Where the magic happens

Dayton’s off-stage theatre stars

By Jacqui Theobald

You have your ticket in hand and arrive at the theatre, eager with anticipation. There’s a contagious energy and excited chatter as the group that has become an entity—the audience—settles, clutching their Playbill.

The lights dim. The theatre goes dark.

There’s an instant when you almost hold your breath—lights up—and you hear and see the opening action.

But wait. How did it all happen, and so smoothly? That’s the story of all those listed in your program on the “Technical Staff” page. Without them, it would be so dark and empty, so quiet that you’d have no clue who was there or even where “there” might be.

Dayton is rich in theatre arts with our regional professional company downtown, to well-established community theatres and college productions.

No matter where the stage is, in the area or elsewhere, no play would happen without those whose jobs are unseen, often unacknowledged and possibly unappreciated.


Every single production has a director. That person not only works with the actors but with each designer. Individual styles may differ, from collaborative to authoritative, or a combination of the two. The director’s job is to achieve a cohesive look, mood and sound.

Kevin Moore

Kevin Moore of the professional Human Race Theatre Company (HRTC) talks about his process as a director.

“First I have to have a passion for the work.,” he says. “My voice represents the playwright’s voice; only when we’re on the same page can we tell the story. I develop a physical vision. What does it all look like? It’s a big puzzle to be put together.”

Casting is largely the responsibility of the director. “Finding people who can say these words, believably, is a dating game. What will the actor bring?  My flexibility is important, along with keeping the concept.”

And of course, someone has to lead the rehearsals. “Starting with a loose plan, I encourage actors to find their natural fit: first at a table reading, discovering character, a bit like therapy.” Moore says. “After memorization we move to the stage and the blocking. Where and when do they move? The set may be a work in progress, but important spaces are indicated: walls, doors, windows, furniture.

“Guidance is subjective, as it becomes their show. The director gives notes at the end of each rehearsal, right up through the last ‘preview.’ Actors are smart. A good director just gets out of the way.”

Fran Pesch

Pesch has worked with a vast range of theatrical skills, from teens to the “young at heart,” for older adults. She has been totally immersed with the Dayton Playhouse’s Future Fest as well as other theatres, and also prepares lawyers for courtrooms. She finds a certain commonality in directing.


When the play opens, the director’s work is done and the stage manager is in charge of everything.

Kay Carver

Five years ago, Kay Carver graduated from the Wright State University (WSU) theatre program, well-versed in the tech side of production. In 2012, she joined the HRTC and quickly became invaluable, according to various company members.

“She knows everything.” When the HRTC did The Full Monty she had that “everything” in an enormous binder four inches thick.

She facilitates—that means making things work smoothly. She makes sure the actors’ entrances and exits are clear, where and when costume changes occur, where each actor’s props are. After the light design is set, Carver runs the light board during each show.

“The secret of success,” she says, “is communication: knowing what’s going on and staying connected with everyone. A good team helps exponentially. Be prepared.”

Her big binder contains the script, the score if it’s a musical, clearly marked blocking and all the director’s notes. “I use lots of different color Post-its,” she says. “I like solving puzzles. As long as no one knows I exist, then I’ve done the
job right.”


Every designer reads the script, develops some suggestions and collaborates with the director, whose decisions are always respected.

Chris Harmon 

He designs for almost every community theatre in the area as well as Sinclair and WSU, and his specialty and passion is painting.

“I love to create a 3-D appearance on a flat surface just with paint, indicating the light source and shadows,” Harmon says. He teaches a stage painting class at WSU. Tech students learn to create various textures—wood, marble, stone, live foliage, transparent or opaque—then learn to apply on the set.

Les Deshem 

Deshem’s work includes several youth theatres that perform in different venues.  He spoke about his process of designing for a new stage.

“I make a ground plan, defining the available space and shape, the dimensions,” he says. “I used to hand-draw them, but now use the computer for this template. Then when we talk about placement, color choices, needs, we can sketch, discuss, alter. I talk to the lighting designer. Will various stage levels interfere with visibility? Will all work meet the action requirements of the story?  How many scene changes, how long will each take? We talk about materials, inventory and the costs required.”

Once a design is approved and in place, then it’s time to build.  In many community theatres the director may ask cast members to help for a few hours. In others a separate crew will do it all, from measuring, sawing and building to painting. In the professional companies, specific employees with well-defined skills and greater resources, including funds, will take over the construction.


Lighting a stage can range from a few clip-on lights placed strategically by a ladder-nimble crew to the most sophisticated, complex sweep of multicolor glow, all influenced by the designer’s imagination, budget and technical skill.

John Rensel 

With Rensel’s company—The Light Fantastic—he’s worked all over the world including Europe and Asia, and has a special place in Dayton’s theatre scene.

For each new play, Rensel begins by reading the script, talking to the director and the set designer. “Then I look at practical needs: is it indoors, outside, where are windows, doors, the time of day, the set colors, costume, mood?” Rensel explains.

“Some directors give me free reign, some want to do everything to support their POV [point of view].”

He draws a light plot with instrumentation noted and sends it to the director. They exchange information about the equipment on hand and further needs. Lights are physically set, the “protocol” goes to the computer.

“We’ve done everything from the Kennedy Center to school gyms,” he says. “The creativity as well as the technology serves our goal: make it work! I’ve learned over the years that all theatres are not created equal. Having a plan B is good insurance.”


Available equipment and its use, creative applications and sustained enthusiasm for the challenges of sound placement are necessities, whatever the size of the venue and budget.

K.L. Storer 

A man of many talents, Storer first reads the script. “I identify and list all the sounds actually called for and check our sources.”

He tells the story of creating flying cats—certainly not something easily available. “I mixed the sound of several distressed cats, then flapped and waved my hands into a mic and added that. Worked fine!”

Some sounds may be suggested. “The playwright may set a scene as spring in the park. I would consult with the director if he wants nature sounds, but not distracting. Some are imperative. If the actor is answering a phone, it better ring first and on cue.

“Selecting appropriate music may be the director’s choice or mine.”

Sound in a theatre is quite different between empty or with an audience. Temperature is also a factor. “We try to adjust volume for the correct balance, but someone will think it’s too loud, and some will complain they can’t hear.”


Carol Finley

Now it’s time for the actors to be seen, wearing clothes that are so fitting you might think they came from their own closet. At the Theatre Guild, Finley—a costumer—has an enormous space upstairs, filled with racks of period and contemporary clothes, clean, sized and categorized. Several long, hand-built shelves of props, also highly organized, line the wall.

Finley has been doing costumes for over 20 years, but sort of fell into theatre when one of her sons as a child was in a show. Since then she has done almost every backstage task, from moving sets to President of the Guild to shoveling snow.

After studying the script, Finley notes characters, fast changes, color and era, and consults with the director. If the super-closet doesn’t have it, Finley may search second-hand or antique shops, borrow or make the right thing herself. She may alter or re-purpose and always fits each actor. She, like all other costumers, is a clever seamstress, keeping the budget in mind. She also oversees the authenticity of props.


Sarah Gomes

For the puppet theatre in the Zoot Theatre Company, costumes are done by Shirley Wasser; Gomes meets the challenge of puppet sized props, with similar preparatory study and designer’s consultations, including Tristan Cupp who creates and draws and designs each puppet. Functionally, a puppet has to be able to “hold” a book or a sword, attached by binder clips or magnet. She makes almost everything of foam or very lightweight wood, covered by cheesecloth, then painted. “I make something from nothing,” she says.


Tinka Kinney

Big name musicals unload at the Schuster Center, perhaps seven or eight large trucks. It’s hard to imagine these shows don’t travel with all they need.  Instead, however, they hire independent local contractors for several necessary functions.

Hair stylist Tinka Kinney, in addition to her regular salon appointments, is a regular in the wig department. Her work may begin on a Tuesday morning with a specific list of wigs to soak in baking soda, then shampoo, condition and roller set according to “the wig bible” photo diagrams.  Kinney explains, “Wigs may be synthetic or human hair that’s very expensive; no curling iron is ever used. Each is set into a wig dryer, a large box that holds three wigs on each shelf.”

At performance time, the call comes to “put them in their wigs.” The actors are readied on cue, with wigs properly adjusted and secured. “Sometimes we rush around like crazy, then pause and sit for a few minutes.”

Many of these technical artists are multi-skilled. Some are actors, directors or photographers. They probably have day jobs. No matter, it is the vision and the passion, the creativity and the personal pleasure of doing what they love that motivates and brings them back, again and again.

Of course it all starts with the playwright, but take a peek backstage. There it is finalized, when all the designers’ work is completed, when everything works and the director’s approval is given. “Break a leg” means “good luck.” Now all is up to the actors. Let the magic begin!

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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