Having had an especially busy year, I spent most of it on the road with a variety of shows. During the tours, of course, I rarely have time to really enjoy the moment, but thinking back, I am inspired to reminisce about some of my favorite theatres. Playing houses from high school gymnasiums to some of the finest performing arts centers in North America, it would be impossible to pick a single favorite venue. So I have narrowed it down to a few. Those of you who have never been on the road will not really be able to soak in the memories of these houses. But many of you will have no trouble recollecting the places I am about to describe.
Van Duzer Theatre, Arcata, CA
Set in the campus of Humbolt State University, there is nothing special about the surroundings. The theatre itself is not especially well equipped. 862 seats, with an aging lighting and sound system, this is a people place. It's kind of like a family business. Everyone there has been there forever, and you feel like there's going to be a big group hug the moment you walk in the door. The box booms are set like monkey bars, and my favorite sight is that of Jenny Cox, the head electrician and ex-gymnast, hanging upside down and swinging from pipe to pipe until she finally dismounts, all with an ellipsoidal in one hand. Beyond beauty and athletics, Jenny is one of the best LDs in the country. She recently finished a tour with Aeros, as lighting director. Jayson Mohatt, the technical director, is at least 6'3" and built like Conan but with a long blond ponytail that reminds you which part of Northern California you're in. If you get time, ask for a tour of the coast from someone who knows where the good spots are. The tide pools are teeming with starfish and sea anemones and I can still hear them yelling, “No, Rusty, don't eat it live.”
State Theatre, Honolulu, HI
OK, a no brainer. It's always just great to be in Hawaii. The laid back attitude of people on the island even takes me by surprise. I called the LD on the phone (this was some years ago) and asked about coming in around 12 noon to start focus. He said, “I don't see how that's gonna work, since the waves will be breaking till at least 2:30.” So he loaned me a board, and we surfed till mid-afternoon. The state theatre in downtown Honolulu has something else a little special about it. There is very little room stage right. The door there takes you right outside, and into a courtyard where there is a bar. Not a theatre bar for the patrons, more like an outdoor nightclub completely separate from the venue. Sneak outside during intermission and order up a white Russian. Then invite everyone over for drinks after the show.
Vilar Center for the Performing Arts, Beaver Creek, CO
In the Rockies, 8500' above sea level. Skiers going right down the streets. The air is so thin that a hike upstairs to the light booth feels like a marathon. There are actually oxygen bottles placed on the walls in case you really get in trouble. The beautiful 530-seat theatre is built right into the resort lodge, and is equipped with brand-new Source Four everything. A complete line of moving lights including High End Systems Cyberlights and Studio Spots. The non-union crew is spectacular. They work and stay positive all day long (probably because they ski and hang out with gorgeous snow bunnies all night). Their sole purpose while you're there is to help you put on the best show you can. As you walk out the door, they all shake your hand, and swear if you ever come back, they'll take you up the mountain for the time of your life. Gentlemen, I wish you all the best plus 10" of fresh powder.
Banff Center, Banff, Alberta, Canada
As long as we're in the mountains, we have to talk about Banff, Alberta, Canada. The Banff Center is nestled high in the most rugged part of the Rockies you can imagine, about 75 miles west of Calgary. This playground for the rich is beyond words. Giant elk walk down the main street, and enjoy eating just outside the backstage door. Snap pictures if you must, but don't get too close — they get a little grumpy, especially during the rut. Walk down the street for an afternoon of shopping in a place where you can't possibly afford anything. Or just stand outside and look up at one of the most beautiful mountain peaks in the world. The theatre itself is located halfway up the mountain. Inside you will find 950 seats, a well-equipped stage, and a very friendly crew. If you're lucky maybe you will be treated to one of their famous five-star catering experiences. It seems that pampering and taking care of the artists is an essential part of the Banff theatrical culture. There is a feeling that hits you as soon as you arrive in this peaceful spot. It's kind of like Aspen on steroids both in its rugged location, and its wealthy international clientele. At some point during your stay you will toy with the idea of just letting the tour leave without you, and find a job renting skis to rich Japanese girls on holiday.
RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Columbus, GA
If you do make it out of Banff and back to the US, you may be fortunate enough to head all the way south to Georgia (probably all in one day with an 8am load-in) and the brand-new RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus. All too often new theatres are constructed with huge design flaws. Like beautiful cathedral ceilings and no FOH lighting position. Or a perfect stage with all the proper lighting instruments and only 400 seats. But the RiverCenter seems to be the perfect blend of beauty and functionality. The 2,000-plus-seat venue has three FOH catwalks, a full 70 linesets and a 75' grid. The all-ETC lighting system includes the Obsession II, and the audio system is filled with names like Crest, EAW, Whirlwind, and Sennheiser. Add to all that technical director Steve Sweet and a fine house crew, and the stage is set for a great performance. We had one there. If you have a date at the RiverCenter, relax and smile. It'll be a good day.
Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, FL
Continue your travels south into the Sunshine State. In the town of Clearwater, you will find Ruth Eckerd Hall. One of Pollstar's picks for Theatre of the Year. I've been playing there for many years, and each time I am amazed to find a theatre as plush and perfect as Ruth Eckerd. This monster hall boasts over 2,100 seats and state-of-the-art everything. It is superbly represented by the Local 321. The stage is so huge that this year I walked in with a football, and told my assistant Lucky to go long. Jeff Hartzog the TD is a great guy and really easy to get along with. But it's the local crew that gives the place personality. They are all career union members. And as long as you follow the rules, things are very relaxed. There is a group of practical jokers on deck — if you're there long enough, they will get you. In my case, we had to load some of our things offstage because of a morning performance of another show. I very carefully spiked my Martin MAC 600s so they wouldn't have to be reprogrammed. I used six pieces of spike tape to ensure each angle was precise. The next day, I found four sets of spike marks all next to each other. It took me over 30 minutes to figure out which ones were mine. All the while the union boys just snickered, and pointed at each other. But it was all in good fun. In that same spirit I want you to know it was I who switched the green and the red Cam-Loks on one side of your feeder cables.
Van Wezel Theatre, Sarasota, FL
Just across the bay in Sarasota (famous home of Ringling Bros.) is the excellent Van Wezel Theatre. It's easy to find: Just drive up along the bay side of Florida and look for the big purple fly loft. That's right, the entire building is purple. It is, in fact, very attractive. Inside you'll find all the amenities of a fully functional venue. Outside, it actually sits right on the edge of the bay. Stand on the loading dock and throw rocks in Tampa Bay. Or just watch the sailboats and sailboards glide across the bay on a Sunday afternoon The rocks on the water's edge are teeming with crab, and if you brought your fishing pole — like I always do — finish your work early and cast a line. This alone is enough to make it one of my favorite venues. But there is much more to this theatre than its location. Virtually the entire Local is made up of ex or current circus performers. The president of the Local 412 is none other than Tino Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas. Your head fly man is Terry Troffer. A flying Wallenda through marriage, he still performs specific dates walking the wire in those amazing pyramids. The head carpenter is Terry France, a trapeze catcher and former lighting designer for Ringling Bros. It seems only fitting that a juggler from France is the prop master. (There has to be a Saturday morning cartoon in there somewhere.) Marty Petlock, the technical director, attributes his great crew to their colorful past. Marty says, “The riggers in this building didn't learn it from a book, but actually learned by rigging for their own family members. If you were just a kid, and setting a point for you own mother to use, how safe would you make it?”
McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ
We on the road have to take moments when we can get them, and the Van Wezel always offers a day to remember. All good tours must come to an end, so up the East Coast we go. No more casual afternoons in luxurious accommodations paid for by wealthy philanthropists. Up here theatres live and die on every show. Tight spaces and older equipment rules. But there are still bright spots. One of my all-time favorites is Princeton University and the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre. After months of seeing nature at her finest, you can find a new inspiration driving through the spectacular architecture of one of the nation's oldest and most respected universities. Steve Howe the technical director has reached, like, theatre nirvana. Over 300 shows per year pass through his space, and he strips the stage bare for every one. Our normal six-hour load-in takes less than three hours. We look around, scratch our heads, and say, “We can't be finished,” but everything is done. When you walk in the door and look around, it's as if they fed your tech rider into a computer, and digitally created everything just as it was designed. Every member of the crew is like Radar O'Reilly. You say, “Could I get a couple of floor-mounted cans to hit the people up high?” and Mike the LD replies, “I thought you might need something like that so I set it up for you last night. I also set one special to shoot into the grid. I know that some cirques use those as spotting lights.” While Stephen gets first credit for running a great crew, the individual crewmembers all deserve credit as well. Take Matt on the rail. At about 165lb he's not your typical rail puller. But at setup he never winces even when you need the same pipe six times. Then during an awkward point in our show, we have six pulls from two hands in a blackout. I'm expecting 25 seconds that seems like an hour. But 10 seconds later, I hear him out of breath on the com saying, “Rail complete.” As I hit the light cue the last drop is just touching the floor. At no other venue does each member of the crew stand out so well. It's not a union crew, but once again Stephen Howe deserves credit for making sure they are treated as well as any union member. Complete with coffee/meal breaks, etc. And that may be the key to his success.
Bennett Hall, St. Joseph Abbey, Saint Benedict, LA
There is just one more theatre that really stood out this year. St. Joseph Abbey is a monastery and seminary located deep in the Louisiana countryside far north of New Orleans. As you drive into this peaceful environment you will be greeted by one of the resident monks, Fr. Peter Hammond. Father Peter also serves as the TD to Bennett Hall. By all accounts, Bennett Hall has no business being mentioned here with the venues above. But criteria for this article are not about the number of line sets or amp racks. It's about comfortable moments on a grueling tour. Now, I am far from a religious man, but the Abbey offered me one of the most peaceful and uplifting moments I've had in some time. Incidentally, it has 10 working line sets, and no rail at all. The ropes are old and have probably never been replaced. I would guess it has no more than 30 theatrical lighting instruments. Father Peter is a very intelligent and positive man, but now I know why monks take vows of silence. He swears more than I do. In a small corner of the stage, I found a three-phase power panel covered with dust as if not opened for some time. The monks looked nervous as I tied in my distro box. One asked, “Are you an electrician?” I said, “Is the Pope Jewish?” Still, the power was clean, and priests and students alike stood in awe as the moving lights came to life. While the cathedral and surrounding buildings represent substantial investment, the theatre is in serious need of repair. Father Peter accepts his vow of theatrical poverty in order to bring food and medicine to children in faraway countries. And I believe that any money given him for new lighting equipment or better rigging would somehow find its way into the belly of a child in Central America. For this reason, I am going through my own personal gear to see what I can live without in order to help out a theatre of a higher calling. If you represent a theatre with a few instruments or some other theatrical gear down in the basement that you just don't hang anymore, you might consider putting it in a box and dropping it in the mail to Fr. Peter Hammett, Saint Joseph Abbey, Saint Benedict, LA 70457, or you can e-mail Father Peter at [email protected]. I'm sure you could get a receipt and the whole thing would be tax deductible. If nothing else, the next time your lightboard crashes you could look up at God and say, “Hey, remember those five PAR cans I gave to the poor?”
A full year on the road is much more than I'm usually up for. And each and every theatre has magic. I've left out dozens of very worthy houses. Some posh and polished, others functional with bare brick walls. As this tour comes to a close I look forward to getting home to my wife and children, seeing how skinny the horses got while I was away, and witnessing the birth of my third child in June. Who knows? This might even be my last year on the road. If so, I thank God and Father Peter for a lifetime of memories to think about.
Rusty Strauss was for many years the technical director of the Peking Acrobats. He can be contacted at [email protected].