On the day of a show, even an empty theater has a peculiar energy. It’s as though a wild thing has escaped, and no one knows quite when it will appear again. That alchemy of excitement and fear is catnip, not just for performers, but also for the folks who recruit the talent, set the stage, and watch it all unfold from the wings.
“No performance is interesting if there isn’t an element of risk,” says Ariel Fielding, marketing director for Duke Performances, which programs seventy-to-eighty shows and twenty events on campus each year. As eclectic tastemakers, the six people on DP’s team don’t play it safe. Fielding is an ethno-musicologist and trained opera singer with a soft spot for Asian dance; associate director Eric Oberstein ’07 just won his second Grammy as producer of an Afro Latin jazz-orchestra composition. Aaron Greenwald, executive director since 2008, studied theater in college and in South Africa on a Fulbright Fellowship. All of them thrive on the sublime tension of live shows, the quality that makes real life fall away so that art can take over.
But on this particular night, there’s an added layer of pressure. Page Auditorium closed in May 2014 for an $8.5 million renovation, and jazz vocalist Gregory Porter will be the first to perform in the spiffy new space. Built in 1931 as a lecture hall, the largest venue on campus had long since grown dingy, with a beige tile floor, squeaky red seats, and garbled acoustics. Those sentimental quirks have been replaced by a new ceiling and cork floors, updated lighting and sound, refurbished seats, and fresh paint.
Porter’s music, like the new Page, is soulful, resonant, yet decidedly retro in its refusal to be hip. Each Duke Performances season brings a mix of old and new artists, forms, and styles. Greenwald, scouts talent from around the globe—classical music superstars to international troupes and instrumentalists, American greats to emerging artists and multimedia performances. “I’m not presenting anything that I don’t want to see myself,” he says. “I go to every show. I’m always here.”
While Duke Performances books and promotes the talent, it’s the technical staff in theater operations, along with DP’s production manager, Suzanne Despres, that sees to the stage-craft details.
They, too, are a band of current and lapsed performers: John Kolba M.S. ’08, an electrical engineer who once played Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is stage-operations supervisor. Rich Kless, assistant manager of theater operations, is a former actor who spent more than a decade as a roadie for Garth Brooks and other acts.
Kless is having trouble tying Porter’s soundboard to Page’s new digital one. Ironically, had they kept the old analog board, the setup would have been simple. But the hassle is worth it. “Before, it sounded muddy and wet,” he says, “but now it’s crisp, cleaner.”
Even the sound booth has been given an overhaul: The old one was so narrow, Kless says, that if someone wanted to enter, the person in the booth had to exit first to let anyone else in. The lighting schemes have improved, too. Page’s Gothic leaded-glass windows, which were blacked out most of the time for performances, have been fitted with opaque Plexiglas panels that can be lit to create a blue-gray speckled finish, almost like stained glass.
That feature is working perfectly on this night, but the same can’t be said of the weather. Fielding reports that the musicians’ flights are delayed, which won’t leave much time for their sound check. Depending on the complexity of the performance, sound checks can take four to six hours—enough time to set the lights and mics and get a feel for the stage.
Kolba is in the booth working on the sound that the performers will hear, while on stage, DP’s sound engineer, rattles off consonants into the mic—“tttt, tttt; cl, cl, cl”—working on the sound the audience will hear. It’s all white noise to the crew.
“Hello? Hello!” calls out Greenwald. In a dark suit and black tie, he strides out of the wings onto center stage as Porter’s band fans out behind him. It’s after five o’clock, and the late start has given him an air of impatience. He jogs down the steps into the audience and wastes no time checking out the hall. He bends down and touches a wire underneath one of the chairs. Not all the seating lights have been wired yet. It’s a minor aggravation considering what he had to deal with before.
“We all fought for space in Reynolds when I first got here. Now Page is viable, and Baldwin is spectacular,” he says. “That’s a really good thing, not just for the arts, but for Duke to foster a sense of community. These are the kinds of spaces where Durham and Duke sit elbow to elbow.” Indeed, two members of Porter’s band are affiliated with North Carolina Central University’s jazz program. As they tune up, Fielding presses her earplugs into place. “The hall is your resonator,” she says, sitting back to watch. “It’s as if you’re taking your voice and putting it in another person. It takes some time to adjust.”
But not much time: Thirty-five minutes later, the band is finished, and only the piano tuner remains. Suzanne Despres, the stage manager, appears. Dressed in black with a purse strapped neatly across her like a Scoutmaster, she taps on her phone and looks up, relieved. “No rain tonight, but tomorrow’s another story,” she says. They’ll do it all again the next day.
In the wings, indistinct voices filter through walkie-talkies. Kolba and another crew member tape lengths of black cloth to the foot of the stage and along the edges of the stairway. Backstage the “hazer,” a fog machine that will give the lighting more depth and color, is topped off with mineral oil. A woman comes by to ask for a table to hold programs.
When the curtain parts at eight o’clock, Greenwald walks out to welcome everyone to “the largest showplace at Duke.”
A clarinet opens the show, and Porter comes out in a dapper three-piece suit, the chinstrap of his trademark Kangol fastened snug under his dark, slightly salted beard. The bass player starts in; the drummer’s heals grind the floor, he’s working the peddle so hard. They all play as though they’re trying to please the big man. And he is— pleased, that is.
There’s authority in Porter’s gravelly baritone, a disarming vulnerability in his lyrics. He’s as smooth as his band is intense. The show crackles with the kind of risk Fielding spoke of, riffs threatening to cut loose, veer off, but Porter pulls them back just in time, again and again.
The audience swoons.
The horn player fires up his sax. Porter pops up on his toes, nodding as another solo fades away. “Bones of love are everywhere…” he sings. The crowd knows this one and joins in: “There will be no love that’s dying here.”