Friday, March 4, 2016

Behind-the-Scenes: A Marriage Between Props and Lighting

Allie Gillaspie-Williams and Steven Williams
Onstage, Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place where you Already Are looks at the relationships and love of two couples—older Joe and Roberta and younger Ellie and Jonas. Backstage, Props Master Allie Gillaspie-Williams and Electrician/Board Operator Steven Williams not only have a working relationship, they also are married. And soon to be first-time parents.

If you turn a set upside and shake it, anything that falls out is a prop. As props shop manager, Allie communicates closely with the scenic designer about all the props that make their way to stage. The shop team’s work includes building specialty furniture pieces, shopping for the right fabric to reupholster chairs and sofas, and even making fake food.

This is Steven’s first season at SCR. His work in the Argyros Stage includes hanging the lights for each show and then programming them according to what the lighting designer has created for the production. During the run of the show, he makes sure that the design’s integrity is maintained and he ensures that the equipment remains in good working order.

Steven’s career in theatre started by accident. As an accounting major at Calvin College in Michigan, he needed one more credit and an opportunity at the Calvin Theatre Company caught his eye. He never turned back.

“There was a family atmosphere,” Steven recalls. “I loved people’s willingness to help despite the complexity of the show, despite the hours and despite the popularity of the show. The fact that we were doing work together and having our own utopian experience was what made me want to stay in theatre.”

He earned an MFA in lighting design from Virginia Tech and divided his time between freelance lighting and work at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse. He later programmed lighting for the national tour of Hairspray.

Allie began working in local community theatres around the age of 12, helping sew costumes, paint scenery, make small props and working backstage. She earned an MFA in properties design and management and spent time working at the Ogunquit Playhouse and as a prop master and carpenter in the Boston area. She also helped found a small fringe theatre company in Providence, R.I.

During the final week of rehearsal for Going to a Place where you Already Are, Allie and Steven talked about why they love theatre and the challenges and opportunities of their work.

Where and when did you two meet?

Steven: We met in Salem, Mass., in the summer of 2006. Allie was the costume designer for the Student Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Who’s Tommy and I was the assistant lighting designer.

Allie: I’m a sucker for rock musicals and they didn’t have a costume designer, so I volunteered. The lighting designer was a good friend of mine.

What was the first stage production that you saw?

Steven: The Nutcracker, at age 4 or 5, at the Wang Theatre, now the Citi Performing Arts Center in Boston. I will always remember the Sugar Plum fairies and the height that they were able to jump and how beautiful the lights were. Until I worked in theatre, I always wondered how the tree and the scenery came together. When I got older, I began working on shows at that theatre until I moved to Virginia in 2012.

Allie: A Christmas Carol, in first or second grade, at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. That particular production has always had a lot of flash—the theatre is in the round, so it’s fairly immersive, there are pyrotechnics, and the ghost of Marley flies. My first full-time, professional theatre job was also at that theatre.

Paul David Story and Mark Harelik in SCR's 2016 production of Red.
Lawrence Kao, Sab Shimono and Ryun Yu in SCR's 2015 world premiere of tokyo fish story.
SCR's 2015 production of Peter and the Starcatcher.
What are the most challenging and fun aspects of your work?

Steven: The most challenging aspect of my job is communication between multiple collaborators. I have to be able to adapt to each of their styles of work. The most fun is seeing the different design styles. I try to learn from all the designers and see the different techniques that they utilize. I talk with them about their place in the theatre world and try to find my niche inside of theirs.

Allie: Artists often have strong opinions and it can sometimes be challenging to get everyone on the same page. The most fun part of my job is the hands-on work. I love to build and sew and solve the strange problems that make their way into a prop shop. With tokyo fish story, I had to create a fake octopus that would look alive with the slightest movement from the actor. For Red, our shop had to invent a paint recipe that could be added to and painted with onstage, but also could be washed out of clothing. No two shows are ever the same so it’s pretty difficult to get bored.

Do you have any special work-related memories?

Steven: At North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., I had the opportunity to work with B.B King. He was using a wheelchair, but wanted to walk to the stage. I helped him into a little lift known as a “slip stage,” so he could ride up to the main stage. I was able to catch him when he started to fall as he stepped off the lift. After the concert, Mr. King and his guards stopped to thank me for my professional attitude, given the situation. He later told me that, “professionalism will always lead to success.”

Allie: I have a lot of “you had to be there” kind of memories.

What’s been your favorite SCR production?

Allie: Peter and the Starcatcher. It was a ton of fun to work on in the prop shop and it also is just a really wonderful story.

What’s next on the horizon?

Steven: We are expecting our first child in May—and I am really excited about this next act in our lives!

Allie: It is super exciting! But, beyond that, it’s hard to say; we tend to be fairly flexible about what life brings us!

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