Planning for Sondheim — On Your Feet — With No Light
Jonathan Silver was the Producer for the Master Storyteller Award presented to Stephen Sondheim on June 1, 2015. He is also a freelance actor, director, and voice-over artist whose work at Arden Theatre includes Timms in The History Boys (2009) and assistant director on Incorruptible (2014), Under the Skin (2015), and Macbeth (2015).
Two weeks ago, Amy Murphy (Managing Director) and Maura Roche (Marketing Manager) cornered me and utilized all their charm to ask if I would write an Arden Blog post regarding my 3 months of planning and responsibilities as Line Producer for the inaugural Master Storyteller Award presented to Stephen Sondheim on June 1. The ever-optimist, I thought, “Sure, I can add just one more thing to my plate while producing this epic concert. Why not?!” Needless to say, I procrastinated, submitted a real stinker of a post, and was given the opportunity to rewrite it once the ceremony was over – which is good because, boy, do I have a perspective of June 1 that can only be told by a few others.
First of all, I need to explain what a Theatrical Line Producer does –
- Pre-production planning (making sure Terry Nolen and Matthew Decker’s ideas for the event are carried out)
- Remain in constant contact with the performers (providing music, travel plans, rehearsals, etc.)
- Liaison between the Artistic Department, Production Department, Development Department and everyone else.
- Day-of-event coordination (prepare all necessary scripts, music, presentation note cards, rehearsal spaces for actors to practice their staging and, generally, be ready for any unsuspecting curve balls with multiple contingency plans – this last part will be important to my story momentarily)
The goal of my job was to make sure all these parts of the machine remained well-oiled, supported, and happy.
June 1 arrives. After collaborating extensively with Matthew Decker (Director of the concert), we feel prepared with our schedule. It’s detailed, concise, and, if executed properly, can turn out to be an event without a single hitch. There was just one anomaly we hadn’t anticipated, or had any control over. Here’s a breakdown of how our day went and how we had to deal with said anomaly:
8:30AM: I arrive at Arden Theatre to prep the rehearsal halls, print extra music, and greet out of town performers.
9:00AM: The production team begins rearranging the Passion set, lighting focus, and sound patch in the F. Otto Haas Theater for the evening’s concert.
10:00AM: Matt Decker begins splitting his time between two separate rooms and stages “Not While I’m Around” and “Kiss Me/Ladies In Their Sensitivities,” both from Sweeney Todd.
11:00AM: Terry and Matt tag-team rehearsals and each stage “A Bowler Hat” (Pacific Overtures) and “Old Friends” (Merrily We Roll Along) respectively.
12NOON: The entire cast rehearses the ensemble numbers with Matt while Terry separately stages “Gun Song” from Assassins.
1:45PM: After a lunch break, Terry, Matt, the production team, a 13-piece orchestra, and the 26 performers begin teching the show (running through text presentations and the musical numbers multiple times to check spacing, lights, microphone levels, and tempos).
4:15PM: Teen Arden members arrive and patiently wait in the audience to rehearse their musical number with the other performers.
5:15PM: Jason Robert Brown arrives at the theater and observes rehearsal before checking the set-up of a piano he intends to use during the presentation of the Master Storyteller Award to Stephen Sondheim.
5:35PM: Stephen Sondheim arrives at the theater and observes a brief portion of rehearsal before joining Arden donors at Zahav Restaurant for dinner.
6:45PM: We finish the technical run-through of the show with a little time to spare and break the actors for dinner so the production team can clear the theater for the audience to enter.
7:10PM: THE POWER AT ARDEN THEATRE GOES OUT!!! (BUT the power remains on at The Hamilton Family Arts Center only a half block north).
7:20PM: PECO estimates that the power will be restored to Arden Theatre’s grid between 9:30PM and 9:50PM.
7:30PM: Terry Nolen, Matthew Decker, and Glenn Perlman (Arden’s Technical Director) decide to move the evening’s concert to Glenn’s shop at The Hamilton Family Arts Center – the only other space that can fit a large number of people. Unfortunately, due to the time that it will take to set up the new “theater” and move all the patrons from Zahav and the main Arden building up the block, it is also decided the concert will be abbreviated and only performed with a single piano thus nullifying the use of the 13 piece orchestra, some of our performers songs, and the projections that were so painstakingly rehearsed and prepared.
7:45PM – 8:35PM: ALL HANDS ON DECK. Ongoing theatrical projects are cleared from the scenic shop. An epic sweeping effort ensues. The shop’s table saw and worktables are all pushed together to form a stage. Thom Wheaver (Lighting Designer) sets up two rows of strip lights that he places at the front edge of the “stage” and 4 par can area lighting fixtures are placed on the left and right sides to illuminate the performers. Daniel Perelstein (Sound Designer) brings in a single PA speaker that he connects to the podium microphone. Countless Arden staff members, apprentices, family members, EVEN BOARD MEMBER VOLUNTEERS wheel in chairs and benches to create an audience area for patrons to sit.
8:40PM: Artists file in and take their seats behind the stage.
8:50PM: Patrons from Arden’s main building and Zahav begin filing in and take their seats. Committed to making sure as many people witness this unique, once-in-a-lifetime event, all available seats are filled and the shop is standing room only.
9:00PM: Stephen Sondheim takes his seat and the concert BEGINS. Terry Nolen hosts the abbreviated version of the event with Amanda Morton (Music Director) accompanying the performers while Jason Robert Brown turns her music pages (!!!) then provides the audience with, not only a moving tribute to Mr. Sondheim, but a master class for everyone in attendance explaining and demonstrating on the piano why Sondheim is a master storyteller.
9:45PM: Jason Robert Brown presents Mr. Sondheim with the Master Storyteller Award which he accepts with a few brief, emotional comments. Teen Arden members join the adult performers and close the evening singing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George.
9:55PM: Mr. Sondheim requests to privately meet the artists and Teen Arden members who performed, lauding them for their poise and professionalism under extreme, unexpected circumstances before departing.
Reflecting on the evening’s events, I have two overwhelming feelings (besides embarrassment for never having the opportunity to change out of my sweaty t-shirt and cargo shorts especially when I met Mr. Sondheim). On one hand, I am wildly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside superhuman artistic, production, and development teams. The uniqueness of planning such a high profile, celebratory event for 3 months only to have it completely turned upside down less than an hour before show time and go as well as it did will be as memorable to me as the first time I knew I wanted to be a theater artist or when I opened my first professional show after undergraduate college (which just so happened to be at Arden Theatre Company) or when I was born. But on the other hand, there were artistic fatalities to the evening – genius performances cut at the last minute (particularly from Tony Braithwaite, Rich Ceraulo, Todd Horman, Christopher Patrick Mullen, and James Sugg), visually stunning projections never to be seen (Jorge Cousineou), and inspirational orchestrations never to be heard (Larry Lees). In this same hand, I feel heartache for the 103 teens who were invited to watch a live simulcast feed of the concert in the Arden’s Arcadia Theater space for free and, instead, saw nothing. I only hope the happiness and agony of both sides will not torment me for too long.
In an email from sound designer Daniel Perelstein shortly after the June 1 Master Storyteller Award, he wrote to the artistic team about production realism and ended his message with these wise words: “Through the magic of theater, it was a special evening to be a part of. Very moving lesson. I’m not exactly sure what the teaching is, but I think it’s somehow rich and powerful.” My sentiments exactly, Dan.