Typically when a touring Broadway show lands at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, it comes ready to pull off the trucks and put into place in a day or two, like a giant piece of Ikea furniture – only way more complicated and with better instructions.
For the past three weeks, dozens of local stagehands have had a hand in creating a new touring production, helping to assemble sets, lighting, sound – everything – and getting it ready to eventually be packed up and trucked to its next stop.
“A Christmas Carol,” which opened in London in 2017 and won five Tony Awards for its 2019 run on Broadway, is launching a national tour from Spokane. That has meant crews are “teching” the show – building it – where it will start. As many as 100 local members of the stagehands union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, have worked as support staff for the road crew, helping assemble all production elements – sound, lights, set design – and get it ready so it can eventually be set it up in a day by another crew in another city.
“When a show is on Broadway, it’s in one theater,” said Justin Kobluk, president of West Coast Entertainment, which presents the Best of Broadway series. “When you take that show on the road for a touring production, it takes weeks to put that touring show together, to be able to set it up on a stage in whatever city you’re in, whatever theater you’re in, tear it down, put it in a bunch of trucks and move it to the next city and do it over and over again.”
For the stagehands, it’s a relief to have the steady work. The live performance industry was among the first to completely shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, and it has been among the last to fully come back.
Dave Brucick, president of Spokane’s IATSE Local 93, said the show is generating close to $200,000 in payroll for local stagehands.
“It’s huge,” said Brucick, whose role in the crew has been as a flyman. He has helped hang any scenery, curtains and lighting rigs that move up and down into the “fly space” above the stage. “This has been a really good thing.”
On Day One of the tech process, Brucick said, the trucks showed up. A dozen or so road crew members arrived to help direct local stagehands, and for that first week they built the show. Toward the end of the first week, the lightboard programmers and specialty technicians came in. Week Two is when the creative team arrived – the lighting designer, the sound designer, stage managers, director. Once the cast got to town, rehearsals began.
“That’s very interesting for us locals, because we don’t do this much,” Brucick said. “It’s interesting for us to see how it all comes together.”
Maria Sorce, executive chair with IATSE, and technical director and facility events manager at the Cowles Auditorium at Whitworth University, worked as an electrician on “A Christmas Carol.” Her job is to work with tour staff to light and provide power to the show.
She said it’s been really satisfying to be able to have her hands on it, to be laying cable and fastening zip ties. And watching the show come together before her eyes has been a treat.
“The show, it’s beautiful,” she said. “There are many pictures created on the stage. You get this lovely picture of Ebenezer, then you move on and into the next picture, and the movement of the lights takes you there. You’re transported.
“Theater is a collaborative art form, and in a tech process like this, you really get to see this collaboration,” she added. “You have tables of designers sitting in the auditorium and each one is working with their own department to collaborate on the overall show, the whole picture, the whole experience for the audience. It is cool.”
She happened to be working nearby when the musicians and performers began a process called the sitzprobe, which is their first sit-down rehearsal together. “It’s beautiful to hear the cello and the violin and the performers all together,” Sorce said.
Having the work again has been a boost to local stagehands. Sorce said stagehands are used to waiting for that call to come in to go to work. To not have that call for 15 to 19 months was challenging. Being back to work, she said, “is life-changing.”
“You’re no longer just sitting waiting for your phone to ring and waiting for the industry to restart,” she said. “For many of us, this is our restart. Being at a point where we can see the lights come up on stage and hear the singers sing again, it’s a relief.”
“A Christmas Carol” is among several shows and projects that are getting the stage crews back to work. IATSE crews have been all over the city working on stage projects and film, too, such as the feature “Dreamin’ Wild” with Casey Affleck now filming in Spokane.
“We had ‘Cats,’ and we have this and we had Dude Perfect at the Arena, which was a much bigger show than anybody thought, with 40 or 50 stagehands, maybe more, on that. Another thing that really helped us through was the Pavilion, the new venue at the park,” Brucick said.
Spokane doesn’t usually get first national tours. As a smaller market, it typically attracts shows on their second or thirds tours. To not only be on the first national tour but to be launching it is a big deal, Kobluk said.
“Spokane is the 71st-sized market in the country, so we’re not the first tour stop because the big tours are going to go to the big markets and make the big money before they ever come to the secondary market,” Kobluk said. “So even to get a first national tour, meaning the first year out, is a big deal for Spokane. It happens, but not often. To get the very first production off the tech, the first show that’s ever landed off that first national tour, is really a prestigious thing for Spokane.”
Spokane should be an attractive place to tech a show because, Kobluk said, the First Interstate Center is world-class facility. Also, Spokane is not so small that there’s nothing for people to do while they’re here, but not so big that it’s really expensive to house 80 or more cast and crew members for three weeks. The pay rate for local stagehands will be less than what their big-city counterparts make. The city is right in the “sweet spot,” Kobluk said.
Why doesn’t it happen more often? Because the tech process takes three to four weeks to complete and the FICA typically isn’t empty for that long.
Kobluk hopes the opportunity to tech a show comes around again.
“We would love to do this again. We (West Coast Entertainment) don’t get anything from the tech. This is all for the venue and the labor. The venue gets some rent for three weeks, the lATSE labor crews are working, so it’s a big deal for them,” Kobluk said. “ ‘Cats’ was here a couple weeks ago, and the vice president of Troika, who are the producers and who own the tour of ‘Cats,’ actually flew out to the venue because they heard we were teching this new Broadway production. … So it is on the radar of some of these big groups in New York.”
About 10 days into the tech process, the actors arrived in town, including Emmy-winner Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing,” “Get Out”) and Tony nominee Kate Burton (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”). The acting company had been rehearsing in Los Angeles for five weeks before flying north.
For Celia Mei Rubin, who has been with “A Christmas Carol” since Broadway as a standby performer and movement captain, the long tech process allows the actors to translate their work rehearsing in the studio into the actual set.
“When you’re in the studio, I’m also setting the movement for the movement director (Lizzi Gee) on this production, so we try to give the actors as much information as possible. Even if they can’t see things in front of them, we’ll say, ‘There’s going to be this huge lantern and it’s going to fly in the air, so you’ll have to duck at this time,’ ” she said. “Then we came to Spokane and it was the first time, especially the actors who hadn’t been in the Broadway production, were able to see everything that had been described to them.
“So a lot of the rehearsal process in Spokane is much less focused on the actors, who had all their time in the studio, and much more focused on making sure the lighting is ready to go, and sound, and marrying what was done in the studio with the actors with the technical elements on stage.”
The show will run on the FICA stage on Friday night and twice on Saturday. Then, the sets and everything that have been so carefully installed in Spokane will be loaded on trucks and make their way to the next stop for “A Christmas Carol” – Phoenix.
“It’s going to be a beautiful show,” Brucick said. “The lighting and the special effects and things like that are out of this world.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-5068.
This article has been updated to correct Celia Mei Rubin’s last name and role in “A Christmas Carol.”