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Pulling back the Curtain

Around Town

BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE ARTS CENTER OF COASTAL CAROLINA ON ITS 25TH ANNIVERSARY 

Good theater requires magic — something the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina pulls off with aplomb. Celebrating 25 years since its inception, the Arts Center is closing its season with the ever-popular musical Mamma Mia! and a trio of behind-the-scenes experts wants to pull back the curtain to expose a few secrets.

“Most people don’t realize the detail that goes into each show we create,” says Andrea Gannon, VP of Marketing, noting that the quality of actors, directors, and dancers it hires is far more professional than many realize. “We produce five shows each year that we literally build the house for, not to mention going to New York City for casting and getting the orchestra hired.” 

For Mamma Mia! that meant building a moveable Greek village that could be rolled on and off stage, creating costumes for every scene, and moving the orchestra pit due to COVID restrictions. 

Earlier, other changes were implemented. 

“We purchased a ULF fogging system to use between performances, upgraded our air filtration system, added plexiglass partitions, and sashed seats to allow for physical distancing,” Gannon said. “And we are a 100% vaccinated work force, as is the cast.”

Because of those upgrades, the Actor’s Equity Association gave the Arts Center, which intimately seats 349 people, the green light to re-open back in February, a privilege extended to only a handful of theaters across the country.  

Although live auditions had to be scratched in favor of video submissions, the talent they secured is impressive. 

“We got to pick the best people,” says Bradley Vieth, Musical Director, adding that the Arts Center routinely boasts Broadway talent, but because so many theaters are still shuttered, the turnout this year for auditions was extremely competitive. 

One such veteran is Meredith Inglesby, who made her Broadway debut as Babette in Beauty and the Beast and currently plays the lead role of Donna in the show. Incidentally, her return to the area is a bit of a homecoming as she grew up here and attended Hilton Head Prep. 

Vieth, formerly on the faculty at Florida Southern College, is no stranger to the Arts Center. He’s been at the musical helm 10 times before, which explains his familiarity with the spaces and corridors behind the stage. 

Mamma Mia2

There’s the “green room” where actors relax and focus before heading back onstage, and the “black box” studio where rehearsals are held. Costumes are stored upstairs, while quick-change stations occupy either side of the wings. Props and sets fill an immense area backstage. Everything is connected by darkness.

“It’s a bit of a maze,” says Vieth, “but that’s the beauty of theaters.”

One narrow staircase leads to a windowless room filled with music stands, instrumental keyboards, and a cache of guitars. “The pit,” he says with flair, “and technology makes it all possible.” 

Next to Vieth’s keyboard is a TV screen that allows him to view what’s happening on stage, a camera that allows actors on stage to see him as he conducts, and audio monitors that allow communication between the stage and the pit. There’s even a button that lights up when the stage manager needs emergency communication by phone. Sophisticated software ties it all together.

Making it seamless requires practice. For two weeks, Vieth – alongside Director Casey Colgan –works with the actors, concentrating on vocals and articulation, then he fine-tunes rhythm, volume, and timing with the musicians, comprised of a second keyboard player, two guitarists, a bass player, and a percussionist. 

“Everybody takes responsibility for their own role,” says Vieth, who explains that if you were in the room, you wouldn’t hear the keyboards which only feed into headsets and the auditorium. 

“It’s amazing how fast it comes together,” adds David Warren, one of the guitarists. “That’s due to the creative team and staff working together behind the scenes.”

Warren, a Hilton Head resident and member of The Chilly Willy Band, joined the orchestra in response to a Facebook post thinking the experience would be “fun.” 

“But this is completely different from Chilly Willy,” he notes. “You’ve got to hit every note. There’s no wiggle room, even the strumming has a certain rhythm.”

Learning 95 pages of music in less than three weeks wasn’t easy.

“I came in holding on by my fingernails,” he said.

Music wasn’t all he had to learn. When another guitarist gave him music from a previous season, Warren was surprised to see a handwritten note above one song stating: I DON’T WANT TO TALK.

“It seemed a bit adversarial,” chuckles Warren, admitting he later realized it was part of the script that “cued” a song was about to begin.

Despite calling himself a “dungeon critter,” Warren revels in the supporting role he brings to the show. He also wants everyone who drives by the Arts Center to realize the diverse talent that’s housed inside. 

“It’s incredible and it’s here,” he said, hoping the next time the curtain rises, you’ll be dazzled by the illusions.