Dec 2, 2008

Behind the scenes: Christmas tree technical production

by Brent Reif

Great productions are made, led and performed by great people. All too often, only the performers are recognized for a job well done when there are many more key people who truly make a show successful.

Thomas Road Baptist Church’s (TRBC) Living Christmas Tree production meets many standards of greatness only as a result of an enormous collaboration of behind-the-scenes people who produce a remarkable show year after year.

A big part, or two big parts, of the annual Christmas production are of course, the twin, 11-tier Christmas trees that tower inside the auditorium and serve as choir lofts. Perhaps just as important as the loft, these trees house over 24 miles of stringed lights that make them come alive on stage.

“The lights are an extension of the music,” Technical Director of TRBC Jon Daggett said. “You hear a piccolo run, you see a piccolo run; you hear a symbol crash, you see a symbol crash.”

As technical director, Daggett is one of the key people who adds his talents to the show. He has his hands in many different aspects of the production in addition to TRBC’s daily operations.

“The first year I did the tree lighting for TRBC was 1995,” Daggett said. “Now, my role has to do with everything technical, but the trees are really my main focus.”

Daggett is also the creator of the lighting system MidiLite — the system that is the true workhorse for the lighting presentation.

“I literally spent a year, non-stop designing what was the first MidiLite system and it debuted in ’95 with Thomas Road,” Daggett said. “It was a big hit.”

To the surprise of those who have seen his work and know of MidiLite, Daggett was not always into lighting.

“Lighting was not something I knew much about,” Daggett said. “Now 36 churches around the country use our stuff.”

In addition to his extremely involved role with lighting, Daggett lends his knowledge to the area of on stage robotics. The machines do not stand up and walk around, but rather aid in the movement of large props. The robotic vehicles, or stagebots, allow props to be put on or pulled off of the stage without the distraction of a stagehand, and since 2004, the bots have been doing precisely that, according to Daggett.

“In last year’s (production), a smaller Christmas tree actually came out on stage during a number and was almost part of the number,” Daggett said. “It actually had choreography that it did along with the people.”

For past productions and 2008, Santa’s sleigh has been brought out onto the stage carrying several passengers, props and of course Santa.

“The Santa sleigh is bot-powered,” Daggett said. “When you think about last year’s sleigh — Santa, the sleigh, Charles (Billingsley), the bot driver and two children — you’re looking at probably at least 1000 pounds. (The bots) are strong little critters.”

Another member of the behind-the-scenes world is Lori Marsh, director of the 2008 production. Marsh, who has been involved with multiple productions at other churches, is taking on the direction of her first Living Christmas Tree with TRBC.

“(The production) is a beautiful thing because it really is a pool of so many creative talents,” Marsh said. “It is a great collaborative effort coming out of Thomas Road. Everyone on the team has been involved with the creation of this show.”

Marsh has been involved since the conception of this year’s show and has played a major role in its early planning and development. She expressed her gratefulness and admiration for those who tried out for roles.

“We had over 250 people audition for the show,” Marsh said. “It’s such a tremendous statement of how much the programs have touched people through the years.”

Marsh recognized the enormity of the production and all of the various people who are involved. She spoke on behalf of those who join to make The Living Christmas Tree a reality. Year after year, the collaboration of these people produces an incredible show, and she is excited to be part of that, according to Marsh.

“It’s something that we’re all proud of,” Marsh said. “The production is a good reflection of the talents, humor and gifts of this church, and I love that about it.”

The show as a whole is the result of a myriad of people like Daggett and Marsh working together. With a mixture of actors, dancers, singers and musicians, a wall of sound combines with an incredible light show to create this production.

Not only does this effect cause audience members to get lost in the show, but also the performers and even their directors.

“From the downbeat of the first note, I totally forget there is an audience behind me,” Choir Director Scott Bullman said. “I’m so captivated by what is in front of me.”

This reality is part of Bullman’s experience as he has the chance to be up front and so close to the production. Along with Marsh, he was part of this year’s brainstorming sessions from the beginning and is excited to see the work of many behind-the-scenes people come together, according to Bullman.

The 2008 Living Christmas Tree is unique compared to other years at TRBC because it is a show made up of original music. TRBC members created the instrumental and vocal arrangements for the production.

“It’s an original work,” Bullman said. “It’s the work of a lot of people.”

In addition to the new venture that has been made in tackling an original work, Marsh expressed the vision of the project and the anticipation of the great impact that TRBC’s presentation can have on other churches.

“A show of original music is much more challenging to do, but our desire is to share it with other churches after this year,” Marsh said.

“I think it’s the kind of work that can bless a small church up to a mega church. It’s something that’s attainable.”

Those who are involved with lighting and sound, the stagehands, the composers, the directors and performers all participate in their specific ways in order to create the collaboration that is the Virginia Christmas Spectacular. Every year, months of planning, orchestrating, constructing, programming and practicing allow for precision in every aspect of the Living Christmas Tree, even down to the last light bulb.

“Things aren’t just happening at a time, they’re happening at a certain measure and beat,” Daggett said. “You can literally have a (light) chase going up the tree at 16th-note triplets.”

Daggett, Marsh and Bullman play major roles in the production, but are still only a part of the big picture — a picture that brings lights, drama, robots and original music together.


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