Behind the Scenes

Published 2:58 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It’s 10 a.m. on the morning of a Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts performance, and the stage is abuzz with activity.

Stage technicians have been there since 7 a.m., setting up antique furniture. Now it’s light check time. A stagehand backs up a Genie Lift, beeping his way across the stage. When he gets in place, the lift whirs up to the light fixture, and the tech begins adjusting it.

Down below, Kate Robinson shuffles through a stack of papers to find the light specifications for “FDR,” a one-man performance by Ed Asner of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” fame. Finding the right page, she directs the man in the bucket lift where to shine the light.

Meanwhile, two men are furling an American flag just so and taping it to its support pole so that it will stay in place during the show. They then repeat the process for a flag on the other side of the stage, not getting this one ruffled quite as perfectly as the first. By the time the process is over, both men have several squares of the tape stuck on their shirts.

“That’s called gaffer’s tape,” offers Paul Lasakow, the center’s director. Gaffer’s tape is similar to duct tape, but is easier to tear and does not leave a residue. “Pretty much the industry would fall apart if it wasn’t for this stuff. I have a roll in my car. I have several rolls in my house. I took a roll to my wedding, and I used it.”

On stage, the light check continues. Robinson stands at an antique podium, plants the tip of her left thumb on top of her head, wiggles her fingers and stands on her toes, trying to simulate Asner’s height as another tech adjusts the fixture that will illuminate Asner at the lectern.

Next, Robinson heads to stage left and walks to stage right, the palm of her right hand facing the empty 500-seat house.

“I’m a little dark right here,” Robinson yells to a technician on the catwalk above.

“He’ll spend very little time over here,” replies Asner’s production manager, Ron Nash, from the orchestra pit. “I’m not as worried about this as I am the desk and podium.”

As a final light check, technician Russell Brown sits in the 1930s wheelchair, procured from Craigslist especially for the show, and wheels himself around the stage. Nash seems satisfied with the position of the lights, and the crew moves on to sound check.

Suddenly, the house is filled with the incessant ringing of a phone. Technician Ian Flinn rushes onto the stage and snatches the receiver from the desk.

“Hello?” Flinn answers impatiently, as the phone rings again.

Not hearing anybody on the other end, Flinn curses and slams the phone down. It continues to ring.

The phone, not surprisingly, is one of only three sound cues in Asner’s one-man show — but it will ring more than 10 times before the show is over with.

The time is almost noon, and the technicians gather at the sound desk to place orders for sub sandwiches. One leaves with cash in hand, as the rest sit in theater chairs and talk about past productions. The technicians freelance at the center and dozens of other arts venues in the Hampton Roads area.

An hour later, the technicians get back to work as Asner arrives at the center. After a quick lunch in the main dressing room, Nash helps Asner attach a wig to his bald head with squares of adhesive. The dressing room is largely bare, consisting only of a couch, a few chairs, a desk, a large mirror, a movable clothing rack and plenty of lighting.

With about an hour before the show, Asner walks on stage in the Birdsong Theater, seats himself in the antique wheelchair and takes it for a spin as a few ticket-taking volunteers look on.

“The first hundred days of a presidency are a cakewalk,” he grumbles as he wheels himself in front of the desk. “Everybody’s kind to you. Then you make a few speeches, pass a few bills, and the opposition begins to mount.”

As technicians crisscross the stage taking care of last-minute details, Asner investigates the props on his desk — antique books, an ashtray and a cigarette in an old-fashioned cigarette holder. Gingerly lifting one of the dusty books, Asner swears.

“It’s ‘The Sea-Wolf’ in Italian,” Asner says. “That’s cute.”

“Save the foul language for the show,” Nash gently admonishes, eliciting laughter from the technicians.

Back in the dressing room, Nash takes a sweater from a hanger on the clothing rack and helps Asner into it about five minutes before the show. After a round of photos with Suffolk Center personnel, Asner lumbers out of the dressing room and into the hallway.

Lasakow pauses to ask Asner if he will sign autographs after the show.

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” Asner growls. “Tell them to bring money.”

Asner climbs the steps from the dressing room to the backstage area and seats himself in the wheelchair. After some minor backstage preparations, it is 3 p.m. and time for the show to start.

Lasakow, with an uncomfortable look on his face, backs out of the door leading to the dressing room.

“I hate speeches,” he says to no one in particular.

A few seconds later, Lasakow appears in front of the audience in front of the stage and welcomes the crowd. As Lasakow highlights other performances at the center, a stagehand wheels Asner to a point just behind a curtain.

When Lasakow finishes his speech and disappears, Nash takes over. Seated on a chair backstage with three-ring binders open on music stands in front of him, Nash can direct the entire performance by way of a headset that connects to the light and sound booths, and a microphone that goes to an earpiece in Asner’s right ear. The script, marked with neon stickers labeled with light and sound cues, is illuminated by blue lamps.

“Cue sound A. Cue house lights,” Nash says softly into the headset.

“Sound A” is a recording of a portion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933. Elected as president in the throes of the Great Depression, Roosevelt used his address to assure the people that he would help them.

“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” the recording booms throughout the house. “The people of the United States have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate.”

When the recording stops, a stagehand gives Asner a push, and he wheels himself onto stage to a round of applause from the audience.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” says Asner. “I’m delighted to see you.”

With the performance off to a good start, most of the people gathered backstage disappear. Only two stagehands remain, one on each side of the stage. Asner’s show is a simple one for the stagehands — there are no costume changes to execute, props to keep track of backstage or other actors to work around.

On stage, Asner as Roosevelt recites his lines and speeches easily, sometimes adding or deleting words or ad-libbing entire paragraphs. Nash keeps track by the script backstage, using the headset to bring Asner back around if he gets too far off track.

For the sound personnel, too, the show is a cakewalk — until the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Phone calls come to Roosevelt’s desk in quick succession, sometimes ringing as soon as he hangs up from the last phone call. With Nash’s carefully-placed cues through the headset, the sound crew never misses a beat.

“Standby sound J,” Nash says as Asner’s lines approach the neon sticker on the script. Then, a few seconds later, “Cue sound J.”

The only problem during the show comes about midway through, when people start slamming doors in the hallway just offstage. Nash gives Russell Brown a look, and Brown excuses himself and slips out the door, letting the handle go slowly so that it doesn’t click. He returns a few minutes later, the problem solved.

The show continues through the end of Roosevelt’s presidency in 1945. As Asner prepares to stand from the wheelchair and walk offstage, Nash utters a string of cues into the headset.

“Cue sound K. Cue house lights.”

Asner walks offstage to raucous applause, pausing in the midst of the curtains for the lights to dim and rise again. When the stage is again lit, he walks back out for the final bow.

Disappearing again into the curtains, Asner asks Nash, “So do we retire, or what?”

Nash replies, “Let’s do it again.”

As the crowd files out and Asner leaves to sign autographs, the stagehands still have work to do. They unhook and pull on a series of ropes until all the curtains on the stage have risen to the rafters, and then begin taking down the props on stage.

In the hall, Asner signs program inserts and poses for photographs until the last audience member is gone. Suffolk Center personnel get autographs for mothers and sisters.

Once all members of the public are gone, Asner takes out his earpiece and gingerly peels the wig off his head. Nash picks off the squares of adhesive as Asner grumbles his thanks to compliments from the staff.

“When you get done looking for live acts,” Asner says, “call me and I’ll come back.” ←