Williamstown Theatre Festival production manager Chris Akins shares some of his first-year experiences with ED.
June 4 2002
A little over a year ago I began to ponder the idea of being the production manager here at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. At the time I was in the lighting department working as the associate lighting supervisor. I am not sure what came over me, but one day I said to myself, "Hey I could do that job." I had a few conversations with our producer, Michael Ritchie, and the next thing I knew, the job was mine. Talk about a change of pace! For five years previously, I had been in the lighting department, just worrying about our department; now I have to worry about running the whole technical side of the festival. I accepted the job in November and did not start up here in Williamstown until the end of May, so I had way too much time to sit around and think about all the things I wanted to do.
Where's Charley? played on Williamstown's Main Stage
After a long winter and spring of planning and hiring, it was great to finally get up here. The process of hiring took most of my time in the winter; I think that process went pretty well. I had a difficult time finding a costume shop manager; I did not fill this position [with Margaret Dillner] until my last day in the New York office. I would have liked to have been done with the hiring earlier, but things don't always go the way you want them to. In my time with the lighting department, I know that some things that worked well in the production office and some things that did not work so well, so I spent a lot of time this spring trying to figure out new systems and ways to make the technical side of the festival run smoothly. There have been a few bumps in the production road in the past but there is no reason that things here can not run smoothly. It requires a lot of organization and a good deal of planning, but this festival really can run smoothly. I think. A few examples:
Our fleet of 10 cars used to be organized on a dry-erase board with little slips of paper; now it is all coordinated in Lotus Organizer (which is pretty spiffy).
The budget used to be done in Excel; we changed it to Quicken so that we could make easy reports and other things like that.
The way we do scheduling has been improved. We now use Now Up-To-Date. I create the calendar and then print it into a PDF file. That way I can send it to all the department heads via email and they can open and read them. This keeps all the departments up to date with the plethora of events going on here.
Where's Charley? featured sets by James Noone.
After many months of thinking about the job and doing the hiring, it was finally time to get up here and do it. We loaded the New York office into some vans and drove up the Taconic Parkway to the lovely Berkshires. It sure is pretty here and quite nice to look out the window and see green. One of the many challenges of the festival is that we have limited permanent facilities in Williamstown. Our spaces are rented from Williams College and others for the summer so we have to start from scratch in almost every aspect. My first big project was turning several classrooms into a functioning office space. After several days of moving desks, running phone lines, setting up computers, and dealing with office supplies, we had something that looked like an office. Just when we thought we were in the clear, we had to help all of the other departments set up their spaces.
After all the work of office setup it was time to figure out the systems that we needed to establish and make a plan to get them up and running. In addition to managing all of our productions for the season, we deal with a fleet of 12 cars, order office supplies, research projects as needed, keep the buildings and grounds clean, keep track of all the money, keep our storage facilities nice and neat, and deal with any other projects that may arise. (We often go to New York to pick up various things, cook meals for the crews that work overnight, and fill in for various departments—shop, scenic, props, etc.— as needed.) All of these things needed a little bit of help and a whole lot of re-thinking. Fortunately, my staff is very computer savvy and they were able to use technology to help us make a lot of these systems. For instance, we use Lotus Organizer to coordinate the cars in our fleet. It's all about the cars: We're not exactly in the hotbed of anything, so we use them a lot—we put 10,000 miles on one car in a month. We also have a lot of people, so juggling every day so that everyone gets all of the cars they need is quite an act. Using Lotus Organizer has been great in that we can share it over a network and it gets updated instantly. It took a while to work out all the kinks and get all the different systems down, but we are finally getting very close. Soon we'll have this place firing on all cylinders.
People who have been here before have remarked about how much more efficient the new system is. The scene shop is the same way: In the past, it was one laptop; this year, they're using six computers that are networked so they can share files. They are also networked to a large-format printer that they all can print too. Also, since we order TONS of office supplies, we have put everything into Excel so that we can track every order by department. At the end of the summer, we will be able to total how much each department has spent. Also at the end of the summer, each department will put together a bible that I will then make into a PDF file that will be easily readable by anyone.
None of these systems or the progress that we have made would have been possible without my staff. My associate Joei Cohan has been great with taking care of anything and everything that has to do with money. David Lurie, my assistant, has been great for keeping morale up and dealing with basically everything. His daily tasks range from dealing with all the festival car needs to providing endless amounts of keys. Add to them our production interns—Sadie Bancroft, Stephen Dobay, Shannon Case, Alex Sommer, and Vinny Eng—who actually do all the work and execute all the plans that the staff comes up with.
Costumes for Where's Charley?
were by Michael Krass
After our offices and all of the shops were set up, it was time to get to work on the shows. Our first show on the Nikos Stage, the small space, is Under the Blue Sky. It is an American premiere of a play by David Eldridge. Jim Noone is the set designer; lighting is by David Weiner; costumes are by Willa Kim; and the sound designer is Matt Burton. Noone gave us quite a challenge right off the bat: The original design had a center turntable with a donut and a curved track to carry furniture. This was beyond our budget scope and a little out of our technical scope. The design was adjusted to be one turntable, which was rented from Mystic Scenic outside of Boston. It is still a pretty big show for our little space.
Noone is also doing our first Main Stage show, Where's Charley? Charley is a lesser-known musical and another big undertaking for us. Lots of scenery, lots of costumes (by Michael Krass), and 28 wireless mics (sound design is by Kurt Kellenberger; lighting by Frances Aronson) Nothing like an "easy" start to the summer.
As I look out the window the Mystic truck just pulled up with the turntable. The phone is ringing off the hook and my assistant is losing his mind. Just another day here at the Williamstown Theatre Festival!
Part II of Chris Akins' Williamstown diary will be posted on ED's website in August.