Russell Thompson, a Luckey, Ohio native, is production manager for Prather Touring, who also works for Apex Touring when there are multiple productions. He is shown in the Valentine Theatre ahead of the performance of 'Cabaret.'
This weekend, in theaters in Toledo and across the country, when the stage is set and the curtain goes up, a high-flying musical or compelling drama can begin.
Making sure that stages are set for national tours of many hit shows is the job of Russell Thompson, production manager for Prather Touring, who also works for Apex Touring when there are multiple productions.
Thompson, who is from Luckey, Ohio, and has family in the area, was production manager for The Wizard of Oz when it was at the Valentine Theatre in November, and for Cabaret when it was there in January.
He and the crew finished a weekend of Cabaret in Richmond, Va., Feb. 25, and then it was on to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville for performances through Sunday.
His job is to make sure he and his crew have everything needed to put up the show, do the show, and then get out and move on to the next venue in the allotted amount of time, Thompson said.
Months before, he starts by advancing each venue on paper, comparing the size of the stage to the requirements of the show, and how it will fit. For example, is there a loading dock? How, exactly, will they load the show in, and how will they load it out? He does another advance a week or two out.
For Cabaret, he and his crew were coming to Toledo after performances in Worcester, Mass., and Thompson calculated that he and his crew of 11, and 50 more workers hired locally, plus the three 53-foot semi trucks of equipment would have to be at the Valentine in Toledo by 5:30 a.m. to get the show in place for curtain time at 7:30 p.m.
When they arrive, they start marking the floor between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and unloading of the trucks starts at 6:30 or 7 a.m. depending on when they start the floor mark-up.
“We mark spots on the floor with chalk where things need to go. After everything is marked out on the floor. Step 2, a laser is placed on the chalk mark shooting up into the steel grid of the building and a rigger who is walking the steel beams 80 feet above the stage floor lowers a rope onto the exact spot the laser is coming from.
“Step 3, a 1-ton chain motor is attached to the rope and hoisted up to the steel by a team of three riggers and attached to the building’s steel beams. This process is repeated 24 times until all 24 motors are in the air and all motors are secured to the main building’s steel. Step 4, all of the shows’ lighting, sound, and scenery is then attached to the 24 motors’ truss and rigging. Step 5, everything is raised up to a set height (36 feet on this show) via those 24 chain motors.
“Once everything is raised up to height, we can lay down the show floor and start build the ground scenery and lighting and sound. Once everything is in the building and placed, we can begin focusing lighting and sound and placing props and wardrobe, basically getting ready for that evening’s show. With any luck and a good local crew and venues, it is now 1 p.m., because after all the rigging is up in the air we still have hours of lighting focus and audio tuning, props set up, wardrobe set up, and more. The cast arrives at 5 p.m. for a two-hour sound check, and at 7:30 p.m, it’s showtime,” Thompson said.
The crew includes three carpenters who handle the scenery moving on and offstage, two props people who take care of props and set dressings, and two electricians, “one to run the light board and one to run the follow spot,” and two audio people who control microphones.
“If the show’s at 7:30 p.m. and it ends at 9:30 or 10, we’ve got five hours to load it back up on our three trucks and get to where we’re going next, to start [the process] again at 6 a.m.
“It’s our job to get the show in so the performers can come in, do what they need to do, and do the show, and our job is to stay on time and maintain a strict schedule.” And, he added, they take the weather into consideration; a major snowstorm could mean an hours-long delay.
In his job you never stop learning; every show requires different skills, and he picks up skills with each job and learns from other companies. Every year there are new safety standards and new OSHA codes to research, and the rules and regulations of each venue. And he never stops going to classes.
He watches performances, but not for entertainment. He’s keeping an eye on them because part of his job is “to make sure it is exactly as it was when we tech it with the directors,” so he watches different parts of the show every night. “My local crew of 11 actually runs the show so they don’t get a break during [the performances].”
Thompson does see the new shows. “I know that eventually I’m going to be doing them; it’s a kind of research,” he said with a laugh.
Two of his high school teachers at Eastwood High School got him interested in theater, including acting in some shows when he was about 14. He was one of the first technical studies students at an Interlochen Center for the Arts music camp. He learned a lot about lighting by working with his father, an electrician, while growing up, and lighting design and special effects are part of his work.
After graduating from Eastwood in 1985, Thompson moved to New York and worked for Production Arts, which did a lot of lighting, and he took off from there.
And the show goes on; Thompson will be on the road with The Wizard of Oz and Cabaret until the end of May.
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the Tony Award-winning musical, is coming to the Stranahahan Theater for six performances March 8-11, offering a contemporary take on the classic story. The production includes some of the composers’ most remembered songs, including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible/It’s Possible,” and “10 Minutes Ago,” plus that girl in the glass slipper.
Shows are at 7:30 March 8, at 8 p.m. March 9, 2 and 8 p.m. March 10, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 11. Tickets are $33 to $89 and available from broadwayintoledo.com and the Stranahan Theater box office, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., by calling 866-381-7469 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 to 1 p.m. Saturday.
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