Pulling Back the Curtain at the Majestic

By Cheryl Sobun | Photography by Casey Martin

For nearly 91 years, Gettysburg’s Majestic Theater has presented movies, live drama, dance, and musical performances. Spellbound, the audience rarely gives a thought to what goes on behind the scenes.

Perhaps the Wizard of Oz said it best, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Before Toto blew his cover, the Wizard’s smoke and light show had Dorothy and her friends shaking in their shoes. They chastised him for his trickery, but perhaps he should have been commended for his knowledge and skill. As the Wizard proved, there is just as much magic going on behind the curtain as in front of it.

So, just what does it take to captivate a Majestic Theater audience?

For one 15-to-18-hour workday, a visiting performance troupe and Majestic’s backstage crew come together and function with such seamless camaraderie, an observer would believe they’ve been working together for years.

The day starts at 8 a.m. with breakfast. Then a trailer pulls up to the back of the building, and about 20 people unload and stuff equipment onto a 9-foot-wide by 12-foot-deep elevator. The elevator descends one level, and everyone unloads.

There is no discussion about who should do what. Everyone goes to work, placing tape on the stage, adjusting lights, testing sound equipment, constructing props, and unpacking costumes. This goes on until lunchtime. Afterwards, there are rehearsals, a break for dinner, and soon after, the show begins.

On March 18, the visiting troupe was Portland, Ore.’s Imago Theatre, which presented ZooZoo, a four-man show in which actors donned animal costumes for a variety of skits that included frogs, polar bears, anteaters, and cats. Not a word is spoken during ZooZoo; only the actors’ movements and comedic timing, coupled with sound effects, music, and lighting, create the show, amplifying the importance of the backstage crew.

One of the actors, Pratik Motwani, originally from Mumbai, India, has a Master of Fine Arts in physical theatre, precisely the kind of acting done in ZooZoo, which he describes as puppetry and mask work. “You are using your body more in mask work. You have to have a sense of your body,” he says.

Motwani and the other actors helped set up, but this is not always the case, says Robert Brown, assistant technical director and rental coordinator with the Majestic Theater. The day before the performance, Brown and his staff work on set, sound, and lighting plots—design maps provided by the theater company. “We spend the whole day before just prepping the theater. Sometimes we spend two days, but that’s rare,” says Brown.Lighting plots specify stage lighting design including any colored lights needed. Sheets of color, called gels, go over lamps, and there are literally thousands from which to choose. “Color changes the mood,” says Brown, who notes that green always accompanied the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” “If you see the color green, you think wicked witch. The warmer colors, red and orange, indicate sexual tension, fire, heat, energy. Cool colors are blue and purple.”

Other tricks include side lighting, which creates depth and mood, and gobos, which are metal, cut-out design plates placed in front of a light, breaking up color and creating a kaleidoscope effect on stage, perhaps depicting rain or snow.

After lunch is the technical spacing rehearsal, when actors rehearse various movements, and the Majestic crew coordinates with sound and lights.

Dawn breaks, and the Majestic Theater crew begins again. On with the next show.

There are crew members backstage left and right and one or more up on the rail. There are sound and light technicians in the back of the house on the main floor and lighting technicians up in the spot booth.

There is a universal language among theater professionals, Brown explains, that allows everyone to communicate, even though they have only just met for the first time. They have written cues in front of them and wear headsets to hear instructions.

The first time the audience sees the performance is also the first time the backstage crew of the Majestic sees it, and “we have to make it look like we’ve done it a million times,” says Brown.

Shows often run smoothly, says Wes Jackson, stage hand with the Majestic, but actor, sound, and lighting mishaps can and have happened. “All those and more,” laughs Jackson. Thankfully, the audience understands and is forgiving; it’s all part of the live performance experience.

After the actors take their final bow and the curtain closes for the last time, the crew ends the day just as they started, only in reverse. Most theater attendees are in bed, recalling the highlights of the performance, while the Majestic staff is cleaning the empty theater for the next two to four hours.

Dawn breaks, and the Majestic Theater crew begins again. On with the next show.

If you haven’t yet, come see the Majestic Theater’s 90th Anniversary exhibit, on display through May.

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