Behind the Curtain at Riverside Theatre

Enjoy a backstage pass to Riverside Theatre's Broadway-quality shows

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Jenna Houck, scenic charge at Riverside Theatre, is behind the creation of the huge Jersey Boys skyline backdrop. Photo by Steven Martine
Jenna Houck, scenic charge at Riverside Theatre, is behind the creation of the huge Jersey Boys skyline backdrop. Photo by Steven Martine

Every spoken line, song-and-dance number, and stage direction is the culmination of many months of behind-the-scenes preparation. Before budgets are prepared, scripts are finalized, and scenery is designed and built, Riverside Theatre patrons are offered a rare inside look at the selection of actors and dancers for its future productions. These patrons join the Riverside team that travels to New York City to audition the best Broadway has to offer. 

“My husband and I attended the audition for 42nd Street in a section of New York City that serves the theater district,” says Riverside patron Joan Hoben. “This is a very different part of town few people know about with music rooms, studios, and rehearsal spaces everywhere. We walked into this very large rehearsal space and were handed folders with bios and information about all of the lead actors. Around 50 dancers were onstage doing choreographed routines they learned on the spot. I was surprised and delighted by the access we had and the quality of talent that is tapped for Riverside’s shows.” 

Set designer Cliff Simon, is part of Riverside’s creative team. Photo by Steven Martine
Set designer Cliff Simon is part of Riverside’s creative team. Photo by Steven Martine

Casting occurs far in advance of opening night. Former casting director Gayle Seay has lots of experience finding the best possible talent for Riverside Theatre’s shows. “We have conversations with the show’s director and try to get into their brain about how they perceive the characters,” she explains. The casting director then puts together a breakdown that covers main characters, ensembles, and understudies, which is sent to agents. 

Jersey Boys director Gayle Seay is part of Riverside’s creative team.. Photo by Steven Martine
Jersey Boys director Gayle Seay is part of Riverside’s creative team. Photo by Steven Martine

“Before digital, we got Santa Claus–sized sacks of headshots and resumes,” Seay laughs. “We would go through thousands to pick maybe 60 people to audition. Now we do it on the computer, but it still takes lots of time.”

Part of a casting director’s job is to identify talent that the show’s executive team may not know is perfect for them. “Directors and producers will look at video auditions and decide who comes to audition in person,” Seay explains. “Several times, they did not pick actors I thought were a great fit, so I’d put them on the in-person list anyway and then they booked the gig.” 

Seay will direct Jersey Boys for its run during Riverside’s 2023–24 season. “I’m a Jersey girl,” she says. She describes some casting considerations particular to this show, which depicts the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from their early years in crime-stricken Belleville, New Jersey. “When you are looking for people to play actual human beings, the talent pool gets smaller. One of the characters, composer and keyboard player Bob Gaudio, is very tall, so we need to find the right fit or it won’t look right to fans of the group.”

Jordan Lippert is the technical director responsible for putting together all the scenic elements for each show.. Photo by Steven Martine
Jordan Lippert is the technical director responsible for putting together all the scenic elements for each show.. Photo by Steven Martine

As the curtain goes up on any production, the audience has its first impression of the set, but before anything gets built, there is a meticulous design process. “I need to assess the space first,” says Cliff Simon, an accomplished set designer who has known Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director and CEO, Allen Cornell, since the two were in their 20s. 

Allen Cornell, artistic director for Riverside Theatre Taken: June 16, 2023
Allen Cornell, artistic director for Riverside Theatre.

Simon starts with ground plans of the stage. “I need to know how deep it is, how much is usable space,” he says. From there, he will get into rendering, then drafting on the computer, which puts everything into 3-D. 

We are sitting in the fifth row of the main stage theater, looking at the finished bar set Simon designed for spring 2023’s Honky Tonk Angels. A sparkly, raspberry-colored treble clef nearly 10 feet tall anchors the set and lets the audience know that the show is all about the music. Well-worn signs and objects are affixed to the bar’s walls to denote a vintage honky-tonk atmosphere. “Even if the audience isn’t looking at those items directly, they give the scene texture and a feeling.”

Paint is an essential part of set design that Simon leans on to bring the audience into the scene. Sometimes he asks for painted-in shadows that will be enhanced by lighting. “Painting effects can show audiences something that is real that isn’t necessarily real.” I ask if the brick wall onstage is real and Simon laughs. “It’s Vacuform.”

Joe Truesdale works on constructing sets as a scenic technician. Photo by Steven Martine
Joe Truesdale works on constructing sets as a scenic technician. Photo by Steven Martine

Jenna Houck is the scenic charge at Riverside Theatre—the artist responsible for making the unreal look real. “Vacuform is a big help to us,” she explains. “It is a paper pulp product that gets molded into shapes; in this case, a brick wall.” Houck then uses tools to finish the surface exactly the way it needs to look to match the scene. “I’ll add texture with sand or sawdust to get depth and reflect light. We don’t want it to look brand new, so this process will age it.” 

Houck can create a stone wall with lightweight materials that look like the real thing. “We can shape Styrofoam with drills and wire brushes to the exact look we want, and then put a texture over that.” She has just finished the Jersey Boys skyline backdrop, painted in sunset colors with a realistic ombré effect over a cutout of a city skyline. “We used mixed latex paint colors and put them through pneumatic guns. There are only a couple of days to look at the finished product before it goes into storage and we begin working on something else.” 

Emily Luongo is the prop supervisor. Photo by Steven Martine
Emily Luongo is the prop supervisor. Photo by Steven Martine

The task of putting all of the scenic elements together falls to the technical director, Jordan Lippert. “I’ll look at the set plan and map out what materials are needed. From there, I go through the entire set just like a home builder: ‘How long will it take and what will be the cost to do it?’” Lippert will confer with the set designer to get the details right. “For example,” he says, “this Honky Tonk Angels set that Cliff Simon designed has double doors, so I’ll ask him, ‘Do they open one at a time? Swing out together?’ Then we will see how some of the things that will be onstage will interact with lighting and props.” 

Lippert gets more of a free hand because each set is custom built from scratch specifically for the two stages at Riverside Theatre. Set pieces that move require some careful preplanning. “We can move larger pieces on and offstage in the middle of a scene to create a more dynamic look,” he says. “We pin mobile units into slots in the floor and use long push sticks to move them onstage or off.”

Jordan Lippert likens his job of  coordinating set construction to being a home builder. Photo by Steven Martine
Jordan Lippert likens his job of coordinating set construction to being a home builder. Photo by Steven Martine

“The band platform for Honky Tonk Angels is automated on a track with a big electric motor that pulls it downstage by a cable while the band is actually playing,” Lippert explains. “We used that for 42nd Street, too.” 

Allen Cornell has been with Riverside Theatre since 1983. He gained the top job of producing artistic director and CEO in 2008. “I am always looking at how to maintain the quality of what we do, and how to pay for it,” he says. “There are a lot of branches to the tree.” 

Jenna Houck spends a large part of her day in the paint shop, working on multiple projects at a time. Photo by Steven Martine
Jenna Houck spends a large part of her day in the paint shop, working on multiple projects at a time. Photo by Steven Martine

Today, Cornell will visit the various workshops and see how they are progressing. He always has a pile of scripts to look at. “What constitutes a production that will fit our community? Will it resonate here?” he asks. “Every community is different, and we have to pay attention to that. Our identity with our audience is unique.”

Backstage tours take attendees through the areas of the theater where technicians work. Photo by Steven Martine
Backstage tours take attendees through the areas of the theater where technicians work. Photo by Steven Martine

Before selecting a production, the rights must be secured, and that can be a long wait. “We have been waiting years to produce Jersey Boys, and we finally got the rights for 2024,” Cornell reveals. “Phantom of the Opera just closed after 30-plus years on Broadway, but it is still touring internationally, so the rights are not yet available to us.” 

Once rights are secured, it is time to crunch some numbers. Cornell considers the complexity of the scenic elements, the size of the cast, number of musicians, costume requirements, and other factors. “To a point, we can predict box office revenue because we have many years of sales to compare, but we are always rolling the dice,” he says. 

Because Riverside Theatre is a nonprofit, it is not completely dependent on ticket sales. “Our sponsorships, donations, and memberships create a balance that helps us reach our goals.” Patron support of this regional theater still impresses Cornell. “I think the support of our theater is unparalleled. It is the most unique aspect of Riverside Theatre. I don’t know of another theater that operates at the level we do in a market this size.”

Cornell’s friend and colleague Cliff Simon feels that the culture at Riverside Theatre is what attracts the best talent offstage and on. “This is a pleasant working environment,” he says. “This theater is not a ruthless place. Making money is important, of course, but it isn’t the whole picture. Working here is like coming home to family.” 

In the Wings

Riverside Theatre’s new season offers thrills, music, laughs, and thought-provoking plays

Million Dollar Quartet — A jam session at Sun Records brought the biggest musical stars of the 1950s together for one impromptu night. It is playing now through November 12 on the Stark Main Stage. 

Jersey Boys — The Tony Award–winning origin story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons follows their meteoric rise and their offstage clashes. Opening night on the Stark Stage is January 2.

Morning After Grace — Baby boomers try to age gracefully as they learn about love, loss, and fooling around. Opening night on the Waxlax Stage is January 30.

Kinky Boots — Cindi Lauper’s music enlivens this Grammy and Tony Award–winning musical, the story of a rundown shoe factory that is transformed into the hottest place to find the flashiest boots in the business. Opening night on the Stark Stage is February 20. 

Yankee Tavern — A fierce thriller with a sense of humor about a crumbling New York City bar and a mysterious guest who upends the young owners’ lives. It opens on the Waxlax Stage March 19.

On Your Feet — The inspiring story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s musical and professional evolution from Latin roots to worldwide acclaim and 26 Grammy Awards, along with challenges they faced along the way. It will open on the Stark Stage April 9.

Stark Stage at Riverside Theatre. Photo by Steven Martine
Stark Stage at Riverside Theatre.

Secrets of the Theater

Producers, directors, and cast members participate in several programs offering access to the inner workings of Riverside Theatre

Putting It Together is an online series of 10-minute video episodes providing inside information from the production, scenic, paint, wardrobe, music, lighting, and sound departments.

Cast Chat is an online video series in which past cast members and directors dish about all aspects of their theater experience, from learning lines to opening night jitters to closing night wrap parties. 

Backstage Tours offer a one-hour in-depth look behind the scenes, including the workshops, wardrobe department, and rehearsal areas. 

Backstage Access Classes examine specific plays on the Riverside calendar, with key players in the production process discussing how they bring a show to life.

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