Enjoying a change of scenery

The act­ors on the Wal­nut Street Theatre stage look good. But Dan Schultz has the chal­len­ging job of mak­ing the stage look good.

Dan Schultz, tech­nic­al dir­ect­or at the Wal­nut Street Theat­er, works on he set for “Miss Sai­gon”, Fri­day, May 6, 2011.

For its fi­nal pro­duc­tion of the sea­son, the Wal­nut Street Theatre is present­ing a mu­sic­al that was a hit in Lon­don and then on Broad­way. Miss Sai­gon premiered in Lon­don in 1989 and ran for 10 years. When it opened on Broad­way in 1991, it racked up 11 Tony nom­in­a­tions. 

Now the Wal­nut is present­ing its own all-new pro­duc­tion, which opened last week and con­tin­ues to Ju­ly 17.

With echoes of Ma­dame But­ter­fly, this love story is about an Amer­ic­an sol­dier and Vi­et­namese girl who fall in love and then are sep­ar­ated dur­ing the fall of Sai­gon. The mu­sic is by the com­posers who cre­ated the mem­or­able mu­sic for Les Miser­ables.

On the main stage of the Wal­nut, it’s the act­ors who bring this story to life. But the scen­ic design  helps cre­ate the world of Sai­gon, in­clud­ing crowded streets and a seedy nightclub.

The most stun­ning ele­ment of the stage set is the full-scale heli­copter, which ap­pears on­stage in a scene near the end of the second act. It’s been a fam­ous part of Miss Sai­gon ever since the Lon­don pro­duc­tion.

The Wal­nut fol­lows tra­di­tion with an ac­tu­al heli­copter made in its own scene shop — the chop­per car­ries two act­ors across the stage.

“It’s able to ro­tate and move in every dir­ec­tion,” said Dan Schultz, a Phil­adelphi­an who is the theat­er’s tech­nic­al dir­ect­or. “The act­ors enter the heli­copter and ride off the stage.”

The heli­copter was en­tirely built in the theat­er’s scene shop at 3340 Frank­ford Ave. Formerly an auto-mech­an­ic work­shop, it’s now the headquar­ters for cre­at­ing stage ma­gic.

In­side are four rooms with of­fices plus spaces where the sets are built. Schultz su­per­vises a staff of 10, in­clud­ing car­penters plus ap­pren­tices and a paint­er.

But it’s Schultz who has the star­ring role be­hind the scenes. He de­signed the heli­copter as well as oth­er scen­ic de­tails for the Miss Sai­gon set, just as he does for all of the Wal­nut’s ma­jor pro­duc­tions.

For Miss Sai­gon, the heli­copter was the ma­jor chal­lenge. First, scen­ic de­sign­er John Far­rell gave Schultz com­puter draw­ings of what he wanted. Schultz set to work design­ing the struc­ture of a heli­copter that could sup­port two people who would fly off the stage in it.    

Next, he ordered all the ma­ter­i­al — alu­min­um for the frame, and sheet met­al for the ex­ter­i­or. It took three full weeks to put to­geth­er a heli­copter 19 feet long and 5 feet tall. 

“It’s about the size of a reg­u­lar car,” said Schultz.

Once it was built, it had to be trans­por­ted to the stage of the Wal­nut Street Theatre in Cen­ter City. Usu­ally the sets are moved by rent­al truck, but this was much too large. 

In­stead, Schultz had a tow­ing com­pany do the job. The heli­copter was placed on a flat­bed and off it went to the theat­er, with Schultz driv­ing right be­hind. When the copter ar­rived at Ninth and Wal­nut, it was lowered on a ramp and po­si­tioned on dol­lies for the cau­tious trip in­to the theat­er and onto the stage.

This was Schultz’s first chance to see if it ac­tu­ally worked. “Be­cause of its size, we couldn’t try it out in the shop,” he said. “So we were eager to get it on the stage and see what would hap­pen. And it worked fine — bet­ter than we could have hoped.”

Al­though the heli­copter was a ma­jor pro­ject, Schultz was also re­spons­ible for oth­er key de­tails, such as the large hanging pan­els that ro­tate on a track and show scenes of Vi­et­nam, in­clud­ing street scenes of a seedy dis­trict re­plete with sex shops and strip clubs.

Al­to­geth­er, Schultz and his staff made six pan­els, each one 7 feet by 19 feet. The pan­els have such elab­or­ate light­ing that it takes 9,000 watts of power just for the scenery, said Schultz.

These ele­ments, too, had to be set in place on the stage — the wall pan­els, the props, the lights.

“We know from ex­per­i­ence that there are al­ways ad­just­ments to be made,” said Schultz. “They’re all worked out dur­ing the hec­tic time known as ‘tech week.’” 

This is the week of mara­thon hours for re­hears­als when all the tech­nic­al de­tails are ad­dressed be­fore the show’s dress re­hears­al and pre­views.

Dur­ing pre­views, Schultz sits in the audi­ence, clip­board in hand. As he watches the stage closely, he makes notes of any tech­nic­al de­tails that need to be fixed or fine-tuned at the last minute.

By open­ing night, his work is over. Be­cause Miss Sai­gon is the fi­nal show of the Wal­nut’s sea­son, he’ll now turn to pre­lim­in­ary plan­ning for next sea­son.

Schultz didn’t ini­tially plan a ca­reer in theat­er. In­stead, at Mes­si­ah Col­lege in Grantham, Pa., he earned a de­gree in film­mak­ing. “But I had many friends in the theat­er pro­gram,” he said, not­ing that it sparked his in­terest.

When he settled in Phil­adelphia in 1996, he did freel­ance theat­er jobs while work­ing on films. His first stage work was at the Ar­den Theat­er, where he painted a stage floor black.

“Any idi­ot could do that,” he joked.

But soon he was do­ing more, work­ing as a car­penter at the Ar­den Theat­er and also work­ing for sev­er­al scene shops.

This is his third sea­son with the Wal­nut Street Theatre, and Miss Sai­gon is his 15th full-scale pro­duc­tion. Each one brings new chal­lenges and sat­is­fac­tion. 

A high mo­ment comes when he’s in the audi­ence, watch­ing the show un­fold on the set that he and his staff built from scratch. 

“That’s a very sat­is­fy­ing feel­ing,” he said. “I like the ma­gic you can make out of ply­wood and paint.” •• 

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

comments powered by Disqus