Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 21, 2008
DeKalb, Ill. — It’s a small world when it comes to the technology and the skilled operators needed to fly performers high above the stage.
One company has headquarters in Las Vegas; the second in Kentucky. The third of these three outfits is located on the second floor of Northern Illinois University’s Stevens Building, home to the School of Theatre and Dance.
There, inside a crowded conference room of sorts, the school’s technical director holds court over pizza and pop with his students and his alumni employees.
Dubbed the “think tank,” it’s the place where they brainstorm innovative solutions to the technical demands of directors and choreographers. It’s where they facilitate the imaginations of others, sometimes with pencil sketches on paper and sometimes with a simple deck of cards that can simulate an actor’s flight patterns.
Most recently, they’ve determined how to help Tarzan and Jane swing on vines through and over jungle treetops – or at least the jungle-like scenery built for a touring company of Disney’s Broadway musical.
“We’ve done quite a few shows now in New York. Word is starting to spread among the big-budget shows about us,” says Tracy Nunnally, who teaches his students the tricks of the trade and hires them to work for his company. “The quality of our equipment is equal to or superior to the ‘professional’ equipment.”
“You’re being modest,” says Bill Auld, a 2005 master’s of fine arts graduate now employed with Nunnally’s Hall Associates Flying Effects. “I’ve had nothing but happy reviews.”
Sure enough, the industry has taken sharp notice of the problem-solving and operational expertise coming out of DeKalb. Everyone wants their flying effects safe and “pretty,” which is exactly what Nunnally delivers.
Gigs for Nunnally and crew this semester include the outdoor flight of an angel in Georgia, a European show launching its tour in London and massive Christmas pageants in Michigan, Tennessee and Texas. There’s also a possible magician levitation in Barcelona and another levitation for a TV commercial being filmed in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, top names in the backstage business have come to DeKalb to do business with Hall Associates while they share their expertise with performance and technical students in the School of Theatre and Dance. Paul Rubin, aerial choreographer for “Tarzan,” and Rick Sordelet, one of the leading fight directors for stage and screen, were on campus in February to film videos depicting how the vine-swinging and fight scenes would look with Hall’s flying effects in use.
“One of the cool things about being a student here is that you get to be a part of the bigger picture,” says John Moore, a 2007 MFA alum who also works for Hall Associates.
“Not just a part of the bigger picture,” Nunnally adds, “but a part of the bigger project.”
Auld and Moore recently attended a 10-day “workshop” at SUNY-Purchase with Rubin and actors serving as theatrical guinea pigs.
They attempted “a whole bunch of different things” until Rubin nailed down what he wants the flying effects to look like and which equipment will accomplish that. Part of the complicated and extensive packing list for the trip included plenty of harnesses, cables and tools to assemble things on site.
“You have to stay one step ahead of the typhoon. Our job is keeping the typhoon calm, not adding to it,” Nunnally says. “An adequate company delivers everything that was promised, on time and on budget. A superior company anticipates what you need before you need it.”
Moore, who will travel with the show to set up the rigging, also met the three other techs on the tour so they can learn to work as a team.
After Auld and Moore returned to DeKalb, work began inside the Stevens Building to design and build the perfect equipment for the “Tarzan” job.
The cables and harnesses will make their debut on campus at the fall dance concert, which this year will include flight and enable NIU dance students to “fly on literally Broadway-quality equipment.” For the backstage gurus, it’s a chance to test the equipment before it hits the road.
Moore is due in December in Charleston, S.C., where “Tarzan” will “tech.” Rehearsals there with actual actors, costumes and scenery will better illuminate the specific flying needs. The show opens in Atlanta and continues with its two-week engagements in San Jose and Dallas, where it closes in mid-March.
It’s a busy and exhausting life – the “accountability to Broadway” and the millions of dollars riding on the success of the productions is stressful enough alone – but one Moore never would trade. “I love this job,” he says. “It’s the most fun job I’ll ever have.”
“When people ask what I do,” Auld adds, “I say, ‘I travel the world and fly people on wires.’ ”
Of course, plenty of new Aulds and Moores are being nurtured in Nunnally’s farm system.
Half of his job responsibility is research, he says, which comes in the brainstorming of new and improved theater-magic gadgets that please demanding producers, directors and actors.
Class assignments with real-world implications aren’t the type of theoretical homework where grades of B or even C will do; only As are acceptable because living, breathing actors might soon dangle above the stage on wires that correspond with those answers.
There’s also the practical work. One of his graduate students will help with the welding of the “Tarzan” rigging. Others are cleaning the harnesses used over the summer.
Not all of the Hall Associates work is done by students, of course. Nunnally has seven full-time employees who handle the bulk of the day-to-day work, and NIU students fill in when learning opportunities match teaching opportunities. Once students have learned crafts that benefit the company, they are compensated for their time.
Students in the school’s performance curriculum also benefit from Nunnally’s presence. Sordelet’s combat workshop in February provided training from a Yale University professor and, for some, a cool video for their portfolios. Sordelet’s professional standing also can produce golden tickets for performers who impress him.
“The students who knew what the possibilities of this were,” Nunnally says, “were just salivating.”
# # #