For the last 20 years, Michael Hartwell has literally been behind the scenes at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Starting as a carpenter in 1986, Hartwell has been the guy that makes the sets go up, down, and around. The celebrated festival marks its 30th year this summer. Hartwell tells BW what it takes to handle tricky sets and the ultimate scene-stealer, Mother Nature.
BW: What exactly is technical director?
MH: I have to take the designer's artistic vision and bring it into reality. It's my job to keep it within a budget and a time frame. I ask, "What design can we do with a given amount of time and safety?" The stages all have to be taken down every other night because we're swapping shows in and out all summer. It's not like a regular theater; the sets have to have ingenuity. They have to break apart, be stored and handle weathering, since we're an outdoor theater.
What's the most difficult set you've built?
Each one has a different challenge. Currently we're building a set that has a lot of steel, so it's hard because we only have one welder. If we're building a set from wood, that's easier because we have more than one saw.
Also, it's difficult managing the project. The process goes in stages from the point it's drafted to when it's going to the shop floor. Then it goes to the paint department and once they're done, it's loaded onto the theater. I have to juggle all the various aspects so each little department has something to do with each set piece but the department isn't slammed.
How long does all this take?
Three weeks. That's about all the time we have. So that's another big consideration in designing the set: Do we have enough time to build this?
What's it like during crunch time?
We have production meetings once a week. I meet with the director, designer and people from the costume, props, lights and sound departments. We hash everything out so we are all on the same page. You don't want surprises. You don't want to get to the end and say, "Oh this doesn't work."
What kinds of compromises are made to finish the project within your budget and on time?
Romeo and Juliet is the last show in the summer season, and it's in the process of being negotiated. The way the designer envisioned the set, it was way too big to make in the time we have. They wanted a big floor and a wall, but we can't do both. We've said in meetings that we can't do this and asked for suggestions to scale back. The designer decided the wall was more important, so the floor got cut.
Have you had any disasters in the shop?
It's more the weather. A couple years ago, we performed for the governor's convention. We had a microburst that afternoon, so [former] Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was holding down scenery and we had all these [Idaho State Police officers] using rope to tie things down. We had things going everywhere. That's the worst situation, really. But the elements can kind of be disastrous.
When everything's done, do you get to see the finished plays, or have you seen them so much during rehearsals you're not really interested?
Usually in August, when all the shows have opened, I'll go see them. That gives me a chance to distance myself from the technical side. Usually by then I'm off contract, or things have slowed down to the point I have more time to enjoy it.