Behind the Creative Curtain
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Written by Sarah Robertson

Photo by Elza Bouhassira

Photo edited by Amelia Milne

In theater, the spotlight is focused on the actors onstage, their tangible performances principally resonant. But there is more to a production than the final product and more to the final product itself than what’s immediately visible. Recently, the Columbia University Players presented their production of “The Great Gatsby,” a play adaptation by Simon Levy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. To better understand the complexity of the entire performance, we moved the spotlight behind the scenes to understand some of the unseen individuals that realize a theatrical production.

Nick Hermesman, CC ’19, Director

“In some ways, staging is there, but it’s also about developing performances. So actors will come in with different levels of experience and different levels of ease in a role—some actors might have a really easy time with a role, and get it right away, and it’s totally in their wheelhouse. Other actors may need a little more discussion and guidance into the role—not based on their ability at all, it’s just the nature of the role, the difficulty of their material. As a director, it’s your responsibility to collaborate with those actors to help develop their performance with something that’s going to fit with the vision of the show and also be something that is going to connect with the audience.”

“I don’t think I will ever do a show that doesn’t have some sort of music in it, but even in things that I direct for class, or do scenes that don’t necessarily have dance in [them], it affects the way I think about movement and interaction of bodies in a space. ... A lot of my ideas of stage pictures, especially when [there are] large groups of people, comes from my dance experience and choreography experience. And there’s things you can learn from everything as a director. ... I’ve learned a lot from visual art, by going to museums, and things like that, even though there’s not necessarily direct relevance, it’s not like I’m including a painting, but there’s still ideas you can distill from things and apply them to any work that you’re doing."

Maya Lin-Bronner, CC ’19, Set Designer

“[The set designer] is someone who makes the space. I mean obviously, you’re going off the director’s vision, and trying to understand exactly what that is, [and] trying to pool visions together. I feel quite powerful because I can build a world... and the space in which the action and the characters inhabit, and within that space, create symbols and things to think about. It’s an illustrator’s role: I’m imbuing the space with meaning. I suppose I could make a set that was a very obvious reproduction of this place [Diana Lower Level 2], or whatever, but I would need a reason for it.”

Madeleine Williams, BC ’20, Producer

“The producer is the person that makes sure everything that needs to be done gets done. So that can include anything from as random as, you know, picking up costumes from downtown, going to Marshall’s to buy a new pair of pants, to managing the budget.”

“I have a really good family friend who does a lot of photography for [theater]: He does the Tony’s and the Drama Desks every year. And so, when I told him I was interested in [producing], he introduced me to Daryl Roth, who is a phenomenal, phenomenal producer. She agreed to meet with me, and I went to her office. ... It was amazing, it was really one of those informational interviews where you get to ask questions, and she was asking me questions, and it really—the work that she does really inspires me, because she is really focused on female-centric work, and is not necessarily going for what’s going to make money, which of course she has freedom to do because she became a producer because she had a lot of money and decided that she wanted to produce theater. So, she’s coming from a specific position of power and privilege that not everyone has. But, the works that she’s done, like Indecent, and right now, [Gloria] at the Daryl Roth Theatre downtown: ... I was really inspired by the work she was doing in an artistic way and how her managerial status also manifests itself in the artistic. ... That’s one of the things that I really like about producing, that it’s not just one side or the other. I found a lot of times going into the more business side of theater, I really missed the artistic aspect, and [thought], ‘I’m so close but so far, … in the room where the work is happening but I can’t really say anything!’ I get to watch it happen, but I don’t really get to influence it—and that’s really satisfying about producing, that you do have some sort of artistic say in the process, which is really fun.”

Stephanie Zhang, BC'21, Assistant Costume Designer

“[Being a costume designer means] thinking about the vibe of the play, or the production, and how you want the aesthetic of the production to come to life, and how you want it to appear visually to the audience.”

“Colors have great symbolic meaning. And I think most of the color scheme that we chose ... was based off the book, and if you read it in English class, you typically get the kinds of colors that are incorporated—like green and gold is money, red is seduction. So Myrtle ... her dress, her wardrobe was basically all red, and that was based on her character. I just really loved how the colors played out in the play.”

Orion Van Oss, CC ’21, Sound Designer

“I think [people] would be surprised to learn how easy [sound design] is, honestly. ... Really, for ‘Great Gatsby,’ all I did was put [files] into a computer program. ... I balanced all the volumes, and set them on the board and everything, but it’s really very easy. It’s clicking and dragging, and then looking up, I want a doorbell—doorbell noise.’ Download it, and you’re good, and, you put it into the program. I think people would be very surprised; I think we would have a lot more sound designers on campus if people knew how easy it was.”

“There’s a lot of microphones. ... That’s something that you just have to get used to. It’s like playing an instrument. On a soundboard, if you have 12 microphones, I only have 10 fingers—like, who’s on stage, who needs to be louder, who’s feeding back. ... You have to program your fingers to know instinctively what sliders you need to push. And your ears need to be working with your fingers—that’s really difficult, and it’s really satisfying when you get it to work out.”

Jordan Gidaly, BC ’21, Lighting Designer

“You get the text, you read it backwards and forwards, and then what I do is figure out what I need—how many cues I need, lights for this scene, then I need a blackout, then I need lights for this dance scene, then basically I have an idea of what kind of cues I need to create. And then, of course, you have to go to rehearsals, and you have to see the blocking, you have to see where the actors are on stage… And then, I have to sit down and figure out, so I have this amount of lights, half of them are here, the other half are here, which is the hardest part, delineating what needs to be used for what. So half of these lights are going to be front lights, which illuminate the actor’s faces, but then the other half need to be side lighting, backlight, which is what illuminates the set more, and kind of creates the mood more, and are less functional and more fun. ... There’s a lot of drafting, then I stand on a ladder, and say point this here, point this here. And then after that’s all said and done, I sit down at the board—or, someone else technically is supposed to sit down at the board—and I program the cues, and I say these lights are on for this scene, then they turn off, and these lights are on for this scene, which is the most fun part, because you get to see it come together, and play with it, and I love doing that. And then you just let it happen. ... I wasn’t even there last night [at opening night] ... because my job is done, technically. The stage manager has my cues ... and that’s it. ... It’s freeing, but also, it’s scary.”

Hannah Rubinstein, BC ’21, Tech Director

“What I understood the role of tech director to be—and I think that what isn’t always appreciated about some of the more behind-the-scenes tech jobs—is how fluid they are, and how much they can change from production to production depending on their needs. ... There are certain things you’re always going to do, but especially with student theater, it’s a very all-hands-on-deck type of situation ... if it needed to get done, somebody needed to do it, like that kind of situation. But a big part of what I saw my job as was touching base with [Glicker-Milstein Theatre coordinator Jess Malcolm] ... to make sure the things we wanted to do in the theater would be possible in the theater, and touching base with all of the designers.”

Devin Hammond, BC ’20, Producer

“I’ve been very interested in the way that women and even nonbinary identities and a lot of different identities have contributed to theater, but they’ve been kind of erased. ... When you think about art, or theater, [when thinking about] a lot of head producers, you would think of a man. ... I was considering that a lot, about how people can’t name a lot of female filmmakers, or even female theater directors, or anything like that ... I just think I started really realizing that once I got here, and I realized that the scope of my capabilities could be so much more than just acting. ... I think I was just growing more inspired by women I saw in film, and theater, and even in media who were kind of just trying to take on boss roles. ... I guess I was just thinking: why limit myself, why not try it all when you can. ... It was kind of this desire to make something out of the context of ‘Oh, I’m just an actor’ and wear another hat, in a sense, and show that you can be multifaceted and [how] women can be multifaceted in other roles, instead of just onstage or in front of the camera.”