Sat March 1, 2014
Buildings That Won't Fall Down
Alys Holden, the new Director of Production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, had held the same position at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles for over eight years. When Bill Rauch invited her to leave that professional pinnacle and sign on with the OSF, she had to make a tough choice. She decided to visit Ashland incognito, see a couple performances, and scout the town. Lunching in a local restaurant, she eavesdropped on the tourists—and they were all talking about the plays. “Nobody in L.A. talks about plays,” she said. She took the leap.
Her career in theatre actually began with a similarly sudden epiphany. She was majoring in chemistry at Williams College and working part-time in the Theatre Department to supplement her scholarship. At the end of her junior year, she had a twenty-four-hour take-home test in Physical Chemistry to complete. She also had a job to do behind the scenes of a production. Perched in the dark on a catwalk, awaiting her technical cues, she worked on the exam, drooling around a small Mag flashlight, which she held in her mouth. Aha! moment: if this was life on chemistry, maybe she ought to reconsider her options.
Attracted by the collaborative nature of theatre, she felt a strong connection with the production staff at Williams. Like them, she was a “goal-oriented adrenalin junkie who enjoyed the satisfaction of doing the impossible.” It was too late to change majors, but she registered for every theatre elective she could.
She entered Yale School of Drama as an intern in carpentry, taking classes half-time and working half-time in the shop. By the following year, she was officially accepted into the graduate program, from which she emerged three years later with an MFA in Technical Design and Production as well as a thesis that’s become a core text in her field, Structural Design for the Stage. Its pages are covered with what look to be the hieroglyphics of higher math. She claims they’re simple to decode, and their message reduces to a straightforward one: how to build things that won’t fall down.
Frankly, I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the number and variety of technical details that must cohere to create a single theatre production. Having beheld the three-by-five whiteboard in Holden’s office, I realize that a revolving repertory complicates the process astronomically: inked with an outline of the issue du jour, it mapped at least fifty items. Every show must not only make aesthetic sense on its own; it must also play well with others, sharing a budget, backstage space, design resources. When the designers begin work on their shows, the process of nips and tucks and trade-offs begins. Win-win scenarios are the goal of every Director of Production, like the sylvan frame that served triple-duty in the Elizabethan Theatre last summer or coordinating three stage designs for the Thomas Theatre to locate their underground spaces in the same spot.
Besides facilitating the “nesting” of each show with all the others, Holden will be responsible for solutions to individual production problems—challenges like representing the guinea worm in The Liquid Plain. (The details for that one must remain a trade secret, but they involved a pouch of just the right plastic fixed to the leg and matched with just the right string provided by the supervisor of wigs.) Remember the curve of ten candles enclosing the captive, creative nun in the opening moments of The Tenth Muse? How could they be removed from the stage without breaking the mystical mood? They can’t drop down into the floor unless they’re extinguished. It probably testifies to the appropriateness of the final choice that I never noticed what happened to them.
What production management often boils down to is emergency management. Holden joined OSF after the Bowmer-beam crisis, but right in time for 2013’s summer of smoke. Rain decisions were nothing compared to assembling accurate data on air pollution specific to Ashland, then deciding what criteria should prohibit the show from going on. As she discovered the hard way, an “orange” alert from Medford, advising against outdoor activity for those with asthma and other pulmonary issues, should also be applied to perfectly healthy actors engaged in the deep breathing and heavy lifting of performance.
During the crisis, the festival scrambled to find an alternate indoor venue—Ashland High School—and decided also to run extra shows if necessary in the Thomas. But no strategy was firm, because smoke wasn’t: healthy atmosphere at five PM could be toxic by seven-thirty and vice versa. Holden observed that theatre people can rise nobly to the challenge of preparing an extra performance at a moment’s notice—changing the set and going over lines are only the tip of the pre-show iceberg. What became more difficult to accept were the times when company members went through the preparation for a substitute show only to have the air quality pronounced fine by curtain time. For a while afterwards, everyone seemed to carry the psychic burden of “the performance that never happened.”
As for all the performances that do go off as planned, Holden doesn’t enjoy them the way we do. She watches the audience—are they wide-eyed and grinning or unaffected and bored? She worries about transitions or a technical decision that may need further work. She winces, tenses, smiles, or holds her breath, in response not to the acting, but to everything else. For that’s her job. While we’re captivated by characters in action, she has to remind herself not to applaud when the crew nails a tricky change.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)