes he doesn't even know why what how are they attacks from the top and why can't the audience see this as the top of them out of sight out of sight. Plus which they're strong on it looks like with thin wire painted black right. Well now let's let's get on to the corpse which I found most interesting this comes out of a closet right. He takes his own Q Has he is a human corpse and of course right. He takes his own pews. And the light comes simultaneously when he hears a sound coming. He immediately. Opens the door. Takes what we call a beat or two beats and falls and there he is there he is all he does in the show this carton so he doubles up as one of the bill boys.
And everybody sort of helps one another throughout the show. Well what else besides just been talking about it is unusual about oh dad scenically there's been so much talk about it is being such an elaborate production with so many difficult effects including the fish. Well the fish which has a combination of the sound you have the fish speaking like practically like a human being he gurgles circles of course and of course he's good at it what else would a silver prana fish do. This is done again by one of the bell boys. And so for now. We have I mean the cheesy actors coming in you know this is more the crew. How good Mark are through and through. What happened to our prop but I know he's around you're working right now fixing something no. Person just came in now is the U.S. who is running the sound of Lucy. Do you have a couple of minutes. You're the sound girl right.
And as far as this is a complicated show sound wise is everything from fish gurgling to dying and every one of your cues for sound come directly from where the stage manager because you can't see the thing so so that your cues here are on tape. But they're a combination of several tapes and live microphone. So you do like what. I want to fish. Can I tell him about the traps and one of the traps in a battle royale. Yeah that's all that is done on my back here. Yes. And what are you doing to make the Venus Fly Traps sound like they're what I'm using about six and they're doing when they are making like Venus Fly Traps. Then what do you have on tape for instance as well bongo drums and drums
and drums among some drums. How many cues do you have during the show. I'd say about a hundred. That many. Well this is a heavy show for sure. There's about 10 minutes in the entire show which I'm not working. When you say you can't see the stage can you see the stage managers are all there is they accused him of sight and visual cues by the lights. Right so if you think you know it looks like I'm plugged into a jukebox as your as your tape ever broken your machine has happened both has had on successive nights and then you just turn on the mike and you're the Phantom Of The Opera. Well yeah. And this is what is known as let's mend tapes like crazy boys because you can really hear Marlon Davis who's going to fix up some champagne. So I thought maybe you might catch him before if it's a good idea this is props the champagne. Well what what does he mean fix up champagne What are you going to do. First I have to try to wrap champagne bottle something I don't believe I've ever seen a champagne bottle wrapped.
You mean in the serving club. Yes right. And when that's done. Then I use club soda and food coloring and make pink champagne. Well do the corks have to pop on stage. Yes it does and how do you make them pop. Merely by shaking the champagne once and that'll do it. This will create enough pressure for it to pop. Then what do you have anything specifically to do while the show is running or can you get everything down and be preset before the show goes up. Well I have to do to break away glasses which are regular champagne glasses which I have to soften to. Embrace that as a break and glue together again. Every night this was a preset problem. That's right and what about the breakaway furniture is this up to you. Yes I said a sofa a chair and a table. Before the show. And these collapse then when they are at they have to given tests and the first scene is right and then during the
show are you running props are you pretty well finished by the time it's I'm on ropes for the main part during the show. Now this is me lowering the screen between scene changes. And. Helping to get the bet on a scene change. Do you have anything to do with these magically growing flowers we've just been talking about. You don't have to worry about those. But you're involved in the fast scene change so that not only props but sets you're also working That's right. Well thank you very much and good luck with the champagne. Thank you. What is it again in the long run I keep getting back to just what it is we talked about one emergency that you had was this the worst crisis Have you ever had to hold curtain or sometimes you hold a curtain for example. One day we sort of misplaced a chair which was quite important. And sort of a nice little curtain coming up on cue and we finally found the chair. Of course I couldn't take the curtain until the chair was on. What what
happened to it. Well it just sort of. Vanished like many things. But we found it. Well that's the worst that's happened so far. I don't think anything is bad you find after you run the show. Tom stone was a production stage manager would tell you sometimes he says he gets a feeling he's knows something going wrong go wrong. He can't explain why but he says something tells him tonight something is going to go wrong. And so usually it does not and it doesn't have to be a big thing but it does. And so you sort of are aware and you can you can handle it. Well unlike an on stage performance pattern that actors can hit an approximate pretty much the same performance every night. They're seldom this kind of pattern hit off stages or because of the uncertainty of a line getting fouled or a chair all of a sudden vanishing. Do you feel it a routine is hit backstage. Yes I think that you will find it the same way with actors as they go through a
performance. But it does become in the respect a certain respect a routine because it must be the same certain a person has to be in the same spot every night the same way. Same way as a back stage a person has to be in a certain spot. Q We have three scene changes basically. And everybody has a certain thing to do if one person didn't do it then it would not go through. But the minute you're lulled into a routine This is undoubtedly the minute something is going to go wrong. Exactly that's what I think has happened everything you had a low point. Every so often and you simply have to. Build yourself back up again. Right exactly. But the actors are covered in every area of the stage in other words is there someone stage right stage left back stage down stage or are they simply left on their own as far as getting up here on time getting on stage on time.
Well we have and we have some stage managers who. Play assistant stage managers who are acting in the capacity as billable in fact is one standing right over there and I wish I could get him over on this here thing. Well aside from being on stage stand what what else do you do as far as assisting Don or the production stage manager during the show making sure that all the kids in the cast get their cue in time there on stage on time or are they ready to make his own time. Which means running down to the dressing room and warning them five or ten minutes before you do give warns for a for X or for entrance to the entrances for each entrance you actually are there to warm as we also have a system bell but we find by doing both. Almost certainly it's a double check. But your onstage part of the time so you can't do that all of the time. Oh yeah when I'm on stage the entire cast is practically the entire cast on stage so we run no danger of having someone lift out.
In other words if you're not warning them for a cue there on stage with you I take them with me you know and you are one of how many assistant stage managers. There are two main stage managers one who goes up phone watches the show every night for notes and corrections one who actually runs the show. And then. Will take care of the sort of discipline backstage in. Borneo. Well just in case telling the actors to keep quiet and to get on stage be so cold boy. We also give them the call a half hour 15 and 5 in places so they can go buy the fries make up. I keep you busy through the show. Thank you. Backstage here what is the the actual physical layout that we came in downstairs on the basement floor with the dressing rooms are we came up to the stage level which we're now on. Then
what is this up behind us here the catwalk that is not very high but is just above the stage and. Backstage presently it's basically the scene in property shop so to speak where the scene the carpenter and the property and then people their tools for repair in case anything happen. Oh I see so the during the day this is where they work right up here behind the stage. You might say that yes and out front our lights back here is sound underneath the balcony which holds a prop and carpentry department is the sound underneath that also stacked up the props that are used during the show. On stage is the set itself hanging above the set the lights and curtains and drops and bubbles whatever you want to call them. And these are all hanging in what what you call the fly area and yes in the fly area out of sight. Right.
We hold Yes out of sight. Let's walk over just on to the stage here you have I notice a series of tracks going on but the stay the Wing room is not that ample where the platforms are come sliding off or on. They are on the side like you say we have a vertical wing were wing. Wing room that's a tongue twister. Wing room to hide them and to keep them out of sight. But we do manage. And what happens simply is that the walls of the living room. Hinged back. Up stage. Which makes it possible for the bed which is on one track on one side of the stage in the closet which is on another track on the other side of the stage. To. Swing to roll in. Once. The flats are free. I suppose the best way to explain it is to see it. That's a good plug but actually in these walls just fold out of the way and the other things come rolling in
on tracks. Not just as easy as that once in a while one will not make it on time or through something will fall up maybe something a little stone or maybe a washer or maybe a piece of dirt got into the track. And the lights will come up and will find out that the bed is a foot away from the closet. So we try to ease them together which has happened once or twice. Well you mentioned not having much wing space but isn't actually the Phoenix here of the seventy fourth Street not the old Phoenix used to be much larger but this one isn't it's still physically a good plant especially for off-Broadway standards. Yes you'd have to say definitely so. When this show came into the theater they had to re re re rig the fly pulleys and ropes etc. and lights. Which light up to show and which hold the curtain and the drapes. And part of the props. This all had to be re rigged. Fortunately for this theater. The ceiling goes something
like 25 feet. Per scene opening is something like 12 feet. This is that this is a fault for Seanie and then that's been brought down almost halfway right so this is what we call our flies. Yes yes right. Tom still in a production stage. Tom how are you. Don's been telling us and we won't keep you long I know you're about 15 minutes before curtain but are you backstage every night is a production stage manager do you spend more time out front checking on the show and bringing notes back. Mostly mostly out front yes about 75 percent of the times. So then you're not actually running the show every evening. You know I can't at the beginning it was important now it's more important for stay out front and you act. Do you take notes bring notes back and these acting notes as well as technical notes. Yes both both. And then who essentially is running the show back here for you then while you're out on this road. So who is the stage manager. Yes and you have two more assistants aside
from yes there are members of the cast they make they do small jobs to make calls like this and then with your other union men the carpenter the electrician who is your third union man. PROP. Prop man Mr. Probert. Right then you're pretty well covered. While you're out front for those back here is there has there ever been a time when you've been out friends something has happened and you've come racing back. Oh yes quite a few times. Well a number of times that changed in the bedroom set doesn't work with the sound doesn't work. Things like that you have to come running back to find out what the matter is what the problem is. And usually by the time you get back your play is going on and that was it. And if it isn't solved you know you're in trouble. Right. Well thank you very much and thank you too I think you're about ready to call 15 minutes so we'll clear out of your way for your what 200 in third performance 200 first tonight. And we're good luck as you go into your two hundreds in the performances.
You very much and thank you for these backstage visits has been talking with members of the production staff of the Phoenix Theatre in New York City. The job of telling the public about a new production begins long before opening night. In our next program Lionel Dyer Jr. managing director of the Equity Library theater introduces you to David Rothenberg and William Tell Stevens they'll describe the techniques of pre-opening publicity and the continuing efforts made as a production endeavors to survive after its premiere. Listen next week when from New York City the theater capital of the world Riverside radio again brings you the story behind the theater. Produced and recorded by Riverside radio WRVO are in cooperation with the Equity Library theater under a grant in aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters. WRVO or is the Metropolitan FM station of the Riverside Church in the city of New York. This is the end of the Radio Network.
- The Story Behind the Theatre
- Offstage and Backstage Personnel
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Series Description
- The Story Behind the Theatre is a twelve part program produced by WRVR Riverside Radio. Each week, Lyle Die Jr. of the Equity Library Theater addresses a specific aspect of theater production and interviews two people working in the New York City theater industry. The series seeks to explain the many factors involved in producing a piece of theater by talking with playwrights, producers, directors, and other industry professionals.
- Media type
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 63-15-8 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “The Story Behind the Theatre; Offstage and Backstage Personnel,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 9, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-g7374v42.
- MLA: “The Story Behind the Theatre; Offstage and Backstage Personnel.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 9, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-g7374v42>.
- APA: The Story Behind the Theatre; Offstage and Backstage Personnel. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-g7374v42