Pulling back the curtain

Shawn Watson, Nick Beach and Steph Link at the whiteboard

In the days before the start of a new season of plays and concerts, the staff of Keyano Theatre and Arts Centre is focused on the present, but ever so mindful of the future. In this world, they plan more than a year out, marrying up available space with usage requests from multiple projects and multiple community clients.

In Nick Beach’s office – he’s the Production Manager for the TELUS Drama Series – a huge whiteboard covers an entire wall, a checkerboard of dates and months that provide a snapshot of all the events scheduled for the main performance spaces in this storied facility that includes the main theatre, opened in 1980, and the Norm Weiss Arts Centre which sprang to life a decade later.

“It’s been a busy week,” he said.

“We started building the Extremities set, pulled furniture and rehearsal props, and started construction on the next show. This is really a staff chessboard and Eugene (Production Manager for the concert series and for rental clients) and I are always plotting three to six months ahead.”

There is art in organization, and it is in abundance with these theatre professionals as they map out light hangs, focus sessions, rehearsals, set installations and a million other details with available technical resources and time. Holding it all together is a task that requires a dash of precision and a pinch of flexibility, as best laid plans often go awry.

“Thrilling,” is the word that Alan Roberts used to describe this period of time just as the season is about to get underway. He is the Director of the Theatre and Arts Centre and is about to begin his 25th year at Keyano College.

“Relief is another emotion that I feel right now, relief that we’re beginning to start. You can plan all you want, but it feels great when things actually start happening. The bulk of my attention is on Calendar Girls right now, as the Extremities train has pretty much left the station.”

With contracts signed, marketing collateral (fancy term for posters, postcards, web images, etc.) ready to go, and tickets on sale, all systems are go for the Syncrude Arts Alive Presents concert series, 11 different shows stretched out from September 20th to April 13th. Bboyizm’s performance of IZM is first out of the gate followed closely by blues sensation Matt Anderson (love his Christmas CD) and breakout childrens’ entertainers Splash ‘N Boots. In each case, the cache of lighting instruments will need to be reconfigured, refocused and programmed to create a colour palette suited to the performance. If you look closely on the giant whiteboard, you’ll see small notes in different colours, plotting out the necessary steps to make sure all the technical details are ready.


Rehearsals will begin right away for the first play of the season, Extremities by William Mastrosimone. With roughly six weeks till opening, actors will be spending three evenings a week and most of the weekend in the Rehearsal Hall where the schematics of the set will be taped out on the floor to give them a sense of the space they will have to inhabit when they have a set to play on. They won’t move onto the set and into the main stage till October.

Most rehearsal processes are similar, though obviously nuanced by the director (Paul Gelineau in this case, returning to Fort McMurray for a guest directing gig). Actors start out reading the script around tables, talking about character, plot, motivations, and getting a sense of each other. Before the first week is done, the players will likely be on their feet, starting to get a sense of the blocking, or where and when they need to move and why. Flying along and three weeks in, the cast will be furiously trying to get off book (theatrical term for having memorized your lines) while the director dives into working specific scenes.

As the cast members begin their process, the designers have begun moving from the planning to the execution stage. For months, and sometimes longer, they have been huddled over models, drawings, and research, communicating back and forth with the director to make sure that the various design disciplines are heading in a common direction. They share their work and their vision with the cast and crew at the first rehearsal, unveiling the maquette (scale model of the set), colour renderings of costumes, and the initial sense of how the technology will eventually dance with the performances to create the magic of the show.

Maquette for Extremities, designed by Jennifer Goodman

While the actors go through their paces, props, furniture, and the set itself, will slowly get “dressed”, or treated with paint, fabric, technology and other things to get all the pieces ready for an audience. The set designer will spend hours in the paint shop located adjacent to the stage, mixing colours, testing textures and furiously watching the clock as there never seems to be enough time in this phase of the production process. The costume designer will be entrenched in the costume shop, usually with several seamstresses, gathering, building, and adjusting shirts, pants, jackets, hats, and myriad costume pieces that not only need to fit, sometimes they have to come off and on with amazing haste as actors execute quick changes off in the wings.

“What role does flexibility play in what you do?” I asked Alan Roberts.

“We live in a world of constant flexibility,” he said.

“Whether it is changing schedules, changing tasks or priorities, adjusting budgets or making physical changes – what kind of manpower we need to execute certain parts of the process - being able to respond, adjust and keep moving forward is integral to our success.”

When they do their jobs well, you are not even aware of their presence. When you leave the theatre entranced by the story or performance, oblivious to the intricacies of what was happening behind the scenes to make the magic, this talented team of technicians, designers, directors and theatre artists can silently, invisibly take a bow, because they will have achieved their ultimate objective.

For more information about the upcoming season at Keyano Theatre and Arts Centre, visit www.keyano.ca/theatre.

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