Theatre student learns on his feet at Santa Fe Opera

Release Date: 11/11/2011

The word that best describes Clayton Becker's summer internship with the highly regarded Opera Santa Fe (OSF) is 'intense.'

"My summer internship began on May 23 and ended at 4 a.m. on August 28," says Becker, a junior theater major from Arlington, Tex. "Two hours later I was on a plane home."

Becker spent those weeks as part of the stage crew for the opera company. Founded in 1957 by conductor John Crosby, OSF has performed 140 operas in the years since, some 1600 performances, including nine world premieres and 40 American premieres.

This season's performances included "Faust," "La Boheme," "Griselda," "The Last Savage," and "Wozzeck."

While in Santa Fe, Becker stayed in an apartment dorm complex about seven miles from the theater and carpooled with the other interns daily

Becker's typical work day ran, he said, 12 to 18 hours, though some were shorter. All, however, were full of fast-paced work. "We were expected to be professional at all times," he said, "learn as much as we could learn, and go as fast as we could go."

Getting the opera ready for the different performances required constantly moving, storing, shuffling, repairing, painting, and cleaning the sets. The crew also broke down and set up sets for new shows daily. "Every day was a change over," he said. "For a month we even did double change overs, where you take a set down in the morning and then turn around and completely set up for a new show. You had at most three hours to do this, sometimes less."

All the work had to be done quickly and safely. "We had a required tool list," he said. "One phillips head screwdriver, one flat head screwdriver, a rachet with deep-well sockets of 7/16" and 9/16", wrenches of the same sizes, and a drift pen, which is a hole-line-up tool. Also a hardhat, safety glasses, a full respirator, knee pads, gloves, and a coffin lock key for locking and unlocking the set frames. It's easy to get hurt if you're not careful."

Becker said he did a lot of "painting things black," filling sandbags, and "queens," which he said was when they were assigned a section of the stage to clean thoroughly, and "you treated it like a queen." The sandbags were used to keep tarps down on the back deck of the stage during shows in case it rained. "It's an outdoor theater," Becker explained.

"I also built light troughs and mounts for the electrical crew," he said. "I built storage units for part of the sets when they weren't being used. There are things you learn to think about when designing scenic elements, like 'how is this going to fit on a truck? How are we going to get it into the basement to store when we're done with it?'"

The internship was, of course, a learning environment. "I not only learned how to use repertory hardware," Becker said, "but I also learned some personal limits, for example how far I could go running all day long. And I learned patience. Normally I'm somewhat an argumentative person, but during my internship I successfully bit my tongue for three months."

Becker said one of the more useful things he learned in Santa Fe was communicating for safety when moving sets. "Calls of communication are really helpful to help avoid getting people hurt," he said. "Any time you moved a set or any piece of scenery, whether it was on wheels or not, you made a call. An example of a call might be: 'We're going to move this deck downstage, stage right, rotating 90-degrees clockwise.' That would be the call. Then the other people involved would each have to say 'Ready!' And you would wait until everyone involved said 'Ready!' before you started. Then you'd count 'One, two, three, and say 'coming!' and everyone would move it. And then you'd get there and say 'three, two, one, set!' and everyone would put it down simultaneously."

He was pleased with the level of knowledge he brought from Ozarks to his internship. "During discussions I had before work started, it seemed that everyone else had gone through theater with more specialized classes, and so at first I was kind of intimidated," he said. "But when I got there and we all had to learn the same things - learning calls, learning how to move scenery - we were all on the same level. And when it came to stuff in the shop, I was perfectly prepared."

Would he go back to Opera Santa Fe? "A tough question," Becker said. "As much as I loved doing the work - I had a lot of fun - I would go back, but not as stage crew. I'd like to work in the shop there or the prop shop."