Neil A. Mazzella, chairman of Hudson Scenic Studio, Hudson Sound & Light, and Hudson Theatrical Associates, is the recipient of a Distinguished Achievement Award at USITT 2013 for his impact in technical production. Live Design chats with Mazzella about the past, present, and future of the biz…
Live Design: How did you get started in the technical side of theatre?
Neil A. Mazzella: I started in Off Off Broadway in 1973 and did everything, as they really didn’t pay you. After six months I started as an electrician with the Chelsea Theatre Company at BAM. In 1975 I went to graduate school for my MFA at the Yale School of Drama and majored in TD&P—technical design and production. I then worked at the Metropolitan Opera House as a carpenter until 1980, when I founded Hudson Scenic with Gene O’Donovan, who I had met on a show called Ballroom, at the pre-Broadway tryout in Connecticut. Gene left in 1994.
LD: What are the most challenging projects you have ever worked on?
NAM: There are three. City of Angels in 1987-88, which was the first time we tried to automate our own show. Angels In America, at which time we had just finished Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, with multiple road companies. We had almost become complacent, doing the same musicals over and over again. Then Angels in America was in a small theatre, with a new director and designer on Broadway, it was very challenging. The third was Nine To Five, which turned out to be a major Broadway production in LA at the Ahmanson Theatre, not a Broadway try out. It was a very big show.
LD: How do you deal with complicated production problems?
NAM: We solve them. We are more prepared now, and don’t take anything for granted. You are only as good as your last show, and have to treat each one as if it’s the most important one, focusing on every detail. We also have a better infrastructure and team now. When we did City of Angels we had a 10,000 sq ft shop. Now we have 125,000 sq ft and over 120 employees, with a large variety of skill sets. This year we just built Cinderella, Matilda, and Motown all at the same time. That’s proof of how Hudson has grown, from half a musical in 1985 to three full musicals in 2012.
LD: When did you lighting into the mix?
NAM: In about 2005 when PRG bought Vari-Lite, I thought it was time for some competition. We have a management company as well, and try to bring all three together as often as possible, into a single package as we did this season on Grace, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Anarchist, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Virginia Woolf.
LD: How do you keep you with technology?
NAM: Let’s face it—the real issue is that we are in an information age. Everyone knows everything in less than 30 seconds. With LED and computerized systems in everybody’s world, the theatre industry wants to use it, so shops have to invest heavily to have all that, but theatre can’t really support it. So we get into new technology slowly, always updating, getting new drives, new software. But with LED there is new stuff coming out every day. One designer likes all Martin, another one likes all VL… and each company comes out with new versions every year…these are the same challenges for any vendor.
LD: What are you working on now?
NAM: We are building Trip To Bountiful and Orphans, as well as two floats for a new Disney parade. There is always exciting stuff going on. We do 50% of all shows on Broadway every season, but I am still talking to producers, meeting with general managers. I would like to think I’m an automatic after 40 years, but can’t think that way. We’re still bidding on shows.
LD: What’s next?
NAM: In commercial theatre, video is making big inroads, coupled with LED lighting. People will want to see an integrated system that ties the automated scenery with the lighting and video. That is a big breakthrough that will make someone a lot of money… we did that on shows like Women In White, but now everyone wants to combine everything and control it with one console. Also coming down the road is an integrated system to control everything that moves. We might see that in the next five years. It’s all about the money, and what company will make that kind of investment.
We are also working with Flying By Foy on an integrated system. We tested it on Cinderella, continuing to move scenery and fly people all from one console. It’s very exciting and should be finished by the end of this year. We have done a lot of shows together so it’s a natural progression.
I also have two new partners, Corky Boyd, who has been with us for over 25 years, and Neil O’Connor who was our COO CFO. They will help me bring the company along for the next 20 years. Everything is not about what we have done, but what we are going to do in the future. We need to continue to move forward and remain relevant, not be the company everyone takes for granted.