The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

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Drawing of the groundplan for Lady Thị Kính.

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Photos by Anvi Hoàng 

The paint shop is where I learn that “the colors indicate different things, like, this is a male piece of a hardware, and that is a female piece. They’ll join together.” That is the system that Technical Director Alissia Lauer has worked out with her two carpenters. For me, it is ‘sexy’ and very empowering to hear her talk about her job at IU Opera Theater. Her confidence, passion, and utmost dedication to her work make it appear so in my eyes.

There at IU Opera Theater, the building of the set for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính will be on full swing in September going strong in December. Then when the shows start rolling on February 7, 8, 14, 15 of 2014, Alissia Lauer will be on stage working with the lighting designer. I’d better catch her now.

How many people are working for you? 

I have two full-time carpenters that work for me, as well as around forty students that I supervise. Students are not responsible for building the scenery; the carpenters construct the scenery and the students will assemble the prebuilt scenery.

In The Tale of Lady Thị Kính project, what is your working relationship with the director, set, and costume designers? 

I typically do not have regular interactions with the costume designer. As far as the director and set designer, regular meetings take place so they can present and share their concepts with the team. Since Vince Liotta is our in-house director, I work with him a lot and I have a great working relationship with him. This is my first time working with Erhard.

In terms of construction, is there anything new about his design?

Overall, it is a standard production for us, yet his approach will certainly be different from other productions. The only new material that we are using is bamboo, and this is very unconventional for us. Before now, we would make plywood look like bamboo, but with this show, we look to add authenticity where we can.

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Bamboo tree detail in the drawing.

In general, how authentic is the set building?

Generally speaking, settings in the production are replicated more simply than authentically. Major characteristics of a house, for example, might be reproduced, but there is a chance that some parts of the house might merely be painted on a canvas or artificial materials as opposed to wood. We do enough to get the point across.

What is the technical process like: from the concept in the design and the drawings to the actual building?

Earlier on in the process, I have many conversations on the phone with the set designer. I also send hundreds of emails and messages back and forth to make sure I understand what he is looking for. He sends me a drawing and from the drawing, I can tell exactly what he needs. We stay in close communication through this project, sending the drawings back and forth.

There is usually a lot of back and forth between myself and the designer, and between myself and our paint shop – where do they want to break so they hide the seams the best. Things like that I have to take into consideration because of our warehouse storage space, because we are limited in size – I can’t build anything that is over eight feet wide because of the warehouse concern. If the show is going to travel, it can’t be over nine feet or it won’t fit into a semi-truck trailer. So there are a lot of things like that that I have to think about. For example, there is a piece that is thirty feet long and ten feet wide, so somewhere it has got to break or it will not fit into a truck as is. So I think about that, I think about the different types of materials we can use. Obviously we’re always thinking about the budget – can I use aluminum which is more expensive versus steel, or traditional wood construction. The platforming is easy because it is standard construction method for platforming.

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Stack of platforms with hardware details.

Aesthetically, are you to make sure it looks exactly as the designer wants?

Normally if we need to change something because of the limitation on our space, then I communicate with the designer and say, “OK, we need to tweak this by a few inches here and there.” This production is pretty straightforward and we didn’t have to do that. It depends on some designers; sometimes we have to tweak more than others. I am normally in charge of the technical aspect of the building. When it comes to the way it looks, that is up to the paint department, obviously. The only thing I really deal with on how it looks is where we break it so that we can hide that edge, or what material we are going to use to carve.

I work closely with the paint shop, with Mark who is the Head of Paint Prop Shop. Mark and I sit down and we go over every drawing. We talk about how we want to build it and our concerns.

Between you, the director and the designer, where does your freedom come in?

I don’t have a lot of freedom because I try to make it as close to the design as the director and the designer wish it as possible. I get to decide what material to build it out of, but I try to keep as close to what they want. I try to give them everything they ask for.

What kind of research do you need to do for a project like The Tale of Lady Thị Kính?

I do a lot of online research in so far as the types of material we can get and the cost of materials. Before we had the drawing, I thought about what the show was going to look like, considering phone conversations with the designer, and decided to research bamboo. I found multiple companies that will ship to us here in Indiana. One thing I found was bamboo fencing; It looks like a solid net of bamboo – just bamboo rods. This will work great for some of the walls that he has because it’ll be just a solid bamboo wall, so we can just unroll it and it will be there. We will have to frame behind it to keep it structurally sound.

I have been doing this for a long time, so much of the calculation is just in my head. You learn a lot the more shows you build. You learn what works best and every space is different. What works in our space might not work in a theater in New York: we have the second largest theater in the country.

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Layers of space in the paint shop.

What is your working relation with the lighting designer? 

When I am on stage, I am working with the lighting designer. We put in the set and the lighting designer comes in and has to focus light on some specific things. We are constantly changing the set so that he can focus the different lights. This show does not have it, but Akhenaten has a lot of light in the set itself. So we worked closely with the lighting designer to find out what type of instrumentation he needs and how much room he needs for the light. This really affects the construction. With this one, there is no light in the set.

Do you have to be present on stage when the performance is going on?


And who is doing all the moving, and the pulling when something needs to be up and down?

This is where the students come in.

Do you need to know music to change scenes?

That is the stage manager who has worked with the show from the beginning of the rehearsal process. Over headset, the stage manager will queue scene changes from music. For shows that I have done many times such as Nutcracker, I rely on memory, but for this one, I really rely on the stage manager.

What are the fun things and the challenges in building The Tale of Lady Thị Kính show?

The fun part of it has been trying to find the bamboo products. It is something different, not something I work with on the regular basis. Some of the challenges: speaking with Erhard, the set designer, about the last scene. It is a very quick scene change and the challenge is how we can get Thị Kính up to her platform safely and quickly. Mostly, it is the logistical challenges of the show, “How do we get this on and that off.”

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Stack of platforms ready for assembling.

What do you like about your job? 

I really like working with the students because I get to teach them things specific to theater, but a lot of it translates to life skills. Most of these kids have no idea how to use a hammer, but when they leave here, they can use a hammer; they can use a hammer to hang pictures on their walls or repair a book shelf. I feel like I’m teaching them life skills. I also really like the magic behind my job. Working in theater has been a hobby in the past and is now a career. Once, I heard a little girl go on and on and on about Nutcracker and how magical it was; that was the moment I thought, “OK. I want to do this.”

What is downtime in your job like?

Summer is the closest thing to downtime we get. We work normal hours, eight to five. We build in the shop and do stage maintenance, but we are not here at night doing shows. That is downtime to us. During the school year, during the dress week, I can put in anywhere between seventy to ninety hours each week.

Are there many women in your field? 

No. There are more and more women getting involved, but it is certainly male-dominated.

What is it like working with all the male carpenters and students? 

As far as my students go, it is about fifty-fifty. I have a great relationship with both of the male carpenters. Every once in a while, one might run across a man who is very “No, you’re a woman, you cannot tell me what to do,” but this is very rare in this day and age. More than anything, men try to be overly chivalric and try to take things from you, “Oh, let me take it,” and this is frustrating. I’ll say, “No, I’ve got it. I’m fine.” I just have to remember they are trying to be nice and not mean or condescending.

Photo: IU Opera Theater

Bio: Alissia discovered her love of theater in high school where she was a performer but always found a way to work backstage as well. As a student at Indiana University she started working at the Musical Arts Center (MAC) on stage crew and after being immersed in the scale and quality of productions put on by the Jacobs School of Music, decided to major in technical theater. In 2004, Alissia was offered the position of assistant technical director at the MAC and in 2008 was promoted to technical director.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version

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