From lighting to backdrops, professional-looking productions keep audiences—and students—coming back for more
By Brian McCormick
When you’re getting ready to put on a recital, technical production might not be the first thing on your mind. Dance is your primary focus, and rightly so. But production values can have a tremendous impact on how your studio is perceived, by parents and public alike, as the experiences of two very different types of schools prove. Both have expanded the technical aspects of their shows, and directors of both studios say the response from their audiences has been huge. And they offer plenty of ideas for anyone interested in producing exciting, memorable shows.
Large- and small-scale productions
Brian McGinness, a former dancer with Kansas City Ballet, 32-year teaching veteran, and now director at Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, Kansas, recently took over designing the school’s three major productions.
The school, with more than 600 students, offers training in a variety of styles. Miller Marley, the school’s founder, is 78 and has been teaching for 60 years, McGinness says. “Her specialty is tap. The school is known for producing Broadway performers.” Recent alumni have appeared as swing, understudy, or cast members in recent national tours of Anything Goes, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, and Follies and in The Addams Family and Nice Work if You Can Get It on Broadway.
I am not shy about telling my customers they just saw a $30,000 production. We are giving them the best artistic experience their children could hope for.” —Brian McGinness, director, Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice
The school’s productions are large in scale. “Eight performing companies participate in the first act of the studio’s annual Christmas production,” McGinness says. “Clara’s Dream—a shortened version of The Nutcracker choreographed and conceived by Matthew Donnell—is performed as the second act by the Miller Marley Youth Ballet [MMYB] and MMYB2. On even years our studio presents ‘A Recital for Little Stars,’ for our students in sixth grade and under. Our eight performing companies perform in this show, so that way the parents of the little ones get to view what the more advanced students are doing.”
Although production values have always been important at Miller Marley, McGinness, who attributes his minor in art to helping him design the shows, has raised the bar even higher.
In Florida, Brenda Fernandez is the site supervisor for the City of Tampa’s Gymnastics and Dance program, run by Tampa Parks and Recreation. Out of 1,700 kids enrolled in its classes—jazz, tap, lyrical, hip-hop, show group, and gymnastics—nearly 800 perform annually in five different shows, including 100 students in the Show Stars performing group, who dance in competitions, local performances, and for Mardi Gras and other celebrations.
When it comes to scenic design, Fernandez says, the program didn’t always have the means to do much. “We started with humble beginnings,” she says. “Unlike a dance studio, we’re publicly run.” Resources are limited and spending is scrutinized. Still, since it began in 1979 with 50 students at one center, the program has grown. It now encompasses two large centers with 20 instructors at each location, plus one smaller community dance center.
“Recitals started in local high schools,” Fernandez says. “We used to go to Party City and get Mylar decorations.” Over the years, though, shows have become more elaborate, which she attributes to the growth of the program, better funding, and her attention to production values.
Backdrops figure prominently in both studios’ production arsenals. McGinness says he has rented from every scenery vendor at the DanceLife Teacher Conference. Now he tends to use a Kansas City vendor to save on shipping costs.
A recent production of Peter Pan used seven drops. “They fill the stage, so you don’t have to build set pieces,” McGinness says, “and they still create the magic.” Despite their apparent toughness, drops need to be handled with care and returned in good condition. “You have to be careful with the drops,” says McGinness. “I’ve heard horror stories, mostly from wedding and non-theater uses. Just respect their integrity. Everybody wants them folded differently, but as long as they go back not stapled and torn, you should be fine.”
He cautions users to make sure to have enough battens to hang the drops and lighting instruments. “And make sure you have enough piping to weigh them down—even in union theaters I have to bring my own pipe,” he says.
According to Fernandez, the Tampa program’s approach to design starts with a backdrop. “We always set our program around a theme. It’s easy, once you have that theme, to find a backdrop you can use, like an enchanted castle,” she says. She typically rents three or four per show, but for groups on a tight budget, she says renting even one backdrop makes a big difference. “The woods, a library, a castle—it all helps tell the story and makes it more believable with the little ones shuffling all around.”
Fernandez rents backdrops from two vendors and has “never had a bad experience,” she says. She does offer advice: “Make sure to secure your orders early,” she says. “Spend some time scanning the web to find something affordable and nice. Make sure it fits your stage, too. Not just length, but height.”
Once Fernandez ordered a backdrop without checking its dimensions first, and when it arrived, she says, “It was the size of a postage stamp.”
Lighting is an essential element in stage design, and it can be simple or elaborate. For Miller Marley’s productions McGinness uses a resident lighting designer, who facilitates everything. “I design all of the artistic elements of our productions,” McGinness says, “but I collaborate with Philip Leonard, our technical director, whom we contract out for each individual production.”
Miller Marley uses side lighting for all of its productions to add depth, and gobos to project patterns and shapes. “I’m known as the gobo king,” McGinness says. “We started using them just to project onto the cyc for ballets, like to create the forest for Snow White, and gradually used them more and more to create patterns to break up the floor and make things look less flat.” Eventually McGinness started using colored gels in the gobos for more varied effects.
After trying to achieve an even saturation on the cyc using all kinds of lighting combinations, including floor lights, McGinness switched to LED lights. Even though the LEDs haven’t given him the perfectly consistent surface look he seeks, the switch has been a huge success. “It’s the number-one thing that raised the production value of our show.”
Although he says LEDs give “more bang for your buck,” there’s a downside. “They cost more to rent than ordinary lights, and we can’t afford to buy them,” he says. “And we would have to upgrade to a more advanced lighting board if I want to use any of the additional special effects.” Still, he says, “I would recommend that people putting on recitals who do not have lots of money upgrade to LEDs. Using them, you can get 3-D effects and three or four different looks from one backdrop.”
The Tampa Parks and Recreation groups perform in the 1,042-seat Louise Lykes Ferguson Hall, one of the three largest performance spaces that make up the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fernandez hires Teresa Gallar, associate production manager at the Straz Center, to design the lights. She has worked with Gallar for more than 10 years, and their collaboration is integral to the look of the shows.
“Her major is theater,” Fernandez says, “and she has brought a professional level to everything. She films rehearsals in the studio and onstage so she can refer to the video when designing the lights, reviews the backdrops, and presets most of the lighting cues in advance.” Gallar favors follow spots and, like Miller Marley’s lighting designer, makes generous use of gobos.
According to Fernandez, Gallar “probably spends 12 to 24 hours setting up before I get in the door, getting everything pre-cued. If we get there and need to reset or readjust for things like costumes, it’s relatively easy. A lot is done in advance now, which makes a real difference.”
McGinness has been experimenting with various lighting devices and techniques to make the most of backdrops and the scenic space. “We used to use fog machines,” he says, “but I gave up on trying to get them to work properly. They were very unreliable with uneven distribution.” Now he uses haze machines and moving lights, which together can conjure spectacular sculptures of light on and above the stage. “These worked well for accentuating those special lighting effects,” he says, “especially when you want the audience to see the entire light beam or create a rock concert style for a dance.”
“My favorite thing to do now is design the show,” says McGinness. “I am not shy about telling my customers they just saw a $30,000 production. We are giving them the best artistic experience their children could hope for. Our owner doesn’t live in a fancy home. Nobody is driving a BMW. The money that goes into the school goes back to our kids.
“Enrollment is up because of the quality of the shows,” he continues. “Many parents at Miller Marley acknowledge the high technical quality of our productions, especially when they have attended another dancing school or a friend’s recital.”
Echoing this sentiment is parent Laura Mack, whose two daughters, Kaitlin and Kara, have been enrolled at Miller Marley for four years. “The choreography is good, the costumes are age appropriate. At a lot of other studio recitals you see basic stuff: lights on, lights off. These productions make you feel like you’re going to a Broadway show.”
For Fernandez and her Tampa dancers, the heightened production values pay ample dividends—in money and praise. Ten-dollar tickets, plus donations generated by the program book, help offset the union labor costs that come with performing in a professional venue. But now, instead of budgets being scrutinized, the question Fernandez gets after each performance is, “How are you going to top this one?”
“People used to come here for the low cost,” Fernandez says. “Now, they also come for the quality of the instructors and shows. We know this from the information from applicants on our waiting list, some of whom wait up to two years to get in.”
Don’t be afraid to make full use of the money and effort you’ve put into your productions, McGinness advises. “We have a TV monitor in our lobby,” he says, “and the DVD of the show which plays on that TV is the best advertisement for the studio, in addition to happy customers and word of mouth.
“Don’t hold back if you can financially handle bringing up the level of your technical production,” he continues. “You want to produce the highest quality recital—it is your number-one product you have to show off.”
- Batten: a long metal pipe suspended above the stage or audience from which lighting fixtures, theatrical scenery, and stage curtains may be hung.
- LED: A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor light source. The lack of infrared or heat radiation makes LEDs ideal for stage lights. In energy conservation, lower heat output also means air-conditioning systems have less heat to dispose of, reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
- Gobo: derived from “Go Between,” “GO BlackOut,” or “Goes Before Optics.” Originally used on film sets, a gobo is a template that controls the shape of the light emitted from an instrument.
- Hazer: Haze machines, or haze generators (commonly referred to as hazers), are effects machines similar to fog machines, designed to produce unobtrusive clouds that make light beams visible or create a subtle diffusion.
- Cyclorama (“cyc” for short): a large curtain or wall, often curved, positioned at the back of the stage area. One effect is to create the illusion of a sky onstage.
- Moving or intelligent lights: stage lighting that has automated or mechanical abilities beyond those of traditional, stationary illumination. The most advanced intelligent lights can produce extraordinarily complex effects.