Prentice Hospital Event Brings Ballet—and Staging Solutions—to a Construction Site

When the Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago began its expansion into a new, one million-square-foot facility in mid-May, a typical groundbreaking ceremony, complete with the requisite dignitaries and silver shovel, was certainly expected by most of those attending.


Chicago's River North Dance Company performs at the opening of the Prentice Women's Hospital on a 24'x16' stage surrounded by dirt.

Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment of Chicago, Ill., however, had something a bit different in mind. The event certainly did include dignitaries in the persons of the state's and the city's two first ladies — Patti Blagojevich and Maggie Daley — as well as Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, among others. However, event producers Paulette and Jodie Wolf added a few other major touches to make sure the ceremony was anything but routine. They combined the groundbreaking ceremony and construction equipment with diverse elements that included ballet and a dash of traditional theater at the construction site.

To create their vision, the two women turned to technical director/production manager Mark Kishbaugh of db Sound of Mount Prospect, Ill., and lighting designer Daric Bassan of Upstaging in Mundelein, Ill.

“It starts off very conceptually,” Kishbaugh explains. “These kinds of events are very dynamic, and they can change weekly until the event actually comes upon us.”

In the beginning, Kishbaugh admits he saw the project as uncomplicated. “From an audio and lighting standpoint, this represented a very simple job,” he says. “It was the creative staging ideas and the environment that posed a challenge.”

Muddy Stage

In particular, the groundbreaking featured two unique aspects outside of the traditional shovel-in-the-ground photo opportunity: a ballet performed by the River North Dance Company, staged on a mound of dirt inside a tent where the main ceremony took place, and a Kabuki drop of the side wall, which would reveal another form of ballet performed by two pieces of heavy equipment — a backhoe and bulldozer. The ballet on dirt was planned from the beginning, while the Kabuki drop entered the equation much later.

In early discussions, the floor of the tent was supposed to be either plywood or actually paved by the time of the load-in. That, however, didn't turn out to be the case.

“It was a crushed surface that they thought was going to be OK,” Kishbaugh says. The surface might have posed no problems, except for the wet Chicago weather that turned much of the surface to mud shortly before the event.

“A lot of the elements had to be built on the floor, and by the time it went up, everything was a mess,” Kishbaugh says. Since the production took place inside a white tent with a white Kabuki drop and included five pieces of white spandex upstage of the dance floor for a dramatic lighting surface, mud was hardly a welcome addition. “It all had to be cleaned as it was going up in the air, and that added a lot of time that wasn't originally on our clock.”

The event used a Clear Span tent that measured 100'×80'. Bassan added two 20ft. pieces of truss and a corner block that followed the contours of the roof of the tent.

“The Clear Span tents are actually pretty easy to hang things in,” Bassan says. The truss, located downstage, was used to hang six of Kishbaugh's EV Xi-1152 speakers, eight High End Studio Color 575s, six Studio Color 250s, and six Studio Spot 575s. The crew also used ETC Source Four Lekos for a front wash and new ETC Source Four Zoom Lekos for client logos.

“The Source Four Zoom Lekos are kind of neat,” Bassan says. “You can have a 19-degree to 50-degree leko in one body without switching the barrels out — you just dial up the beam angle on the side of the instrument.”

Gritty Illusions

The biggest artistic element of the show was the so-called ballet on dirt, which wasn't exactly performed on dirt. Rather, the performance actually took place on a 24'×16' stage that was surrounded by dirt.

“To get the proper illusion, it really had to have a pretty smooth arc,” Kishbaugh says. “You can't just throw dirt at it, since it would all go under the stage.” To solve the problem, the construction crew built a container that went around the stage. “We built a plywood barricade that wrapped the front and the two sides of the stage, and had another barricade going left and right for the wings,” Kishbaugh says. Seven truckloads of dirt were brought in and tossed into that container to help create the illusion.

To finalize the effect, Bassan turned to an Aqua Fog dry ice fogger to conceal the actual stage. “With the fog, it really made it look like they were dancing on dirt,” Bassan says, adding that the use of the fog device was also a challenge. “The fact that we were on a construction site made it a bit of a problem, since there was no water source there.” The solution? The fogger was filled before it arrived on site.

The other major element of the show was the Kabuki drop. “The tent wall that was going to disappear came up almost last minute,” Kishbaugh admits. Luckily, Bassan and Upstaging had an easy answer when the concept was proposed. They possessed a solenoid-based Kabuki system that they've used all over the world on various gigs in recent years.

“We used 100ft. of tent fabric, and had solenoids about every 4ft.,” Bassan says. He adds that corporate groundbreaking ceremonies on construction sites are not usually the place one finds a Kabuki drop, making this effect somewhat problematic as well.

“It's quite the project to get 100ft. of anything to fall at the same time,” Kishbaugh admits. After several rehearsals, the Kabuki was ready, and when it did fall, it revealed a backhoe and bulldozer that were ready to perform their “dance.”

“When the tent wall dropped, the music came up, the sunlight came into the tent and the construction gear started to work with the music. It came out well,” Kishbaugh says.

The last major element in the production was the weather. The load-in took place on a sunny Friday, but by Saturday afternoon, the weather changed dramatically. “We hung the entire production, and then the weather started working against us,” Kishbaugh explains. “The wind got really bad and there was actually some movement to the tent as we were doing a walk-through with the CEO,” he says.

So Kishbaugh made a tough call: All the weight on the downstage truss had to come off, for safety's sake. “Taking the moving lights off took about 700lbs. or 800lbs. off the truss, but once they went on the ground, I had to essentially re-design the show in my head,” Bassan admits.

His revised design featured placing the Studio Colors and Studio Spots on the ground in a U shape. “I was able to keep the front light from the static fixtures, which was critical, but it was a little disappointing,” says Bassan. “But you have to do what you have to do.”

A skeleton crew removed the speaker cabinets and ground stacked them downstage left and right of the mound. To complete the audio picture, Kishbaugh used four EAW JF 100 front fills placed at the downstage edge, in the dirt.

“In my opinion, it wasn't the best way to do it,” Kishbaugh admits. But it was the safest way to do it, which was Kishbaugh's primary requirement.

In the end, the production came together to create what the producers initially envisioned. “Paulette and Jodie are exceptional at what they do, so we work very hard to bring their ideas to life, regardless of how difficult, or, in this case, how dirty the job might be,” Kishbaugh says.


Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine, and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years.

Email her at sharonxs2001@yahoo.com.