Curtain call

Bridget Bartlett doesn’t sling tapas – she sews cravats. And yet, “I look at [my job] as a serving position,” says the costume designer, who splits her time between Flat Rock Playhouse and the Ocala Civic Theatre in Florida.

“I love the relationship I have with actors,” she says. “I love the hard work and research they do – and I do hard work and research for them.”

Which is to say that costuming Hamlet isn’t as easy as grabbing a bathrobe and a paper crown and calling it a play. A costume designer spends hard time poring over history books and studying garments from the time period of the production at hand. And that’s before she even picks up thread and needle.

As Bartlett makes clear, there’s a lot that goes on behind the curtain in order to make a 90-minute show memorable. The same is true for the music business and the publishing world.

Think your favorite band sounds so great on stage just because they’re awesome guitarists? Only partly. Assume your favorite author reads well on the page because she’s an excellent typist and flawless speller? Guess again. Xpress goes behind the scenes to find out who’s driving local arts.

A sound man’s work is never done

“People come in the door to watch a 90-minute show – they have no idea what goes on to set up that show,” asserts Orange Peel Technical Director Dan Cochran.

He recounts a recent night with Ratdog: “They showed up with two tour buses and a semi full of equipment. We met them at noon to unload.” Cochran is in charge of bringing in extra hands to off-load as needed, but his job starts long before the band rolls into Asheville.

“What I do personally is the advancing for the show – all the communication between me, the band and the tour manager – e-mailing riders and updating riders. Sometimes they call you all the time,” he confesses.

House Monitor Engineer Julian Dreyer’s duties include grocery shopping (you know, for those M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out). Once the food (as requested on the rider) is stored in the green room (interestingly, the Peel’s isn’t green but beige), the techs set up the stage. If an incoming band travels with their own sound crew, that crew directs the Orange Peel staff.

“As nice as some of our stuff is, they sometimes bring in their own mixing consoles, so I have to tear down some of my [equipment],” Cochran continues. “We usually have from noon to 5 p.m. to get set up. The opener shows up at 6 p.m. We’ll load in the opening band, and at 7 p.m. we hit the stage and set up a whole other band.”

This means that the main act has completed their sound check, and now it’s up to the tech crew to race the clock, running cables and checking mics in time for the opener to face the crowds a mere two hours later.

Be it Ratdog’s Bob Weir, Jamaica’s legendary Wailers or newcomer rockers the Black Keys, star-struckness has no place back stage at the Orange Peel. “I’m not really here to meet famous people,” Cochran insists.

And Dreyer, who started his career as an intern from UNCA, agrees that the awe wears off fast. “Now it’s just, like, they’re a band. They’re today‘s band.

“It may be Bob Dylan, but it’s just like any band.”

A museum with a pulse

As a costumer, Bartlett is also too busy to be overly impressed with those strutting on stage. “We have to teach younger actors who come to Flat Rock Playhouse that they also have a responsibility back stage,” she notes.

The designer runs a tight ship, keeping her closet strictly organized – and she expects those whom she dresses to do their share. Out of 40-plus years in the business, “I’ve spent 30 cleaning clothes and putting them back in the closet,” she says with a laugh.

“[Starting out] as a freelancer, I’d go into a theater and their closets would be such a mess: I’d lose time.” A disorganized closet means the designer can’t tell whether items she needs are available. “I’d see the days ticking away and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to just start building.’”

But Bartlett seems fond of the thespians under her care, boasting, “A lot of actors are very proficient with back-stage technical jobs. Really good actors are 100-percent appreciative of the props department – because they know they need those tools.”

Nearing her half-century anniversary in the business, the designer has learned a few tricks – and none of them are written down for the next generation.

“I do a lot of it in my head … I don’t draft or render costumes.” Bartlett says she likes “real clothes” – authentic-to-the-period pieces “that were really worn,” she stresses. “My favorite costumes involve real people, and I make sure I get as involved as I can so there’s a great sense of history.”

Herein lies this designer’s passion. “Clothing directly relates to the social and economic climate of the day,” she points out. “A play is a museum [made] live. You can go to a museum and look at a picture – or go to a play and see actors perform and use accents as they would back in the day.”

It’s worth noting that Bartlett’s wisdom was gained on the job. “It just evolved,” she says. “There was a part of me that was nervous about not having a degree … but to my advantage, I had to do it all on my feet.”

One-hit wonders need not apply

Nothing against the grand institution of higher learning, but how many graduates actually end up working in their degree fields? Like Bartlett, a surprising number of arts-inclined people stumble into their jobs, or come to their current positions by roundabout routes.

Six years ago, Joy Neeves was pursuing a graduate degree at Western Carolina University and making extra money by doing freelance editing work on the side. “At that time, I took my résumé by Front Street and met [founder] Stephen Roxburgh,” she recalls. The small publisher of children’s books, located in Asheville, ended up hiring Neeves as a staff editor, and today she is Acquisitions Editor. (The company operated as an independent for a decade before joining with larger publisher Highlights last year.)

Talent agent Juanelle Walker also came to her job through personal experience rather than coursework. Co-owner of Talent Trek, a company with offices in Knoxville, Nashville and Asheville, Walker started the business in 1983 with her sister. “We were both formerly talent, work[ing] in front of the camera,” the agent reveals.

When Walker and her sister left acting behind, they found their expertise was in demand. “First we were training models and actors, and we were sending them to different agencies. Clients were calling us and asking if we’d trained anyone.

“We thought, ‘We should be making money at this.’” Currently, Talent Trek represents actors and some commercial models.

For both Neeves and Walker, their own talents inform the work they do with other artists. “Publishers don’t publish books, they publish authors,” the editor offers. “[I’m] not looking for someone who’s written a brilliant one-off, but someone whose career [I] can get behind.”

She adds, “The author-editor working relationship – there’s something to the right author finding the right editor, an editor who has the right vision for that author.”

Neeves admits she does most of her reading at home because the Front Street office – located in a small house in West Asheville – is so busy. “We accept everything [for review],” she says. “We try to let people know we’re really a children’s and young adult [publisher], but I read everything in the order it’s received.”

Everything adds up to 200 or 250 submissions a month, of which, Neeves notes, a mere 15 to 20 manuscripts a year are selected for publication.

For actors and models, “there’s more opportunity in a bigger city – but it’s the same process,” says Walker. “First, you want to find reputable agencies in your area. If you don’t have credits, you want to stay in your area to get the experience required to be represented.

“See what agencies say, and if they have any comments, follow their directions,” she suggests to hopefuls. “You’ll need a headshot, and you’ll pay for that. But a good agency won’t ask you for any [additional] money.”

There’s no place like home

Both Cochran and Dreyer have firsthand experience on stage, too – and not just laying mic cable. Turns out that most of the Orange Peel’s sound crew also plays bass. “There must be a bass-player shortage [in Asheville],” Dreyer quips. “It’s because we’re all running sound.”

So why would a musician choose to give up his Friday and Saturday nights to work in a club, rather than play one? “There’s no money in being a musician,” Dreyer says soberly. “That’s why I went to school.”

Cochran has toured in bands, and his on-stage experience led to his work as a sound man. He, like Bartlett, is self-taught. (He moved to Asheville from Pennsylvania, quitting his job at DuPont and signing on with the then newly opened Orange Peel.) Off-stage sound guys like Dreyer often get to “go on the road with tours” as well, says the tech director.

“But I have a one-year-old son,” Dreyer interjects. “There’s no life on the road.”

Forget the glamor of hitting the highway with a big-name act: A month on a bus takes its toll, according to Cochran. “If you catch a band on the last night of their tour, it’s the best night of their life, because they’re heading home.”

Working behind the scenes has its own rewards. Audiences might not appreciate every nuance required to prepare a concert, create the set for a play or put a book on the bookstore shelf – but all of these back-stage artists know they’re important. Some even feel lucky.

“A bad day here is still better than a good day at DuPont,” says Cochran.

Besides, there’s something to be said for job satisfaction without enduring a serious case of the butterflies.

“In front of an audience?” gasps Bartlett. “Oh, Heaven forbid, no. I have enough trouble being myself, let alone someone else.”

 

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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