Theater boot camp, out of the spotlight

Summertime: when the living is easy. Or at least when the living is easier.

We’d all like to believe that Gershwin had it right. But maybe the living is not at all easier during summertime. Maybe summertime simply affords us the chance to change directions, but not necessarily to change pace.

Stephen Dobay ’05 can not only testify that the above is true, but that it is true of Williamstown.

While the rest of the College is on vacation, it is the responsibility of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s art directors, Michael Richie and Jenny Gerston, to import big names, stick them in odd rehearsal spaces (like the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church) and present the annual performances, dragging excitement and perhaps a bit of commotion to sleepy summer Billsville.

Weeks after finishing his spring semester, Dobay, who intends to major in theater, began work as the assistant properties manager for Richie and Gerston. It was his duty to find everything from hand props, which actors carry onstage with them, to larger pieces such as furniture. Of course, when the right prop was not available, Dobay had to build it himself. “Essentially, I was a carpenter,” he explains.

He was a busy carpenter, on call 14 hours a day, seven days a week, outfitting three plays at a time, for a total of 12 plays in one summer. Except, of course, during each changeover, when he had to make an even bigger hourly commitment.

When shows ended on Sunday, he and a few others spent the entire night striking the old set and then readying the new set by Monday morning for plays opening Thursday.

Working alongside actors, directors and designers from New York City, one might say that Dobay got the job that never sleeps.

The behind-the-scenes opportunity at the Williamstown Theatre Festival allowed Dobay to experience what he describes as “boot camp” for a future in technical theatre.

Dobay rubbed elbows with top designers like Neil Pattel, who designed the set of “Travesties,” Dobay’s favorite production of the summer. He created amusing props, including a library table used for a striptease, a six-foot cake, a treasure chest full of golden doughnuts – for a children’s production, of course – and a twelve-foot model train in which five actors rolled onstage.

He also designed furniture for productions with actor Jesse Martin, who plays Eddie Green on “Law and Order,” and actress Betty Buckley of Broadway’s “Cats.” Of course, having “their butts make contact” with his furniture was as close as he got to them. But he did hear first-hand about the nosedive Mandy Patinkin took off the stage and into a patron’s lap on opening night of “Enemy of the People.”

The work, then, is hard but exciting, even if the ancillary benefits are few. Dobay sadly admits that “most of the women in technical theatre are not known for their stunning good looks,” though he adds, “they can sure as hell lift.”

Dobay became interested in technical theatre during his freshman year, working on Frosh Revue, his first Cap and Bells production.

Last year he was promoted to technical director of the organization. After two summers working with the Williamstown Theatre Festival (he stayed in Williamstown last summer as an intern; “a boring desk job” wherein, unlike this year, he was unable to make “a direct contribution” to the festival), Dobay now looks to the future. He hopes to pursue set design in Europe next summer. If not, he expects to return to the festival.

Even if life does not slow down, one could do worse than spend the summer in the Berkshires.

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