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Performing Art
"You just get up and go," Aaron Muhl says of the 16-hour days he spends working the Ringling International Arts Festival. "It feels like five minutes has passed from the time you fall asleep to the time your alarm goes off again."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010 7 years ago

Backstage Pass: The Stage Master

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

While everyone in Sarasota is buzzing about the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF), Aaron Muhl’s cell phone is buzzing with calls from hardware vendors, scenic designers, technical directors …

The list goes on and on.

For the second year, Muhl, the 28-year-old managing director of the Historic Asolo Theater, will serve as RIAF’s stage master.

It’s an enormous responsibility that has Muhl overseeing 11 productions on four stages in rotating rep during the run of the festival. In other words: 45 performances in five days.

“Once the curtain goes up, there’s simultaneous relief and panic,” says Muhl, a pragmatic multitasker, who, like many harried behind-the-scenes RIAF staffers, refers to the festival simply by its acronym — “ree-aff.” “The high drives me. The high is addictive.”

Muhl has just returned from a Home Depot run. He’s out of breath and in a somewhat wired, accelerated mode most people only experience after six cups of coffee.

Despite his to-do list, he sits still and explains that his attention is fully focused on participating in an interview, a promise he makes good on by muting his phone each time it vibrates.

“It’s coming on fast and furious,” he says of RIAF, which is now less than a week away. “I’ve been going to Home Depot daily, making and picking up hardware orders.”

Two of the four shows in the Historic Asolo Theater — John Jasperse Company’s “Magic Mystery and other Mundane Events” and Nilo Cruz’s “Hurricane” — require a fly system, which wouldn’t be a problem if the shows were being performed in the Mertz or Cook theaters.

The Historic Asolo, however, is the only stage on the Ringling campus that doesn’t have a fly system.

“We’re making something happen in a very old-fashioned way,” Muhl says. “We’re using turn-of-the-20th-century technology to create a fly system that works within our space and time limitations.”

Further adding to the pressure is the fact that Muhl just received the technical drawings for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Cruz’s “Hurricane.”

“Hurricane,” which was commissioned by RIAF, is one of several productions scheduled to make its world premiere at the festival. The script arrived a month ago, and the scenic designer, who came on board only three weeks ago, is now faced with having to scale down the size of the show due to lost time.

“All I’ve done is planning, scheduling and budgeting for this festival,” says Muhl, who will also serve as the lighting designer for “Hurricane.”

A Booker High School graduate, Muhl was hired in 2006 to open the Historic Asolo after it had been closed for five years while it underwent restorations.

He had less than two weeks to get the theater in running order before the opening-night gala, which included performances by opera singers Susan Graham and Kristin Clayton.

The theater had been closed for so long Muhl’s control booth didn’t even have an extension cord.

“I don’t get nervous about it,” Muhl says. “The thing about theater is that the curtain always goes up. I’ve worked shows where we’ve got fans blowing paint dry on opening night.”

His office phone rings. He asks to be excused. It’s the scenic designer from “Hurricane” and Muhl has been waiting for his phone call.

After a brief exchange he returns to his chair and picks up where he left off.

“What I love about theater is that it’s always different,” Muhl says. “It’s not like you just pull out your paperwork from long ago. There’s always something novel. If it’s not novel, I’m bored.”

If You Go
The Ringling International Arts Festival takes place Oct. 13 through Oct. 17, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. For a complete schedule of performances, visit For tickets, call 360-7399.

— Heidi Kurpiela


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