A member of Nanaimo Theatre Group works on a portion of the set for Diary of Anne Frank, which opened Theatre BC’s Mainstage Festival on July 5. MELISSA LOWE PHOTO

Set wizards make it happen at Mainstage Festival in Port Alberni

Eight plays in eight nights means turnover timelines are tight

Putting a community theatre production together takes months of planning and preparation. For those zone winners who attend Theatre BC’s Mainstage Festival, however, setup and takedown of their production happens in a matter of hours.

The wizardry behind setting up eight plays in eight days worked like a jigsaw puzzle, with backstage coordinator Melissa Lowe keeping track of all the pieces. Lowe is a veteran member of Portal Players Dramatic Society in Port Alberni, having appeared on stage and worked behind the scenes for numerous productions. Although she has attended two Theatre BC festivals as a spectator, this is the first time she has worked behind the scenes at Mainstage.

It was Lowe’s job at Port Alberni’s ADSS Theatre last week to orchestrate the setup and takedown of all sets, and most of all to ensure every theatre company adhered to the time limits they were given: four hours to set up the day of their performance, one hour to make last-minute adjustments prior to taking the stage and one hour following the show to take everything down and clear it from the theatre, from the stage to the dressing rooms.

“They’re long days, but it’s been an amazing experience getting to meet different people, seeing how the different groups work.”

Theatre BC is strict about who has access to the stage, so Lowe had to ensure everyone was registered. “The stage was dark until 12 p.m. so I had to make sure people weren’t in until then. I basically went around cracking the whip, making sure people were doing what they were supposed to be doing…just to keep timelines and making sure everyone had that same amount of time.”

Sets ranged in complexity from Nanaimo Theatre Group’s two-storey, six-level set for The Diary of Anne Frank, to Hidden in This Picture by the Well Planned Theatre Co. (North Shore Zone), which had no set beyond its actors.

The set for The Diary of Anne Frank had six levels, props, prop dressing, audio/visual equipment and even paint to touch up anything that needed it. “This is the most complicated set I’ve had to move,” Nanaimo director Wendy Wearne said.

“The challenge with the magnitude of the set was we knew right from the start we would at least have to travel it to at least one destination (zone festival at Echo Players’ theatre in Qualicum Beach) and potentially two.” Neither the stage at the zone festival nor at Mainstage had the same dimensions as their home stage in Nanaimo—something else she had to keep in mind.

“It was going to be a beast to move,” she said. The technical aspect was also daunting, with 136 lighting cues and more than 90 sound and video cues.

“It is a jigsaw puzzle, and a three-dimensional one; and you put it together quickly,” Wearne explained.

“The choice was made that we needed to put on the same show that we did in Nanaimo, and that’s what we chose to do.”

Each theatre company has their own tricks to help assemble their set quickly. North Shore Zone had no set; Theatre Kelowna Society colour-coded all their pieces so they could be counted and screwed together quickly. Nanaimo had free-standing risers, solid wall pieces and the windows of Anne Frank’s attic doubled as a video screen.

“We tried to make choices that were as easy to load together as possible,” Wearne said.

Still, putting everything back into two trucks was like playing a giant, yet delicate game of Tetris, she added.

How far one must travel with their sets to zone festivals and Mainstage are always a consideration, Lowe noted. While Nanaimo needed two trucks to move all their set pieces and decor, they didn’t have far to go this year. Langley Players, on the other hand, fit the entire set for Dancing at Lughnasa into one truck which they had to bring to Vancouver Island on a ferry.

“It’s one of those things you have to think about: we’ve got to move this,” Lowe said. “How far you’re going, if it’s going to be a two-truck (show) it’s not exactly feasible. So we have to consider it.”

Resources to consider aren’t just financial: a theatre company needs to know they have the people who can move, set up and dismantle a given set in the prescribed amount of time.

“We try not to limit our festival show because it’s a big experience to learn,” Lowe said. “We don’t consider it our money-maker of the year, it’s our art piece. We do it for us.”


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Cast and crew from Nanaimo Theatre Group begin unloading one of two vans full of pieces for their ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ set behind the ADSS Theatre on Friday, July 5. MELISSA LOWE PHOTO

Once Nanaimo Theatre Group had their complicated set for Diary of Anne Frank assembled, Melissa Kahan (who plays Anne) and several other members test some of the risers. MELISSA LOWE PHOTO

The set for Diary of Anne Frank was complicated, with many moving pieces, but director Wendy Wearne said each piece was integral to the telling of Anne’s story. WENDY WEARNE PHOTO

Theatre Kelowna Society crew members assemble the set for ‘Late Company’ on Thursday, July 11, the second to last play in Mainstage Festival at ADSS Theatre. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

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