The Show Behind the Show, What it Takes for Theatre Design and Technology Students to Create a Musical Production
March 23, 2023
When going to see a University of Northern Colorado musical theatre production, the audience can expect to enjoy characters and music coming to life. What isn't as obvious is all the activity happening behind the stage and the preparation that took place weeks prior. Working just as rigorously as the dancers, singers and actors are the Theatre Design and Technology students that make sure every microphone is on, every light is shining, every pair of pants fit and the orchestra is heard.
All of that is possible through the state-of-the-art design labs and advanced technical equipment the students have access to at UNC. That, along with the industry professionals and faculty that design alongside them, is what creates the professional standard shows that move the audiences.
In the case of UNC’s latest production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, 60 students were involved in creating the show, half of which were tasked with behind-the-scenes duties. Take a look at four specific roles seniors took on that helped make Cinderella’s glass slipper fit night after night a possibility.
- Costume Design – Tim Cortez
For Theatre Design and Technology senior Tim Cortez, his job as the costume designer for the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella started when he first received the script back in December, way before any rehearsal took place.
“The first decision I make is deciding how many costumes I want in the show,” said Cortez. “And then from that list, I figure out how many costumes can I get from the shop we have at UNC, how many costumes do I need to find, and buy and which costumes should we make?”
In the case of Cinderella, Cortez and his crew custom-made eight gowns and performed alterations on the other dozens of garments chosen for the 30-member student cast. He also worked alongside a professional wig designer who designed and styled wigs that fit with his design vision for each character, giving Cortez experience with industry professionals.
“Since the Rodger and Hammerstein’s script is already different from the original Cinderella, I wanted to do my own thing and try to style the show uniquely compared to what has been done on Broadway or any time before,” Cortez said. “So, all of the transformations were the first thing that I thought of, how can I make this magic on my own?”
To answer that question, Cortez turned to Drag Queens and big costume reveals he’s seen in Drag Shows as inspiration to elevate Cinderella into a more modern production.
“I’m really proud of where all the dresses and other costumes landed because of that,” Cortez said.
Cotez’s designs ranged from bouffant-styled dresses with intricate floral threading to long colonial striped coats and shiny gold trousers creating a diverse collection to enhance the storyline. Though he says the work to get there wasn’t always a ball.
“It’s a huge process,” Cortez said. “Normally in the industry, a costume designer will have a shopper who can go out and find things for them to choose from. But as a student costume designer, I am the shopper. So, I get to go out into the world and look for what I want. Then, I switch from designer to stitcher, so we, as student designers, really run the full gambit of what you will experience in the real world.”
The hands-on experience is what drove Cortez to attend UNC. Ahead of graduating in May, Cortez has already led the costume design for four mainstage productions.
“I owe a lot of my strengths as a designer now to my first year at UNC,” Cortez said. “At UNC, all the Theatre Design and Technology students take a class together during their first semester and it’s 16 weeks with every week being a new art project that you have to show everyone and receive feedback. Since there aren’t that many of us, it really sets the tone for the next three years and creates a community of support.”
Cortez says that support is imperative when designing multiple costumes for a production the size of Cinderella.
“This show pushed me to do a lot more, a lot faster and make decisions, and be confident in my decisions,” Cortez said. “I came in on Jan. 1 with my design ready to show people and then by the end of the week, I was supposed to have a rack pulled and ready. So, the community makes those situations more bearable.”
- Sound Design – Matt Pappas
For Theatre Design and Technology senior Matt Pappas, his role was to make the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella as immersive as possible through sound.
“I make sure there are no solos or group numbers that would drag the audience out of the experience and the fantasy that they’ve put themselves in while watching the show,” Pappas said.
Pappas has always had a passion for learning about how sound works and succeeded in his first sound design during a production at UNC last year.
“I love the psychological aspect of it and being able to affect the directionality of sound as well as the audience’s reaction to those sounds,” Pappas said. “Especially how it spurs on actors' performances the same way getting a new prop would, or something similar.”
During Cinderella, Pappas is at the soundboard sitting behind the audience in Langworthy Theatre, that allows him to transport many different sounds throughout the show.
“Each dial on the board normally affects the level of sound that’s being outputted to get a good clean mix,” Pappas said. “Sometimes you want a little less flute and more clarinet, or you want to highlight the violin and take down a bit of the upright bass. So, I decide those things for each scene. The same goes for big finale numbers such as in this piece, toward the end during the wedding, the fairy godmother had a solo in a group number where her voice has to rise above everyone else's. So, I made sure that that’s clean and lowered other groups to make sure that she stood out.”
Along with adjusting sound levels, Pappas also has to decide where the sound should come from; deciding which microphones need to be turned on and when, and where the microphones are physically located.
“Some are better located on cast members foreheads, some may be better on cheeks., And so being able to assign that to each person is my job,” Pappas said. The same goes for which type of mic is being used for each instrument in the pit.”
Then, there’s the task of creating sound effects.
“I like to use the digital audio workspace called ProTools, which helps me edit the samples I find in any videos that I like,” Pappas said. “Every once in a while, I go outside and I record something outside to use as a sound effect. I tend to overlay a bunch of different sounds and then through effects, panning, and volume control, you get a single effect.”
Pappas created 50 sound effects for Cinderella on top of what the orchestra was performing. That experience, being able to indulge in his creative side as well as becoming an expert on soundboard equipment, is invaluable to him as he gets closer to graduating and looking for work in the industry.
“Educational theater at UNC is fantastic because you’re set to professional standards with some educational leniency, and it allows you to have all the tools at your disposal and definitely all the troubleshooting that you can imagine,” Pappas said. “You have professional resources where if you’re truly stumped, you can always say I need help.”
The biggest advantage Pappas says he gains from designing the sound of a production like Cinderella is going through the experience with his fellow students who trust and support his creativity.
“Everyone behind the scenes and on the stage may be working together during 11, 12-hour days and we can all eat lunch together, so having that mutual respect and friendship form out of that is not only great for yourself, but for networking too,” Pappas said. “It keeps you sane during a show knowing we’re all in it together.”
- Light Design – Caden J. Lefler
For Theatre Design and Technology senior Caden J. Lefler, his role during the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is to make sure the audience sees every important gesture, dance and transition throughout each scene, which requires a lot of preparation.
“My work started before the cast had even auditioned because my job is to figure out the overall mood and atmosphere of what we want to present, how we want the audience to feel and how we want to influence what their thoughts and opinions are about certain scenes,” Lefler said.
Once those decisions are made, Lefler starts by mapping out where every light will be located on a large piece of paper known as a Light Plot, which he gives to the crew before making sure every light is focused and set the way he wants them.
“The hardest part is figuring out how it’s all going to happen,” Lefler said. “I have it all playing out in my head really well, but then physically putting it on the stage is a little bit of a different story.”
This is his third mainstage production as the lighting designer during his tenure at UNC. While Lefler says Cinderella was very technically challenging with so many students cast in the show, unlike other jobs on set, when it came to opening day, Lefler’s work was finished.
“I am completely removed. I am hands off and out the door,” Lefler said. “My time typically ends the day before we open, though I am still on call at that point, I hand my design over to the board operator and the master electrician who is making sure everything’s on and working before every show.”
This means Lefler’s busy time is weeks before the audience is getting ready to buy their tickets.
“I have to create a list of lighting cues, and this wonderful show had approximately 250 cues, so, I put those in order, and I spend weeks ahead of the show on the set making sure the positioning of the lights is right and nailing down the look and design of each cue,” Lefler said. “Then, after running it through with the actors and dress rehearsal, I’ll fine-tune some things and lock in transitions, timing and intensity.”
Lefler said his main focus on this show was all about color.
“I used a full LED color wash system, so very little neutral front light and a lot of these big high-intensity colors coming from all angles,” Lefler said. “That was my main goal was to get a lot of color on the stage to follow this fairy tale dreamland as Cinderella is. So, I threw a lot of atmospherics in the air, a lot of haze and low-lying fog to transcend the stage into a cloud-like world.”
Lefler also collaborated with Assistant Professor of Theatre Design and Technology Assistant Professor Mary Houston who designed the set for Cinderella. Houston’s expertise provided a playing space for not only the performers but also for Lefler to showcase his lighting.
“My favorite part is being able to showcase and shape the environment and atmosphere during a show,” Lefler said. “Coming to UNC has been everything I ever wanted. We have a great theatre program that is so hands-on with a lot of great mentors helping us along the way.”
- Stage Manager – Jordyn Good
For Theatre Design and Technology senior Jordyn Good, her role during the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was to make sure every part of the production ran smoothly for 30 cast and 30 crew members.
“My job encompasses a lot,” Good said. “I’m in charge of making sure people are at rehearsal when they’re supposed to be, so, building those schedules, I'm taking notes during production meetings and running the meeting while doing that and I’m the main focal point of all the different aspects in terms of communication and problem-solving.”
Having to wear so many different hats at all times, the stage manager position requires steady leadership and task management, which Good said was tested during the weeks leading up to the show.
“I learned a lot about communicating with different types of people,” Good said. “There are a lot of different aspects that we’re going on at the same time and learning how to make 60 people on this show work as a collaboration to make sure the show goes off smoothly was a big challenge for me.”
To be successful in that, Good says down-to-the-minute planning is a necessity.
“I have to make sure the performers know what time they need to put their microphones and wigs on, when they need to change into their costumes as well as making sure all of the different departments know exactly what is going on and when,” Good said.
Essentially, Good is everyone’s fairy godmother helping make the magic behind the scenes happen.
“It’s an absolute thrill,” Good said. “I love being able to support and lead a big group of people. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Good’s theatre passion began in high school, but she says it ramped up when she arrived at UNC because of opportunities like this – being the stage manager for Cinderella.
“I heard through the grapevine that UNC’s Theatre Design and Technology program in particular has a lot of hands-on experience,” Good said. “It was a key point as to why I chose to come to visit UNC and enroll. I get to work and collaborate with students, professionals and professors who make it feel like a real-world experience, or as close as we can get.”
And while Good spends most of her time talking through a headset to dozens of people answering questions and relaying orders, she knows she’s done her job well when she can sit in the second-level booth and take in the show knowing her crew behind the scenes is just as prepared as the crew on stage.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Good said. “Now that it’s over it’s slightly confusing because I have free time now, which I'm not used to, but we’ll make it work.”
Watch the behind-the-scenes magic through the lens of Theatre Design and Technology students below:
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella ran from March 2-5 with five performances.
– written by Sydney Kern