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.



AUGUST 21, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Education Department Puts Students at Center Stage

When I was a high school senior, I had the opportunity to submit an original piece to Syracuse Stage’s annual Young Playwrights Festival, a program that encourages high school students across Central New York to submit their very own ten-minute plays. Two of my classmates were actually selected among the winners, and my entire Creative Writing class had the thrill of watching their plays performed live at Syracuse Stage! Each year, more and more students from Central New York submit their best work. In fact, this spring 325 plays were submitted – a record number since the program began 20 years ago.


Director of Education and Outreach, Lauren Unbekant and Syracuse University Department of Drama Students at the Young Playwrights Festival. 

While Syracuse Stage’s primary goal is to give the Central New York Community quality theatrical performances, it also takes education very seriously. With the help of Lauren Unbekant, director of educational outreach, and Kate Laissle, assistant director of education, this educational aspect of theatre extends beyond the doors of our theatre and out into the community – particularly into area schools.
 

Kate Laissle, Assistant Director of Education, welcomes patrons to the Sensory Friendly performance of Mary Poppins. 

One of Syracuse Stage’s educational programs aims is to teach life lessons like friendship, perseverance and individuality, as well as an early appreciation for the theatre. This upcoming season, for example, Syracuse Stage’s Children’s Tour will present Metamorphan, the story of a young boy who transforms in order to fit in. Shows like Metamorphan are carefully selected, designed and produced around questions that fulfill specific goals. What is the main point of the project? What do students want to learn? Who do we want our audience to be? Once a project is proposed and devised, the education department interacts with local schools and teachers, as well as nearly every department within Syracuse Stage, to produce a high quality show that will enlighten young audiences with new and creative experiences.
 
For example:
 
  • Each fall, the Children’s Tour brings fully-staged performances to elementary school audiences, filled with magic, wonder, fantastic costumes and important lessons. Students can even interact with the actors and ask questions after the performance.
  • Syracuse Stage serves as the regional host for the Word to the World: Young Playwrights for Change, a national competition for playwrights in grades 6 through 8.
  • The Backstory program provides interactive, theatrical history lessons. Characters like Anne Frank and the Tuskegee Airmen jump from the textbook page to the stage, giving students an opportunity to see remarkable historical figures come to life.
  • Students groups can attend special 10:30 a.m. performances throughout the season and receive useful study guides to promote discussion during and after each show.
  • The Young Adult Council allows local teens to give input into programming, as well as provide insight on how involvement with performing arts has impacted their lives.
“Theatre can stretch the edges of what we consider to be comfortable. We’re generating a new, up and coming audience,” explained Unbekant. “We want to expose young people to the [current world] of theatre to help create well-rounded individuals.”
 
Laissle agreed. According to her, it’s about “developing students’ skills.” Performing arts have the ability to expand students’ horizons, either up on stage or watching intently from the audience.
 
Whether it’s welcoming students into our very own theatre or bringing educational experiences to the stages of local schools, our education department combines stage with study. While it’s important to bring people into our theatre each night, it’s essential to bring the art of theatre outside in order to foster the next generation of theatre goers. I’ll never forget the excitement of writing my own play for Syracuse Stage. I hope plenty of other students can have the same opportunity to write, grow and explore the excitement that theatre brings to our lives.


AUGUST 14, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Front of House Welcomes Patrons and Volunteers Alike

Syracuse Stage believes that first impressions matter. Actors walk on stage in character and ready to perform. The lighting and sound designs have been approved and are ready for the curtain to open. This first impression, however, is not just for the stage. The front of house staff works equally as hard to create an environment that is as inviting and exciting as inside the theatre itself.
 
As you walk into the lobby of Syracuse Stage, you see comfortable seating, a coffee cart, full bar, and variety of volunteers. Each table is decorated with carefully selected flowers. The ability to pre-order your drinks before intermission makes business more efficient. A lot of details go into running the front of house, and director of audience services Lydia Kubiniec keeps them all organized. Serving up to 500 customers during every performance can be difficult, but she manages to keep it all under control. As Kubiniec completes her first season with Syracuse Stage, she strives to “creatively make patron experiences better.”
 
Kubiniec is also responsible for organizing and training the nearly 300 volunteers that work at Syracuse Stage each year. Anyone can volunteer at the organization after attending an annual training session. Volunteers range from mothers and daughters to recent retirees to theatre-loving empty nesters. At Syracuse Stage, volunteer ushers make every visit more enjoyable.
                                          

Lydia Kubiniec grills for volunteer ushers as a "thank you" for their time helping Syracuse Stage. 

Before you can see a performance at Syracuse Stage, however, you’re going to need a ticket. Thanks to Courtney Richardson, assistant director of ticketing and subscription services, purchases can easily be made by clicking, calling, or stopping by the Box Office. With a background in teaching and customer service, it’s clear that Richardson is right for the job. Whether you’re picking up one ticket for a single performance or buying Flex Packs for the family to enjoy, she starts your Syracuse Stage visit off on the right foot. Richardson also plays a role in training and overseeing Syracuse University students working in the Box Office.
 
Richardson and Kubiniec deal with different elements of the front of house, but both stressed how “multi-faceted” their jobs were, often working with other departments to provide a positive theatre-going experience. Kubiniec can work with development on corporate events, team up with education for special programming, and reach out to marketing to promote special events and opportunities. Richardson works with group sales to encourage groups of friends, family, and even coworkers to come to Syracuse Stage and share in these great productions.
 
The 15 minutes right before the show are the true test, and Richardson finds them to be the most challenging part. Luckily, however, it is the time where she and Kubiniec really come together to ensure that welcoming the crowds to the front of house goes off without a hitch. As Richardson and her team distribute tickets and handle any possible issues, Kubiniec manages the lobby, checking that patrons are happy, but also watching out for any potential emergencies. If Richardson needs help with seating a patron, Kubiniec is ready. As you walk by the Box Office and into the lobby, the communication amongst the front of house is efficient, knowledgeable, and prepared.
 
The front of house staff welcomes people to Syracuse Stage before the show begins. It’s where patrons can sit before the theatre opens, discuss potential plot twists during intermission, and even catch up with someone they may not have seen in a while after the show. Kubiniec and Richardson’s work is admired before the curtain even opens, leaving a first impression that will bring comfort, entertainment, and enjoyment to patrons for years to come.



AUGUST 8, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Costumes as a Form of Communication

In a world of constant communication, there is evident popularity in sharing stories. While much of this daily communication occurs digitally, theatre remains as a common form of live story telling. While lines and plot points are equally as important, there is a less obvious element of theatre that communicates a deeper understanding of each character. As newly designed Victorian gowns, curly wigs, and repurposed suits carry characters across the stage each night, another form of communication enters the lives of theatregoers.
 
Costumes can enhance any theatrical performance drastically, molding the production into a more understandable presentation of the characters’ reality. Costumes and wigs reveal more than the style of a specific time period, and they’re never selected just because an actor has nothing else to wear. As costume shop manager, Gretchen Darrow-Crotty oversees the cutters, drapers, stitchers, and craftsmen who seamlessly bring these costumes from the page to the stage.

 
















Gretchen Darrow-Crotty in the Syracuse Stage costume shop during Open House 2016

Beginning her 22nd season with Syracuse Stage, Darrow-Crotty has two primary responsibilities: to manage workflow and work as a liaison between staff and costume designers. With the largest staff at Syracuse Stage, the eight-person costume department’s work begins about a year before each opening night, and it takes someone as experienced as Darrow-Crotty to tie up every loose end. Whether our staff is collaborating with an outside designer or repurposing previously used pieces, Syracuse Stage’s costume shop houses every needle, thread, and pin necessary to create what the audience sees on stage.
 
Much like in our everyday life, a lot of consideration goes into choosing the perfect dress and hair color. According to Sarah Stark, one of Darrow-Crotty’s trusted wardrobe supervisors and wig masters, costume and wig fittings are vital in ensuring that movement and action are not compromised during a performance.
 
“You want costumes to support the actor’s work, not hinder it,” she explained. Costumes enrich an actor’s performance, but the wear and tear of working night after night shouldn’t prevent someone from looking his or her best. Costumes and wigs must appear as rich and clean as they were the night before. Wigs might be used because a hairstyle is so specific, it could be difficult to recreate each night. For example, in Syracuse Stage’s recent production of Disgraced, the costumer designer wanted the lead character’s wife to have trendy, well-kept blonde hair, and a wig better conveyed that personality on stage.
 
What makes theatrical story telling so unique is that it occurs live and right in front of us. As digital notifications and story-filled screens continually distract us, the true value of story telling, bringing people together, can become lost in translation.
 
“Story telling is a part of every culture,” explained Darrow-Crotty. “We live in a world of instant, digital communication and forget to see [what’s happening directly] around us. Theatre can be uncomfortable, but it [allows us to] actually communicate face to face.”
 
“One person performing for another is a communication that, if missing, can create a deficit in someone’s life,” added Stark. “We need to step away from work, money, and technology. Putting yourself in front of an experience different from your own opens up doors and creates discussion.” Wardrobe and hair are just some of the essential factors of theatre. Without them, we fail to fully connect to the characters we’re presented with. Syracuse Stage’s costume department combines craft with conversation, putting digital communication and social media posts aside as new theatrical experiences take center stage. 



JULY 31, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Bob Hupp and Kyle Bass’ Collaboration Embraces Theatre’s Defining Features 

One of theatre’s most distinct features is that no two performances are exactly the same. Unlike a television show or feature film, live theatre exists in the moment and presents potential for the unpredictable. This ephemeral quality provides a unique experience for each audience. The variability of individual performances however, is not something to be feared. For artistic director Bob Hupp and associate artistic director Kyle Bass, it is a desirable quality that imitates our own human experience. Theatre possesses its own mortality.
 
One of Hupp and Bass’ most important jobs is selecting the plays for an upcoming season. With many shows to choose from, it’s the potential for a fresh and memorable interpretation that often makes one worth selecting. The variety of values and ideas that Bass and Hupp present allows this selection process to run smoothly. While both took over their positions in the summer of 2016, they possess differing backgrounds and experiences. Hupp came to Syracuse after 17 years at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, while Bass started at Syracuse Stage in 1993. According to Bass, his knowledge of Syracuse Stage’s past complements Hupp’s knowledge of theatre outside of Central New York.

 















Bob Hupp & Kyle Bass

Both men look at each play with different goals in mind. According to Bass, Hupp, as an experienced director, “looks to see how direction can solve a problem the writing presents.” Bass, however, views each piece with a more literary eye. Having worked as a dramaturge, Bass describes a play’s infrastructure as “the spine of the audience’s experience.” For Bass, it’s not about solving the writing’s issues. It’s about having a well-written foundation. One of next season’s shows, A Raisin in the Sun, for example, is an American classic but can accommodate new staging and interpretation.
 
Hupp and Bass are an excellent example of how a multi-faceted staff works successfully.
 
“Theatre is a collaborative art form,” said Bass. “We must practice the art of what we do.” At Syracuse Stage, the artistic department is just one of many working together. With department heads meeting at least once a week, the organization recognizes the importance of different opinions and teamwork both on stage and off.
 
As artistic director and associate artistic director, Hupp and Bass wear many hats, facing each responsibility with experience and strong skill sets. While this can be difficult, each challenge, if met, quickly becomes worthwhile by seeing performances delight Syracuse Stage patrons.
 
“The most rewarding part is seeing a production on stage,” said Hupp. “The arts can be a common pulse [in each of us]. I hope [more people] can make it a part of their lives.”
 
“No other art form shows us [to ourselves] as powerfully as theatre,” added Bass. Seeing a well-written script come to life in real time takes audience members on a journey that can never again be seen in exactly the same light.
 
Theatre’s live experience is unlike any other art form, or as Bass puts it, “Theatre is an act of smoke. It echoes human mortality.” Off stage, our personal perspective is what gives us a sense of individuality. On stage, the stories presented live are different every night, giving audience members a theatrical experience as unique as their own.
 
While this temporal state may seem startling, Hupp and Bass see it as something to be embraced, making Syracuse Stage patrons eager to see each new production before the smoke of closing night finally fades. 



JULY 24, 2017

Behind the Curtain: Technical Directors Steffen and Schuetz "Embrace the Madness"

“How wide is the hoop skirt going to be?” You might think this question comes from the costume department, but at Syracuse Stage, it’s actually asked by technical director Randy Steffen.

 
“You can’t build a door that’s wide enough [without knowing] how big a skirt is going to be,” explained Steffen. As he begins his 17th season with Syracuse Stage, questions like this have become rather routine. With the help of assistant technical director Rebecca Schuetz, Steffen and the production team bring a set designer’s artistic vision to life. Steffen and Schuetz’s past experiences, from building Ferris wheel carts to making rain fall on the stage, make them just right for the job.
 


Technical Director Randy Steffen and Assistant Technical Director Rebecca Shuetz

So what exactly does a technical director do? Steffen describes it as “ensuring a safe and artistically viable set on schedule.” When a production is selected, the different design departments meet for a first look at the scenic designer’s artistic vision. “We’re engineers for a set designer,” explained Steffen. “We look at the ideas and see how exactly we can pursue them.” In simpler terms, a technical director will receive ideas and sketches from the scenic designer, draft it to the correct scale, and build it.
 
This process, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Schuetz, who has been with Syracuse Stage for seven years, explained how the details matter most. It’s not just about hammering nails into wood. Variables like materials, electrics, paint, costumes and choreography all have to be considered for the set to work as well as possible. Once meetings with the designers are complete, Steffen and Schuetz begin drafting the designs to scale before purchasing equipment and creating instructions for each piece. All of the set pieces are constructed in Syracuse Stage’s own facility, and after a few are sent to the paint shop a few blocks away, the load-in process can begin. Scenery, electrics, and props from a previous production are swapped out, and the new production begins to breathe on stage.
 
As scenery can be constructed for multiple productions at once and various departments are consulted, Steffen and Schuetz have no choice but to “embrace the madness.” According to Schuetz, time and communication management are key to a successful production process.
 
“Half of our interactions take place as we pass one another in the hallway,” explained Steffen. “Having more than one opinion allows you to make the best use of each individual’s skill set.”
 
Despite the stress that might come from meeting deadlines and quick problem solving, Steffen and Schuetz say it’s all worth it when a production finally goes up on stage. Seeing how theatre can change someone’s perspective is really rewarding.
 
“Theatre fosters empathy,” explained Schuetz. “You might learn a lot about someone who is very different from you thanks to organizations like this.” Steffen added, “Syracuse Stage gives people the opportunity to see works that might not be accessible every day. I’m glad I [get to be] a part of it.”
 
While you might not notice how wide a hoop skirt really is, details like this are what make Steffen and Schuetz's job so important. Theatre lovers dare to dream whether behind the stage or sitting in the audience, but without the practicality of technical direction, those dreams rarely become a reality. The technical production team at Syracuse Stage can execute the most outrageous and whimsical designs perfectly, hitting the nail right on the head.


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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