Backstage with Matthew- February 27
Last Friday we opened Ted Hearne’s searingly impactful dramatic oratorio, The Source in the Wilsey Center for Opera. It is a work that redefines artistry on many levels: musical language, technological effects, and stark questions about what it means to engage with art. It is also an example of how the Wilsey Center is redefining possibilities for the Opera’s employees. From front of house, to producing, to orchestral work, SF Opera Lab engages, empowers and allows the Opera’s talented employees to create art in a different way. A great example is Chris Davis, the Wilsey Center Head Stage Technician.
Chris has a dual role at SFO. During the regular opera season, he is a grip backstage—a member of the carpentry crew. Then, whenever the Opera is in residence at the Wilsey Center for Opera, Chris is the senior member of the crew onsite, overseeing all the technical functions of the space in partnership with Ryan O’Steen, our Associate Technical Director. It is a duality that gives Chris a breadth of scope unusual in a large opera company. Over in the Opera House there are very specific stage departments (e.g. carpentry, electrics, properties, audio) and crew members are employed in a particular department. At the Wilsey Center, there are no departmental lines and so crew members can be rigging a truss system one moment and focusing a lighting instrument the next. It’s a flexibility that was made possible in partnership with Local 16 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
A 300-seat theater may not have the huge scenery of the Opera House stage, but challenges come elsewhere. The Source uses four large projection screens, each the width of the room. In the Opera House the extensive fly system and numerous chain motors would make rigging (hanging) the screens relatively straightforward. In the Taube Atrium, Chris and his crew have to work more manually, going back to techniques they used earlier in their careers.
Chris began with the Opera in 1988 and, although his theatrical proclivities were evident from a young age, opera was a surprise detour. Chris’s mother acted while she was in high school and she introduced Chris and his brother to the technical world of the Petaluma Community Theater. From age 13, Chris was developing a love of the backstage. He went on to Santa Rosa Community College where he received an associate degree in theatrical lighting. In 1988 he took a four hour call at San Francisco Opera in the carpentry department (although Chris specialized in lighting, his father was a carpentry contractor). That day, the Opera asked him back for a 10 day stint, at the end of which then master carpenter, Michael Kane, invited Chris to stay on. And it’s now almost thirty years later!
Chris vividly remembers walking onto the stage of the Opera House for the first time. He had worked in musical theater and summer repertory theater in Santa Rosa (in a nice twist, working for the father of our now Master Audio/Video Engineer, Doug Mitchell!), so the energy and rigor of the work was not a surprise, but the scale was. There was also a formality and hierarchy on the Opera crew, essential for the pace and scope of the Opera’s season. The Wilsey Center allows Chris to return to his smaller theater days as he works to solve problems across all departments. A lot of the equipment for The Source comes from the Opera’s inventory. The 8ft platform for the musicians is built from Opera stock risers; the projectors are our supertitle projectors; and the sound mapping utilizes the Meyer Sound Constellation System, an incredible feature of the Taube Atrium.
Chris was appointed while the Wilsey Center was still being built and so was instrumental in refining the way that the space works. A critical problem to be solved was the storage space for the risers and chairs, which required some adjustments for the final configuration of equipment. Chris built an elaborate rack system that allows us to maximize space in the storage room. He also had to figure out how to streamline the install/removal time for the seating risers which he’s now trimmed down to an 8-10 hour process. He’s currently working on improving storage and flow in the attic space above the grid—a ‘mind-your-head’ kind of space accessed from outside on the roof!
The Wilsey Center exudes creativity. Its joy is that it will always be a space in flux, developing new ideas of performance, creating and solving new technical problems, engaging audience, artists, employees in new ways. In each of these permutations are wonderful opportunities for Chris and his team to bring to life the technical solutions that make the Wilsey Center such a hub of innovation. It’s an exciting return to the more intimate side of theater from which many of us began.