Inside the Theater
A few simple words embody one of the most important parts of a performance: the load-in.
This process entails unloading and setting up everything a touring production needs for its performances. Load-ins can involve building sets, installing special lighting and effects, organizing costumes and props and more.
This often requires numerous people doing many things at once — especially for touring Broadway productions, some of which travel with over 20 semitrailers packed with colossal set pieces and boxes upon boxes of equipment.
While The Smith Center’s stages remain dark during its temporary closure, the center presents hundreds of performances in a typical year. Its talented crew assists with show load-ins almost every week.
Read below the steps of the load-in process for touring Broadway productions at The Smith Center, often conducted a mere day before opening night.
Step One: Unloading
The Smith Center’s backstage includes three loading docks with automated lifts, where tour trucks can quickly unload a show’s weighty set pieces, costumes, equipment and props.
The loading dock area not only offers spacious room for temporary storage, but it also leads straight to 14.6-by-12-foot doors that open directly onto the stage.
“If a truck comes in with a 50-foot-long piece of anything, we can roll it right off the truck and right into the theater,” says Joe Urbauer, head rigger and carpenter at The Smith Center.
Many massive set pieces and props have passed through those doors, such as a wooden roller coaster track for Love Never Dies, towering giraffe puppets for The Lion King, the dazzling Oz machine for Wicked and a train engine for Hello Dolly.
“We generally beat any other venue's load-in and load-out time, therefore managing costs more efficiently,” Urbauer says.
Step Two: Organizing Wardrobe
Within hours of unloading, The Smith Center’s backstage halls become lined with wardrobe carts and carefully labeled racks of wigs, makeup and props.
Tour crew members set to work steaming clothes, prepping wigs and organizing the hanging costumes mixed with velvet, feathers and satin.
This can take some time, especially for shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” that includes 1,200 costume pieces.
Some backstage rooms or sections become designated for priority items, such as massive props or an abundance of wigs – or hundreds of puppets, in the case of The Lion King.
As the backstage area even includes a laundry room, some crews dive into fastidiously washing costumes.
To help cast and crew find their way through the backstage labyrinth of hallways, many touring productions also place signs on the walls directing where to find dressing rooms, wardrobe, props and more.
Step Three: Building New Worlds on Stage
Promptly upon set pieces’ delivery to the loading dock, the sound of hammering and drilling fills the stage as the tour crew and Smith Center stagehands work speedily to construct the show’s sets.
For some minimalist shows like The Color Purple, where strategically arranged chairs symbolized each setting, their sets present few challenges.
But for large-scale productions such as The Phantom of the Opera with its immense opera boxes and moving subterranean lair, or The King and I with a colossal ship on stage, or Hamilton with its multi-level infrastructure, a small army of stagehands must work to craft new worlds on stage.
The number of stagehands needed for show load-ins can range from 30 to as high as 90.
Step Four: Hanging High
Strapped into safety harnesses, stagehands often find themselves high above the stage and seats to suspend special lighting, audio and iconic props from the ceiling.
The most memorable include the The Phantom of the Opera chandelier, weighing a whopping 1 ton, and the sinister Time Dragon Clock crowning the stage in “Wicked.”
Fortunately, Reynolds Hall offers comprehensive rigging — a system of equipment used to secure props and equipment above the ground. It also includes a 250,000-pound grid, an overhead structure above the stage used to mount scenery and lighting.
The theater was even built with specially reinforced beams, Urbauer says, to support props and equipment of any size.
This comes in handy, as many productions bring their own audio equipment to fasten up high — like the additional 80 speakers for The Phantom of the Opera— not to mention many hanging stage pieces. The Smith Center team can handle it all, Urbauer assures.
“We can do anything here,” he says. “Shows love us, because we don’t like to say ‘no.’”