Volunteers, hundreds of hours of work bring ‘Nutcracker’ to life

November 23, 2018

“Organized chaos” is a phrase mentioned several times while talking to volunteers and staff about preparations for Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.”

“It’s much more choreography going on behind the scenes than on the stage,” artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown says. “It’s its own ballet back there.”

“Nutcracker,” which begins Nov. 30, is the classic story of Clara’s magical adventure to the Land of the Sweets. The ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is adapted from a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Though professional dancers in the local company might spend only eight to 10 weeks rehearsing their roles, planning for the production begins as much as two years in advance when Gibbons-Brown has a new vision for costumes, props or sets.

It is too expensive to repair or replace all the production elements at once, so the nonprofit Ballet needs to plan ahead to work items into the budget. Starting over on the whole production from scratch would cost about $500,000, Gibbons-Brown says.

The current set was built about six years ago and still has a couple of years of life left. But furniture pieces have been recovered this year and elements such as a rickshaw are being added.

“Nutcracker” needs about 130 volunteers, including people to help with the Sugar Plum parties, makeup, costumes and floor crew. Some of the volunteers are community members that just want to help, but most are parents who are filling hours required for having students in the Auer Academy of Fort Wayne Ballet.

A bulletin board filled with sign-up sheets for “Nutcracker” duties hangs just past the entrance to the Ballet on the second floor of the Auer Center for Arts and Culture. Jobs include working the gift shop and coat check to costuming and in-theater chaperones.

Fifty hours are required for families with dancers in upper levels that take part in multiple performances through the season. If they are just in “Nutcracker,” the requirement is 10 hours. Some volunteers go far beyond those requirements.

“So much of our success depends on not just the community, but the volunteers within the community,” Gibbons-Brown says. “The production would not be what it is without them.”

Costume shop work

For a room that sees around 150 costumes pass through it for “Nutcracker” alone, the Ballet’s costume shop isn’t as large as you might expect.

A narrow space about the size of a living room, it is dominated by a central cutting table and materials such as fabrics and lace on either end. Clothing racks full of costumes in various stages of readiness tower over the room from one wall while the other has space for a couple of work stations. There is a large sink where fabric is hand-dyed and a washing machine in a small alcove toward the back.

When preparing for a show, the cutting table might be surrounded by volunteers sewing hook-and-bar closures or attaching crystals to costumes. Dancers even come in to help.

This year for “Nutcracker,” there will be some costume updates and entirely new outfits on the stage in both acts.

Costumer Nan Possemato says one of the most crucial parts of the shop’s work is doing fittings of every performer. Double casting means many of the costumes require multiple sets of hook-and-bar closures, each labeled inside a shared costume with the name of the dancer the closures are designed to fit.

Casting for “Nutcracker” happens in September and costume fittings begin right away. Possemato’s work began earlier with meetings where Gibbons-Brown talked about her vision for this year’s performances and any possible changes.

Knowing that “Nutcracker” is a tradition for many people who come out year after year, Possemato always wants there to be a new treat for the eyes, even if it is something as minor as adding a sash on a soldier’s costume.

“What we try to do ... is every year, you want them to be able to see something different,” Possemato says.

Possemato also started as a volunteer because of her daughter’s involvement with the Ballet. She moved into a staff role about three years ago after the previous costumer left. It isn’t a 9-to-5 job and she works on pieces at home every night and on weekends. But she enjoys it.

“I love the aspect of creating,” Possemato says.

The costume shop does a lot of creating, and that requires a lot of help. Possemato keeps a logbook of hours for volunteers who do everything from helping with fittings to ironing.

“The ladies that help are the most integral part of it,” she says.

Mindy Bermes is one such costume shop volunteer, devoting far more hours than are required of her as part of her daughter Audrey’s current involvement with the Ballet, which began in 2001.

“It’s what I can do,” she says. “It’s not what everybody can do, but I came back to the costume shop because I knew I might be moderately helpful. I knew how to sew, but then I got to be a little bit creative in addition to that, so that’s been really fulfilling.”

Bermes also creates “American Girl”-size doll costumes sold in the boutique. They are replicas of what appears onstage, and Bermes says a lot of parents will buy the costumes that match what role their child played so they have a memento of the show.

She says she has fallen in love with “not only the art form, but the people here.”

Making life- and doll-sized costumes isn’t Bermes’ only contribution to “Nutcracker.” She also dances as the mother in Act I and plays Mother Ginger later.

Her background is in gymnastics, but she says she spent a lot of time watching through the studio window when she brought her daughters to the academy.

“I kept thinking to myself, I would love to try this some day,” she says. She started taking classes in 2008, which is when she did her first “Nutcracker.”

“I just kept going from there and just got to check some things off my personal bucket list, which has been pretty awesome,” Bermes says.

After “Nutcracker” begins performances, the costume shop and volunteers are stationed at Arts United Center to handle alterations, fixing rips and other repairs that come up. The costume shop also cleans and maintains headpieces and props.

Volunteers and fellow dancers also help performers in and out of costumes : especially important if it needs to happen quickly. In those cases, you might find several people helping change one dancer’s costume.

Everything gets ironed and some pieces such as men’s shirts get laundered between performances, but not everything can be cleaned : especially pieces with intricate details like crystals, silk and lace. Those items are sprayed with Febreeze and hung near fans to dry.

After the run of “Nutcracker” comes to an end, all the costumes come back to the Ballet’s costume shop where they get sorted and laundered before going into storage. “Nutcracker” costumes stay downtown at Auer Center, but costumes for other shows might be at various storage areas around town.

Then the process starts all over again with meetings, fittings and creating new pieces as needed.

When new pieces are made, they are made to last as long as possible. That starts with the materials. Not just any fabric can be used onstage. It has to move correctly. It also has to look right under stage lights, which can change the way the color is perceived by the audience. Sources range from hobby stores and crafters online to suppliers in big cities such as New York.

Texture and stability are key when choosing fabrics. Silk reflects light well, but it stretches out quickly, so it is less practical to use for tight-fitting pieces. But something like bengaline polyester is nice to work with, the women say. Of course, there’s plenty of tulle around, too.

Embellishments : or “blinging,” as some people working with the shop call it : are done with Swarovski crystals, which catch the light and sparkle.

“There’s a huge expense, which is why we go to the length we do to reuse everything we can,” Bermes says.

Large cast

There are more than 130 people per cast of “Nutcracker,” which has at least two casts. Though some dancers may be in both casts, they might not be performing the same role in each. All told, there are more than 200 local performers onstage during the production.

For planning purposes, the two casts are known as Peanut and Almond. In cases where a third casting is required, it is called Peanut Butter.

Double casting means more opportunity for everyone to get a part across nine public performances and four school performances, the latter of which consist only of Act II. There is also an invitation-only, sensory-friendly show in association with the AWS Foundation.

The casts include the company’s 26 professional dancers, about 20 from the Ballet’s “pre-pro” division and about 25 from the youth company. The rest of the roles are filled from the Auer Academy and other local dance programs through community casting.

Gibbons-Brown tries to find a role for every child that auditions, as long as they meet dance requirements.

“On occasion, we’ve had to say no, but I try very hard to find a place,” she says. “First of all, that’s the spirit of the holiday season, that’s the spirit of ‘Nutcracker.’ And it is the community’s ‘Nutcracker,’ so we want to make sure that if you want to participate, you have that ability to do that.”

Not all of the roles require dancing skills. The party scene in Act I has volunteers of all ages playing guests. At least one of them has been partying with the Ballet for more than two decades.

‘Only role I’ve had’

“I have a particular idea about reality : that it doesn’t have enough humor in it,” R.J. Benninghoff says.

Spend an hour with the owner of Stuckey Brothers and you will quickly realize he is a real character. You might even say he is several characters, as he has fun with more than one persona while talking about “Nutcracker,” in which he has played the grandfather for 22 years.

His self-proclaimed “shtick” is a memorable part of the party scene in Act I of the production.

Some ballet newcomers don’t know if they should laugh or not, Benninghoff says. New members of the audience might not understand the language of dance, and his non-dancing performance might help ease their entrance into that world.

“They just told me to sit down there and be quiet. And so I try to do that, but things happen,” he says with a chuckle. “So I react to (the party-goers). Actually I can whisper and get away with it because you can’t hear out there (in the audience).”

He once appeared on a local stage when he was 13 playing an old man in a youth production of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”

Now 72, he jokes that playing an old man is “the only role I’ve had, outside of a toilet roll.”

Benninghoff gets serious while talking about the importance of arts in culture.

In a world driven more and more by sound-bite chatter, Benninghoff sees value in organizations such as the Fort Wayne Ballet and Fort Wayne Philharmonic, which “carry hundreds of years of positive advancement of social norms and ideas.”

Though he admits he loves movies, he says watching a live performance involves more participation as the audience is made to imagine things and release the stress of the real world.

Like many Ballet volunteers, he got involved through his child. His daughter danced as Clara in “Nutcracker” when she was 12. Now grown, she works with another local dance group, but Benninghoff continues to appear with the Ballet, saying he likes being onstage “pulling my normal shenanigans” as if he were really reacting to things at a party.

He plans to continue playing the grandfather as long as he can.

“I’m having such a good time being a cranky old don’t-care-about-anything grandpa that has nothing left to worry about,” he says.

‘Neat to be a part’

Theresa and Ryan Meyers are full of laughs.

“I saw my name printed in the program last year as ‘master fly,’ and I thought it was kinda funny,” Ryan says.

“And that really got to his head,” Theresa jokes. “I need to talk to Miss Karen about that. We need to stifle that.”

The couple are parents of three children including Olivia, 14, who “absolutely lives and breathes ballet,” Theresa says. She began dancing around kindergarten and came to the academy in first grade. She is now ranked pre-professional Level 1 and has appeared in “Nutcracker” almost every year since joining the academy.

That has meant lots of volunteer hours.

Ryan has spent several years manning the fly rail, meaning he is stationed above the stage pulling ropes to move scenery in and out. There are 40 ropes to pull, and each has to be done with just the right speed at just the right time. As the “master fly,” Ryan has a cue sheet and headset so he can make sure everything is going correctly.

There are at least two people working the fly rail at all times, and dancers or other parents will come up when extra bodies are needed for more complex movements during the show. But Ryan is the only constant up there. He says he takes half of his vacation time from Edy’s Ice Cream to be on hand for “Nutcracker.”

He works all the “Nutcracker” performances at about three hours per show and about five hours a night during tech week, which is the week leading up to the performances when all the elements of the show come together on the Arts United Center stage for rehearsals. He also works “strike,” which is when the sets and pieces are removed after the performances have ended.

“I don’t know,” he says when asked how many hours he volunteers for “Nutcracker.”

“I don’t know if I want to know,” Theresa adds. They say their volunteer time combined for “Nutcracker” is probably in the ballpark of 60 hours.

Theresa says she fills in wherever she can.

She started off with what she considered easier assignments such as coat check and handing out programs.

“I finally got brave enough a few years ago that I did makeup and costumes behind the stage,” she says of working with the youth cast to make sure they don’t eat or drink anything, use markers or do something else that might ruin a costume while also keeping them quiet.

She says one of the hardest parts of being with the youth cast is making sure that each has his or her makeup. The children aren’t allowed to share makeup because of illness concerns.

“Nutcracker” is just the tip of the iceberg for the couple and their involvement with the Ballet.

Theresa heads the booth for Johnny Appleseed Festival and organizes the silent auctions for the Beer, BarreBQ and Bourbon fundraiser, which bring in money for scholarships for the academy.

Ryan says volunteering for “Nutcracker” opened his eyes to what it takes to prepare for a production.

“It’s a massive production,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how many people it took to put it on.”

Will they continue volunteering after they are no longer required to put in hours as parents? Maybe.

“We meet so many awesome people,” Theresa says.

“It’s neat just to be a part of something like that,” Ryan adds.

Sewing art

Cathy Coughlin bubbles with excitement to talk about “Nutcracker” and show off the costume work she considers her art.

“You’re never going to find anyone more excited about the Ballet than me,” she says.

She started volunteering with the Ballet in 1996 and had three girls that went through the ballet program as students. Her youngest daughter, Kerry Coughlin, once danced as Clara and is now a soloist with the Ballet company, performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Coughlin’s mother was a seamstress, so she knew about sewing, but hadn’t done much with fashion skills. That has certainly changed.

Among items Coughlin has made for this year’s “Nutcracker” is a new Sugar Plum tutu, which alone takes about 40 hours and 15 yards of netting. Special tacked stitching holds the layers together while allowing the tutu to “float.” A detailed top piece goes over the frills to complete the skirt.

Coughlin buys her own materials and donates them along with her time. Now that her daughters are out of the academy programs, Coughlin is no longer required to put in volunteer hours. But she has no plans of stopping.

“Oh, no no no! This is the best part,” she says. “I can do whatever I want, as long as Karen says she likes it.”

Coughlin is clear that although she loves being a costume creator and being allowed to run with her own ideas, it is Gibbons-Brown that inspires and approves all the pieces.

“She is the heartbeat of the Ballet,” Coughlin says. “We would not be where we are if it wasn’t for her.”

Coughlin was a member of the Ballet Guild, a parent volunteer group that predated the current system of required volunteer hours. She has run stands at Three Rivers Festival and Johnny Appleseed Festival. She has worked coat check and run the Sugar Plum parties and is also on the BarreBQ committee. Her husband, Jim, has served on the Ballet’s board, including time as its chair.

But it is the costuming that she enjoys most. She is especially proud that she is trusted to make pieces for partnered roles, which requires extra care. Both the male and female dancer have to be able to work with the costume. If there is too much bulk in the woman’s costume, for example, the man can’t hold her correctly.

“I just feel so blessed that I get to do stuff that people can see,” she says. “To be able to make a tutu for a partnered role is amazing because it means your work is good.”

Holiday tradition

As far as Gibbons-Brown can tell from records, this is the 55th consecutive year the Ballet has performed “Nutcracker.”

Though it has Christmas elements, it is only a holiday tradition in the United States. In Europe, productions do not happen at a specific time of year.

But Gibbons-Brown hopes that locally, people don’t really feel it is the holiday until they see “Nutcracker.”

“I think ‘Nutcracker’s’ fabulous,” she says, calling it light and happy. “The score is luscious, the dancing is fun. It’s a great entry point for people who’ve never seen ballet.”

The local production is also nationally recognized in the company of the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet, which Gibbons-Brown calls an honor.

“I would hope that our community takes pride in this presentation and this production because we are certainly so pleased to be able to present it to the community, and we have people that come from all over to see it,” she says.


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