The curtain rises on a production of “Mamma Mia” to a packed house at the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts. Three hours later, the three-song finale of “Mamma Mia!,” “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” has even the most staid patrons standing and singing along to the music of ABBA, silly grins plastered on their faces.
It was a production befitting the 20th anniversary of the Brooks Center. The acting was superb, the music almost magical. And the technical support for the production came off without a hitch. So much so, that it was an invisible part of the production. Just like it’s meant to be.
But that’s where you find, as Paul Harvey used to say, the “rest of the story.”
Putting it together
Clemson was the first stop on a series of one- and two-night shows for the cast and crew, led by executive producer Stephen Gabriel of Work Light Productions. But they didn’t just come to Clemson for the production itself. They spent the previous ten days “teching” the show — putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, as Gabriel says. It’s the time to make sure the light, sound and scenic details get ironed out and to figure out how the set will break down and set up in the cities they’ll travel to during their 10-month national tour.
This is Gabriel’s seventh time to bring a production to Clemson. The relationship began eight years ago when he met Mickey Harder, director of the Brooks Center, in New York at a meeting of the Association of Arts Presenters. Harder was on the hunt for theatrical bookings; Gabriel was looking for a venue to tech a family musical.
Gabriel offered a challenge: Could Harder provide eight of Clemson’s very best students to work with them from 8 a.m. until midnight for 10 days, free use of the theatre and lodging at a local motel for the crew in exchange for two productions at the Brooks Center?
Harder’s response? “We can do it.”
She laughs, thinking back. “I had no more idea if we could do it or not. Have you had those moments in your life when you knew that this is not going to come again? I knew this was a golden opportunity for what we are trying to do at Clemson, so I decided — I’m going to tell him ‘yes.’ And then I’m going to go back and tell these kids they’re going to have to work their buns off.”
That year, and six times since, Gabriel has “teched” his productions at the Brooks Center. And Clemson’s performing arts students have been right in the midst of it. For 10 very intense days — from 8 a.m. until midnight — students work in the costuming shop, problem-solve with the sound crew, set up and adjust lights, work on the set and learn what it takes to re-work a Broadway show for smaller venues and constant travel. It’s a chance to learn from professionals and find out what it takes to translate the knowledge they’ve learned into skills of the trade.
What the students get out of these two weeks is more than just hands-on experience. Harder and David Hartmann, chair of the performing arts department, set up Q&A sessions with members of the company so that all the majors, not just those working with the show, can get answers to questions like, “What’s it like to travel with a show?” and “What does it do to relationships?” or “What do you look for in a technician?”
It gives students a chance, says Hartmann, to actually talk to the producer, designer and technicians, to help them make career decisions and answer the basic question: “Do I really want to go on the road?”
Joshua Carter, a senior from the Chicago area, spent the 10 days as a production assistant assigned to the resident director (Martha Banta) and the choreographer (Ryan Sander). “It was my job,” he says, “to make sure that they had everything they needed while here in Clemson.” That involved everything from arranging meals to coffee runs to serving as a tour guide and problem-solver. What it also involved, he says, was “direct access to these two amazing individuals. I could observe their process and really see how they worked. They were incredibly nice and approachable and encouraged me to ask questions.”
Alumni on the road
Almost 20 graduates of the program have gone on to work for Work Light Productions, a result of contacts made through this collaboration. Gabriel begins to tick off names: “Our head audio on this tour, Jeff Human, is a graduate. Our associate production supervisor, Mike East, is a graduate. This past year on the tour of ‘American Idiot,’ the head carpenter, Eric Stewart, was from Clemson. We have put so many grads on our tour, and our production supervisor has brought even more to Spoleto.”
Human, a 2007 graduate, knows the reality of being on the road. Based in Chicago, he travels the world and averages less than a week a month at home. For this production, he gets the opportunity to travel with his fiancé, also a member of the crew, but that doesn’t always happen. He and East were members of that first group of students who “worked their buns off” when Gabriel brought his first production, “Broadway Junior on Tour,” to Clemson.
Both cite the contacts they made as they talk about their professional journeys. Human interned with Work Light in 2005-06, then went on to work for Technical Theater Solutions (TTS) in Charleston, which partners with Work Light to manage the technical part of the production and also handles the technical aspects for Spoleto. East’s story is similar: He worked on the light board in Work Light’s first production at Clemson, then worked Spoleto in the summer with TTS. While he was in graduate school, he got a job offer from TTS and headed back to Charleston, where he is now vice president of operations. And that job brought him full circle: back to this production of “Mamma Mia,” overseeing the technical crew and the Clemson students.
Getting a foot in the door
It’s not an easy thing for these students to participate in this two-week merging of the professional with the academic, as Hartmann describes it. They’re responsible for contacting their other professors across campus, making provisions for getting notes, taking tests and keeping up with academic work that doesn’t stop just because they have this opportunity.
But the tradeoffs are tremendous, says Hartmann. “It has led to jobs,” he says, music to every parent’s ear. Hartmann describes the intense two-week experience as a professional internship, where the students get a sense of what it takes to work in the world of theater.
Gabriel explains it this way: “You learn at a certain curve when you’re in school, and then you learn exponentially in the first few months when you’re applying it professionally. The value to the students here is they get two weeks of the real world. Everything they’ve been learning — this is how it is applied. Hopefully, they walk away with an understanding of the level that they have to perform at and the speed of it.”
But the students get more than just two weeks of experience; they get connections that are crucial to their future. “You have to have knowledge, but you have to have connections to get a foot in the door,” says Harder.
Youth and enthusiasm … and opportunity
That snap decision on Harder’s part eight years ago began a successful partnership. What Gabriel didn’t know was that the performing arts program at Clemson was very young, having just graduated its first class of 12. What Harder didn’t realize was that Gabriel was in the midst of forming his company for the first time.
Both have grown and changed. Gabriel’s company has transitioned to taking Broadway musicals on the road; Clemson’s performing arts program, with concentrations in music, audio technology and theatre, has sent 134 graduates out into the world and currently enrolls 97.
Taking a Broadway show on the road is hard work, and it takes a lot of hands. With this particular production, it’s college students who round out the crew in preparing and teching the show. But for Gabriel, that’s not a compromise.
“We’ve found that the level of the training these students get makes it so that we don’t miss a beat,” he says. His experience with Clemson students has also taught him that “young and enthusiastic makes up for what might be lacking in experience.” He recalls a time during the production of “Frog and Toad,” when an audio problem had them all stumped. “This young, kind of geeky looking guy walked up and said, ‘If you do this, that and the other, it will work.’”
That young guy was Robert Allen ’08, who after a one-year internship with the Brooks Center, went on the road with Gabriel and Work Light Productions as part of the crew for “Avenue Q.” He’s recently finished up touring the U.S. and Canada for a year, running video for the show “American Idiot.” Now, Gabriel says, Allen “walks in the room and he’s very commanding. He knows how to solve problems.”
“We learned early on,” says Gabriel, “that you can find some young, very talented people, and if you give them opportunity, most of them rise to the occasion.”
From a Student Perspective
“When I was a senior in high school, I had the experience to come see “Avenue Q” in its second national tour while it was in “tech” at the Brooks Center. Since my cousin, Mike East, was a recent graduate from the Production Studies program at Clemson and working as a part of Technical Theatre Solutions, I was able to get a backstage view of what a show of that magnitude looked like. Meeting members of the crew and seeing how all the technical elements fit together reinforced how much I wanted to go into technical theatre.
After the performance, I stood and watched the beginning of the “load out” from the front of the stage. Itching to be up there doing the same thing, I knew I wanted to work on a production like this. Clemson was the only place I could find where I could experience working with a national tour while I was still in school. I didn’t need to look at any other universities after that show; I knew Clemson would be the perfect fit for me.
While working with “Mamma Mia,” I was on the props crew. I spent most days organizing, cleaning, repairing, inventorying and maintaining the props. During rehearsals and shows I was backstage as an assistant to the show’s head of props. I was in charge of tracking props and making sure actors got them in time.
Being able to work on props crew for this show reinforced my love for what I do. I learned to come up with creative and out-of-the-box solutions for problems and saw how professionals had done things as well. Just being a part of the internship gave me the confidence to see myself touring when I graduate.
A lot of us refer to this internship as a two-week job interview, because you have to bring your best to work all day every day, but for me they are the best two weeks of my year.”