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The Iceberg Effect: How much goes into one show at Upper Darby Summer Stage?
Every summer, approximately 30,000 ticketholders walk through the doors of Upper Darby Performing Arts Center. Some come to see one show. Others come to see all six children’s theater musicals. And then some come for the annual mainstage production.
Overseeing all seven productions to ensure audiences receive what they paid for is production manager, Chris Luner.
Luner has been a member of Upper Darby Summer Stage since 2005 and has worked on staff for the past eight seasons in a variety of roles. An Equity stage manager outside of the 1600-seat theater in Drexel Hill, he has worked on the Broadway run and National Tour of The Illusionists: Witness The Impossible and has worked off-Broadway and regionally along the East Coast as a stage manager. Luner graduated from Wagner College in 2013 with a degree in arts administration, with a concentration in theatre.
Regardless of how many shows an audience member attends, each of the seven productions can be compared to an iceberg: while audiences see just the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more that goes into a show that can only be found in one place… below the surface.
“The iceberg concept is relevant to Summer Stage in two different capacities,” Luner said. “First of all, our audiences see performances, which are solely the final product and step of the entire process. So much has happened in the four weeks leading up to these performances they haven’t been a part of.”
He added, “But the iceberg effect is also relevant in the capacity of how much happens at Summer Stage before summer even technically begins. By the time summer arrives and our participants and staff show up, our season has been fully designed and we know what we’re expecting on the technical side for these shows.”
Decisions in December
Despite being named Upper Darby “Summer” Stage, it is a little-known fact that staff members begin to put the puzzle pieces for the summer in mid-December of each year.
Not including the time spent prepping, each Summer Stage show (excluding mainstage) have 10-15 days to put together the final product that audiences view.
When asked to sum up the experiences that come with producing a show, Luner narrowed it down to the 12 processes shown in the image featured above.
The process starts with concept research, which takes place long before the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center is flowing with 700 participants and 100 staff members.
“It’s something that begins once the designers and director have had a conversation about what the see as the ‘vision’ for the production,” Luner said.
He added, “From that conversation, a designer will pull research and inspirational photos for specific scenes or characters which the director can then approve or redirect. This process ensures a show’s concept is complete and not only understandable and relatable for the team and cast, but most importantly for the audience since they are the foundation for creating an excellent production.”
School’s Out For Summer (Stage)!
Upon arriving on the very first day, participants learn a music selection and dance routine that they will then perform for the creative team so the creative team can gauge the musical and dance ability of each participant. Some Summer Stagers will then be called back for an afternoon session where they will read specific roles, perform specific songs or do a bit more dancing.
After the creative teams cast the show, each children’s theater show only has about 27 rehearsals.
Luner said, “27 sounds like a lot but a morning rehearsal counts as one as well as an afternoon. So in one day alone, a show has two rehearsals meaning the cast and crew rehearse an entire show over a span of two to three weeks max.”
The cast then gets a spacing rehearsal [something unique to the program] on their own set less than 24 hours before they add in technical elements. Often done on the weekend, Luner said, “It’s a great, quiet environment for the show to focus before heading into the final week.”
Then it’s on to what is the notorious “tech day” at Summer Stage.
Luner explains that at any other theater, technical rehearsals can take up a matter of days or sometimes weeks. At Upper Darby Summer Stage, tech is completed in a matter of hours.
Technicians, which are also participants aged 14 to 18, manage to tackle a production that has taken three weeks to mount in three hours adding lights, sound, scenic and prop elements.
Simultaneously, while the cast and crew are fine-tuning, program staff participates in design implementation, publicity and promotion, production meetings, and budgeting the balances.
While many audience members come to a show, participate in pre-show activities, watch the show, get a few autographs or pictures and then head home, they should note the amount of time and energy it takes Luner and the staff done to make each show come together.
Down To A Science
While Luner has no “ordinary day” at Upper Darby Summer Stage, he finds solace in the simple rewards of the arts.
“I’ve found the rewards of Summer Stage come in all shapes and sizes but many times in the form of life lessons,” Luner said. “I also find while it’s my job to educate and inspire the young participants, they often do that for me – They’ve kept my spark for the theater alive through their dedication, passion and commitment to this program and putting on the best possible production.”
And his tenure can speak to the reality that is “The Iceberg Effect,” which happens in a mere 27 rehearsals. The venue then transitions back for the annual UDPAC season, until the process starts itself over again in the midst of snow days and winter vacations.
Luner concluded, “No other regional theater companies [that I know of] do what Upper Darby Summer Stage does.”
He added, “Sure – you can travel far and wide across this country and find a summer stock theater that can put up 10 productions in one season, but I can guarantee you that none of them are on the scale that we’re producing here. Summer Stage is truly one of a kind as it’s not only turning out show after show each season, but it’s also on a scale unmatched anywhere on the East Coast for a theater like itself.”