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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Problem-Solving Production Managers Working Behind the Scenes at the BAM Fisher

Everybooty, 2018. Photo: Santiago Felipe

By David Hsieh

The black box Fishman Space in the BAM Fisher was built to be flexible, and since it opened in 2012, artists have come up with unexpected ways to test that flexibility. There have been shows in the round, on three sides, with the audience sitting on stage, with rocking chairs as seats, and with no seats at all. In the most recent Next Wave, for instance, there were productions that made audiences see the theater in completely new ways: Michelle Dorrance’s Elemental went above audience’s heads to dance on the lighting grids; Andrew Schneider’s NERVOUS/SYSTEM turned the theater into a magic lantern with each blackout revealing a new tableau; Jesper Just’s Interpassivities made audience walk on “terra infirma” the whole time. And this Pride Weekend, it will become a nightclub with Everybooty.

So how do we bring these artists’ ceaseless creative ideas to the stage? The secret lies with our ingenious production managers/supervisors, Collins Costa and Courtney Wrenn. Here, they reveal their magic.

Collins, can you take us through the unique challenges of these shows?

Collins Costa: Interpassivities had only done previous shows at warehouses and museums because Jesper was mainly a visual artist. So it required more hand-holding than usual. They already had the flooring and video. But they had to construct walls in our space. Because they didn’t have a lot of theater experience, we helped them work out the mechanics.

Collins Costa

Michelle Dorrance’s show, Elemental, was in development the whole summer, including a two-week residency in the Fisher. That was very helpful to both of us. From the get-go, she wanted to do an in-the-round show. She wanted to ziplining in instruments, dancing on the grid, playing with water. A lot of those “elements” did in fact come to fruition. They were told about our capabilities, including the hours they could have with the crew, and they made the best use of it.

Aaron Marcellus in the Dorrance Dance production Elemental during the BAM Next Wave Festival, 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas

When we first booked NERVOUS/SYSTEM, it was in-the-round. But a few months in, they said they had to change to a proscenium show and the stage would cut into seating. But those seats were already sold. Eventually we came up with the traverse seating with added seats on the other side of the stage. They also needed to fly in props during the blackouts, which the Fisher was not built for. After some research we worked out a system for them.

Jamie Roach, Kedian Keohan and Peter Musante in the Andrew Schneider production NERVOUS/SYSTEM during the BAM Next Wave Festival, 2018. Photo: Rebecca Smeyne

How does a production manager at BAM work out what is needed to put on a show?

CC: In theory, the company will first send us a “tech rider,” which is a document of what they believe their production need is. I’ll create a budget based on that document. So the role of a production manager is to look at a document, make an estimate of how many crew and how much time it will take to make it happen, and if/how much you need to spend on materials and equipment rentals. Sometimes we can’t make it happen within our budget, then we go back to the company with suggestions.

What is the essence of a production manager’s job? 

CC: You take the artistic ideas from a company, then you work out the boring side: how to get it into the space, how long will it take to get into the space, what do I need to provide equipment-wise, personnel-wise, so it can happen the way the artists imagine it. And you take it all the way until the show is finished.

Abigail Simon and Jin Zhang in the Jesper Just Production Interpassivities during the BAM Next Wave Festival, 2018. Photo: Jin Zhang

What is the unique challenge of the Fisher? 

CC: Because it’s so small, maximizing audience size is always paramount. But the point of a versatile space is to play with it. The Fisher shows, compared to those in our two other houses, have a higher percentage of new productions—those that haven’t been in many other theaters. They may have workshopped elsewhere. But we can provide larger resources to realize their vision. Our default attitude is to say yes, then we work out the solutions.

Everybooty is a show/party that BAM curates and produce in-house, which is unusual for us as a presenter. Courtney, how do you work out the challenges?

Courtney Wrenn: I am very invested in Everybooty, so when I knew we were producing it I wanted to be on the curatorial team. So I’ve been planning since the beginning, thinking about what actors to bring in and how to move them. Those conversations have been ongoing since January.

I’ve been working hard with artists individually. This show is based on a nightlife performance. These performers don’t usually have the resources that the Fisher can provide, so I worked with them on problem solving. I took a more active role in their creative process.

Everybooty, 2018. Photo: Santiago Felipe

Where did you get the expertise?

CW: I toured nationally with the Broadway shows Ghost and Sister Act as a prop person. I also worked at the Delacorte Theater in the Central Park. Each space has its own challenges and I have seen a lot of them.

I think It’s important to admit what you don’t know. The internet is always great. Our production team has 13 people and everybody has a different strength. For instance, I was a prop person. Ryan [Gastelum] was a sound designer. Paul [Bartlett] and Brian [Sciarra] were lighting designers. Dylan [Nachand] and Palmer [Johnston] came from rock shows. There’s a real depth, and we are collaborative. I don’t think we have encountered a situation in which you pose a question to 13 of us and we’re completely stumped.

What are the qualities that make one a good production manager? 

CW: We have different styles. We deal with problems differently. But qualities inherent in all of us are flexibility, resourcefulness, and productive attitudes. Something is always going to go wrong before curtain… so rolling with the punches is a good attitude to have.

Everybooty is at the BAM Fisher on June 29.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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