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Performing Art
"I love to be surrounded by artists," Michael Kohlmann says. "They always find a way to do what they love, and they always reinvent themselves so nothing is ever the same."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 6 years ago

BACKSTAGE PASS: The people pleaser

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Michael Kohlmann should be stressing out. He should be losing his patience and biting his nails. He should be snapping at co-workers and making disgruntled statements about how no one appreciates the guys who work backstage at the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF).

In the very least, he should be grumpy.

Instead, Kohlmann is cheerful, laidback as usual.

Perhaps that’s why he was hired a year ago to be the guest artist manager for the Historic Asolo Theater at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

“I’m not much for stewing on what needs to be done,” says Kohlmann, a veteran stagehand from Stockton, Calif. “I just do it.”

His job is an especially big one this time of year, thanks to RIAF.

The giant six-day performing-arts event features a rotating repertory of 10 companies, many of which are based outside the United States, which makes the task of organizing travel arrangements more complicated and time-consuming.

Since the museum announced RIAF’s 2011 lineup in March, Kohlmann has exchanged hundreds of emails with company managers in New York, Argentina, Ireland and Italy.

“It’s all a big game and a puzzle,” he jokes. “It’s a piece of cake when you’re only dealing with the logistics of one company early in the year, but as the festival gets closer and you’re managing 10 companies, it gets much more intense.”

Kohlmann gestures to his shirt pocket, where he always keeps a scrap of paper and a pen that clicks. He’s fastidious when it comes to organization. The paper is for recording reminders throughout the day. The pen is for blowing off nervous energy during staff meetings.

“It doesn’t make noise when it clicks,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s nothing worse than listening to someone anxiously click a pen in a meeting.”

Kohlmann has become a master at keeping the festival’s stars happy. To do so, he’s had to overcome language barriers, secure work visas, negotiate contracts and book hotel and plane accommodations.

He’s had to coordinate rehearsals and hotel shuttle bus schedules. He’s had to make sure there’s a plate of fresh fruit in Argentinean actress/singer Soledad Villamil’s dressing room and a pet-friendly hotel for pianist Anne-Marie McDermott’s Maltese, Samantha.

Because the theater doesn’t supply performers with alcohol, he’s had to track down a nearby bar that serves local craft beer for New York City-based street band Asphalt Orchestra.

He found one on North Tamiami Trail — Growler’s Pub, a favorite watering hole among Ringling College of Art and Design students.

“You don’t have time to sit and stew or wonder, ‘How am I going to do it all?’” Kohlmann says. “You just do it.”

He thrives off fueling the creative spirits of artists. It’s why he’s in the theater business and not the banking business. He says he tried once to work in the box office as a business manager but found nine-to-five paperwork dull and uninspiring.

“I decided I’d rather be around the people creating the art,” Kohlmann says. “It energizes me. When art is done really well, you see parts of yourself in it. I see it here with the festival. The energy of these performances has a profound effect on people.”

As much as he adores theater, Kohlmann is not out auditioning for parts. He prefers to work offstage. It’s where all the stories are, anyway.

Take this one: In the early 1980s, shortly after Henry Fonda finished filming “On Golden Pond,” he played an old cowboy facing death in a play at the Hartman Theatre in Connecticut.

Kohlmann was the show’s property master, which meant he was tasked with helping an aging Fonda get in and out of his costume.

Kohlmann remembers it well. Fonda would get off stage exhausted. He’d lie on a cot, close his eyes to relax, and Kohlmann would begin the process of tugging off Fonda’s boots and jeans. With only a minute-and-a-half to complete the costume change, Kohlmann had to work fast.

He didn’t mind the job. In fact, it’s become one of his most interesting claims to fame.

“I took Henry Fonda’s pants off 38 times,” says Kohlmann. “No one in my circle of friends can say that.”

The Ringling International Arts Festival runs through Oct. 16 at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. For a complete list of performances, visit  

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