All Hail the Backstage Crew!

Every year, culture connoisseurs flock to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. And for good reason. In 2003, Time magazine named O.S.F. among the top five regional theaters in the country. While audiences have longed celebrated the virtuosity on stage, few realize that for every talented actor, there are seven theater artisans backstage conspiring to bring each play to life. We spoke to a few of the members of the backstage battalion to understand just what it takes to make the magic happen.

Ranny Beyer – Hair and Wig Supervisor
You might think that after constructing, hair by hair, 40-something wigs per season for 30 years, Ranny Beyer would be sick of hair. She’s not; but she does keep her own hair maintenance to a minimum by keeping her waist-length salt-and-pepper mane tied in a long braid. You might also think that after years of such meticulous work, Beyer would have achieved a perfect state of Zen. She hasn’t, but loves her work none-the-less. “You can think about anything and you get into a rhythm,” she says growing serious after laughing at the thought of herself being Zen. “I have never found it tedious in all my years. Never.”

Beyer, who has been making wigs even longer than she’s worked at O.S.F., is a wig hair aficionado. She can explain the difference between synthetic hair (can’t withstand rain and is only strong enough for a short season) and human hair (can usually endure 120 performances and is best when it comes from Asia, the Middle East or Eastern India because it is stronger). She can even tell you about yak hair (shaved from the belly of a yak and works wonders as facial hair).

Outside the door of Beyer’s tiny wig room is a sign that reads “No swords, daggers or rapiers in the hair room.” Inside is a mini salon with three beauty chairs surrounded by roughly 100 Styrofoam heads each sporting a different hair style—shaggy, finger-waved, braided, piled-high bun—and arranged on shelves according to show. Every actor is wigged for costume consistency.

During the season, this room becomes Grand Central Station as actors flit in and out of their 5-minute wig appointments before each matinee and evening performance. Once everyone has been coifed, Beyer runs around backstage to assist with wig changes, sometimes three at a time. After the show, Beyer says she stays away from the wig room while actors descend like a herd of buffalo. She has trained them to pin their wig to the proper head, deposit pins in appropriate containers and drop off wig caps for washing. Once the room is empty, she returns to make sure each head is back in its rightful place. If a wig looks scruffy, it is washed and reset.

With all the different pieces that need to come together before opening night, sometimes Beyer can’t imagine how it will ever work. “Sometimes I think I’m about to witness one of the biggest train wrecks in history,” she says wide-eyed, lounging in a beauty chair. “But miraculously, and after thirty-fours years in theater I still can’t explain it, it comes together. It’s like magic.”

Paul James Martin – Prop Master
In the basement of the Prop Shop, Paul James Martin maneuvers through storage with the same ease as someone negotiating a very organized clothes closet. Except, instead of a couple dozen shirts and pants, there are more than 300 props—wicker furniture, a piano, and a special shelf for severed heads all sporting bloodied necks and slightly stunned looks on their faux faces.

As one of two Properties Masters at O.S.F., Martin must mentally keep track of close to 5,000 items at a time. With all the props he has made and managed over his 30-year tenure, his brain is like the E-bay database. “I love details,” admits Martin with a self-conscious smile. Some of the items filed away in grey matter are props from every single one of Shakespeare’s plays, 36 in total, which has earned him induction into the O.S.F. Cannon Club.

Martin, who abandoned his sheet-metal career plans after experiencing the thrill of working backstage at one of his sister’s school plays, is not as rushed or harried as you’d expect of someone with so much on his mind. Instead, he is methodical and calm when describing a typical day as Props Master, which is difficult to do because each day is so different.

Depending on the point in the season, Martin might be researching Jamaican liquor bottles labels to make a performance set in a Caribbean bar appear more authentic. He might be blowing glass to create pretend flames for a faux gas lamp, or rigging a couch with a pneumatic lifter to make it easier for one person to move it quickly on and off the stage. All told, props people must be able to build furniture, weld, sew, upholster, sculpt, solder, dye, paint, and know basic electronics, among many other things.

Martin estimates that being a Prop Master is a little like being a doctor, “only nobody dies.” He is on call 24/

7. Should any prop ail during a performance, it must be fixed or replaced before the following production, which is usually the next day. This is why under Martin’s reign almost all props are made, and re-made, by hand. Everything must be as riot proof as possible to survive 120 performances with swashbuckling actors. He can vouch for mothers everywhere who yell at their kids, “Don’t play rough in the house because you may break something!” In Royal Family, characters sword fighting “indoors” managed to break every glass sconce, not once, but multiple times. Martin and crew glued them back together, rotated them away from the audience until new ones arrived which were invariably broken again.

Standing in storage amongst props from plays past, Martin is dwarfed by the sheer volume as he explains just how he keeps track of them all: “Every show is a song,” he says. “The props are the words. You just get to know the words to each song.”

Martin Prelle-Tworek – Costume Cutter/Wardrobe Dresser
Martin Prelle-Tworek is a master multi-tasker and a pinch-hitter. With a tape measure around his neck, a pincushion by his side and a piece of purple silk organza spread wide across the table in front of him, he carefully inspects the grain of the material he will use to replace a panel in a torn dress—for a show he’s not even assigned to work on. At the same time he describes what it’s like to multi-task. “There are a billion details and sometimes I want to say ‘Slow, down! I want to get off.’ But at the same time, it is amazing to watch all the parts coming together,” he says wistfully, but then punctuates his reverie. “I prefer when things are a little less challenged, though.” He laughs at his comment as if it were absurd.

Prelle-Tworek’s primary tasks are divided into two major categories: costume cutting and wardrobe dressing, both of which he often does in the same day. If it is the same day, it runs something like this:

It is Fitting Day. He has already met with the Costume Designer to review costume renderings, created custom patterns for each item, cut the fabric, and prepared all the pieces, which can be as many as 60 per show. He then meets with each actor to make sure everything fits. Invariably, there are problems—a lump across the chest, a dragline indicating it’s too tight. He inserts pins. He takes notes. His brain tries to resolve the problems. At the same time, he advises stitchers working on pieces from other projects.

Then, Prelle-Tworek dresses a show, which means maintaining costumes, pre-setting them in the correct spot backstage, and once the performance is underway, helping actors change during shows. He has to be ready for three different types of changes: 90 seconds or less constitutes a quick change, 90 seconds to three minutes is a fast change and more than three minutes is just a regular change that can even take place in the actor’s dressing room.

If possible, Prelle-Tworek does his best to squeeze in an hour and a half for lunch to take himself to the gym, and it’s not because he’s Mr. Fitness, though he is quite trim. His brain needs time to process the billion costuming problems that have to be resolved. It makes sense, however, that as a former dancer Prelle-Tworek needs to move his body to help him think. He studied dance and costuming at the University of Oregon and began his career at O.S.F. 21 years ago as a part-time dancer and part-time costumer. He’s been costuming full-time for the last 17 years.

There is an expression: God lives in the details. There is also a contrary expression: The devil lives in the details. When given a choice between which statement best describes his work, Prelle-Tworek first howls with laughter, which he does a lot for a man who considers himself to be the crankiest person in the company. Then, with a laundry basket filled with Freud masks that he strategically places on the set of Oedipus Complex, he answers the question this way: “Divinity lives in the details,” he says. “But sometimes the details just take over. They sprout legs and start crawling up the table. You need to get out the devil spray and kill ’em off. But, divinity doesn’t happen without them. That’s the thing about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; the audience travels from far away because of the quality here. If the details weren’t here, the audience wouldn’t be either.”

(Originally published in Travel Oregon magazine)

Leave a Reply