The Men Behind the Curtain

{The current issue, #6, of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts, features a number of profiles of people who work behind the scenes - costumers, lighting designers, board members, and more. We are pleased to offer you this online extra, an expanded version of the piece focusing on Danny Harrington, Randy Strange and Albert Little, backstage craftsmen extraordinaire.} ___________________________________________________________

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Oz told Dorothy.  Yet through smoke, mirrors, rigging and a little moxie, that wonderful Wizard managed to rule an entire land, keep wicked witches at bay, and hoodwink an entire population. If acting is believing, stagecraft might well be deception, and a well-designed set with effective lighting makes all the difference in the world.  Jasper talked with three of those men behind the curtain, to find out how it all comes together.

Danny Harrington remembers his mother being involved in theatre on military bases, and after the family settled in Fayetteville, NC, he acted at school, and at the Ft. Bragg Playhouse.  "The two things that interested me in high school were drama, and soccer," Harrington recalls; at Methodist University, he made first string for the soccer team, but a series of away games caused theatre to win out.  “At a small liberal arts school you do it all, acting as well as design,” Harrington says.  His scholarship required him to work on all shows, and he experienced a hectic senior year as tech director for one class, while stage managing the same show for another.  Summer jobs through the Southeastern Theatre Conference pointed to  technical work as viable career option, and he fondly describes the day after junior year when he officially quit Domino's, since when he has always been able to make his living through theatre.

After a year of graduate school in scenography at UNC-Greensboro, he knew he had a talent for design, but experienced some burn-out. By now he had met his future wife Jamie, who was working on a national children’s theatre tour, and the two began looking for projects where they could work together. Summer stock, regional theatres, and other opportunities took them to Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, and finally Columbia, where Harrington is the Technical Director for the nation’s longest-running community theatre organization, Town Theatre.  He notes that in this field, "you have to be willing to move anywhere; it’s all about supply and demand." Additionally, he has designed sets for Trustus, Columbia Children's Theatre, and the Chapin Theatre Company.

Harrington thinks people would be amazed if they saw "how backstage is way more complicated...or way simpler than they realized," noting that it's all about illusion, and that amazing effects can be accomplished solely by inventive lighting.   Sometimes he will follow a production's original design from Broadway, but the internet makes research on alternate choices easy, and for the upcoming Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Harrington is creating something very different of his own.  He enjoys challenges, mentioning Something's Afoot, where he got to kill off cast members one by one via set pieces - falling chandeliers, exploding staircases, etc.  He also had fun with the special effects for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, working out the logistics of a flying car.

He has been pleasantly surprised at the core group of backstage volunteers, many quite young, that he has developed. Half a dozen or more work on set construction, and as many as a dozen alternate on the running crew for a show (where he often feels like a choreographer himself, coordinating everyone's movements.) Sometimes a father and son may be hanging around the theatre while a mother a daughter are rehearsing ; they see the lumber and tools in the shop, and ask how they can help. Others come from summer theatre camps that he and his wife teach, where they learn the camaraderie that develops among a backstage crew.  One such student, now heading into high school, has been with him a number of summers, and Harrington has been able to train him, entrusting him with more responsibility each year.

Harrington gives the play selection committee crucial input on the feasibility of specific productions and effects, although one imagines that his enthusiasm and gee-whiz attitude might lead him to say "I think we can make that work" to just about anything. He seeks the director's input at least 4-6 weeks in advance, if not earlier, then always fashions  a 1/4 inch model. He tries to make every set as solid as possible, capping platforms with Masonite instead of just raw plywood; he appreciated one actor, an architect by profession, complimenting him on how safe and actor-friendly a particular structure was.  Extra hands are always needed, but what  he could really use right now is some expertise with welding, launching into a complex description of a hydraulic lift for an entrance through a trap door in Joseph.  There's no question that the possibilities of new technology fascinate him, and he adds that he's experimenting more with projection and film effects.  Still a relative newcomer to the Midlands, Harrington remains impressed at the level of support for the performing arts in Columbia, and that even in a tough economy, everyone locally is staying afloat.


Workshop Theatre's Technical Director, Randy Strange, grew up in Columbia, attending A.C. Flora, and dabbling a little in theatre - he remembers playing a "man in a white toga" in Julius Caesar.  Intending a career in commercial art, Strange spent two years on an art scholarship at USC. While excelling in his art classes, Strange was distracted from academics by the rest of college life, and within a week of leaving school, "Uncle Sam came calling."  Strange served two years in Viet Nam as a technical maintenance inspector for Chinook helicopters.  He considered a military career, and had qualified for pilot school, but would have had to train "in-country," and opted to return home, working at Southern Bell as a maintenance administrator for field personnel.  When Bell added its own graphic art division, he made the transition.   He is especially proud of a number of telephone directory covers, and portraits that he designed for the African American History calendars and promotional materials.  After 32 years with Bell, his department shut down during a period of downsizing, and Strange opted for early retirement.  By then he was heavily involved as a theatre volunteer, however; a chance meeting at a party in 1975 with Town Theatre's Technical Director Walter O’Rourke led to an offer to put Strange's creative skills to work on set design and construction.  When O’Rourke moved over to Workshop in the '80's, Strange followed, and has been there ever since - 37 years of community theatre in all, and almost 200 sets he has designed.  He and O'Rourke would split up duties, one designing, the other "figuring out how to make it look real on stage." Strange remembers that "Walter always griped that he'd be working until the day he died," and when O’Rourke passed away unexpectedly, in 2007, the Workshop board offered Strange the job,  which he feels "Walter would have wanted, and I think he had been grooming me for that all along."

Like Harrington, Strange advises on play selection, and meets with each director.  His sets often feature intricate detail and subtle touches that silently but clearly define a particular location or moment in time.  He is likewise detailed in person, soft-spoken, already anticipating components that will be needed in six weeks, and fretting over 17 scenes in the first act of next fall's Legally Blonde.  Strange  doesn't mind the challenge, but always worries that scene changes may slow down the pace of a show.  He tries whenever possible to reduce the scope and complexity of a set.  "It has to be actor-proof," he grins.  "If there's a way of breaking it, they will."  He too suspects that viewers may have no idea how tiny the available space may be.  "I think we pull miracles off quite often,"  he says.  "The fun aspect of theatre is that you meet a lot of wonderful people.  This wonderful artistic outlet has kept me out of trouble - for the most part - and is very rewarding,” especially when the hard work of so many people comes together just in time.

He sees theatre, and volunteering, as "something that can hook you, and that you develop a passion for." At first he was the youngster, working with most of Workshop's original founders, but now he's the veteran:  "There's a whole new world of opportunity, to meet a variety of friends that you'd have never met in any other venue, much younger people you wouldn’t meet in a normal job." The biggest thing he needs currently is some strong young bodies to help with actual construction. Students from USC and from youth theatre classes have been traditional sources, but currently Strange doesn't see as much passion among performers who in years past might have come out for auditions, then stayed to help build the set. "There are so many avenues of entertainment in Columbia, that theatre sometimes suffers," and there's great competition with other venues for talent and manpower backstage. Harrington agrees, finding that ironic, given that theatre in fact can combine many art forms: music, dance, performance and visual art simultaneously. Strange can round up 4-6 volunteers in a pinch, but often it's just him and one or two of the "hard core." "Thank God we have the Alberts of the world," he concludes.

Albert is of course longtime Workshop volunteer Albert Little.   When Little joins the conversation, an impromptu cast party of two breaks out, as both men rib each other, reminiscing over old shows, old stories, and old pranks played.  "That was Walter," Strange interjects.  “I would tell them they would burn in hell," Little teases. "We worked hard, and had lots of fun along the way,” even if that meant painting the floor at midnight in advance of opening night. Referring to O’Rourke, but by transference Strange too, Little acknowledges that "he wanted me to grow as a technician, and a carpenter.  Walter would always take suggestions; they would let you try to build something on your own. Whenever I was ready, they'd teach me more,” even if he ended up wearing more paint than made it to the wall.  During Into the Woods, foliage moved rapidly on and off stage, flying in and out, and Little appreciated the free rein he was given to do rigging some 25 feet in the air, a much-needed niche he has continued to fill.

Like Harrington, Little grew up in a military family that eventually settled in Sumter, SC.  Three of his school band directors were involved in the Sumter Little Theatre; soon after graduation, he saw a couple of productions there, and felt compelled to get involved.  "I had seen movies...and knew that it takes numerous shots.  Unlike film, live theatre is right there in your face, and that intrigued the hell out of me: making the best out of you never know what. Someone could trip, or forget an entrance, and I said 'I’ve got to be a part of this.'“

After a year at USC-Sumter, he drove a milk truck for Sumter Dairy, and volunteering onstage and behind the scenes became his passion. A move to Columbia with a partner, who was working on an MFA, led to backstage work, "or occasionally filling in as a spear carrier" at USC. Little drifted among assorted temp assignments and odd jobs (including, like Harrington, a stint delivering for Domino's)  before landing a job as a driver for the city Sanitation Dept.  After his partner moved to California, Little recalls that "I was lost.  The itch was driving me crazy," and he knew "I have GOT to do more theatre."  As soon as his work schedule with the city became stable, he showed up at Workshop.  Connections made there led to a job for 11 years as a runner at Chernoff-Silver, and now Little works for the Richland County Dept. of Public Works as an Engineering Technician for Storm Water Management. "My life is a happy accident," he concedes. “They made it fun - they are my best and longest lasting friends,"  Little says of his theatre colleagues. "When I came to Columbia, it scared the shit out of me," he laughs, discussing with Strange the wealth of talent found locally.  "We are blessed to have so many people, who are willing to give so much time."

Little offers a possible explanation:  in countless little rural towns in the state, there are a few artistic types who have greater aspirations. " Smaller communities may place a stigma on creativity - you know, 'that child just ain't' right,' " he jokes. "So kids move here, to a bigger town, and explore different possibilities with regard to the arts.  Columbia became a really great mecca, where you can see opportunity.  It’s a magnet for people to migrate here, and show off their wares.  They may not want to move to New York or even Atlanta, so they will come to Columbia, to see what works out for them. "   It becomes quite clear that Little isn't talking about just theatre volunteers, or even artists in general, but also about himself, and about finding oneself in ways beyond just a hobby.  It’s an unexpectedly moving and profound moment, as he describes that yearning that so many young people in creative fields experience.

Harrington, Strange and Little all turned to theatre as a fun activity.  For Harrington, stagecraft became a career for a young professional just now hitting his creative stride.  Strange discovered an outlet to develop his artistic skills, and now carries the torch that was handed to him from his mentor. For Little, volunteering backstage has become a calling.  Arthur O'Shaughnessy wrote "we are the dreamers of dreams...we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems."  These men behind the curtains of local theatre in Columbia make the magic, helping us to dream those dreams.

~ August Krickel

Photography by Jonathan Sharpe