Karl Simmons seems to be the type of guy who’s not easily panicked, at least not on the job. Give him hypothetical challenges that could reasonably occur at any time when it comes to shows on the main stage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, and he’ll have a shrug, a smile and a quick answer.
Someone’s microphone gives out? There’s a backup plan with spares. A tech person calls in sick at the last minute? Things will be figured out in a hurry. That time they had to create a beach on the stage with 2.5 tonnes of sand for the first act of a show, but then turn the set into a hospital for the second act? All under control.
That last situation was a real one, by the way – in the 1980s, Simmons and crew used a couple hundred 75-pound bags of sand, along with seaweed and driftwood, to build a beach on stage for a production of “Warm Wind in China.” Act II was set in a hospital, so they built the scene on a platform that rolled out over the beach during intermission. What the team hadn’t accounted for, however, was the dust that appeared when the sand dried out, and ended up having to essentially keep the stage watered with a hose.
Getting rid of that set? No big deal.
“We shoveled the sand back into the bags,” Simmons says nonchalantly.
Here’s another one: back in May 1978, when a circus came to the centre with three elephants.
“To get them into the building was a bit of a challenge, so we had to build steps, because elephants can apparently walk up big stairs,” Simmons says. “When we got them in the building, they lived over there in the loading bay, and they were here for about four days. You could smell them for about four years after that.”
The Arts and Culture Centre opened in 1967; Simmons was hired five years later, as a teenager looking for a summer job between Grade 10 and Grade 11. He had worked in amateur theatre a bit as a stage hand, and when a similar opening came up at the ACC, he took it. He kept working throughout the school year as needed, and when he graduated, he still stayed on.
Simmons’ job includes just about everything when it comes to staging a show at the ACC, from lighting and audio to the set, which he and his team often build in the carpentry workshop backstage. There’s not much he doesn’t know about the theatre, apart from the number of lights hanging from the ceiling over the seats. They’ve never been counted, he says, but he figures there are somewhere around 4,000. Fortunately, he’s not the one tasked with changing the burned-out bulbs; that’s up to the Department of Transportation and Works, and workers lift the bulbs up through the ceiling (There are a few no one can reach, Simmons says, so they’ll never be changed).
Simmons’ springs are usually blocked with dance school recitals, which he says are mostly self-contained when it comes to their needs.
Musicals are a big job, requiring months of planning and work.
“We have production meetings, and we do a lot of the structure here,” Simmons explains. “We build the scenery, set it up. Lighting cues have to be set, and we have upwards of 30 wireless mikes that have to be set up and co-ordinated. When I started here, there were no wireless mikes,” he adds. “Everyone had to belt it out, essentially. We didn’t mike anyone to speak of, and now everyone on stage has their own.”
It’s not the only change Simmons has witnessed over the past 45 years.
Technology certainly has changed (the ACC is middle-of-the-road but well-equipped when it comes to stage technology, he says, and staff are hoping to make a leap forward in that department over the coming year), and so has the use of the centre: there are close to 150 shows on the main stage every year, he reckons, meaning somewhere around 230 days of activity in the theatre.
“I think every one of them is a triumph in the end,” Simmons says, chuckling, when asked if any shows stand out as a particular challenge. “I think essentially you just plan and then enact the plan, that’s all.”
Simmons says he’s been able to take in most of the shows at the ACC, though he doesn’t attend all of them. He’s a jazz music fan, and says (when asked) that he’d love to see some big names in that world pass through the centre.
He was eligible to retire six years ago, but figures he’ll stay on for another couple years yet.
“I go home sometimes,” he says with a laugh.
What keeps him at the job after 45 years? He doesn’t hesitate to answer that question.
“The best part, I think for me, is when we prepare for a musical or a major stage production and then opening night comes and the audience gets to see our work. That’s probably the most rewarding part.”