The house is in order

Lighting technicians prepare to raise heavy, specially ordered trusses to the Amp rafters for the the Aug. 12 Clint Black show. Photo by Megan Tan.

Manager Schmitt and a dedicated crew keep the Amphitheater, Chautauqua’s hub, running smoothly

Story by John Ford


It’s Thursday night in the Amphitheater, the evening wearing on now, another popular Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert in the books. The audience files out, satisfied, anticipating a good rest in the cooling night air. A nearly full moon illuminates the scene. Quiet replaces hubbub in Chautauqua’s concert center.

Out of sight on the Amp’s busy back porch, Keith Schmitt is thinking about Clint Black, the country superstar who will perform on his stage the following evening. Schmitt, the Amp manager, knows several critical hours lie ahead for him and his stage crew. Final preparations now are in full swing.

“We’re clearing the stage for the special light displays that were requested by Black’s people,” Schmitt explains. He points to the front of the “house,” theater talk for the main Amp arena.

There, CSO stage manager Marisa Caruso leads several members of Schmitt’s stage crew in carefully packing the larger instruments and easing them off the stage to the back porch where, by midnight at the latest, they will be stowed in the CSO truck and moved back to their regular home at Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. The stage is clear in 20 minutes.

A rising junior theater major at SUNY Fredonia who hails from the upper Hudson River Valley, Caruso heard about Chautauqua from a professor who works here in the summer.

“I wanted a well-rounded idea of theater management,” Caruso says, “and this turned out to be the perfect place.

“I have some experience elsewhere in theater, both backstage and onstage as an actress,” Caruso continues, “and Chautauqua is unique. At other places, people seem to stay in the box their skill or position defines for them. Here, there is a refreshing spirit of sharing ideas and collaboration.”

In that spirit, Caruso helps the crew wrestle the CSO harp into a safe place in the truck. She’ll be back the following day to offer assistance in the final Black setup.

Meantime, off the back porch, a 28-foot truck rolls silently into place. Contractors from Advanced Production Group out of Dunkirk, N.Y., disembark and begin hefting large cases up the back porch ramp and onto the main stage. Most of the house lights are now dim, highlighting the delicate activity onstage.

Lighting support and installations at all Institution venues are performed by members of  the Jamestown, N.Y., Local 266 of the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees. The union’s president, Mel Swanson, describes his crew as “virtually full-time summer Chautauqua employees.”

“We even get our checks on Institution stock,” he added.

Schmitt, keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings, explains, “For the higher-profile shows, we often get complex lighting requests.”

He waves an arm at the massive metal trusses now lying on the stage.

“This isn’t unusual,” he said. “For the Black concert, we will idle our regular light racks. They’ll stay in place high above the stage, but we’ll only use the lights the Black crew requested.”

“See those square cuts in the roof above the stage?” Schmitt continues. “Watch.”

Contractors and crew use one-ton rated motors to hook truss support chains from the stage to shackles suspended from rigging points formed from steel slings and basket-shaped loops hung over the massive structural iron and steel beams in the Amp attic.

“They’ll need two motors for each light truss,” Schmitt explains, “because the light displays weigh over 1,500 lbs. each.”

Slowly, carefully, the metal light trusses ascend to their prescribed location, supported through the small square holes.

Later, Schmitt leads the way into the Amp’s attic. It looks somewhat like the attic in a regular house, except it’s about 50 times as large. And its massive girders are somewhat reminiscent of the interior hull section of an ocean-going vessel, except the keel rises high over the stud structure and plywood flooring. The steel cables supporting the light racks below hang silent and motionless. A few bats flit about in the afternoon heat.

Once the lights are fixed in place and thoroughly tested, Schmitt is satisfied and calls it a night. It’s around 1 a.m. A man with few wasted movements whose surface impassivity belies a burning passion for skill and thoroughness, he looks things over one last time.

“I don’t get mad very often,” he says thoughtfully. “As a roadie for the group Alabama once said to me, ‘There’s way too much work to make this hard.’”

This is Schmitt’s 28th summer season at Chautauqua. He grew up in Northern Virginia and got involved with 1976 bicentennial preparations at Wolf Trap Farm Park, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s showpiece outdoor venue near Washington, D.C. One thing led to another. He joined the park’s renowned “woods crew.” He managed to fit in a theater degree from George Washington University after two years at Virginia Tech University.

Schmitt’s professional path led through the Washington Ballet to the Tulsa Ballet and later on to Jamestown’s Reg Lenna Civic Center.

“It’s mostly connections in my business,” he says. “Someone likes your work, they recommend you, and off you go to the next stop.”

In 1984, that next stop — for the summer — was Chautauqua.

In 2005, the next winter stop was Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, N.Y., taking over a 2,600-seat venue just after a $31-million renovation.

“At Proctors, productions are generally on a larger scale, with lots of specialists around,” he said. “Here at Chautauqua, I can often fix a problem myself. That can be very satisfying.”

Serving as Schmitt’s assistant is Art Breitenbach of Cleveland, a long-time Chautauquan in his first year as an Amp employee.

In the face of all this activity, conversation turns to vacations. Schmitt’s face lights up.

“I thought it would be neat to visit all 50 states before I turned 50,” he says. “I did it, trip by trip.”

His all-time favorite trips, mostly shoehorned into rare free time in September and October, are: sailing off Papua New Guinea, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Norwegian fjords, Utah’s Zion Canyon and taking his mom to see the family homestead in Ireland.

Around 3 a.m. Friday, the Amp is dark and silent. Clint Black’s bus eases into position on South Lake Drive in front of the Sports Club.

“Lots of bigger acts favor that spot,” Schmitt explains, “because they can hook up easily to power and because the sheer bulk of the Amp and the Athenaeum Hotel doesn’t interfere with their satellite reception.”

Much later, timed specifically not to disturb the morning Amphitheater lecture, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer parks at the rear of the Amp. The second Black bus, this one carrying the traveling crew who, in this case, didn’t mind being called roadies, pulls under the wooden footbridge behind the Amp. After the lecture ends and the house is cleared, unloading begins. Schmitt and his crew attend and assist.

The crew chief is 27-year-old Matt Snyder of Jamestown. Now in his seventh Chautauqua season, Snyder is an off-season Frewsburg music teacher who played the tuba for three years in the Western New York Chamber Orchestra. Reflecting on his time at the Institution, Snyder says being part of the Amp crew has dramatically broadened his perspective.

“I used to take for granted all the work that makes possible an orchestra performance,” he says. “Not anymore.”

Crew stalwart Mike Lee, 20, of Fredonia, N.Y., passes by. A four-year Institution veteran, Lee is a jazz and classical guitarist majoring in neuroscience at Hiram College in Ohio who aspires to a career in the FBI.

Adam Wancha, a Michigan State University student from Lansing, Mich., who also is in his fourth year here, came on the recommendation of a family friend who is a 20-year member of the CSO. He was drawn in part to his physical therapy major, he says, by a strong interest in extreme sports and his own occasional back pains.

Three first-year members round out the stage crew. They are 17-year old Tyler LeBarron of Sinclairville, N.Y., heading in the fall to Southern Illinois University to major in dairy production management; Anthony Amoroso, 21, of Jamestown, who is transferring to Lyndon State College of Vermont for a graphic design major this fall; and rising SUNY Fredonia sophomore Wes Wright, of Fredonia, who is fascinated by all aspects of video production.

Through the afternoon on Friday, Black’s roadies and Schmitt’s crew work harmoniously to set up the evening’s show.

“This is not a huge burden for us,” Schmitt says. “Two buses and one truck is closer to average for a big-name act. Alison Krauss, for instance, had three buses and two trucks.”

Black is using a new guitar technician for this trip — “I usually work with Billy Ray Cyrus, but he’s not traveling right now,” he says — and this results in more extensive sound checks than usual.

These stretch into the afternoon, overseen from the Amp’s perspective by Schmitt and 33-year old Chris Dahlie, who has worked at the Institution for 12 years and confesses, “I might just become a lifer. I do love it here. Chautauqua has everything I want.”

For Dahlie, a Jamestown native, Chautauqua has been a source of continuity in a career in sound technology and recording that has taken him to New York City, Los Angeles, London and Auckland, New Zealand. In the off-season, he is pursuing a doctorate in master media technology and labor communications study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Assisting Dahlie with sound are Josh Senick from Philadelphia and Josh Hayman from Syracuse, N.Y.

Around 5:30 p.m. Friday, Clint Black himself appears onstage. Sound checks are completed. It is nearly showtime. From the smiles and contented conversation afterward, the show was a great success.

Clint Black and company departs for their next gig at Belleayre Conservatory in the Catskills. Dates in Chicago, Atlanta and Biloxi dot the schedule in coming weeks.

Schmitt and his crew get ready to install the dance floor for Saturday’s performance of the North Carolina Dance Theatre in residence, accompanied by the CSO. It might be a late night.