By Seth Daniel
Deep in the industrial area of Everett – nestled between scrap metal yards and diesel mechanics – is a creative workroom that has few matches in the city.
In a month’s time, the workshop can create the Champs-Elysees in Paris, a New York City street, a San Francisco hillside abode or a normal, working-class living room. It’s the Huntington Theatre Company’s Production Center, and what for such a long time was on Huntington Avenue in the St. Botolph area is now just north of Boston in Everett.
The new facility houses the scene shop, paint shop, prop shop and storage area that goes into creating all of the sets and supporting materials for the Huntington Theatre Company’s productions on Huntington Avenue and the South End’s Calderwood Pavilion. This month, workers are hard at work creating sets for the Stephen Sondheim production in September of ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’
It is the first set to be created in the new Everett facility – born out of necessity when the old Production Center, located next door to the Huntington Avenue theatre, had to move to make room for a luxury residential development. That development will include a new theatre for the company, but not a Production Center.
Earlier this year, the company announced the move to Everett, excited to lease the large space from the Owens family – who had operated a moving company from the location for years.
“We needed a location that was in proximity to the theatre, had a storage component and a production space, which we now have,” said Dan Ramirez, technical director for the theatre. “Also a reason for coming here was the Owens family being our landlord. They have been very helpful and nice…We spent the entire month of June moving everything into the new space from the Huntington location. We had a moving company taking two or three trucks a day for a week. Then we spent two and a half weeks moving things over. Now we’re building our first set for ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ They start rehearsals next week. We have about two weeks to get it into the theatre.”
The show will run from Sept. 8 to Oct 15.
The move is part of what many believe might happen for many other performing arts groups in Boston, as performance space, rehearsal space and preparation space has become non-existent or unattainable financially. Last month, the City put out its first Performing Arts Facilities report that discussed many of the challenges facing arts groups, and one of those challenges was finding a place to create production materials. For many like the Huntington, there will have to be some sacrifice of convenience to get the opportunity of large spaces.
For the Huntington Production Center, they will miss the convenience of being next door to the stage, but the added space – including a much larger ceiling for production and a larger space for the Paint Shop to spread out in painting original backdrops – will be key.
“It is a little more space and a little more efficiently laid out,” said Ramirez. “You don’t have to go through all the different doors cut through all the different buildings to get where you need to go, but we also will have the fact that there are four shows where the production isn’t next door to the stage and we just walk it in from next door. I am very excited to work in this space and it’s a good space and it will give the company room to grow in the future.”
One of the key elements is storage.
Ramirez and Prop Master Kris Holmes said having storage for the props, the wardrobe and the costumes will make a great difference.
Holmes said they used to have things stored in every nook and cranny of the Huntington Avenue theatre, and they also had storage spaces in other parts of the city that required a time-consuming drive.
“It’s been great so far,” said Holmes, who commented that the office cat has now even taken to the new space. “We have a lot more space and the things we need are downstairs and accessible. We re-purpose a lot of the things we use and so we stored some stuff in the basement and we had storage units in Jamaica Plain, which meant we had to make the time to go over there. Now everything is pretty much here.”
In the basement, Ramirez pointed out several plastic tubs of fake foliage and other similar materials. In the new Everett space, they were stacked neatly in a roomy basement warehouse.
“Things were in all the nooks and crannies,” he said. “We had to have the foliage in an access area for an air conditioner duct. We stuffed as much of it up there as the Fire Department would allow. Every time we needed foliage, someone had to crawl in there and pull the tubs out. Now, they are readily and easily accessible.”
Indeed, the Paint Shop will also have a critical upgrade. Backdrops are typically 30’ x 45’, and the need is to be able to work on them completely rolled out while other workers continue to do painting on other projects.
That was done on the stage space in the past, and things had to be adjusted quite a bit to make it happen. Now, the shop is 32 feet long and can accommodate and entire backdrop with room for other workers to continue their projects as well.
“Now we have a space that encompasses both components for the Paint Shop,” he said, noting that the company Board of Directors approved a change order in the project that allowed them to move some supporting beams to create the larger space.
In addition to other improvements in the lighting, the sewing shop and the wardrobe storage space, Ramirez indicated that another major improvement is a new computerized router that can create the look that they need much quicker. Routing work in the wood and on materials is crucial as when the shop needs to create a slate floor, they don’t use real slate, but rather other materials that they make to look like slate. The router work is used constantly in the shop to make surfaces properly textured. Now, the work of several people can be reduced to two or three people in much less time.
“One or two operators will be able to do work that took several people two or three days to do,” he said. “That will free up the crew to do other things and get sets done quicker. It doesn’t replace them, but frees them up.”
In all, Ramirez said having the new space enables them to complete their mission more efficiently. While he worries about the first few moving days from Everett to Huntington Avenue, he believes it will soon become second nature.
More than anything, Ramirez said he needs a crew that’s nimble and smart and has space to spread out.
“This is a very specialized shop,” he said. “Our deadlines never change. Even when people make alterations, the exciting part is we still have to get it done in that same timeline. If someone is building a house and things come up, they can delay finishing it for two weeks. We don’t have that luxury. You have to have a lot of skill and talent and be on your toes. You have to be able to adjust…I requires smart people who are quick on their feet and can adjust on the move.”