ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Closing a Show

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This week's question comes from Patrick Varner of Santa Rosa, CA.

Question: What happens to the sets, lights, costumes, and sound supplies after a show closes? Answer: This week, is talking about strike — don't worry, it's not that kind of strike. Strike is the theatre term for taking down a show. For this column, spoke with Philip Naudé, the associate production manager at Manhattan Theatre Club.

MTC, a not-for-profit company, operates the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, which presents three shows a season, and two Off-Broadway spaces at City Center, which present two shows each. So seven times a year, the company moves a show out of a theatre (disclosure: this reporter worked at MTC as an intern).

After a show ends its run, the crew takes two or three days to get everything off the stage. They break down the set using things like crowbars to pry out the nails, electric screwdrivers to undo the screws and hand-held electric saws to simply cut through things. "A lot of the sets are thrown away — they're literally thrown in a dumpster," says Naude. They put the trash in a dumpster on the street nearby, or they hire a truck to take it to a landfill.

MTC takes special care to salvage everything it can, especially since it's an ongoing company that knows it'll need those elements for future shows, and since it's a cash-strapped not-for-profit. Hardware such as wheels and pulleys are saved, along with a lot of the pipe and steel work.

It would be hard to recycle the stuff that gets thrown out. "A lot of the things we have built are combinations of materials," Naude explains. "You'll have wallpaper that is on top of mahogany panel board, [which] is screwed and glued onto a metal frame. Unless you're dealing with raw, basic materials, it's hard to recycle things." He notes that sets are rarely just basic wood, since all exposed wood is "back painted" — painted black in the back, to reduce the chance of fires.

But some elements of the set get recycled in more creative ways, by MTC employees themselves. "I personally used ten sheets of half-inch lexan" — similar to plexiglass —"and instead of throwing it out I moved it to my house to use in an indoor winter garden," Naude says. "One of the carpenters took some of the steel elements because he does welding work. We have a little bit of a game going on where people [find] uses for these materials."

A lot of the props and costumes have been rented — they get restored to their original conditions and returned to rental houses. But if a costume has been purchased, actors can sometimes take it home. "Everything is so tailored to make the perfect look for the actor," Naude says. "Sometimes there'll be a jacket that fits really nicely so they'll request that they take it with them."

Some of the light and sound equipment is rented, and some of it is in-house. For example, the theatre has a computer system for the sound, but rents an extra, in case one breaks down. After the stage is cleared, the rental vendors drop off big black "road boxes" to get loaded with sound and light equipment, and then come back to pick them up when they're filled.

The crew — which can number 12 to 15 during strike at the Biltmore — eventually puts the theatre back to normal. They take down the "soft goods" — the large black draperies that hang down at the back and on the sides of the stage — which get stored off-site. They take down motors that were used overhead, and store them. They often repaint the stage floor, and sometimes a new layer of Masonite board is constructed for it as well.

"It's an elegant process," Naude says, though he believes it can be made more elegant — mainly by finding ways to save more materials so that other theatres in the city can use them. He says he's currently consulting for a new company (run by a production manager friend, Janet Clancy) that will help match theatres that could share resources, so that, say, the glass from the skylights in an Off-Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park can be taken downtown and put into the windows in someone else's Off-Off-Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "I think it would benefit the community as a whole to focus on whatever materials we can pass on to our younger brothers and sisters," he says.

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