Hi, I’m Molly Reff. In third grade, I took to the stage as Town Crier #3 in a local production of “Cinderella” and was immediately enthralled with the world of theatre. As my participation on stage continued, I also explored another passion of mine: writing. Now a Communication major at Villanova University, these interests have brought me back to my hometown, but with a new perspective.

As Syracuse Stage’s marketing and communications intern this summer, my blog, “Behind the Curtain,” will show audiences what makes this organization so successful. I’ll explore several departments, have exclusive interviews with staff, and learn what really goes on before an audience fills the theatre. As an audience member myself, I have often wondered how a production’s process begins and ends. I hope that going “Behind the Curtain” can answer some of those questions, bringing behind-the-scenes content and backstage access into the spotlight like never before.

JULY 17, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Anderson and Wilson’s Administrative Tactics
Include Enthusiasm, Humor and New Perspectives

One of the most interesting parts of going behind the scenes at Syracuse Stage is learning about how each person found an interest in the world of theatre. For me, it came as I was mesmerized by a performance of The Nutcracker at four-years-old, but for others, it can manifest itself much later and when least expected.

For Jill A. Anderson, Syracuse Stage’s managing director, the fascination with theatre began while attending college in Wisconsin, where she was studying to become a Spanish teacher. She suddenly found herself involved in the college’s small theatre department as a stage manager. Soon she put her teaching aspirations behind her and changed her course of study to theatre. Anderson has since worked in theatre production and management in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut before coming to Syracuse in July 2016 as managing director.

Managing Director Jill Anderson, Photo: Frankie Prijatel

Coincidentally, general manager Jon Wilson also considered the field of education after majoring in theatre and working in New York City. His desire to work in theatre, however, just never went away. Wilson moved to Central New York in 1998, working at several camps, theatres, schools, and arts organizations before joining the Syracuse Stage box office team in 2014. A year later, he became general manager.

Together, their main concern is “making sure we have the resources to execute the artistic vision,” Anderson explained. How do they do that? Wilson works with contracts, theatrical unions, and oversees several departments. Anderson focuses on more external affairs, like board and University relations, as well as development and marketing.

Speaking with Anderson and Wilson together, it’s clear that their enthusiasm, humor, and differing experiences help calm the storm of their hectic list of responsibilities. They play off each other to run Syracuse Stage efficiently. Their varied backgrounds clearly complement each other well, making it easier to enhance the vision of Syracuse Stage. Having worked in a variety of states across the country, Anderson keeps Syracuse Stage fresh and competitive, while Wilson’s history in the Syracuse arts community keeps the organization true to its roots.

“Having two different points of view in this department actually makes problem solving easier,” said Wilson.

Despite these heavy responsibilities, their love of theatre is what makes them show up to work each and every day. While Wilson enjoyed working in other arts organizations, he is happy to be back in a true theatre environment - meeting patrons, watching shows, and knowing he contributes to making performances happen. Anderson’s favorite part is interacting with patrons during intermission and experiencing her love of theatre vicariously through the audience. Both are proud that Syracuse Stage brings professional live theatre to the Central New York community.

Wilson considers Syracuse Stage to be a “cultural leader” in the area. Anderson echoes his thoughts, believing that performing arts improves the quality of life here and promotes civic pride. Most of Anderson and Wilson’s work may take place away from the stage, but Syracuse Stage is clearly fortunate to have such talented and devoted administrative leaders, bringing great performances to Central New York season after season.

JULY 10, 2017

Behind the Curtain: A Look at Syracuse Stage with
Props Coordinator Mary Houston

“Can anybody imagine doing Hamlet without the skull?”

Syracuse Stage’s props coordinator Mary Houston asks this question and can’t help but let out a laugh. Houston’s knowledge and experience shone through during my conversation with her, and I learned much more about how finding the perfect pieces makes a production better. Having worked in theatre since 1990, Houston received her master’s degree in scenic design and pursued a freelance career for 20 years. Houston worked with a variety of scenic components and soon found a passion for props specifically. In 2014, she became the props coordinator and has successfully brought the on-stage worlds of Syracuse Stage and SU Drama to life ever since.

Mary and "Fluffy" the hound from Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery in 2016

Houston joked that when the props department has “done our job really well, you can’t really tell that anyone did anything.” People often forget about the books that sit upon shelves, the tables built for actors to stand on, and the cigarettes being smoked on stage, but each plays a vital role in bringing audiences along on the journey the characters take. As you watch a Syracuse Stage production, you may find excitement in the use of weapons on stage or how a bottle crashes against the wall. But, for Houston, finding the perfect piece begins long before the curtain goes up.

Before rehearsals for a new show begin, Houston meets with the production’s director and scenic designer for a first look. Are people familiar with this story? Are we telling it in a traditional fashion? What do we need? What do we have? Once the initial questions are answered, Houston, her artisan Jessica Culligan and carpenter Mike Gerlach can either sort through props in storage or start building something unique to the production. Houston, who serves as both props coordinator and prop shopper, then starts her search. From challenging pieces like a partner desk for Deathtrap, to more easily accessible antiques, Houston finds the props that will tell the story effectively.

As technical rehearsals begin, the team shifts their focus to become problem-solvers, anticipating what could (but hopefully won’t!) go wrong. Whether its supplying extra wooden spoons for a passionate percussion performance in Ring of Fire or plenty of umbrellas for Mary Poppins, Houston and the props team are ready for anything. Houston’s expertise is manifested on stage when actors smoke fake cigarettes in a way that is historically accurate, or handcuffs are handled properly based on her instruction. “When we don’t hear anything about [the props], it’s usually good news,” she said.

For the props team, the most rewarding part is employing a variety of crafts, like painting, carpentry, graphic design, and sewing. Houston mentioned that she loves how she is constantly learning something new, and that knowledge is used to help people “go on the journey [with the characters] when watching a show.” According to Houston, the world of props has evolved from paper mache to real weapons, broken glass, and authentic furniture. It’s a field worthy of exploring because of the variety of challenges and rewards it presents.

Joyce Cohen and James Lloyd Reynolds in 'Deathtrap' at Syracuse Stage. Photo by Michael Davis.

So ask yourself again, “Can anybody imagine doing Hamlet without the skull?” During your next visit to Syracuse Stage, take a minute to notice just how props elevate a story. You might find yourself answering that question, “No, you can’t.”


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