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Making magic for the masses: A week behind the scenes at Artpark

by jmaloni
Fri, Aug 4th 2023 11:10 am

Discover what goes into staging events enjoyed by thousands each summer

√ Artpark: A lot to do at lively Lewiston venue

By Joshua Maloni

GM/Managing Editor

Artpark & Company used extra-small font on its heavy-stock, 8-½-by-11 2023 season poster in order to cram in as many listings as possible. It doesn’t escape me that this typographical method reflects the standard the performing, visual, educational and environmental arts venue has set by jam-packing summers with concerts, walks, tours and talks.

Year in and year out, this is the place to be when the warm weather breaks.

Of course, most large-scale Artpark presentations were slated for Tuesdays in the early 2000s and into the 2010s, but that is no longer the case. Nowadays, workers are essentially on call, as happenings are spread throughout the week – sometimes on back-to-back days – subject to guest performer availability.

Over a nine-day period in mid-July, I observed the inner workings of the Artpark & Company approach, spent time with the team, and peaked behind the curtain (and behind the scenes) to get a better understanding of what it takes to entertain, enlighten and empower more than 100,000 people on a yearly basis.

This time period included four mainstream concerts (headlined by Tori Amos, Barenaked Ladies, Lauren Daigle and Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles), two “New Music in the Park” series shows (Jeremy Dutcher, Third Coast Percussion), a “Free Family Saturday,” the first week of Art Camp, a guided walking tour, a Sensing Resonance: Plein Air Poetry writers’ workshop (and performance), and the Artpark Fairy House Festival.

An estimated 20,000 people participated in one or more of the activities.

But most of those patrons only saw the end result of the efforts required to present those performances. They may have admired an art installation, or let their children play with costumed characters, or watched their favorite musicians rock the Mainstage and Artpark Amphitheater concert stages – but little did they know how these massive, magical moments were managed.

Concerts are a Production

Inasmuch as Artpark & Company has diversified its offerings since President Sonia Kozlova Clark took the helm in 2015, concerts are still the main draw. The award-winning stages have welcomed everyone from Styx to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steven Tyler to Lindsey Stirling, “Weird Al” Yankovic to Mt. Joy.

“There's a lot that goes into it before the band shows up on the day of the concert,” carpenter and steward Jack Wrobel said the night of the BNL concert. Taking a moment to chat as one of the largest events of the season (7,000-plus tickets sold) was underway, the 48-year team member said, “What goes into it for us the day of the concert is the trucks roll in. It could be from one truck, it could be a bus with a trailer on the back of it, full of equipment. It could be up to three or four trucks sometimes; and the crew is appropriately sized, per the requirements from the road crew and their whole production team. They figure out how much local help they need. That will add to the people that travel with them, the roadies that travel with them.

“So, eight o'clock in the morning, usually, the trucks roll up, and we start going. And it's physical work; it’s pushing and lifting and carrying. It's a pretty tough job. I mean, right now, what is it six o'clock, and the first band just started playing; and we've been here since eight o'clock this morning. We get compensated, there's no question about that; but it becomes a long day, definitely.”

Not even slightly intimidated by that particular week’s calendar, head electrician Tim Wrobel said, “It doesn’t really make a difference. We're here to do the job. We come in, we do the job, and it doesn't matter if it's one, two, three, four. We do what we have to do.”

He should know, having worked at Artpark for 42 years and counting.

Among their many duties, the Wrobels, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 121, oversee onstage activity before and after concerts.

“What makes it work is everybody,” Jack Wrobel said. “You know, we do have new people but, quite often, people move on. People take this as a part-time job, college students from the Niagara University Theatre Department, from the NCCC Theatre Department. And we also work with people from Erie County.

“People pretty much know; they have a feeling what has to be done. You’ve got to work safely, first of all. You’ve got to work efficiently, economically. All that fits into it. But the big thing is keeping an eye out. Just having an awareness of what's going on around you; and jumping in when somebody needs a hand. You know, it takes four guys to pick a piece up, or a road box up, a piece of scenery, whatever it is, and there's three guys on it, and you know that, ‘Oh, they need four guys.’ So, we'll have people that will jump in.

“It's playing on the team. I guess that's what it is. I've been doing this for a long time, and I try and instill in people to pay attention and help out, jump in where you can – it's going to make the day go smoother.

“Having a good attitude, too. We get some road crews in here and, right off the bat, they start (complaining). They might’ve had a bad night in Pittsburgh, or maybe they were 500 miles away. And so, you're always dealing with different personalities at different levels of happiness or unhappiness. But, again, most of the road crews that come through are also professionals.

“We all have the same goal, man. Curtain is at eight o'clock, or six o'clock, whatever it is, and the show has to be up and running. Everybody works towards that goal.”

Jack Wrobel

Production Manager Susan Stimson is responsible for the artists arriving at the Village of Lewiston venue, ensuring performers have what they need to do their job, and making sure those musicians leave with a positive experience.

Rock stars – celebrities, in particular – come with riders (items they “request” to be on hand when they arrive), as well as careful handlers who ensure their headliners are treated like royalty.

Though this could be a daunting task, Stimson and her team of 20-30 workers have backstage down to a science – even when asked to navigate 18-hour days and late-night, post-concert pizza runs.

“No. 1, because we've done it for years, we're all trained and skilled,” Stimson said. “A lot of people have actually gone to school for it, to a degree. So, we're already at a level where we can do things really fast and pivot really fast and be flexible.

“The benefit of this, like any event, is that there are probably five to 10 bullet points that you have that you check off. We do what we call an advance with the tour. We have a phone call, many times a Zoom, and you go through and you look through your questions, they look through their questions. Internet, runners, catering, equipment. Honestly, it's the same template, for the most part, for every single show. So, repetition is really easy. And again, we're already at a level where our skillset is we're trained in it, we've done it.”

Stimson said, “I try to explain to people, like, if you're getting up in the morning and you're at home, in your day, what do you want to make you comfortable and productive and get things done? So, you're creating backstage for the tours, or onstage, a comfortable, safe space, first of all. Hopefully, you're providing all the equipment they asked for; everything works. Your crew is not too grouchy. The tone is everything. How you deliver – being nice goes a long way in this business.

“This business is very, very, very, very, very, very tiny. And so, one guy and one tour will come in, and he'll come in three weeks later on another tour, or they'll come back. I used to have friends who would tell me, like, ‘Well, who cares if you’re mean to them?’ … They come back.

“And also, it's just a pretty good philosophy on my part to be a good person, and it's nice to know that that does really go a long way.

“Sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes you're going to get screamed at no matter what. But, if you have internet, equipment, dressing rooms, food – food, food, food, catering, catering, catering – like, imagine yourself in real life. When you're hungry, you’re a little cranky, right? If you have the basic bullet lists checked off, then whatever fires, whatever other things come up, first of all, you establish that they trust you, because you’ve read their rider; you're providing what they asked for. So, they're trusting you.

“Repeat people are always nice, because they've been here before. They remember me, they remember the venue. They remember things. I remember them. It becomes like family.”

Stimson recalled a story shared with former Artpark & Company President George Osborne.

“When we started 15 years ago … my joke is Peter Frampton taught me,” she said. “We learned by doing it, and we learned hard, and we fell hard, but we got up and we learned right away. And we had a little get-together and said, ‘OK; now these are three solutions. This is how we're going to handle it.’ And now we're at the industry standard of how we do things.”

Volunteers Set the Tone

Leading patrons around the grounds and into their seats is a team of volunteers. These folks are typically the first to welcome patrons into the park.

Coordinator Francine DelMonte explained, “All shows require volunteers to be ambassadors on behalf of Artpark. Each event and venue has its particular needs, but every event requires a ticket so, at some point, every volunteer needs to learn how to scan tickets using our scanners.

“Amphitheater shows are all outdoors, so volunteers scan tickets, usher patrons in the reserved section, assist sponsors and patrons in the skyboxes, sell 50/50 tickets (at certain shows); direct parking; and drive shuttle. Mainstage shows are inside the theater and have similar needs, but require more ushering of patrons to their seats and handing out programs (if provided).

“Our ‘New Music in the Park’ series is held in various locations like the Emerald Grove, Artpark Trails, and Mainstage Theater, so volunteers scan tickets and assist patrons to their seats and/or walk with them. Our popular Strawberry Moon and Fairy House festivals often see volunteers assisting with certain programs and/or crafts in addition to the aforementioned duties.

“In short, I always tell new and veteran volunteers that flexibility is the name of the game, and we are here to make the patron's visit as pleasant as possible.”

That’s not always easy, especially when the number (and commitment level) of volunteers changes each summer.

“The biggest challenge for Artpark, like so many venues, is having enough volunteers sign up for the many events we host over a season,” DelMonte said. “Artpark lost a lot of volunteers after the pandemic, so, as a result, we no longer have the luxury of having volunteers just for Mainstage events and volunteers for amphitheater events.

“Optimally, it would be great if all the volunteers we need for a season signed up in April (when applications and schedule are emailed), but that isn't always the case. People often email me throughout the year expressing interest in volunteering. Some follow through; some don't. We host a volunteer orientation in early-May, outlining the season and expectations. For those volunteers signing up after the season begins, it's a lot of on-the-job training.”

She added, “It is a challenge staffing multiple and diverse events over the course of a week but, thankfully, many volunteers have different interests – some volunteer only for concerts, while others enjoy volunteering for the festivals and ‘New Music in the Park’ events. Many of our volunteers volunteer at Artpark in the summer and other cultural arts organizations in the offseason.

“It's a balancing act, for sure, but somehow it gets done every week. Volunteers are an important cog in the wheel that makes Artpark roll, and all of us at Artpark are very appreciative of their efforts.”

A Place for Families to ‘Connect with Each Other and the Space’

In recent seasons, family programming has grown at Artpark.

“Artpark doesn't stop,” Curator of Family Programs Tanis Winslow said. “The majority of our programming is executed during the summer months; however, we start planning for next season while we are working on the current season. There is much grant writing, reaching out to artists, organizations and performers that we do all year long. We don't stop working in the winter; we get ready to welcome patrons back with new and exciting events and versions of events we do every season.”

That includes fresh approaches to camp, family weekends and special events.

“Art Camp planning typically begins in December,” Winslow said. “I reach out to teaching artists and discuss what workshops they want to engage young artists with. We talk about the professional artist work that they are currently doing and how that might translate to something that would be exciting for a 9- to 14-year-old to create in their own individual way. Once ideas are finalized, I write the descriptions of the workshops so that our wonderful marketing team can promote the program to families.

“Campers have had the opportunity to work directly with professional, Buffalo-based artists Chuck Tingley, Richard Tomasello, Ani Hoover, Fotini Galanes, Matthew Sagurney, Leanne Catanzaro, Hilary McAndrew and Tanya Chutko.”

Winslow said,“ ‘Free Family Saturdays’ takes shape from workshops that I typically design. I choose the themes of each week and use inspiration from artists, workshops I attend, and projects that I see throughout the fall and winter. I also work with our talented team of visual arts and family programs staff to develop certain workshops during the summer season. Ultimately, we try to decide what might be inspiring for families to engage with together.

“In the past, I have reached out to local industry for donations of materials that they might be disposing of. I look for interesting things like ceramic from Buffalo China (when they were in business), paper and odd-shaped packaging materials. There is a lot of driving involved to load up my personal vehicle with supplies and art materials to bring with me to Artpark. Once I drove to Rochester to source some particular, wonderfully shaped and colorful foam material.

“Both of these programs utilize spaces that are winter storage. Wildlife tends to find refuge in these spaces and can create a bit of a mess. Every season, we spend at least a week or two cleaning out these spaces and rebuilding any furniture or support that is needed to make the programming possible. We recover the ceramic tables with canvas, grease the ball bearings on the pottery wheels, move 2,000 pounds of clay, and unpack multiple carloads of art materials.

“We drink a lot of water, bask in the glow of 90-degree weather and, this year, worked around wildfire smoke.”

When it comes to a stretch like mid-July, where multiple activities were converging, Winslow noted, “The people make this all happen. I could not do my job without a talented team of visual arts and family programs staff, the artists, the Artpark administrative staff, stage crew and NYS Parks. We collaborate and help each other.

“Typically, the visual arts and family programs staff divides into groups to run one program while we prep for another. We discuss who will do what, and we work to each other's strengths. Some of the team is talented in painting, some in pottery, some in building, and some in navigating logistic tasks like hanging fabric from trees.

“Our executive team helps strategize, direct and support. NYS Parks helps where ever they can – thank you! Artpark marketing staff promotes and communicates and supports. Development finds the funding and reaches out to organizations for support. Concession and customer experience feeds and hydrates the people, shops for product, and makes sure that the patrons move safely through the event. Production cleans the dressing rooms, fulfills the requirements of performance riders, and brings together equipment. Stage crew builds the more complicated structures and makes sure we can hear the performance. The box office fields hundreds of emails and phone calls. Hospitality welcomes and hosts the artists that travel here. Artists work on conceptual designs long before we are in season, and we work together to figure out how and when it can physically happen.

“Some artists build and created off-site in their own studio space and bring work to Artpark. It is a series of Zoom calls, emails, meetings, phone conversations and images shared. We try to have most of the materials, ideas and plans in place before this type of stretch begins. Some days are more hectic than others. Plans fail, materials fall through, stuff breaks. However, we all work collaboratively without ego to support each other and problem-solve. We lean into discomfort and ideate new ways to do a thing if we need to. It is long hours and sweat and laughter and sometimes stress. We lean on our families. Many of our partners and family members show up throughout the week(s) to help move something, feed us dinner, care for our own kids at home, and keep loving us when we say we are coming home late, again. My dad still shows up with his truck, at 87 years old, to help me move a 4-foot, round bale of hay, benches and signs.

“Ultimately, we just come together and try our best to realize each other's visions. It's a team effort. We couldn't do it without each other.”

What makes it worth it for Winslow is “I want families to connect with each other and the space,” she said. “I want them to create together. I want them to know and experience the same sense of joy and excitement that I found as a child playing with artists and my father when I was young.

“Artpark is where I learned how to think, how to collaborate without ego, how to play, how to make art every day. I have been coming here since I was a baby (she now brings her own children). I think that is a very special thing to create together as a family. I want to provide a space and materials for families to be together and actively make something; to be inspired and find hope.”

Making Connections, Building Inclusion

Though Artpark patrons might not see the work accomplished behind the scenes, the workers responsible for the programming make it a point to see patrons. That is to say, the team actively seeks out occasions for inclusion, vocalization and personal/community growth, and bakes these opportunities into the season schedule.

Artpark Bridges, for example, debuted in 2019 with a goal to direct “site-specific performance and art-making for people living with neurodiversity or progressive disease.”

Director Cynthia Pegado said that, “In my experience, Artpark is a place of community. Opportunity. Discovery. Revelation. Home.”

She said, “I have the honor of facilitating and co-creating meaningful experiences with others in my capacity as Artpark Bridges director and expressive arts leader. I designed the Sensing Resonance series as an embodied, mindful approach to building personal and communal connection with our workshop environment, which includes the nature around us at Artpark and the social context of being with each other. My first artistic language was dance, so I created Sensing Resonance as a movement-based approach to writing poetry that can disclose felt resonances.”

She said, “The mission I have established for Artpark Bridges is helping others grow their own unique sense of ‘my Artpark,’ and cultivate their own languages of expression. A personal sense of belonging at Artpark gave me a ‘home’ to return to, and my hope is to pass this forward through programming that opens diverse entry points and accessible interactions. I devised Sensing Resonance as one portal into a place where dreams, thought, expression and creativity become zero-barrier ambulations.”

Winslow said the North Star for those who work at Artpark is that the site “has been and will be a place where people can feel inspired and delight in the imaginative moments that make us human.”

“When I was a child, my father took me to Artpark every day,” she said. “It was a place of magic; a park situated on the breathtaking Niagara River Gorge where artists came to create with everyday people. Days were filled with face-painting and poetry in the woods, pottery wheels and people on stilts, wandering through crooked houses and setting a thousand balloons off into the sky. Artpark mixed sculpture with fireworks as neon danced across the midnight lawn. It was electric and full of wonder. I loved it here.”

She added, “I’ve been working at Artpark for over 20 years, directing and resurrecting its visual arts and family programming. What I have found is that every artist, patron, board member and sponsor has an Artpark story. We have all made memories here. They are experiences that we cherish and they keep us coming back to create more lasting moments.

“I want to be a part of something that holds that same sense of wonder and electricity. I want to forge new relationships that can bring us to the next generation of wonder-seekers. To see families engaging in creative making and experiences means that Artpark and its sense of creative ideas and playful exploration will live on for generations to come.”

Artpark is located at 450 S. Fourth St., Lewiston; and online at www.artpark.net.

Artpark file photo by K&D Action Photo and Aerial Imaging


See also >> Artpark lives up to billing, with poetry, family programming, children's events, new music & iconic performances


See also >> Summer preview: The comprehensive guide to Artpark & Company's 2023 season

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