The hype surrounding the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stop in Ann Arbor has mostly buzzed around Patrick Stewart. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that it takes more than the actors to put together an impressive production. Crew members, engineers and designers for the RSC have made themselves at home at the University, working with local stage professionals as they put together every show, making sure that each is as perfectly dramatic as the last.

Jessica Boullion

For the past three weeks, the focus of both the University and Ann Arbor arts community has been the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC will have performed a total of 21 times at the Power Center by the end of their stay Sunday, and many have regarded this rare event as one of the most culturally enriching opportunities to have come to Ann Arbor in years.

The residency has been devoted to participation with the community. The RSC has taken part in 140 educational seminars providing insight into all facets of their work. But the most concentrated and continuous relationship has been between the RSC and local stage crew workers, who have spent the past weeks changing the sets between each of the three works performed. The company here includes 73 members, from actors to educators; 12 are crew technicians.

The backstage and technical operations have been a joint force of labor between these 12 RSC members and IATSE Local 395, the Ann Arbor chapter of the International Alliance of Stage Employees. These union members set up and operate the majority of the shows and concerts that come to town.

The nature of the RSC’s residency is unorthdox. Whereas most theater performances have one set for one stage, the RSC has brought three, for “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Tempest” and “Julius Caesar.” This peculiarity is unique to the company not only while on tour but also in Stratford-upon-Avon where each of the stages in the complex plays host to three shows. Although this allows the company to perform a wider range of shows on a regular basis, the operating system is much more labor-intensive than most theaters. Throughout the residency, the IATSE and RSC members have switched sets for each of the three works daily. The sets, curtains, screens, lighting, props and costumes not only had to be changed but they also needed to fit into the limited space available in the Power Center. For those doing the job, this has been a massive amount of work.

Because of the pressure of running the three performances, the Royal Shakespeare Company has forged the strongest relationship with these particular members of Ann Arbor, the professional stagehands. After spending countless hours together over the past weeks, the RSC and the IATSE Local 395 have become close partners. Although “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” use many of the same sets, “The Tempest” requires a much more complicated stage fitting.

With shows alternating daily, the residency has demanded fast and efficient work from the crew members. The labor necessary for the shows built a rapport between the trans-Atlantic stage crew almost immediately. They imitate accents, joke together and explain the finesses of each others’ culture. The gathering of eccentric personalities behind the scenes of some of the greatest works written in the English language has lead to a harmonious working relationship between the two groups.

Sitting in the backstage office of the Power Center with “Antony and Cleopatra” muffled to an extended stage left, company manager Richard Clayton proudly acknowledged that this new friendship has been a major factor in the success of the residency. While Shakespeare’s great tragedies and comedies are performed on the stage at the Power Center, the plot behind the scenes has been the backbone of this momentous cultural occasion.

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More about the RSC
Quick facts about everybody’s favorite company

Key Productions
– The University’s own Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” (2006).
– “Othello” (1989) with Willard White as Othello and Ian McKellen as Iago.
– “Richard III” (1984) with Sir Antony Sher as Richard III.
– “Hamlet” (1976) with Sir Ben Kingsley as Hamlet.
– “Hamlet” (1992) with Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet.

Noteworthy tours
– More than 120 different British towns and cities in the past 25 years alone.
– Residencies in Michigan and Washington state.
– Over the past few years, the RSC has entertained audiences in China, Japan and Kuala Lumpur.

This year at the University
– “Antony and Cleopatra”
– “The Tempest”
– “Julius Caesar”

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