When the house lights at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre go down and the music comes up, the audience members settle into their seats, full attention on the stage, ready to be entertained. The cast takes its place; they sing, they dance, they receive their applause and then they travel back across the country to their homes.
When there are no actors, no audiences at The Rep, when the lobby is bare and quiet, the theater’s small production crew is there, working tirelessly on the next production. They won’t stand in a spotlight or see their names on billboards, they won’t take a bow in front of a standing ovation.
It may seem like a thankless field, but none of them joined for the attention. These are the people who are satisfied with work well done, with serving a greater purpose and taking the back seat.
Immeasurable amounts of work go into each production to make it appear seamless and easy, including The Rep’s annual Saints & Sinners black tie gala. Not only is it the Rep’s largest fundraiser, but it’s also a massive stand-alone show. Lights, sound, costumes, sets and choreography are all brought together in an unmatched performance, as only The Rep could.
The team that makes this happen time and time again is as eclectic as the theater’s variety of shows. Their backgrounds and skill sets are all over the map, but they have two things in common: They’re in love with theater and they’ve chosen The Rep.
Dan Kimble, Master Electrician
The one thing Dan Kimble’s professors drilled into him while he was studying to be a lighting designer in grad school was to put lights wherever he wanted and not to worry about what the electricians would have to do to make it happen.
Kimble is The Rep’s master electrician.
It started for him as it does for most people on the technical side of theater: on the stage. At a high school in a small Maryland town, the kind of place where the choir kids are also in the musical and painting scenery at the same time, Kimble got his first taste of lighting a show.
“From the beginning, I remember for some reason being really enthralled by the mixture of mathematical accuracy of using light as a medium, but also the artistic side of it,” he says. “I like working with light and seeing what it does. It’s an ethereal thing. You can’t touch it, it’s hard to manipulate and it kind of does whatever it wants.”
Now in his third season at The Rep, he’s still fascinated by it. Coordinating light colors, placement, circuitry, projections, graphics, and then actually installing them are his job. For a lot of shows, he’ll work with a guest lighting designer from out of town, but sometimes he plays both roles, ones that don’t always mesh so smoothly.
Whenever Kimble also assumes the role of lighting designer, the science and the art of it can be at odds with one another, leaving him second guessing his choices or stacking the odds against himself.
“It’s a weird back and forth between trying to make solid artistic choices that are going to serve the show and serve the plot, and also keeping in mind that labor is just me and one other guy,” he says.
Working through that compromise, however, and bringing it to life is the kind of thing Kimble loves. He’s a man with a knack for numbers who loves fine arts, but also likes working with his hands and problem solving, and his role at The Rep fulfills that, with a little extra to spare.
“There’s always something unique to figure out,” Kimble says. “It’s not like the copier’s broken or the coffee machine isn’t working; it’s how do you make a human being fly through the air like magic. It’s too cool doing what I do.”
Allan Branson, Resident Sound Designer and Engineer
Allan Branson has an unusual goal: Don’t get mentioned in a theatrical review.
For The Rep’s resident sound designer and engineer, to have his work specifically mentioned usually means something went wrong. With everything that falls under his umbrella of expertise, there’s a lot that could potentially go awry at any given moment.
“I joke that if it makes noise in this building, and it’s supposed to, it’s my job,” says Branson, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Branson is responsible for everything from wiring up actors with microphones to piping in the orchestra audio to the stage from the separate room in which they perform, a setup he concocted to help make the cast more audible.
By the first preview of each show, he knows where he wants the levels for each instrument, each voice, making sure every element is lining up properly. On opening night, Branson takes his seat at his soundboard in the back of the theater, manipulating it like a master pianist.
“It’s a very choreographed job,” he says. “It’s a very busy job. After ‘Les Miserables’ every night, I felt like I’d just run a marathon.”
Now in his third season as the sole sound technician at the theater, Branson has only grown in talent, being pushed by his peers to always reach for and achieve more, even if they’re still a little foggy on how his job works.
Branson calls it job security, but the dance of the soundboard is one very few understand. The technology, the physics of acoustics, those are all the things people don’t know. What they can make sense of is the artistry of it, despite whether or not they recognize it in action.
“If you push a vocal here and you push the band there and you make it swell this much, you get the most emotional response from the audience,” he says. “It feels really good when you do something like that. Even if nobody notices consciously, subconsciously it’s something special, there’s something there.”
Don’t ask Branson to sing and dance on stage. Don’t ask him to sew, paint or light anything, and don’t rely on him to make an ornate piece of furniture.
But when he’s in front of a soundboard, the audience walks away remembering the feelings of a connection with this character at this moment when a voice just shook something inside them, and that’s worth mentioning.
Mark Nagle, Costume Shop Manager
Costuming was just a side gig for Mark Nagle. The social work major from New Hampshire just took a costume design class to fulfill a fine arts general education requirement. From there, he worked in the college’s costume shop and designed a few things for local theaters, but he never regarded it as a career thing.
It wasn’t until he got hired at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco as an in-house costuming assistant that Nagle realized you could actually do theater for a living. Now he’s the costume shop manager at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and is gearing up for his first Saints & Sinners event.
Relatively new to The Rep, as was the rest of the shop crew, there was no time to settle in when circumstances required Nagle and production manager Rafael Castanera to take over costume design a few weeks before “Memphis the Musical.”
“It was trial by fire,” he says. “It was either going to crash and burn, or we were going to excel.”
The musical was hailed as one of the theater’s best productions, so it’s not hard to see that they landed safely on the side of excellence. The audience members will no doubt remember the dazzling, white gown the female lead, Felicia, wore in the finale. What they don’t know is that the dress was just as mesmerizing for the ones who made it.
“I loved the dress, but I didn’t realize how much until the first preview. The show ended and they did curtain call, and then she just started twirling in it,” remembers Nagle. “You knew she felt so happy in it, that she felt so gorgeous, and she was. The petticoats and tulle just made it float and you wanted her to float for days.”
But as show stopping as a finale dress may be, that’s not what piques his interest. Nagle’s background in social work and enthusiasm for psychology are what really drive his passion for costuming. He digs into a script, examining a character’s mindset and why they would wear the things they do.
“It’s not dress up for me,” Nagle says. “It’s not people just putting on costumes. It’s the fact that when you step back and look, they become a character without speaking a word.”
And if you’re lucky, that might just include a few show-stopping gowns along the way.
Lynda Kwallek, Properties Designer
There’s a warehouse in Little Rock where The Rep stores all its treasures, the bits from shows past. Only the really good stuff makes it in there, though, the antiques and the oddities, the things that are not easily found.
This is Lynda Kwallek’s domain. She’s the properties designer at The Rep and she’s in charge of getting all of those fantastical pieces for every show. Her role is to procure the props for each production, meaning books, rugs, drapes, furniture, light fixtures, outlets and even food.
She doesn’t see them like you do, though. For Kwallek, nearly every item on stage was mapped out, hunted down and specifically chosen to further the purpose of the story. And it’s the hunt that she loves.
Every antique store within a certain radius knows her, and she knows their inventory. She enjoys sharing excitement with shop owners about upcoming projects, who sometimes will give her special deals, knowing she’ll be back, or will even work out an agreement for personal items.
“You know, it’s funny,” Kwallek says. “A few comp tickets can get you a really cool 1950’s bullet shade borrowed lamp. Everyone goes home happy.”
Each production is like a treasure hunt, a quest through Middle Earth to find the one lamp to rule them all. Despite all the time and energy that goes into every production, Kwallek doesn’t get hung up on a set. When you see the cast on closing night getting teary eyed, she’s the one in the back with a shopping cart, a hammer and a screw gun ready for the next one.
A fast turnover may not scare Kwallek, but that’s because she revels in the tangibility and rhythmic nature of the business.
“We have a clear start. We have a piece of lit that we work with. We have this show that opens to 400 people every night. It culminates with opening night and it goes to close,” Kwallek says. “Very few people have that arc in their work, can really touch what they do, see that entire progression. I love this process.”
Kwallek’s job isn’t one that’s filled with flashy, new, technological innovation like some of the production team. Then again, when she walks through the doors with that one special piece and nobody knows how on earth she found it, it doesn’t need to be.
Mike Nichols, Resident Set Designer and Technical Director
“I did a disservice to that entire freshman class. That was horrible,” laughs Mike Nichols as he sits in a rocking chair in his office with a hot cup of coffee.
The plan was poetry, creative writing, to be exact. After realizing teaching freshman composition clearly wasn’t in the cards, Nichols turned his focus elsewhere. He enjoyed acting in college and eventually took over the theater’s shop at the University of Central Arkansas, which then led him to The Rep in August of 1982, and he never looked back.
Today, Nichols is the theater’s resident set designer and technical director. Sketches, models, design and construction all fall under his jurisdiction, as well as plenty more. A verified Swiss-army-knife type, he’s had his hand in everything over the years from costuming and props to sound and lighting.
Nichols is an observer. When he looks at a door, he sees scale and proportion, the inner workings of functionality that make it recognizable as a door. He turns that into a visual storytelling, trying new approaches along the way to keep things interesting, some of which work and some that don’t always turn out so well.
“The story is right there in front of you, you get this give and take with a live actor,” Nichols says. “It’s certainly more intimate than watching Marvel’s latest superhero in 3D. Maybe they made a lousy movie, but there’s no chance it’s going to mess up.
“On stage, I think somewhere in the back of people’s heads is the little bit of a memory of how everything went completely south in their high school play, and that that might just happen here, too.”
It’s an extremely temporary and volatile business to give your time and creative energy to, only for it to wind up in the dumpster three weeks later. The pressures and stress are quite real and require a true love of the craft.
Nichols, for instance, is drawn to the art of simplicity. Shows like “The Grapes of Wrath” and the upcoming “Whipping Man” all sport direct, dramatic backdrops that challenge a set designer to construct both a structure and a metaphor, a challenge he gladly accepts.
“My favorites are the ones I can abstract and break down a little bit. It becomes more sculpture than a room,” he says. “Nothing comes and goes, it just is.”
It’s certainly no freshman composition class, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something poetic about Nichols’ old overalls and the smell of sawdust, as he sits surrounded by dozens of tiny set models of past shows. The deadlines may be strict and it may not have been the plan, but the steady back and forth of that rocking chair is a rhythm steeped in confidence and satisfaction.
“A career like this makes it worth it,” Nichols says.
Rafael Castanera, Production Manager
In the world of theater, getting things done is critical, and getting things done is Rafael Castanera’s superpower.
In his 14 years as The Rep’s production manager, Castanera has picked up a list of responsibilities and duties along the way that far outnumber those of larger theaters, including hiring personnel for each show, making sure each department has everything it needs, assembling calendars and even costume design.
“I feel like I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be great,” he says. “And I can use a hot glue gun like nobody can.”
Castanera transferred from his home in Puerto Rico to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and later to Salt Lake City to pursue an education in directing musical theater. He found that earning a team’s dedication is doubly hard when you don’t speak English very well, so he drew his instructions, a skill that started him on a track of diversity.
A leap of blind faith took him to New York where he worked on the likes of “Beauty and the Beast,” the Rockettes and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show angel wings. Castanera went on to work his magic on Manhattan department stores and Warner Bros. Studios window displays with gigantic budgets and visibility. But everything he accomplished was taking him farther from theater, and that didn’t sit right with him.
Fast forward 14 years and Castanera is busy sketching Mary Poppins’ costumes and literally planning Saints & Sinners, The Rep’s annual black tie fundraiser, down to the minute. He’s in love with the constructive, creative environment at The Rep, the kind of environment where board members in suits and crew members in jeans join together to clean up after a busted pipe.
But with his expertise and ability to get things done, Castanera could work just about anywhere, so why is he still at a small regional theater in Arkansas?
“Of course I loved being able to just go to Broadway and see Julie Andrews on stage, but I was the person taking her around backstage when she was at The Rep,” Castanera says.
“What happens in New York, what happens here, it’s all the same. The opportunities here are incredible. We’re doing something very important in this community. Why wouldn’t I stay?”