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IATSE 193 members "back stage" featured in Oct 30, '22 Pantagraph article

Mateusz Janik
30 Oct, 2022
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BLOOMINGTON — One of the original centerpieces of artistic and social life in the Twin Cities, the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts' stately exterior and elaborate internal ecosystem have captivated audiences for a century.

The center — originally known as Bloomington's Scottish Rite Temple — was built in 1921 with a five-arched façade, ornate windows beneath the entrance and marble flooring throughout the facility.

According to the McLean County Museum of History, the 1,320-seat soft white theater once boasted the largest stage west of New York. It has two levels consisting of original dark wood seating lined in light blue felt cushioning.

Just below resides the grand ballroom that can seat a thousand guests during conventions, exhibits or receptions. Audiences through the years have enjoyed performances by renowned artists, including pianist Duke Ellington, operatic soprano Beverly Sills, Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Pantagraph journalists received a tour of the center and its inner workings as part of the ongoing "Off Limits" series, which takes a look into places that are typically restricted or closed off from the public.

That's not to say people can't tour the center, said Eric Manuel, production manager of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts — tours are available for those who request them.

"They're guided either by a volunteer or someone that works here and they give you the backstory and information about the place," Manuel said. "But you're not going to be able to go up to the rafters or anything like that."

None of the magic could happen without stagehands. A core group of 10 handles most performances, but up to 40 additional stagehands are certified and brought in for larger productions.

The center was originally built as a home for the American Passion Play, an ambitious production depicting the life and crucifixion of Jesus. The play was created by Delmar Duane Darrah, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and it continued every year until the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellations in 2020 and 2021.

The organization said the American Passion Play's 100th year, 2023, would be its last. A statement on its website attributes the decision to declines in audiences, revenue, and cast and crew members.

For its first 60 years, the BCPA — also known as The Consistory — hosted attractions that included the Scottish Rite Players and Bloomington Symphony. It was the primary community theater for Bloomington-Normal until the opening of Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium in 1973.

Stagehand Patrick Schlehuber, a member of Bloomington's Scottish Rite Temple for the past 35 years, said the masonic organization owned the building for about 80 years, hosting its own theatrical productions along with other programs that would come to perform.

"I don't think (the attitude has) changed whatsoever," said Schlehuber, a member of the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 193. "Over the years we've seen technology changes, and safety is a big thing that has changed. Twenty years ago there were things that today I still can't believe we did, and it's a big deal for us now."

A new era in the facility's life began in 2000, when the City of Bloomington formed the Bloomington Cultural District to assume ownership of the center and guide it through extensive renovations. A civic committee created a plan to restore the center and add more facilities to enhance the city's arts resources and revitalize the north side of downtown.

Soon after, the center received its name as the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and became a venue offering performing and visual arts and arts education programs with a green space. The city council approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help fund the $15 million project, which was finished in 2006.

Today, the center hosts performances by national and international touring artists and productions, as well as classes, meetings, seminars, presentations and more. Officials estimate it holds over 500 events a year.

City officials earlier this month named a new executive director for the center.

Anthony Nelson, previously team lead for the BCPA, was named as the city's new arts and entertainment director effective Oct. 10. He will act as executive director for both the BCPA and Grossinger Motors Arena.

Behind the scenes

Following the completion of renovations in 2006, the back southern half of the center has a loading dock, hydraulic lift and all the necessary equipment to bring in whatever props a production needs on stage.

Manuel said the original center and new additions are sectioned off by an almost 100-foot-tall, freestanding brick wall with two openings to carry stage props and equipment onto or off of the main stage.

"Before the renovation, this was not knocked out. That was the actual back of the building," Manuel said. "So at least at the time, for many, many years, it was the (tallest) freestanding brick wall in the world."

The theatrical rigging system, also known as a "fly system" — which houses a series of ropes, pulleys and counterweights — holds the lights, curtains and backdrops that are positioned on either side of the stage.

The stage manager console sits just beyond stage right. Communication between the production manager and other stagehands takes place through a Clear-Com system with headsets, a key element in the precision required during performances.

"Back in the day there were big throw switches, but now all of our lighting controls are right here, and you can do all of what you need to do here without going out to the house," Manuel said. "It's very important to be clear and concise.

"We use a lot of countdowns from 30, 15 and 10 seconds, and the word 'go' is the big word. Anytime you're getting ready for any cue, you would say, 'get ready on my G-O,' instead of saying the actual word, because you want to say it when it's actually time."

About 35 feet above the audience, a majority of the center's 350 theater lights sit along tight catwalks. Wearing a harness, a stagehand can crawl on all fours to reach them and make manual adjustments or fixes.

"It can be stressful, but for the most part we work a lot of different venues, and this one is very unique because we got our hands on everything," said Dan Cavanaugh, who is BCPA's head lighting stagehand but has experience with other organizations. "A lot of other venues, the road crew comes in and they're in control of all these different departments, and we just do what they say. This one, a lot of shows come in and they expect us to put on their show and that our people know what they're doing. We really get to be in charge of our work, so it's nice."

Stagehands who are members of the union also work at other venues, including Grossinger Motors Arena and the Peoria Civic Center, Cavanaugh said. Many offer their services for freelance gigs for smaller theater groups or local churches.

There are a number of changing rooms around the building, but the main green rooms are located off stage right, past the rows of lighting equipment. Through a hallway, the walls are filled with signatures from local performances like the American Passion Play as well as others throughout the years, including the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and Pilobolus Dance Company.

"There are some big names and a lot of people you've never heard of," Manuel said. "We have some good ones from local shows, a couple from this African children's choir that visited with missionaries, and bigger names like Lyle Lovett and Arlo Guthrie."

Recruiting a new generation

A longtime stagehand, Schlehuber said he still enjoys the work, from handling spotlights to running curtains back and forth to going up on the rails. Some favorite memories include performances from "Weird Al" Yankovic and B.B. King, who performed at the center eight months before he died in 2015.

"It's nice to see some of the younger hands coming through here as the older ones start to wind down their career," Schlehuber said. "It's just enjoyable, it's like a secondary job for me and a change of pace in life."

Cavanaugh said he was working in food service in 2006, waiting to hear about any open position, when he heard that the BCPA had finished its renovations. He got a job there and never looked back.

Early on at the BCPA, he had worked with the rock band Los Lobos, which turned out to be a memorable experience. It was a big show, and the music was on point. Their only lighting direction? "Make it hot and sexy."

"I said 'All right,' and played with that," recalled Cavanaugh, who also is a member of Local 193.

Although he stepped into the role of program manager full time in June, Manuel said he started off as stagehand at the center in 2008.

It can be a slow start, he said, but the center is a great place for people who are interested in stage work to get their bearings.

"We are excited about the opportunity to recruit and basically create a new generation of professional stagehands by reaching out to the community," Manuel said. "Whether it be in the high schools, at Illinois State University or Illinois Wesleyan University, we're looking for people who are interested and wanting to get them into the industry."