This February, the Hendrix Chenault Theater became a time machine, sending audience members straight to the 80s with the production of the musical Footloose! The show featured strobe lights, big hair, and all your favorite classic songs. But as performers were cutting footloose in the most haunting, poofy, neon, shoulder-paded 80’s prom outfits you have ever seen, behind stage there was a different scene.
This year, twenty students from Lovett’s Tech theater class crewed the big spring production, controlling everything from the sound board to set movements. In the week leading up to the show, also known as tech week, I met up with integral members of the Lovett tech team to learn more about putting together the magical world of Footloose.
Even before Director Natalie Pitchford had chosen Footloose as the Lovett Spring musical, she already knew what the set would be for the show. “Last year on Easter I watched Jesus Christ Superstar: Live on FOX and they did their whole show entirely on scaffolding,” she recalls. “I thought that that was a really beautiful way to do a show because it was raw and scaled back.”
Finally settling on the 80’s classic a few weeks later, Director Pitchford's concept of 3 full stories of scaffolding began to fall perfectly into place.“There are so many script reference to heaven, hell, paradise, suffering, sin and I thought was a beautiful physical way to represent literal and higher, those with power and those who are being controlled in the town of Bomont” she says. So, she reached out to Adam Koch and Steven Royal of Koch and Associates, a team of set designers, to find a set that was “really gritty and huge and imposing,” she explains. The finished product was perfect, with the different levels giving her a way to “physically elevate Shaw, the Reverend of Bomont, above his congregation. Then, we could elevate the Town Council even farther above him,” Mrs. P shares.
The main tech concept of the show came alive through the collaboration between Director Natalie Pitchford and Mr. Forlines, one of the Design and Productions teacher at Lovett. Mr. Forlines is the lighting designer for Footloose which means he chooses “the level, color, and position of every light at every point in time throughout the show” Mr. Forlines explains. “So during tech, [this week,] I’m sitting out in the house, working with students to program cues in our lighting console. Cues are basically lighting looks, there will be hundreds for Footloose.”
Before tech week, Mr. Forlines and his students worked during class to prepare the set and tech for the show. Specifically, “I’ve been helping Mr. Patterson lead the build of the show and leading a smaller group of students in working on some special electronics projects for the show” he says. “We have a lot of what we call “set electrics” on the show. These are lighting fixtures built in to the set in some way: porch lights, stained glass windows, neon tubes.” Footloose also brought a lot of new challenges. “While the major skeleton of the set is made from prefabricated construction scaffolding (we largely built it in one class period),” Mr. Forlines explains, “the set involves lots of smaller details that are more complex from a build perspective.” Overall, those small detailed set pieces were created completely by the students, “which is a lot of tedious work,” Mr. Forlines admits. “I think I’ve been testing their patience, but it pays off on stage.”
The reason that there is so much work to be done on this show is because of Mrs. Pitchford's commitment to originality. In many high school productions, the show will borrow dances, aesthetics, costumes, etc. from the original Broadway show. But for the tech of Lovett’s Footloose there is “None. Zero,” Mrs. P says. “I don’t really believe in stealing from a show unless there is something that either I just can't find out myself or I feel like their intention, decision, and choice was better then any choice I could ever make.”
The creativity of a show is also a part of her job as director, a job she is clearly a pro at. After only her third production at Lovett last year, Peter Pan, Mrs. Pitchford received an Honorable Mention for Best Direction from the Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards. “I think there is so much in the script and score that inspires me, personally and I therefore I always have a story I want to tell as the director,” she says. “I think that one of the best ways to tell that story is through the lighting and tech of a show.
For Stage Manager Mary Pearce Seawell, the biggest challenge was managing “a show with this much dancing… and this much people stage at the same time,” she explains. “As a stage manager, you always have to know where all of your actors are,” and in Footloose there are 41 of them. In addition to being a stage manager for th Footloose production, Mary Pearce is also in Lovett’s Design and Production III class. “We have been working on the set for a long time,” she remarks. “Personally, I cut out the window that went to [Ariel’s] bedroom and put pipe insulation on all of the overhead poles so that actors won't hit their head.
This isn’t Mary Pearce’s first Lovett show either, in total she has been a part of 11 shows, participating in her first production in 5th grade. “Every single show that I do at Lovett is different, but the musicals are always the biggest,” she says. “I enjoy the musicals more because I can sing along to the music and it is a story that we all know.”
Another aspect that has made Footloose such a popular spring musical is the connection between the cast and crew and the material, specifically through the graffiti tributes on the set itself. In the show, the character Ariel Moore brings Ren McCormack to the Potawney Bridge, the exact spot where 4 of the town’s kids died in a horrific car crash. Upon inspecting the bridge, Ren remarks on the amount of graffiti. Ariel is quick to correct him however, insisting that “it’s not graffiti, its poetry, this place is kind of like the town diary.” This line from the script inspired Director Pitchford to incorporate the cast and crew’s own personal tributes into the show. “It became this opportunity to let the cast and crew find their part in the whole overall show and make it meaningful and personal to them,” Mrs. P shares with a smile. “Maybe it went a little further than I was even expecting.”
Because the spring musical is such a large production, the pre-production and planning for Footloose began many months ahead of the actual rehearsal period. For Mr. Forlines, this time was spent developing the show’s lighting design, a big responsibility. First, it is important to “reference time period, and much of the design is guided by the script’s style and the scenic design,” he says. “For this show the scenery is very abstract, industrial, and not hiding anything. Most all of the scenery for all the different locations is visible the entire show…This gives me a lot of flexibility when deciding where to place lighting fixtures.” For example, in addition to creating set electrics, “you’ll see theatrical lighting right on the set,” he says. “I love this look, it's flexible and has a cool industrial/rock concert feel that goes along with the show.”
Another tech element that was used to amplify the rock and roll feel of the show was the use of smoke machines to enhance the lighting and tone on stage. One unique challenge Junior Blase Achacar faced was “trying to fix the haze machine when it broke mid-show,” he explained to me after one of the performances. “That was hard because I had to stay out of the sight [of the audience] while doing that.” Blase was the assistant light designer on the Footloose production, meaning he spent the majority of his time working to “design and program the lights for the show and helping with timing, wiring and repositioning lights,” before performers even took the stage. In the end, “the best part of doing tech at Lovett is definitely the friends that you make and the people you get to hang out with,” he shares. “Because normally you wouldn’t get the chance to hang out with some of the people you become friends with.”
In addition to lasting friendship, Mr. Forlines believes that Design and Production “might be the best all around course of study… besides learning practical skills with tools, students learn time management, team work, leadership, staying calm under pressure, and basic design principles that are applicable to any field.”
And if students are interested in pursuing Tech Arts professionally, Lovett’s state of the art technical facilities allow students to test new skills “using the exact same software used on Broadway and much of the same equipment.”
Clearly, when it comes to stage production and design, Lovett is no backward Bomont. If anything, it’s ahead of its time.