BYU Arts productions dazzle audiences and enrich lives. Yet that magic doesn’t happen spontaneously. Performers, producers, publicists, and many other participants put in countless hours of preparation. Starting with this article, “Behind the Scenes of BYU Arts” will pull back the curtain on this hidden world and will reveal the inner workings of the professional music, dance, and theatre acts presented at BYU…
PRODUCTION MANAGERS: THE WIZARDS BEHIND THE MAGIC
Before stars like violinist Joshua Bell and singer-actor Audra McDonald hit the stage, the BYU Arts production team spends months in preparation. Planning for upcoming performances can begin almost a year in advance and requires input from a variety of people. Production managers like Ben Sanders–who primarily manages dance productions and was involved in the Department of Dance’s recent performance in Beijing–are the ones who coordinate all these efforts. “We meet with the directors and all the designers, whether for costumes, lighting, scenery or makeup, to develop the concepts of the show,” Sanders explained. As the production manager meets with the director and other key players, the team refines their vision for the undertaking and establishes the budgets, logistics and staffing necessary to make it a reality.
CONJURING DIFFERENT SPELLS FOR DIFFERENT SHOWS
Because BYU Arts hosts a diverse array of performing groups, production managers need to approach their planning differently depending on whether they’re preparing for a dance, music or theatre event. Though her theatre and dance colleagues spend a great deal of time on sets and costuming, Bridget Benton, production manager for School of Music performances, explains that the biggest challenge for music performances is often their quick turnaround. “Unlike dance and theatre, we’re doing events that have a quicker up and down time,” Benton said. “You really only get one chance at it–you don’t have time for a bad show or a good show.” Benton also leads the production for many of the Bravo! series shows, like when violinist Joshua Bell conducted a master class and performed at BYU last November. Before these high-caliber performers come to BYU, many will send a “rider,” a packet of information that details how the performance is to be carried out. These details can range from how the venue should be set up to what the performer will eat. Such requests may seem finicky, but Benton respects the reasoning behind them. “The musicians are putting in tremendous amounts of time to prepare for this one single event,” Benton said. “Whether it’s the Philharmonic or an individual student recital.”
THE SORCERERS’ APPRENTICES
A large part of the production managers’ job is coordinating the efforts of their many student employees. From follow spot operators to stage managers, these students work to hone their technical skills and help create art. According to theatre production manager Jennifer Reed, running a production staff comprised mostly of students presents a unique set of challenges. “It’s hard because academic theatre is a little different, and you have to find a balance,” Reed said. “You want students to learn what it’s like to work in a professional theatre, but there’re some other considerations like classes that make it tough to find the right balance.” As students and production managers navigate these challenges, they do more than just prepare for shows. Many skills that production students learn will help them in their post-collegiate lives. “The students who work here have to have incredible prioritization skills,” Benton said. “They need to be able to see what’s going on around them, synthesize that information and make informed decisions.” In coordinating all the efforts among performers, directors, students, and more, production managers help great performances not only to touch the lives of those in the audience but also those lives who assist in bringing the magic to life. (insert promotional video of Phantom or another production) (References to other BYU Arts Production stories)
“What a gift these performers have!” “I can’t imagine how long they’ve practiced!” Moved by the passion and precision of the players on stage, audiences of BYU Arts productions often exclaim such admiration for the artistry they witness. Rarely do they see the backstage army that has been mobilizing logistics for months in advance of each memorable night…
What would audiences see if they could pull back the curtain on these preparations? The ongoing series “Behind the Scenes of BYU Arts” aims to answer that question. This article highlights the commander-like role of stage managers.
STAGE MANAGERS: COMMANDING THE ARMY
Stage managers lead the legion of backstage crew members both during a show and long before any performers hit the stage. An integral part of the conceptualizing and planning phase of any production, they work closely with production managers and directors. “I have to remember it’s not me that comes first; it’s the production and the director’s vision,” said Crysta Powell, stage manager for dance and theatre productions. “My job is to make sure their vision and dream are coming to life.” Much of a stage manager’s job consists of coordinating lighting, sound, costumes, sets and more. The arsenal for managing these elements includes a master scene list, an actor/scene breakdown, rehearsal schedules, diagrams of the set and lighting configurations, and more. “One of my big roles is to keep all the information organized and put together,” said Powell. “When nobody else feels the stress I’m feeling, it makes me feel like I am doing something right.” Powell is no stranger to the stress that comes with managing high-profile stage performances. She was the stage manager for the BYU Contemporary Dance Theatre’s recent trip to Beijing when the troupe performed at the National Center for the Performing Arts with the Beijing Dance Academy. “I learned a lot from that show,” Powell said. “It was really stressful because . . . the director (and I) ended up doing a lot of things you normally don’t do as a stage manager.”
THE COMMANDERS IN THEIR ELEMENT
The stage manager’s bread and butter is “calling the show” on the night of the performance: over headsets, the stage manager will signal the light, sound, set and other cues, scene-by-scene throughout show. They have to know every element of every scene and stay organized to keep everything on track. “A stage manager is talking five minutes into the future,” said Benjamin Sanders, who, as a production manager, works closely with the stage managers. “That communication that happens between stage managers and stagehands backstage is crucial for the show to work right.” Hannah Richardson, the stage manager for BYU’s upcoming play Pride and Prejudice, explains that audiences feel the impact of a well-called show, even if they don’t notice it. “It starts with the first cue, ‘house to half,’ which is when the lights first dim,” Richardson said. “For the people sitting in the audience it’s something that just happens, but in a show everything is called live.” Anytime a light changes or a scene change happens, the stage manager calls it. They ensure a light doesn’t turn on before a set is finished and that sounds play precisely when they should. “If an actor enters, I’ll say, ‘Spot on actor number one at 50%, upstage left – go,’ and they’ll make it happen,” Richardson said. It takes a lot of dedication and skill for stage managers to be able to do their job well, but the effort pays off in more ways than just a great show.
DRILLING SKILLS THAT LAST AFTER THE CURTAIN FALLS
After hanging up the headset and putting away the script at the end of the night, stage managers leave the theatre with skills that go beyond the stage. “If you can’t keep everything either mapped out or at least keep it in your head clearly, then [stage managing is] not for you,” Richardson said. “It’s a lot of stress management–you keeping a cool head in a difficult situation.” Even though costumes and lighting may not be of great concern outside of the theatre world, stress and crisis management skills transcend the stage into everyday life. Interdisciplinary skill sets are quickly becoming vital in the job market, and stage managers are equipped with expertise that will allow them to succeed in many different endeavors. “There are a lot of critical studies in the major,” Richardson said. “A lot of learning about art and the reason behind doing it. It’s not just putting on a show, but understanding some artistic vision.” Stage managers get the opportunity most people never have: to call all the shots in life. Even though it’s a stage life, the heavy workload of a stage manager is made worth it by the satisfaction that comes when the audience is enraptured by an impressive arts performance. “It’s hard and it takes up your life but I love it,” Powell said. “It’s worth it for me, and I don’t think I’d want to do anything else.”
NICK MENDOZA, CREATIVE SERVICES MANAGER
In the de Jong Concert Hall, the BYU Philharmonic files onto stage and begins to warm up. As the players finish tuning their instruments, the conductor, Kory Katseanes, walks on stage without a single clap and bows to row after row of empty seats. The orchestra performs a thrilling rendition of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, no. 2, and after a silent curtain call, the musicians follow their director off stage…
It is hard to imagine these first-rate musicians playing for empty seats, and, indeed, they would not perform if there were no one to enjoy it. This could very well happen were it not for the efforts of a certain talented and creative team. In an office nestled between concert halls and theatres, a group of visual wizards uses its creativity to ensure that the houses are always packed for BYU Arts events. Guiding these efforts is Nick Mendoza, the creative services manager for BYU Arts creative group. In this segment of the “Behind the Scenes of BYU Arts” series, we will take a look at the world of BYU Arts production through the lens of graphic design and marketing.
MARKETING THE MAGIC OF FINE ARTS
As the creative services manager, Nick Mendoza leads the team that attracts audiences to arts productions through a variety of marketing materials, which many take for granted. “That’s one of the things that people don’t see,” Mendoza said. “They just expect that the marketing materials show up.” The event posters, season brochure, web graphics and ads are an important part of bringing people out to the shows. By filling seats, these promotional materials also help fund future shows. “One of the major events create marketing materials for is the BRAVO! professional performing arts series,” Mendoza explained. “A lot of the ticketed events are major because they generate revenue to keep bringing in other events.” Though it may sound simple, Mendoza and his team manage a rigorous schedule of productions throughout the whole year.
DESIGNING A CAREER AT BYU
While the workload is heavy, it is a dream fulfilled for him to work for BYU. “It’s always been a dream job to work at BYU and be surrounded by people with a common faith,” Mendoza explained. “I did an undergrad here, and there’s something special about BYU.” After graduating from BYU with a BFA in Graphic Design, he worked as a graphic designer for a studio in Salt Lake City called Axis 41. Mendoza then earned his MFA in Graphic Design from the University of Utah, after which worked as an adjunct professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He then worked as a full-time professor at Texas A&M University-Kingsville teaching graphic design before taking his current job for BYU Arts. He considers himself lucky to get a second chance at being a part of the BYU culture. “You get a little sad when you graduate,” Mendoza said. “You’re happy that to get out in the workforce but sad because you’re going to miss your classmates and faculty mentors.” Though the thrust of his responsibilities includes managing the strategy and tactics of marketing for BYU Arts, he knows that his job entails more than just making sure that the productions are well attended.
TRAINING STUDENT DESIGNERS
In working with a team of student designers, Mendoza understands the opportunity he has to help undergrads prepare for future careers. “The student designers get a real hands-on experience,” Mendoza said. “They are able to see whoever the artistic director is for the event and interact with them as a client.” He described how the students’ experience combines elements of a class and an internship: a class for the things they learn and an internship for the opportunity to gain practical experience. Providing students with these opportunities early, Mendoza believes, will help frame their future careers. “I wish I had this job when I was an undergrad here and get that kind of experience instead of just learning on the job,” Mendoza said. Graduates of BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications continue to make waves in the global art world. Mendoza envisions BYU Arts creative services becoming well known for strategic and thoughtful marketing materials: a place where graphic design students can work and gain some real world experience before graduating. “When people see our marketing materials, that brings attention to the college,” Mendoza said “Hopefully, they will want to come to events here because marketing had a strategic way of getting people to come to the events.” Though he looks to the future, Mendoza thoroughly enjoys the present and the opportunities he has to develop the college through graphic design. “I kind of landed the jackpot,” Mendoza said. “I feel and I hope that I can do some great things here while I’m at BYU.”
RUSS RICHINS, THE MAN BEHIND THE SCENES
June in rural Illinois draped the Midwest’s lush greenery in an oppressive heat. Temperatures in the upper 80s are enough to wear out a filmmaker shooting for hours on end, but the humidity magnified by the Mississippi River made conditions almost unbearable. Despite any discomfort, the team of filmmakers and actors knew that telling the story of Joseph Smith would be worth any discomfort. The PBS special, American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith, would touch the lives of many in telling the story of an American and religious hero…
Helping the show go on amid challenges has proven to be a theme in the life of Russell Richins, director of arts production for BYU Arts. This installment of “Behind the Scenes of BYU Arts” introduces the man who coordinates all the aspects of Arts Production at BYU.
PREPARING TO SHARE THE GOSPEL THROUGH ART
“What makes BYU Arts Production unique is the same thing that makes BYU unique,” Richins said. “It’s bringing joy and understanding and interpretation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Though Richins announces that ideal confidently, his ability to facilitate it didn’t arise overnight. Richins grew up as an Idaho farm boy and went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in industrial design from BYU and, after three years working professionally, a Master of Fine Arts. After his time studying at BYU, Richins worked with Feature Films for Families in addition to many years freelancing. “I manage all of the work that needs to be done: everything that the camera and audience sees except the actors.” Richins said. “That’s the simple way of putting it.” An understated description of an overwhelming task – and yet Richins’ current position involves even more moving parts. Richins oversees the production of more than 500 BYU Arts performances annually and is directly involved in special projects like BYU Spectacular, and film and stage integrated productions. His primary responsibility, however, is to coordinate the different production managers for dance, theatre and music, and the operational heads that manage lighting, audio, costume, makeup and everything in between.
ENSURING SUCCESSFUL SHOWS
As formidable as it is to coordinate these different efforts, Richins has had to do it while addressing substantive changes in BYU’s Arts Production model. “There’s been a major restructuring that we’ve undergone a few years ago and a major shift in production demand,” Richins said. Richins attributes this change in workload to more performances, increased demand for media in performances and fewer students studying technical areas of arts production. “We’re having to majorly shift how we hire and … train,” Richins explained. “The number of majors coming through and focusing on the technical aspect of things is definitely down.” One of the ways Richins and the group found to remedy this is to employ people from different majors who enjoy the production side. Working in the scene shop provides field-related experience to construction management students. Many sound crew members come from the School of Music, and lighting and other crews can come from any other department. The increasing use of multimedia in the arts is another major change that Richins has observed. Richins speculates that this multimedia integration is a response to more recent audiences “raised” on everything from TV and video games to “second screens,” like cell phones and social media. “It’s more than just slides or stills,” Richins said. “People are looking for moving images and integration of all those different disciplines that we have in Arts Production.” The ability of Arts Production to adapt to changes like enrollment cycles and multimedia will prove valuable in a changing world, Richins believes.
EMBRACING THE FUTURE OF ARTS PRODUCTION
Amidst these changes, Richins sees many possibilities. “I believe that we have a unique opportunity here–not just in Arts Production, but here in the college–to foster a group of people who can see the arts for what they were meant to be–a way to bring joy and happiness into our lives.” One way that Richins envisions to cultivate that knowledge lays in the creation of an entertainment design major that focuses on the integration of multiple disciplines in the arts. He names industry competitiveness as a reason for the need of a degree focused on multimedia integration. In this way, BYU could provide students with a more rounded understanding and practice of how the disciplines interact. “Although there are fewer students in general, I see it as an opportunity to prepare a lot of people in different majors in better ways,” Richins said. Above all, Richins believes a gospel vision of the arts is what makes BYU Arts unique, and supporting that vision is one of the central goals of Arts Production. “What I have witnessed is a lot of people here are striving to meet that goal–that’s one of the things that makes us unique,” Richins said. “There are people here who are dedicated to the gospel vision of the arts, who have a specialty area, and they are bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ–the spirit of inspiration and revelation–into the work that they do.”