Looking for a relaxing way to while away a weekend? Try this: Take Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, Orlando Opera Company, Orlando Ballet and Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, plus a dozen more of the best-known performing arts organizations in town. Put them together on a Sunday in the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre for a one-night-only spectacular. Invite the mayor, city and county commissioners, and more than 200 other local bigwigs, then fill another 1,500 seats with arts appreciators. Now assemble the entire production in a handful of hours, so that the only opportunity for a full run-through is the performance itself, and then feel the eyes of the sold-out audience (and Orange TV cameras) upon you.
And … go!
Sound like fun? Believe it or not, it was.
I'm not describing a masochistic academic exercise or the producer's equivalent of The Actor's Nightmare. It was the Sept. 7 Red Chair Affair, the fourth annual gala supporting the Red Chair Project. If the term "red chair" makes you scratch your head, you're probably not alone; without "Orlando" or "arts" in the name, it has an understandable branding-identity issue. Our Red Chair isn't an anti-cancer charity; it isn't a furniture store run by Red Hat ladies; it isn't a fundraising drive to buy upholstery for the new Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center. The Red Chair Project is a nonprofit "collaborative campaign" to promote Central Florida's 300-plus cultural and performing groups. Partners include the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Central Florida, the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, United Arts of Central Florida and a host of other organizations. The heart of the effort is redchairproject.com, where artists can market discounted tickets and accept credit cards for advance tickets sales, an essential service that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive for smaller groups (like my own). I was initially skeptical about its utility, but Red Chair Project is turning into Orlando's answer to New York City's beloved TKTS.
For the last three years, I've served as stage manager for the Red Chair's annual gala performance, with John DiDonna (my frequent theatrical partner) directing the show. Past years have been relatively intimate affairs, with a couple hundred deep-pocketed donors and other muckety- mucks seated banquet-style on the Bob Carr stage. This year it was decided to "pull back the curtain," so the auditorium was opened to the general public (at an absurdly reasonable $22 ticket price), while VIPs were seated in the wings for an exclusive "behind-the-scenes" $250 experience. The evening began with eclectic pre-curtain entertainment, including the Tod Caviness Poetry Vending Machine and the strings of the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra (plus gourmet buffets and open bars). As always, a highlight was the silent auction of kid-sized red chairs, artfully decorated by local arts groups — if you visited IKEA last month, you probably saw them on display, along with performance artist/professional sitter Brian Feldman.
The main event, deftly hosted by SAK Comedy Lab's David Russell and Keith Dickerson, was a two-hour parade of performances by many of the biggest names in Orlando. With a packed house and the potential for eternal reruns on cable, all the participants at this de facto "season preview" were understandably anxious for their performances to go off without a hitch. In a sane world, we would have had days of rehearsal to prepare for a show of this scope. Instead, thanks to another booking at the theater on the days prior, we had barely six hours to prepare before guests arrived. That meant assembling seating risers, wiring and hanging light and sound equipment, planning technical cues and practicing presentations, all in less time than one would normally spend on a single rehearsal.
In the end, there were a few snafus (DRIP was inadvertently deprived of an audience for their outdoor paint-dancing) and close calls (Cirque's giant German Wheel act tumbled to within feet of the grand piano). But the audience ate it all up, from the burly ballet burlesque by the Orlando Gay Chorus to the breathtaking tenor Curtis Rayam of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park; from Mad Cow Theatre and Orlando Shakespeare Theater's musical numbers to expressive dances by CineDance, Voci Dance and Orlando School of Cultural Dance. VarieTease even managed to keep their clothes on (always a plus when Harriett Lake is on the guest list).
I'd love to claim credit for the show's smoothidity, thanks to my expert cue-calling (sample dialogue over backstage headset: "Stand by for blackout; since we didn't rehearse this I have no clue when it will come, so be prepared!"). But I'm just an out-of-practice amateur who only manages a show or two a year. The real kudos goes to Autumn Schaefer (executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance), Theo Webster and Joe Mast of the Bob Carr, and especially the technicians of IATSE Local 631. When you absolutely positively have to put together an impossible production overnight, go union. To Boomer, Nate, Rick, Dennis, Steve, Nick and the rest of the Dead Bob's first-rate crew — there's a well-deserved case of Bud stashed in the production office for firstname.lastname@example.org