Behind the scenes in ‘Wonderful Town’

Christina Stavale

Backstage, the performance began weeks ago…

Sophomore musical theater major Carson Haynes sits with cast and crew members in the green room prior to soundcheck for last night’s show. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH MYERS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

CHECK OUT photos from ‘Wonderful Town’.

The red curtain rises.

“Life is gay, life is sweet, interesting people on Christopher Street.”

About 30 singers introduce the audience to “Wonderful Town,” where they and the cast will spend the next two-and-a-half hours.

As the first song and dance number ends, two sisters – the girlish blonde Eileen and the intelligent brunette Ruth – run in from stage left (the audience’s right).

As far as the audience is concerned, the musical has started.

But backstage, the show has begun hours – even weeks ago. Backstage, it’s a different world, with its own cast of interesting people. It’s their job to support the onstage cast by lowering “flats” from the ceiling, pushing sets on and off stage on pieces of wood called “wagons” and calling cues over headsets.

At the base of one of the backstage walls, which is at least four times as high as a normal wall, three sheets of paper remind cast and crew members where they are in the show – scene by scene.

“Where are we?” one crew member asks, looking at the scene breakdown.

“We’re in Stump Theatre,” the cast member replies. “In Music and Speech.” They both laugh. They know they’re in E. Turner Stump Theatre. They’re in Scene 4, waiting for their next cue.

“In this particular show, the crew might even be more important than the actors,” says Jessica Beaudry, who plays Eileen. “All the set changes are magical.”

Stage right: a danger zone

There are the wagons, which have metal rods attached so the crew can do scene changes without ever being seen by the audience. There are clusters of furniture including a set of bunk beds, tables, chairs and an ironing board. There are 12-foot wall pieces – numbered 1 through 6 – that the crew will set on the wagons and form the sides of onstage rooms.

“The units are tall, so they’re unstable,” says Chris Fornadel, the assistant stage manager who keeps stage right in line. “But it’s not terrible.”


“Wonderful Town” runs today through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in

E. Turner Stump Theatre in the Music and Speech Building. Tickets are still available for all performances.

Prices are as follows:

• $8 with student ID

• $10 for seniors and Kent State faculty, staff and alumni

• $14 for adults

To get tickets, call or stop by the box office in the Music and Speech Building.

• Phone: (330) 672-2497

•Box office hours: Noon to 5 p.m.

on weekdays and

3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The box office will also open one hour before every show.

There’s so much stuff that it’s hard to see the scuffed and paint-splotched floor.

Leading man Bob Russell laughs as he names his biggest worry when he’s backstage.

“Not being killed stage right,” he says. “There’s a lot of heavy pieces … (but) I know we can trust the crew.”

As a scene change approaches, Chris quietly, but intensely says, “warning.”

The crew gathers around him as he points to the pieces of furniture that will go onstage, motioning where they need to be.

Once the crew is in place, Chris raises his hand, a signal that they’re ready.

Two actors enter the wing.

“Is it safe?” one asks.

Chris waves his hand, telling them it’s OK. The crew and actors still have a few moments.

But the crew’s eyes remain on Chris, ready for him to give them a “go.” Meanwhile, onstage, Jessica dreamily sings the ballad “Little Bit in Love.”

“The way the cue system works,” Chris says, “is we get a warning, a standby and a go.”

He pauses to listen to his headset. On the other end, stage manager Liz Talaba relays a message to him – it’s time to standby. He gives the crew this message, and shortly after tells them “go.”

Running on cues

During every show, Liz sits in a dark booth elevated slightly above the back row of the audience.

A wall of windows separates her from the theater, and, of course, she can’t see backstage. She relies on a set of speakers to hear what’s going on onstage. She uses a small light to see her three-inch binder, marked with all the light, scenery and sound cues, to follow along.

She, too, has a headset, over which she feeds these cues to others, including Chris, and a small silver microphone called the “God mic,” which reaches actors and crew members everywhere.

She says it can be frustrating to be so far away.

“That’s why it’s important for the assistant stage managers to be on headset,” Liz says.

And things can sometimes move fast.

“Just so you know, these cues are gonna go real quick,” she says into her headset as they approach a series of consecutive cues in the show. “They’re gonna be one after another.”

“Thank you,” Chris replies.

“Thank you,” says another voice. This is Kristen Boehnlein, the other assistant stage manager. She’s in charge of organizing props and running stage left.

Props, flies and costumes

Stage left is much more narrow. There is just one wagon about half the size of those on stage right.

But stage left does control a system of ropes, called the fly system, used to lower set pieces from the ceiling.

Built into the back wall are about 40 of these ropes that reach all the way to the ceiling. Each is labeled.

Jessie Black, a member of the “fly crew,” wears gloves and stands nearby, waiting for her next cue.

“They’re very heavy,” she says. “You don’t have to wear gloves, but you’re dealing with hemp rope, so it’s not very gentle on your hands.”

When Kristen gives her a “go,” Jessie keeps her eyes on the stage, making sure she doesn’t hit any actors as she’s pulling the set piece up or down.

“That’s what makes things a little bit difficult,” she says. “You have to be alert and very careful.”

Leaning against another wall, is one of the prop tables, full of wine bottles and glasses, a stack of newspapers, an iron, megaphone, clarinet and a first prize ribbon. Kristen picks up a cigarette box.

“Pretty much anything smaller than this is going to get lost,” she says.

Near the prop table sits a rack full of costumes for quick changes.

Andrew Morton, an ensemble member, knows all about those quick costume changes. He counts out loud on his fingers, trying to remember how many characters he plays.

“Seven?” he says, naming each character as he counts. A fellow cast member reminds him of another. “No, eight. We’ve been doing this show for well over a month, and I still need to keep track.”

Sometimes he depends on his dresser to remind him of where they are in the show and what character he plays next.

“It helps that I have an amazing dresser,” he says. “I go, ‘OK, what’s next?’ She has a breakdown of everything.”

Jessica, too, deals with quick costume changes – a 15-second one, in fact – on top of lines and solos.

“It’s hard because you can’t even see how you look before you go on,” she says.

Backstage, during a rare break in stage time, she looks over her script.

“It’s really stressful,” she says. “This is my first big role in college. I have to make sure I’m not paraphrasing my lines.”

It’s showtime

“We’re scheduled for a 7:30 go,” Chris tells the crew during a tech week rehearsal.

“If you can’t do it, it’s not your fault,” he says as they practice scene changes. “We’ll work it out another time.”

Meanwhile, onstage, singers warm up. One woman still has her hair in curlers, and another is in the process of pinning hers up so it is ready to be put into a blond wig. They’re in varying stages of being dressed for the show – some fully in costume, some half-dressed, some still in street clothes.

As the singers finish their warm-ups, they return to their dressing rooms. At 20 minutes to the scheduled start time, Jessie makes rounds upstairs. She passes Bob.

“20 minutes,” she says.

“Fantastic,” he replies, walking downstairs.

She knocks on the women’s dressing room door, opening it slightly to reveal them looking in mirrors, applying their makeup.

“20 minutes,” Jessie says.

“Thank you,” a few reply.

“They always say thank you, so you know at least one person heard you,” Jessie explains. She does the same thing every five minutes until she calls, “places.” The actors must then be ready.

In the meantime, Liz sits up in the booth, constantly communicating with her assistant stage managers over headset.

“I have complete faith,” she says. “I’m just nervous right now.”

Then, finally, she calls, “Places.”

Five men wearing suits and vests enter the stage right area. A woman in a pink dress and one in a blue dress follow closely.

As more actors enter, energy increases. A woman in green practices high kicks and does the splits. Two more adjust each other’s costumes.

“Is everything set stage left?” Liz asks over headset.

“Stage left,” Kristen replies.

“Stage right?”

“Stage right,” Chris says.

With that, the lights go down, and the curtain opens just enough to see the band playing the show’s overture.

“Curtain looks pretty good,” Liz says.

Backstage, the same woman who was practicing kicks before, begins to dance along with the music. Two more join in. Throughout the overture, a policeman, a football player, cheerleaders and more cast members continue to fill the wings. With a dramatic end to the overture, the red curtain closes and then is raised. The cast walks onstage and begins to sing.

“Life is mad, life is sweet. Interesting people living on Christopher Street.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected].