A peek behind the curtain at Krannert

A peek behind the curtain at Krannert

Recently, choreographer Mark Morris described the lower levels of Krannert Center as a "warren of studios and ateliers and hurricane refuge" that's "brutal and cold and grim."

Most folks and others familiar with what's below the lobby level of the campus performing arts center would disagree with his assessment.

For example, Kira Lyon, a first-year graduate student in theater props, calls it a maze. And a fun one at that.

"You'll open a door and go, 'Oh, here's another room I've never been in before,'" she said Thursday.

That afternoon she, graduate student Kristen Nuhn and Bridget Lee-Calfas took us on a guided tour of the heart of the 300,000-square-foot facility, where all the production happens for University of Illinois theater, music and dance concerts as well as other events.

It wasn't brutal, cold or grim but instead an impressive collection of beige concrete-block hallways — the one leading to the Great Hall seems to stretch into infinity — and rooms, offices and storage areas.

It seems architect Max Abramovitz thought of everything when designing Krannert Center, built in 1969 at a cost of nearly $15 million.

Take the layers of cork inlaid on pylons throughout the lower levels. The cork dampens sound so production can go on when a show is being rehearsed or staged.

"That's a very unusual level of detail that the center has," said Lee-Calfas, Krannert's public relations and advertising director.

We started our tour by descending a small iron staircase to go below the Studio Theatre, to a small room where props are kept for current productions in the black-box theater.

They include "Moses," a 15-foot-long ball python puppet being used in Illinois Theatre's "Failure: A Love Story," which opened Thursday evening.

Lyon built it herself. Usually, it would go into a marked props cabinet in the room, but Moses is too long for it.

Because the Studio Theatre doesn't have a proscenium arch or backstage area, actors descend the stairs on one side and go up the stairs on the other side to cross over onto the stage.

It's not a glamorous room. Heating ducts and pipes run just under the ceiling. Besides cabinets holding props, there are other things scattered around, like a duffle bag, a table, lights.

Costumes galore

From there we continue through the underground passages, past a huge locked room full of hanging costumes for women. Across from it, a similar but smaller room holds scores of men's suit jackets and dozens of ties.

"We have 40,000 pieces in our hanging costume collection," Lee-Calfas said. "We have one of the largest shops in the country in terms of our hanging collection."

Along one long hallway are wooden cabinets — we didn't peek inside — that store historic costumes. They are used for study and research, not for shows.

Among other clothing items stored near the hanging collection are military boots, helmets, hats, shoes — just about anything you can imagine.

We leave the vast costume area to go inside the drafting or design studio, where up to 15 scene designers can work at drafting tables to come up with and realize, via 3-D models, their visions for shows.

We pass by offices for the theater department as well as other management. Along one wall in a hallway are mail slots for theater students.

We visit a props vault, a room with floor-to-ceiling shelves of household-for-theater items: old typewriters, bed covers, bedsheets, china, decorative bowls, wine glasses, knickknacks, decorative boxes, old glass bottles, milk bottles that look full of milk.

There also are woven baskets, a tub of green tennis balls, decanters, musical instruments, old telephones, toys, books, leather bags, suitcases.

Behind the props vault is a hat vault. No one with us has a key to open it, but we're told there are hundreds of toppers inside. In the small, dark foyer outside are shelves of military hats and other beat-up caps labeled "distressed."

From there, we visit the large, cavernous drama rehearsal room, where Charles Maybee of the UI dance department is teaching tap dance to 14 students. It looks like fun.

We leave to walk down a hallway. Along one side are piled-up boards and red scaffolding to be used in Illinois Theatre's upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet," set in the disco '70s. Further down, we see stacked against a hallway wall 10 or so theater "flats" that have been painted and will be painted over again.

"We recycle them over and over," Lyon said. "I remember someone saying one time our flats are older than a lot of our students."

Scene shop

We make a stop at the upholstery shop, where a sign on the wall reads, "The softer side of props." Below it are painted among clouds cartoon representations of students who have worked there. Tubs of upholstery fabric fill shelves. Tools hang from the walls.

"You might see the same chair in four different shows, but they've covered it with different fabric in each one," Lee-Calfas said.

Across from that is the scene shop, which looks two stories high inside. We have to put on safety glasses as we enter.

At one end, students are learning to weld — Lyons says the scene shop is one of the safest she's worked in. It's a visually interesting place, with large set paintings and even a ship's masthead — a mermaid made of foam but painted to look like wood — displayed high on the walls.

In the middle are huge tables and other work areas. One large area is taken up by more of the red scaffolding we'd seen in the hallway. Shelves of equipment line the walls, again floor to ceiling. A staircase leads to a loft where finer woodworking is done.

Under that area is a short passageway leading to a small store where theatrical supplies and tools are sold or checked out. In charge is the friendly Bill Kephart, an actor who's the store clerk or manager.

"We also sell different materials for the productions, whether fabric, paint, hardware, lumber. Many things," he tells us. "The public can purchase from this store. We have a lot of theatrical supplies that would be cheaper than elsewhere."

All of the items have pink labels. Though tiny, the store seems to have an immense inventory.

From there, we pass through the hallway, stopping to look at locked boxes where Krannert staff and UI students who work at Krannert lock up their keys to the center every time they leave the building,


Nearby is the operations office, where we meet John Williams and Randy Greever. They take us to the underbelly of Colwell Playhouse to see the spiral lift — eight collapsible "Slinkies" that are motorized to move the stage up and down.

The Slinkies can be operated individually or together. They can stop midway to the entrance of a storage room where grand pianos are kept.

It's sort of "Phantom of the Opera"-like down here.

We're told there are similar lifts under the Tryon Festival Theatre and the Great Hall, which is off-limits today because the Venice Baroque Orchestra is rehearsing there.

Greever and Williams probably know the workings of Krannert Center better than anyone. They check on the building 365 days a year, even Christmas Day, to make sure pipes haven't broken or animals haven't snuck in.

"They maintain the integrity of the facility," Lee-Calfas tells us. "We have almost a 50-year-old building here. It's up to them and their team to keep it running."

From there we go out into the hallway again and pass a food-services office, and stop in for a few seconds in the orchestra rehearsal room, another large, cavernous space. Today, the students in the UI Symphony Orchestra are gearing up for rehearsal.

We pass by the Costume Shop, where several people stand at tables stitching costumes. We're told they don't like to have their photographs taken, so we don't go inside. A sign outside reads "You'll leave here in stitches."

Across from the costume shop, in the hallway, are eight large cases with curtains over them, made of various fabrics. They hold yet more costumes.

We step into the audio offices, where Krannert audio director Rick Scholwin chats briefly with us, telling us he, like many other Krannert employees, works both for Krannert and the university. He calls it a "hybrid existence."

Next to that office is an editing room, where a young man is editing a recording of a young Asian woman playing piano on the Great Hall stage. The Hall is known for its fine acoustics; many recordings are made there.

"The recordings extend the life of the center beyond its walls," Lee-Calfas notes.

Keep moving

Just south of the audio suite is the Events office. Its employees handle the logistics of performances and other events. One thing they do is make sure Krannert meets the requirements spelled out in contracts with performers.

From August to May, they handle 75 touring acts, 90 rental events, and 110 UI School of Music concerts and recitals.

"During things like Ellnora (Guitar Festival), they're the heart of the action," Lee-Calfas says. "They keep things moving forward."

During the biennial Ellnora, events coordinator Jordan Lingreen walks an average of 30 miles over the three-day festival. All that hiking is done inside the building.

She's just one of 78 full-time employees at Krannert Center. Because it's running out of space, at least two have offices inside former closets.

"We take advantage of every space possible," Lee-Calfas says.

From there, we continue south to the backstage area of the Tryon Festival Theatre, which has a really high fly space. Today, an instructor is teaching theatrical rigging to a half-dozen or so students, who  work with ropes and wires stretched across the floor.

I look toward the stage and see a young man wearing a T-shirt with the message: "It's all part of my rock-and-roll fantasy."

We ask to see dressing rooms and are taken to a "diva dressing room" used by opera singers and other performers in the Tryon Festival Theatre. The room has a comfy little couch on an area carpet  across from a small dressing table and chair under the classic theatrical mirror. There's also a full bathroom with shower inside the diva dressing room.

Lee-Calfas tells us some performers, among them the principals who danced in the recent Russian ballets, like to shower after they finish their shows. (Many performers also autograph and decorate concrete blocks high up on the wall of the Level 2 hallway.) There also are dressing rooms under the Great Hall stage.

"Sometimes people are in here for a week, for a run, and sometimes for just one night," Lee-Calfas said. "It's a home away from home."

Take a look for yourself

People are invited to take free guided tours of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. daily Monday through Friday. Meet at the Patron Services Desk near the Krannert ticket office.