Whether you are a first-time theatergoer or a seasoned veteran of a Broadway audience, the moment the curtain is raised, a sudden possibility hangs suspended in the air, a shocking immediacy that accompanies the action on stage. Theater persists due to the sanctity of the space and the electric charge of live performance, so in vogue that live performances are still being broadcast on TV and in movie theaters. There is no other art form so inextricably in the present, alive, vital, and quick to draw the viewer into another reality.
As millions flock to New York this holiday season to buy tickets to see the best of the best on Broadway, they’ll expect the theater to cast a spell, with seemingly effortless apparitions of worlds both real and imagined: the emerald cast of Oz, a French opera house and the Phantom’s lair, and the hardscrabble Chicago of Walter and Ruth Younger.
Caught up in the magic of the moment, audience members rarely pay mind to the chaos at work behind the curtain, a frenetic choreography of complex machinery and human originality behind, beneath, and within the action on stage.
I’m usually that audience member who wanders into the world of the playwright with no regard for the physical reality of the stage. So, when I took a tour this week with deck automation technician Brant Underwood behind the scenes of Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of “Macbeth,” I was surprised to discover a similar sense of excitement: It was as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole and entered a world as fantastic as any depicted on stage.
“Everything that moves ‘magically’ is really a complex system of motors and hydraulics and motion controls and that all works in conjunction to make those things move, magically to the audience, but it’s all mechanics backstage,” Underwood said as we stood on the empty stage just hours before an evening show.
Underwood’s fascination with mechanics behind stage effects began when he was young, when family trips to the theater produced more than the typical entertainment. It sparked a desire to understand the moving pieces behind the magic.
“I was always looking around, sort of like, ‘How did they do that?’ It was just my curiosity that got me intrigued,” he said. After spending some years working as a car mechanic and house carpenter, he interned at the New York State Theater Institute and began building sets.
“That’s when I realized it was something that was always going to be different ... No two shows are ever alike so there’s such a huge variety, variation in this industry that it just totally piqued my interest,” Underwood said. He went on to earn a BFA in theatrical production arts at Ithaca College and now works as an automation technician at Lincoln Center Theater and as an engineer at Hudson Scenic Studio, a theatrical technical design studio that provides technical equipment and scenery for many Broadway shows.
Underwood says that the process within the shop is complex, as he works with the artistic directors to make their vision into a physical reality.
“This one, the concept is that it’s Macbeth’s nightmare,” he said. “They decided they’re going to make this nightmare world and that’s why this whole show, everything’s black, and dark, and stark lighting, and things of that nature. Once they come up with that concept, everyone works towards that idea.”
Drawings are then sent to a shop like Hudson Scenic where they are made into real set pieces that can be broken apart, transported, and reassembled at the theater.
After transitioning from shop to stage, the delivered scenery often has to be corrected on site.
“There’s nightmare stories where we’re here until 2 o’clock in the morning having to cut something up, trying to slap it back together,” he said. “That’s part of the deal. You have to figure it out. You have to modify whatever you get to fit the needs of what you have to do.”
After technical rehearsal, the role of everyone backstage is to program, monitor, and test the effects and scenery before each show. All effects are timed: Each night, precise cues are triggered within half a second of when they happened the night prior.
Technicians have to reconcile the programmed effects with possible mistakes or inconsistencies.
“Some things are timed because they need to be exactly the same,” Underwood said. “I try to avoid that a little bit because it just leaves a little bit too much up in the air. I like to have a little bit more control. If something happens and that sequence needs to be slower than it was last night—someone tripped, or whatever, they drop a line, they freeze for a second—you don’t want that stuff then to happen. You want to wait the extra second.”
Underwood operates at his computer desk, a futuristic conglomeration of buttons, switches, and wires that he controls from the edge of the stage. From there, he is able to press the buttons that begin a certain sequence of pre-programmed instructions, transmitted through a Variable Frequency Drive. The VFD translates the instructions into bolts of energy that link to various motion-control motor systems or a gigantic hydraulic pump unit in the theater’s basement, which feeds into a system of valves that can power lifts supporting up to 10,000 pounds. In the “Macbeth” production, hydraulic pressure is used to kick-start two scissor lifts directly below the stage. This lifts up the enormous banquet table in a matter of moments.
In addition to working with the directors and designers, the automation technicians and anyone working on the stage team must constantly be aware of the actors throughout the performance.
“I have six monitors that are all infrared shots of the stage so that even when all the lights are off, I can still see everything that is going on,” Underwood said. “There’s a lot of safety switches that help mitigate the problems that come in to play with what is essentially just programmed machinery, which doesn’t really realize if someone is in the way. There’s a lot of systems that double-check and keep everything from being problematic.”
A dream job? Possibly. But like the jobs of their counterparts on stage, technicians pay for the apparent glamor with a grueling lifestyle.
“It’s pretty fun,” Underwood said. “On the other hand, when we’re figuring out all of this stuff out during the tech process, we’re here, we did 28 days straight without a day off, we did a total of 34 days with only one day off. We logged as many as 90-plus hours in a week, and that’s not uncommon at all.”
For Adam Smolenski, the deck sound technician on “Macbeth,” the variety of the theater industry is appealing, despite the especially challenging schedule during the busy holiday season on Broadway.
“The thing I love best about my work is building shows,” Smolenski said in an email. “It’s fun to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle need to go together to make everything work. It’s hard not to enjoy playing with million dollar sound systems on some shows.”
Closer to home, Brenna St. George Jones, the director of production at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, also finds the assembly of various elements the most fascinating aspect of backstage and production jobs.
“I think you only go into this sort of job if you like organized chaos,” St. George Jones said. “I like all of the moving pieces and putting all of it together. It always feels a little like performing.”
“The hardest part is trying to make sure that everything stays in the air and not taking it so seriously that you forget that it’s kind of supposed to be fun,” she added, citing the difficulty in communicating with so many different people.
St. George Jones says that the knowledge she’s gained of backstage processes only enhances her appreciation of theater from the audience.
“There are certain things I find fantastic because I’m aware of how complex it is to do something that is so simple,” she said.
Maybe it was some part of the sorcery of “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, that lingered in the black curtains and stage-side shadows. But as I looked back while leaving the theater, I felt that in the hush between performances, the machines and mechanics took on a power and life of their own. The endless routes, electrical signals, manual switches, and blinking lights all rose to form a sprawling, intricate choreography, a seamless process of production that fabricates the vast depths of the human imagination.