HUDSON -- The theater at The Phipps sits still and quiet.The actors have yet to take the stage, lights are dim and the audience is empty.
Behind the stage is where the action is.
With just a week until “Singin’ in the Rain” premieres, The Phipps shop is a bustle of activity.
The room fills with the sounds of equipment — saws, nail guns and drills, and music filling the spaces in between. The five volunteers at work are intent on their projects, occasionally singing along to music or chatting with each other.
Around them the tall walls are lined with set pieces -- the Cheshire cat grins on one side of the room, while stained glass cathedral windows shine at the other, Wonderland’s mushrooms sit high on the shelves in one corner, a phone booth in another. Between them lie a seemingly endless number of set pieces, looking hodge-podge in this environment but carefully crafted to bring a story to life when on stage.
Every Phipps stage starts in this room, the shop, located at the north end of the building, tucked behind the main stage and black box theater.
Mark Koski has served as the technical director for nearly 23 years, leading a crew of volunteers who donate their time and energy.
“It’s amazing that in such a small community like this there is such a diamond in the rough with the magnitude of what we do here and just the facility,” he said.
Each production starts with a set design made by a guest designer. Then Koski works to engineer all aspects of it — from lighting to extras, such as the rain in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Mark Sturino, who’s volunteered for more than 20 years, said whatever scenic designers ask for, is what they build.
“All of the scenic designers are amazed at what we get out,” he said.
Sturino said there’s a range in theater from community to professional. The Phipps, he said, is right below the professional.
“The sets that we produce are almost professional,” Sturino said. “In fact, I’d tell you that they were.”
The only difference is they’re made by volunteers.
“Given enough time and energy, we can do anything,” Sturino said.
Time, though, is tough.
“It’s the hardest thing to budget,” he said.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is a test of what the shop can do. With this production, Koski said they’re facing people’s expectations from the movie.
Working on the titular rain took a couple weeks.
“That poor guy is going to get drenched,” Sturino said.
The water has to have enough pressure to rise 20 feet up above the stage. The crew also has a piece on stage that collects the water to recycle.
There’s also the sofa tipped over in the “Good Morning” scene. Koski doesn’t like to push the envelope on safety. He builds pieces heavier than others might, following a suggestion he learned in grad school — ask how many people are in a production and assume every one of them will be on a piece of furniture at the same time.
For “Singin’ in the Rain,” he reinforced the antique sofa with steel. The flip-down move made director Rebecca Rizzio nervous, but after a few trial runs with Koski on hand, the actors seemed to have it down.
Koski said he has about half a dozen to 20 volunteers working on each show, though some days it’s only one person in at a time.
“I’m very, very fortunate with the volunteers that I’ve got here,” Koski said. “They’re truly special.”
Many have them have been here for years. “It’s a family back here,” Koski adds.
He takes after his mother, he said, worrying about them when they don’t show up: “I think that’s what makes this job just so beautiful.”
The camaraderie is clear. They give each other a hard time as they work, and call out farewells as they leave. Group photos hang throughout the shop.
“We have fun back here,” Sturino said. “It’s not all work.”
Sturino started volunteering with The Phipps in 1998, when his kids were in a couple children’s theater productions.
“I just sort of stuck around,” he said.
John Schultz has volunteered for two years. He enjoys working with his hands, he said, and he likes The Phipps.
David Wisman has volunteered for eight years. He worked at The Phipps for 28 years, and then he was called in to help Koski on a tough set.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
They put in as much time as they can. Sometimes 10 hours a week, sometimes more. When it comes to crunch time, Sturino said he’s in the shop as much as possible.
“Whatever I can get away with before the body says, ‘You’ve got to quit,’” he said.
Sturino said each volunteer typically sticks to a role. Wisman cuts the wood into pieces they need, Schultz and others focus on construction and Sturino is in charge of lights and other specialty work.
He’s created many set pieces over the years, and he’s also responsible for one piece seen frequently in Phipps productions — the duck.
“I’m blamed for it,” Sturino said.
The tradition started with a production of The Hobbit. The director did not like the duck, and kept taking it off the stage. Sturino kept putting it back.
Now the duck has become a symbol for the group of volunteers in the shop. When the duck is on stage, it means the set is done. It’s been in just about every Phipps production since its first.
“The duck has a greater resume than any actor in this town,” Koski said.
Many of the volunteers have pieces or shows that stick out. Both Koski and Sturino think of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“It was a unique show, really unique from back here,” Sturino said.
The group brought in 24 real, mature trees, trunk and all, to create a forest on stage.
For Schultz it’s the snowman from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.”
“That was interesting,” he said. “I still have it.”
The shop is always open to new volunteers, whatever their skill level.
“I want people to feel welcome and wanted, and not obligated to be down here,” Koski said.
Bringing it all together
As Koski and the volunteers assemble the stage, the front of the house is also hard at work.
Rebecca Rizzio leads the cast in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
For her the process started in March and April with research on the show.
“My job is to make sure we’re telling the story and doing it in a way that pays homage to the classic story but also something that’s very relevant,” she said.
Then came the auditions. Casting the main roles originally filled by the well-known names of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor was not as difficult as some would think, Rizzio said.
“You find people that walk in the door and you just want to watch them,” she said.
Austin Stole, Tara Schwichtenberg and James Person II were cast in the roles, and make the characters their own, Rizzio said.
The cast rehearses for six weeks before the premiere. They start right away with music, and then move on to choreography.
“Singin’ in the Rain” has a lot of choreography, including very complex tap, Rizzio said. Dorian Brooke’s choreography pays tribute to the movie, while also bringing its own spin.
“It’s not just the movie replicated,” she said.
Once the music and choreography is done, the cast starts blocking scenes.
“Then you put the puzzle together and start stumbling through the show,” Rizzio said.
She focuses on one scene at a time, and then they’ve done it all before the actors know how far along they are.
“My favorite part of the process is when they get out of their heads and out of their books and into the scene,” she said.
All the while costuming and lighting is also being worked through, though they aren’t added in until tech week, the final week of rehearsals.
“There are a lot of unsung heroes behind the scenes,” Rizzio said.
The production is a team effort, she said, from the design, to building, to choreography, musical direction and acting. “You need everybody to make it go off.”
As a director, her work is done when the curtain rises for the first performance.
“You have to love the process,” Rizzio said.
All of it, stage, props, costumes and story, come together at the premiere on Friday, Oct. 25. The show runs through Nov. 17.