Christopher Gerling was literally waiting in the wings ...
I'd just finished a fascinating interview with Production Manager Jen Smith on their set for "Man Of La Mancha", and she had strategically placed Chris just offstage to tag in so she could get back to work.
I actually didn’t expect to have the chance to interview him. As the associate Production Manager, Chris had taken me on a tour of the offices that morning, explaining his role as Associate Production Manager and providing me with a flood of detail and history about the place.
Jen had asked him to come in because she knew I wanted to learn more about the fact that ATC routinely moves each of their productions from their mainstage in Tucson 116 miles up I-10 to Phoenix to split the run between the two locations. Each show ATC does is, as Charge Scenic Artist Brigitte Bechtel said, a “mini-Tour”.
Making sure that this transition happens smoothly is one of Chris’s many jobs. So if I wanted to know how this worked …
ENTER CHRIS GERLING – STAGE RIGHT …
The set of “Man Of La Mancha”. is more than impressive. A Towering two-story set, the walls richly textured. Every nook and cranny filled with props, pillars and practical stairways. A beautiful bar stage right, lined with glossy faux tiles. It’s complicated, lived in picture perfect …
And in two weeks the whole thing would be dismantled, packed, trucked, unloaded, loaded in, lit, and ready to go in 5 days.
It’s Chris’s job to make sure that all happens. All season. Every show. All the time. So I had to really think about the first big question …
“So, Chris. How do you take this apart and put it on a truck?”
“At the root of it is this,” Chris started, “our goal is to give our audiences in Phoenix the same experience as the audience in Tucson.”
Touché, Chris, Touché …
“We start at the very beginning of the process, putting the set in two theatres, will it fit? What adjustments do we need to make? So even before we start building we are aware of the challenges, if we may need to build doubles of some things.”
“As with everything, there are things that you change or discover later on, and as the shop is building everything it’s very much on their minds, “How big is the truck? How many people will it take to move things?”
I wanted to get behind the set, take a look at the way the thing was put together.. Every structural element of it was covered in texture, like stucco, courtesy of Brigitte Bechtel in the shop. I wanted to know how they move something with this kind of raised textural treatment?
“We have most of our production staff here in Tucson,” he replied, “when we go up to Phoenix we put everyone in cars to travel with the set.”
And he means everyone. The move is total, including sets, costumes, props, lights, sound, oh, and performers.
Okay, so they have the process down, but what about time? Is it always the same window of time? “We’ve been taking shows up to Phoenix since 1983,” Chris explained, “so we’ve been doing it for a long time and we have a system that works, we have a standard schedule …”
“We close in Tucson typically on a Saturday night. We’ll do a “pre-strike” with props, costumes and lighting and sound to get everything clear of the set. Then on Sunday, the scene shop will come in and strike the set, load it onto the trailer.”
Meanwhile, our electrics department is going up to Phoenix that same Sunday, to pre-hang the over stage lighting.”
“On Monday, the carpenters will join us up in Phoenix to begin their load-in. “The paint shop will come up for a day or two. Of course the first goal is to make sure nothing gets damaged.”
“Then we do a technical rehearsal on Wednesday and open on Thursday.”
“So What takes two weeks here in Tucson takes 5 days up in Phoenix.”
With the knowledge going in that the productions will be disassembled and moved, I was curious about how this process affects the initial design process? Does ATC tell designers that they must design something that can be taken apart and reassembled somewhere else or did they take the designs and break them down to fit the model?
“As the production department, our goal is to dictate as little as possible to the creative teams,” Chris says, “We’ve hired them because they are creative people and we want to see that on the stage. Our first step is always, “What do you want to do?” And then the next is “Okay, can we make that happen in two places?”
So you take your cues from them?
“Right,” he continues, “Of course with every theatre there are physical constraints we just cant negotiate. The proscenium is the proscenium, it’s not moving. But we try hard to take the designs and figure out what they’re looking for, not just once here, but twice up there.”
“We’ve been doing this for 30 years, they know both spaces well. They know how things travel, and they can tell a designer, “This will work fine here in Tucson, but you may want to watch this up in Phoenix”, and we collaborate to solve that.”
Finally, I wanted to ask Chris if he found that ATC’s process had led to a kind of “Stable” of designers and creative people who get the program? “We have designers who have done 30-40 shows with us. They keep coming back; they know us, we know them and they definitely know the drill.”
“Also, because we already build our shows to move from city to city, and we’re good at, we do a fair number of co-productions, so we’ll get designers from other theatres coming in, or other directors who bring their designers, and we’ll say, “We like you, come work with us again.”