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John Harvard's Journal | Performing Arts

The Wizard of Backstage

Peyton Sherwood creates a theatrical world out of a "big black box."

July-August 2004

Last November, when the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) produced the French Romantic play Lorenzaccio on the Loeb Drama Center's main stage, director Jay Scheib made liberal use of new electronic media. Two video-camera operators roamed onstage; they fed a video projector that displayed these images on a billboard-like screen atop a Chinese restaurant on the set. Scheib choreographed the media people into the scene. Their cameras poked through windows in a ranch-style house on the set and added two visual perspectives to the one the audience had from their seats. The ranch house rolled around on casters and had working electricity and plumbing; its bathtub had to be filled up and drained. The house also split into three pieces as the play's action reached its climax.

Organizing such a technical tour de force almost makes acting look easy. Lorenzaccio's technical director, Peyton Sherwood '04, explains that being "TD" of a mainstage show is "one of the biggest theater jobs. For Lorenzaccio, I was in the theater 62 hours one week. I spent several hundred hours on the show. You have to think hard about saying yes." Sherwood has uttered many yeses; he estimates that he's worked on 80 percent of the shows mounted on the main stage since his freshman year, when he was TD for Into the Woods; he also handled technical direction for Cabaret in 2002, making him the only student in recent history who has been TD for three mainstage shows. "Because I'm insane," he explains.

This kind of insanity built Sherwood a reputation as the preeminent technical whiz of undergraduate theater. "He's continuing the long and honorable tradition of the backstage person who does everything," says Alan Symonds '69, technical director for College theatre programs. "We don't have many, but there have been a few who are really great — Peyton is one."

Sherwood is a very useful man to have around, partly because Harvard College is in some ways an army of generals — achievement-driven souls vying for high-visibility positions. In theater, this means a plethora of actors and directors, but few backstage people: technical directors; stage managers; lighting, sound, set, and costume designers; and those who build and paint scenery and hang lights.

There are about 60 student productions annually, at the Loeb mainstage and experimental theaters (four at the former, up to 20 at the latter) and in Agassiz Theatre, the Houses, even the Hilles Library courtyard and the Lowell House bell tower. Almost a thousand students participate in theater, yet sometimes it seems there are "about four techies," says Sherwood. "Generally, people don't like to do tech because it has no glory. I don't care about the glory; I just care about the art I'm creating with these other brilliant people."

Plus, backstage is fun. "There's the technical challenge," he explains. "I like playing with the sound board, getting things to work correctly. And I was bitten by the theater bug. You go in and create anything you want out of this big black box — this box of nothingness that you can fill with any light or sound you want." Sherwood is a pianist who also plays string bass with Harvard groups. "Bass and technical theater are the two things that everyone needs," he jokes. "I might have come to Harvard just because they needed a bass and a technical-theater person."

A computer-science concentrator, Sherwood loves gadgets (in fourth grade he wired his school desk with a burglar alarm that screeched when the desk was opened). He worked in both community theater and at Ladue Horton-Watkins High School in Ladue, Missouri, near St. Louis, in sound and light design, in set building, and as an electrician. "Peyton came to Harvard with enough experience to lead people in sound," says Symonds, who calls him "one of the few people I trust to turn loose on the sound board at the Agassiz Theatre. With sound, you can make blue smoke [cause a short circuit] very easily by pushing the wrong button."

There are many buttons to push in the yearlong preparation for a mainstage production. With only two such slots per semester, the HRDC board makes sure that whoever gets one can actually mount a show, and a prospective director needs to recruit a team of about 20 even to apply. Convincing a TD of Sherwood's skill to take the job means starting with the right property. For example, Sherwood, who sees many theater and dance performances, likes Cabaret; he had also seen plays directed by Joy Fairfield '03 (who codirected Cabaret with Sabrina Blum '03) and "thought she was wonderful. I wanted to work with a creative mind like that."

He explains that theater "is about planning in advance," which is even more essential when you work on three or four shows each semester, as he has done. At the beginning, his big thrill was operating the light and sound boards during a performance, but his work has evolved toward planning and design. The main stage can accommodate a lighting plot that calls for nearly 400 lights, but few shows need such resources; Sherwood's biggest plot, at Agassiz, called for 35 lights. A well-organized show will use a large CAD (computer-assisted design) map of the theater, showing all lighting positions, circuit numbers, and "electrics" (pipes that hold lights while hanging from a ceiling grid 82 feet above the Loeb stage). The various managers — stage, lighting, and sound — collaborate with the director and TD to generate a copy of the script that shows all appropriate technical cues, a process known as the "paper tech."

For a mainstage show opening on a Thursday or Friday night, the Sunday two weeks before is "load-in day": starting at 9 a.m., the crew brings in scenery and props and begins to rig the technical elements for the show. Step by step, the elements of the play begin their uneasy process of meshing. There is "dry tech," a run-through without actors, and "wet tech" (which Sherwood describes as "hell") with them; on this spring's production of Sunday in the Park with George, wet tech took 12 hours. Wet tech kicks off "tech week," daily rehearsals of technical elements to perfect the realization of sound and light cues. Such run-throughs consume about six hours a night during the week before the opening; the technical people also come in during the day to fix whatever needs fixing. Wednesday often means an all-nighter. "I've fallen asleep in so many places in the theater," Sherwood says.

Such unstinting contributions to Harvard theater lent authority to his proposal for a "technical theater requirement" to address the persistent shortage of technical help on shows. That subject came up "at every major student-theater meeting I've attended since freshman year," Sherwood says, adding, "The people who suffer from the lack of technical hands are the technical hands." At an HRDC meeting last year, he took a straw poll asking if the actors present would be amenable to a requirement that everyone involved in a Loeb show help with technical work on a Loeb show; he says nearly all the actors raised their hands.

The new guideline went into effect last fall and has worked "amazingly well," says Symonds. "The feedback from students has been very positive. It started out being applicable only to the Loeb, but now the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and other groups are following suit." Sherwood explains that "If everyone in the cast knows how to hang a light, you can cut the hang time in half. But it's not just an extra hand. The technical jobs they do make actors feel better about the production. They can say, 'I helped that show go up — I built that ceiling.' The tech requirement also connects people in the theater; you meet someone on a tech job and you end up doing a project with them."

Another of Sherwood's legacies is the Harvard Theater Database (http://hcs.harvard.edu/~hrdc/htdb/index.php), an archive of Harvard theater productions — dates, venues, names of all cast and staff, even orchestra players — going back to 1996. (He hopes eventually to extend it much farther back in time.) The search engine makes it easy for a director to find out, say, who has been doing lighting design at Harvard, and on what shows. And the database builds a kind of theatrical alumni record. "You could ask graduates what they learned here, or how to go and find a job," Sherwood explains.

In the real world, his own job hunt focuses not on the stage but on the place "where business meets technology," he says. Yet theater is in his blood, and in some ways even trumps his love of hardware. "Drama is totally immense — in the theater, it's all around you," he says. "I don't care what you say about 5.1 surround sound — it doesn't come close to the actual experience of being in the theater."

~Craig Lambert