Dozens of battered black equipment cases line the stage of the Keller Auditorium on the morning of April 17. Sound and lighting cables snake around the cases, finding their way to amplifiers and control consoles. Battens - long steel pipes hung from the ceiling that span the width of the stage - have been lowered to waist level, and an assembly line of stagehands affix lights and backdrops to them.
In a few hours, cast members of "RAIN: A Tribute to The Beatles" will arrive for rehearsal - but until then, the stage crew is busy unloading equipment and assembling the stage.
Loading in and setting up a large stage production like RAIN is a performance unto itself. The cast is made up of stage hands, sound and lighting technicians, engineers and carpenters. The set is made up of equipment cases, unassembled set pieces for the show, lighting rigs, speakers and amplifiers, and miles of electrical cables. All the action is directed by stage and productions managers.
"Hey, Marty, can we get the screen pipe in?” one manager shots.
“All cables run off stage left!” yells another.
The crew work in small teams to complete various tasks including assembling arrays of hanging loudspeakers, tying a painted cloth backdrop onto a lowered batten, and tuning all of the musicians’ instruments.
The crew for the RAIN load-in is about 25 people, half of which are members of a local stage worker’s union (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 28) and half of which travel with RAIN. All of them – except the managers – are dressed in black from head to toe.
For a production of this kind, there is a certain amount of behind-the-scenes stage magic that has to take place before the show even begins. The trick is to make two tractor-trailer’s worth of equipment disappear into a simple Beatles stage set-up: two guitars, a bass, a drum kit, some prop speakers and a piano for the later acts.
Other than the instruments, the only other piece of stage dressing is an impressive LED video wall behind the performers made up of 144 two-foot square panels that comprise just under 64,000 pixels in total. The video wall allows the show’s producers to create any kind of environment on stage, as well as creating a consistent show at every venue.
Stephan Gotschel, the production manager and lighting designer, has been working on the show for almost 13 years. He works behind the scenes to create much of the look and feel of the final production – it was his idea to move from large cloth backdrops to the LED video wall. He also coordinates set-up and take-down of the show at each venue.
“I advance the labor and the venues,” said Gotschel about his job within RAIN. He directs “what happens, what hangs where, figuring out what the spacing is, scheduling, how many crew you need, and how many hours you need them for.”
For Gotschel, the most rewarding part of the job is seeing the audience reaction to the show. “Just watching the people who lived in those times with the Beatles relive those times, and then have their children and grandchildren experience that as well is such a rewarding experience,” he said.
Nick Burns is a stage manager and head carpenter for the production. “I’m in charge of the entire stage,” he said. “I help unload the trucks, I instruct everyone where the cases go on stage. We have all of our audio stage left, all our video and lighting stage right. I let everyone know where things go, because in every city we have between 20 and 30 local hands and they really help us set up.”
Burns says that many people not familiar with professional stage productions assume that large shows such as RAIN take all day to load and unload, but that it really only takes a few hours. With the number of crew and the level of coordination present for these productions, Burns says that it takes on average three hours to load in and set up before the show, and an hour and a half to break down and pack the trailers afterward.
Both Burns and Gotschel agree that setting up the show in smaller venues is the most challenging aspect of their work. “We go in some houses where the entire stage is just the size of this carpet right here,” said Burns, pointing to a carpet on stage no bigger than 20 square feet. “So then we have to figure out where all the cases and racks and equipment need to go. That's when things get really challenging - loading in can go from an hour or two to six or seven hours.”
Thankfully for them both, Keller Auditorium has more than enough space to fit all their crew and equipment with some room to spare.