Steve Brown tried to leave show business once, but like many theater junkies, he didn’t stay away for too long.
For 15 years he worked as the assistant director and production stage manager for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He loved the job, but eventually the long hours and stress took their toll. So, in the early 1990s he left the company to pursue other endeavors.
He traded Treasury bond futures, served as the president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the chief of staff at the Music Institute of Chicago and as an executive-search consultant based in Tampa. The latter brought him to Sarasota, where he worked on the search committee that brought Artistic Director Iain Webb to the Sarasota Ballet.
At the same time, a technical-director position opened up at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and Brown, 58, immediately applied.
“I started doing some thinking,” he says. “And I realized some of the happiest times I ever had were backstage.”
Now in his third season as tech director at the Van Wezel, Brown, who doubles as the theater’s facilities manager, spends his days estimating production costs and helping Van Wezel Executive Director Mary Bensel negotiate performers’ demands.
“I’m a night person,” Brown says. “Actually, to do this job, you’ve got to be an all-day-and-night person, but you’ve got to be at your best at 10 p.m.”
On his desk sits a half-eaten plate of something that resembles a Hot Pocket and a can of Diet Coke nestled in a purple Van Wezel koozie. By the looks of it, Brown’s lunch is no longer hot, abandoned due to phone calls and other interruptions.
“I like the chaos of my job,” Brown continues. “No two days are the same. There’s no routine. I’m not very good at routines.”
He shuffles through paperwork as if to illustrate his point. Despite Brown’s aversion to humdrum desk duties, much of his job revolves around paperwork, namely sorting through highly detailed production riders.
He holds up singer Neil Sedaka’s 26-page rider, in which Sedaka has specified everything from the type of food and beverages he prefers in the dressing room to the kind of sound system he requires for his shows.
Without naming names, Brown reveals that the 71-year-old performer’s requests pale in comparison to other stars’ demands.
One germaphobic female entertainer insisted the theater provide her with a bottle of vodka to spray down her clothes after performances. The city-owned venue, however, does not provide alcohol to performers, so Brown borrowed a bottle from the caterer, Michael’s On East, poured it into a spray bottle and handed it to the star’s assistant.
“People always say performers request crazy things, like they only want red M&Ms in their dressing room, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Brown says.
Still, there are demands that even Brown, a mellow people-pleaser, is unable to entertain. One male performer requested a specific brand of water in glass bottles that the Van Wezel was unable to track down. The brand did not exist.
“In the grand scheme of things, these things are not that important,” says Brown, who is rarely riled by star demands. “I’ve worked with real operatic divas. If you can work with them, you can work with anybody.”
In February, the Van Wezel had to cancel a performance of “Mamma Mia” after the sound system failed on the sixth night of the show. In Brown’s 18 years backstage, he’s never experienced such an upsetting technical difficulty.
In the end, ticket buyers don’t care if Tony Bennett only drinks Evian water or if Joan River requires a plate of gluten-free cookies in her dressing room. Pulling off the show is what matters most, and when that doesn’t happen, Brown loses sleep.
“I was working with Pavarotti years ago,” Brown says. “And I remember I went up to him one day and I told him that I appreciated how nice he was to the stage crew and staff. And he said, ‘Steve, you don’t get paid enough to put up with my crap.’ I’ll never forget that."
Did You Know?
• When comedian Bill Cosby performs at the Van Wezel, he arrives alone with no entourage or assistant — a rarity in the industry — and eats backstage with the crew between shows.
• The roller-skating musical “Xanadu” was one of the Van Wezel’s biggest shows of the season. The production requires five tractor-trailers and 40 stagehands.
• In season, Steve Brown will work 70 to 75 hours a week.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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