Unseen: Behind the Scenes

By Judith Green

Thyra Hartshorn '91 is everyone's mother.

As she sits in the lobby of the Adams Mark Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, where the Cincinnati Ballet is performing on a chilly February weekend, dancers come and go, looking for the continental breakfast bar or somnambulating to the local Starbucks. They have that wake-up call look: scrubbed faces, wet hair, bags under the eyes.

"Thyra, can you let them know I'll be a few minutes late?" says a big, beefy male dancer. "Thyra, I left it for you backstage," says a waiflike young woman. "Thyra, can you remember to...?" "Thyra, I need...?"

"She organized so many things. I am opposite!" says Yuri Possokhov, a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, for whom she was tour manager four years ago when he took a group of dancers to his native Russia. "She is so easy to communicate with people, even in Russia. They don't speak English, but she found a common language."

"A number of years ago," says Moravian trustee Joanne Mazur O'Such '60, a longtime resident of San Francisco and a balletomane, "we met at Yerba Buena Center, where San Francisco Ballet was performing while the opera house was undergoing an earthquake retrofit." (In the mid-'90s, when the Bay Area still was recovering from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco Ballet had a nomadic couple of years performing in five different locations.) "Thyra gave us a backstage tour, and since my husband and I are subscribers to the ballet and have been for very many years, Thyra and I gossiped about our favorite dancers and favorite choreographers and favorite music. When the opera house reopened and my grandsons went to The Nutcracker, Thyra invited us backstage after the performance. She is actually younger than my children, but we seemed to get along fine. You can't always find someone so involved with ballet with whom to yak."

"I blame it all on Doc Ramsey," says Hartshorn, who came to Moravian College to study management (the business kind) and ended up going into another type of management (the stage kind).

The daughter of Moravian alumnus Gary S. Hartshorn '65, she was born in Seattle and raised in Costa Rica, where her father was doing fieldwork as a tropical ecologist. A Comenius Alumni Award recipient in 1993 for his work with the World Wildlife Fund, he is now on the faculty of Duke University and president of Organization for Tropical Studies, a non-profit research corporation.

Her mother, Lynne, a technical editor, was a frequent producer of amateur theater in San José, Costa Rica, and her daughter began hanging around backstage at an early age. "I never liked being onstage," she said. "I was so much happier backstage."

But until she came to Moravian, theater had always been a hobby. Hartshorn chose a double major that she thought would lead to a career in publishing: management and journalism.

Writing was one thing; business proved to be quite another. "Accounting was not going so well," she remembers ruefully, "and I never did get past the assumptions needed for economics." Midway through her sophomore year, she dropped the business major. It was at that moment that a friend suggested: "You know you could always do a concentration in management." So she did.

In her entire college career, there was rarely a show in which Hartshorn did not build sets, hang lights, throw costumes onto actors during 30-second blackouts, call set changes, build loaves of bread out of styrofoam or fill cut-glass decanters with "Scotch" (iced tea).

"I even figured out how to do my journalism internship in theater," she said. Jack Ramsey, Moravian's veteran theater director, sent her to the public relations department of Pennsylvania Stage Company in Allentown. When she was ready to graduate, her first thought was to look for some kind of publishing job. "But Doc handed me an URTA [University/Resident Theater Association] flier," which included information on graduate schools, summer jobs, and internships. "I thought: ‘What if you really can't make a living in theater?' And Doc said: ‘It's not like it's the rest of your life.' "

So she took the plunge and went to an URTA conference in Chicago to interview with three graduate schools. She enrolled in the master's program at the University of California at Irvine in production and design with a concentration in stage management. "My thought was: Ah, no more cold winters and hot summers—and I could practice my Spanish!"

As any theater professional knows, the world of drama is overstuffed with actors, and neither directors nor designers are in short supply; but every theatrical company in the world needs knowledgeable backstage staff.

So Hartshorn has been able to leapfrog from dance companies to theater productions, picking up the vocabulary as she went. Backstage, there are few differences between dance and theater, she has learned. "Actors are a little more needy than dancers," she said. "For dancers, if you provide a warm space, a resilient floor, music, and water, they're fine."

She also learned about the peculiarities of certain professions. Working on the opera Die Fledermaus, she learned that "a conductor gets his own dressing room, and it has to be the star dressing room next to the stage." She was at American Ballet Theater when it premiered Kevin MacKenzie's production of The Nutcracker at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California, which eventually brought her to the largest backstage establishment in the world, the Metropolitan Opera House. It also taught her about working with union crews, an art in itself.

In 1994, she found herself courted by two Bay Area ballet troupes: San Francisco Ballet and San Jose Cleveland Ballet (which was headquartered in Cleveland but split its performance season between two cities). But Cleveland wanted someone with more experience, so she went to San Francisco Ballet, where she was assistant stage manager for five years.

One day at SFB she bumped into Ricardo Bustamante, a former ABT dancer who was teaching at SFB's school. "He stopped me in the hall and said, ‘I need some music!' " she remembers. "I asked him what for, and he said he was planning a trip with some dancers from SFB. I told him he should take a stage manager." So she became tour manager of a small dance troupe he took to Bogotá, Colombia.

After five years and three different stage managers at SFB, Hartshorn was starting to feel restless. One day she got a call from Victoria Morgan, a former principal dancer with SFB who had become artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. "She asked me for names of potential stage managers. I said, ‘What about me?' She hesitated and asked if I would consider moving to Cincinnati. I figured again: it's not like it's the rest of my life." She took the job.

"She does two jobs for us," said Cincinnati Ballet executive director Alan Hills. "She is both the production manager and the stage manager." The first pulls the elements of production together—sets, costumes, lighting, music, dance rehearsal schedules—and makes sure everything comes together by opening night. The other calls the show from backstage, seeing that every dancer enters on to cue, every light goes on (or off) according to the lighting designer's plan, and every material element is where it should be at the time it needs to be there.

The world of professional ballet is a small one, and Hartshorn has maintained her contacts in San Francisco. After the Russian tour, she and Possokhov had built such a rapport together that he asked her to design the production for his first major piece of choreography, Magrittomania. The look of the ballet was not the problem—the paintings by René Magritte that it used have practically become household images. But it was up to Hartshorn to figure out how to make them "dance"—using, for instance, a green weather balloon for the green apple in The Great War. Her designs won an Isadora Duncan Award from the Bay Area dance critics; and her energy and inventiveness led Possokhov to choose her to design Damned, a ballet version of the Medea story, which premiered in April in San Francisco.

"As a stage manager," she explained, "you have to work with everybody else's ego. You're the peacemaker, the facilitator, the organizer, the babysitter." ("Thyra, can you get me...?" asks a passing dancer.)

And being a stage manager has rewards that no one else knows about. During the company's run of Peter Pan, "we had a kid with Down's syndrome on a backstage tour," Hartshorn said. "And he really thought Peter Pan could fly. So I checked with the Foy rep [Flying by Foy has the monopoly on flying harnesses for Peter Pan productions] and we were able to ‘show him the ropes'—the mechanisms that made Peter and Michael fly." Far from being disappointed, the boy was thrilled to know how the magic was made.

"One of the greatest pleasures of being a stage manager in dance is getting to work with gifted choreographers, designers and dancers," Hartshorn said. "And the travel is not bad!"

Thyra Hartshorn in her backstage office at Cincinnati Ballet, surrounded by props from The Nutcracker.

Photo: Melvin Grier/Cincinnati Post, courtesy of the Cincinnati Post
The dancer holding the green apple (a weather balloon, actually) in the photo left is Yuan Yuan Tan of San Francisco Ballet in Magrittomania (2001) by Yuri Possokhov. Sets, props and costumes by Thyra Hartshorn.
Photo: Marty Sohl, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet.