Broadway in Peoria

Before the Curtain Rises
by Annie Locke

A behind-the-scenes look unveils the secrets of theater magic.

This November, as the curtain rises in the Peoria Civic Center Theater, area theatergoers will enter the winter wonderland of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. While the audience immerses itself in the classic tale for an evening, months of preparations behind the scenes are required to bring it to the stage.

Like several shows in the Civic Center’s Broadway Theater Series, the producers of White Christmas did its “teching” in Peoria, completing the final preparations for the entire tour right here. This is not uncommon; in fact, Peoria is consistently popular as a teching location for touring companies. The Civic Center has teched four of the last six years, including productions like Elf and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and numerous arena concert tours, such as the Jonas Brothers.

“It’s really amazing when something like [White Christmas] comes in,” says Dan Aspell, Civic Center marketing manager. “They build the sets here that are going on tour nationally… To be the start of that creative process is really special.”

Getting Technical
For most productions, the teching process gets started two or three weeks before the first curtain call, when the creative team flies in with partially-built sets. During these final weeks, they will complete all elements of production—from the sets and lighting to wardrobes and props. “Some shows have really extensive props,” explains Eric Yarbrough, Civic Center technical coordinator. “Jersey Boys had real guitars… In Phantom of the Opera, the gun [Raul] uses is actually an 1859 revolver with blanks—it’s not a prop pistol.”

Because each show requires unique elements, teching can vary dramatically from show to show. When Phantom came to the Civic Center in 2002, it required many special accommodations. Though it did not tech in Peoria, its set was so elaborate that the production team arrived two weeks in advance, simply for routine preparations. More than a million dollars were spent on renovations to the theater, including, most prominently, a steel beam welded to the ceiling to hold the large chandelier that famously crashes to the stage when the phantom enacts his revenge.

The production of White Christmas also presents a unique set of challenges. For one, there’s the snow. According to John W. Calder III, the show’s production stage manager, it’s made possible using two tried-and-tested techniques: paper confetti—made to “float down and be well-lit so the audience can see it from wherever they are”—and snow machines. The latter required some experimentation, but Calder claims the technique is now perfected. About ten of these machines act as giant bubble-makers, creating large, life-like flakes out of a liquid similar to dish detergent, which disintegrate upon hitting the ground. Unlike soap, however, the residue is not slick. “It’s safe for the actors to dance on,” he laughs.

More challenging than creating snow, he says, is working with a new set of actors each year. This is Calder’s sixth production of White Christmas, and over the years, the cast has seen a mix of returning actors, those who’ve done other versions of the show, and total newcomers. The process of getting everyone on board and to the stage can be a real challenge.

And then there’s the scenery. “Before we even start on the stage in Peoria, we know how all the scenery is going to work,” he explains. “We know… this has to move here, that moves there, and actors have to be clear here.” The crew draws out a work plan detailing how the scenery will move, initially teching the show without actors. Once the sets, lighting and other details are finalized, the actors rehearse on stage for the first time—a very slow run-through. “The first act could take us five or six hours,” Calder notes. “I did one show that took five hours for the first 10 minutes!”

Benefits of Broadway
In addition to the myriad of ways a world-class theater enhances the region’s culture and quality of life, the extensive teching process offers a significant contribution to the local economy. Most shows travel with just the cast and a small production crew, but when teching, the entire creative team—including some of the biggest names on Broadway—pays a visit to Peoria. “These are big power players in the industry,” notes Megan Pedigo, the Civic Center’s assistant director of marketing, “and they all come to Peoria.”

During an average tech, a show will book around 200 hotel rooms for several weeks, for a total of several thousand booked room-nights in area hotels. In addition, the cast and crew require transportation, food and entertainment—that’s several hundred new customers for local restaurants and attractions, not to mention the outside tourists who come to take in the Broadway Theater Series. “I met a family who drove from Omaha [to see Wicked],” Aspell says.

Superstition holds that a light should always be kept burning in an empty theater to ward off ghosts. Placed near center stage, the ghost light is left on whenever the theater is unoccupied. It also allows people to navigate the stage without stumbling over props, cords or set pieces.

Beyond the typically New York-based crew, most national touring companies employ local residents, hiring 20 to 30 stagehands for each show, while many musicals hire local musicians under union contracts. White Christmas, for example, will work with a local orchestra in each city on its tour, traveling only with the same conductor, keyboardist and drummer.

Another benefit for host cities is the ability of residents to interact with a production’s cast and crew. During their free time, they will often get involved in the community, visiting classes at Bradley University and local high schools to share their expertise, or hosting backstage tours to offer a peek behind the scenes.

Welcome to Peoria!
In recent years, more and more touring shows are choosing Peoria to kick off their tours. Why Peoria? For starters, its size and accommodations suit their needs—often more so than a New York or Chicago—providing all the amenities of a large city, with the privacy and less hurried pace of a small town. In addition, notes Yarbrough, “Everything about coming here is cheaper.”

Beyond its size and affordability, Peoria’s proximity to the Midwest’s largest cities is convenient for regional tours, while the Civic Center offers features that compare to any big-city theater. “Our arena and theater are not anomalies,” says Aspell. “They are what [the companies] are going to find in the larger cities. They are world-class facilities.” In fact, the Civic Center Theater’s backstage is more spacious than most historic theaters in larger cities, while its technical specifications—floor space, orchestra pit, lighting positions and fly system (for hanging scenery)—offer producers a range of options.

“We try to go into a theater where the show fits… and it’s easy for us to do the things we need to do,” Calder notes. “That’s why theaters like Peoria are chosen. We’ve [teched] everywhere from South Dakota to Missouri to Savannah, Georgia… We try to find a venue away from everybody else, but that’s large enough and has a crew with experience doing large musicals.”

Given all the advanced planning during the teching stage, unforeseen problems are minimal. “Only in the worst-case scenario do we get to a theater and are surprised to find out something won’t work,” Calder says. And with the crew’s tight schedule upon arrival, there’s simply no time for error.

According to Calder, the crew arrives at a new venue around six o’clock on the morning of the first show. While the trucks are unloaded and the scenery and lights hung, the wardrobe and hair crews unload the costumes and wigs (an entire trailer truck’s worth), wash all the laundry, and make any necessary alterations. In the afternoon, the lights are focused and the orchestra rehearses, with the cast arriving about two hours before the show.

Finally, it’s show time—and all those months of preparation come together. After the first show, there’s typically an opening-night party, making it an 18-hour day for the crew. “It’s a busy hive on that first day,” Calder admits. “They work hard, and we have a lot of good people doing it!”

Behind-the-Scenes Sweat
A significant draw for touring companies is the Civic Center’s own internal tech team, which is incredibly experienced for the market, working both arena and theater shows, long and short techs. The entire crew belongs to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and their job is often described in a single word: “intense.” During a show’s run, they will often work 12- to 13-hour days for several consecutive weeks—with no days off.

In spite of the long hours, the stagehands and technical crew are rewarded with an ample dose of “theater magic.” Dan Evans, event services manager, loves to recount how he saw Wicked 28 times, working each and every show, while Yarbrough claims to have been on stage during Phantom of the Opera more often than many of the actors. Creating this magic is a team effort, to be sure.

“I feel like I’m part of something much bigger than myself,” Yarbrough says with pride. “You feel like you are part of this thing that’s going to last—this piece of art that is going out and… thousands of people are going to enjoy... It’s not something everyone in the world gets to do.” a&s

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