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Building 'Barber:' Backstage with MAC technical director Alissia Lauer

Past the grand lobby of Indiana University's Musical Arts Center, beyond the velvety seats and heavy curtains that surround the famous MAC stage is the spacious, sawdust-filled backstage work room where the sets for IU Opera and Ballet Theater come into magical life.

MAC Set Construction
Alissia Lauer works behind the scenes to make sets for IU Opera and Ballet Theater.

It's mid-June, and backstage at the MAC today means the World Cup broadcast is blasting from a computer terminal. Nearby, at a long, rectangular table, carpenter Andrew Hastings sands what will become a balcony railing for Il Barbiere Di Siviglia , the 2010-2011 season opening opera.

MAC Technical Director Alissia Lauer -- who at 30, could easily pass for an undergrad -- goes into her office and emerges with the initial architectural drawing she was given by scenic designer C. David Higgins, chair of the IU Department of Opera Studies.

"Once the director and designer meet and work out a concept, the designer comes to me with his drawings and I take his rendering -- his beautiful house façade, or whatever it happens to be -- and decide how to build it," Lauer said, showing Higgins' drawing and her breakdown of corresponding measurements and notes.

"What the designers give us is the front view. What I give the carpenters is the back view, which has all the studs and all the hardware, how we're going to connect this wall with this wall. I work out all the logistics behind it. If something is going to fly in our fly space, I have to put down where the hanging hardware has to go."

MAC Set Construction
Crew members use the Musical Arts Center's lift system to lower pieces to stage level.

Lauer is also responsible for ordering all wood and building materials needed for the sets -- she likes to order supplies locally -- and coordination with the scenic director. She supervises two carpenters (down from three because of budget cuts), and during the school year, oversees a crew of up to 40 students.

For Barber, the carpenters would eventually build 22 walls, she said. "On this double-sided wall, one wall is refined, marble-looking, and the other side is a ramshackle junk shop," said Lauer, holding up the paper that bears her interpretation of how to execute the design. "One of these sides, from framing to appliqué, takes about two weeks. We try to have one person build each wall from start to finish."

Lauer is a lifelong theater buff who spent many of her teen years both on stage and behind the scenes in various theater productions in her hometown of Rockport, Ind. She transferred to IU in the fall of 1999 as a sophomore studying environmental science. When Lauer accompanied a friend to an interview for stage crew, she ended up getting hired as well. ("I was like, 'They'll pay me to work in theater?'" she recalls.)

By the time spring semester of 2000 rolled around, Lauer had switched her major to stage craft/stage technology. She worked her way up from student crew to student assistant on the crew to assistant technical director. Upon completion of her degree, Lauer was "in the right place at the right time" when someone retired.

MAC Set Construction
Alissia Lauer, technical director of the Musical Arts Center, speaks with carpenter Andrew Hastings about the construction of the set for the fall 2010 production of "Il Barbiere Di Siviglia."

During the summer months, Lauer said she typically works eight-hour days. During the school year, if it's a dress rehearsal week, she puts in 70-80 hours, often working from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.

June can be a fairly quiet time backstage at the MAC, but a steady flow of painters and set builders walk through the backshop, occasionally stopping to chat with Lauer about their projects.

In an adjacent room, a Virgin Mary rests near some engraved figures of saints while two men in paint-splattered jeans work on painting and repairing set furniture. From the ceiling, which reaches up a little more than 30 feet, hang groups of bright orange cords.

Typically, IU has about 40 sets in stock, the majority of which are stored in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. Sets are kept for 30-40 years and re-used every five to seven years. "You know if it's La Boheme we're going to do it more often than a Faust," Lauer said. Faust will be the next set for Lauer's team after the Barber set is completed; she estimates that each takes about three to four months to complete. When a set is so old that its decaying and falling apart, Lauer said, "we recycle as much as we can" and the rest is discarded.

"If we know we're not going to do an opera again, we do put information out there to other regional opera companies. The problem is, most of our sets are too big for other stages." With a main stage that's 90 feet wide and 60 feet deep, the 1,460-seat MAC features acoustical design and technical capabilities among the best in the nation. The space is often compared to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

By mid-September, the Barber set is installed and nearly ready for production, which opened the weekend of Sept. 24 (Barber will also be performed this weekend, Oct. 1-2, 2010, at the MAC). The faux-marble finish is flawless, Figaro's workshop is a perfectly dilapidated mess, and every detail on every wall has been sanded, painted, positioned and perfected.

Barber of Seville
Performers rehearse for "Il Barbiere Di Siviglia," the opening production of the IU Opera Theater's 2010-2011 season.

Lauer ended up hiring an extra carpenter to help finish the set because she was already working on other shows and couldn't devote enough time to the build.

"One of the overall challenges with this set is that because it's on a turntable and the walls must be double-sided, they're heavy (one wall is about 400 pounds) and difficult to move around, and there isn't much to do about that but add more student crew members," Lauer explained. "Scenic pieces meet up on and off the table with reasonable small gaps. A piece that's 6" thick on the table cannot meet up perfectly with another piece off the table -- and finding balance and making the angles perfect is always difficult."

Despite the challenges, part of what Lauer loves most about her job is being surrounded by incredible musical performances and working in such a creative field. She hears the operas and ballets with such repetition during rehearsal for a show, sometimes the line between work and life blurs. "I can be walking through the mall and hear the music from The Nutcracker -- and I know exactly what's happening on stage."

--By Jennifer Piurek, University Communications

This story was originally published Sept. 30, 2010.