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From Bubba to Baryshnikov
After 30 years at Cal Performances, Danny Nilles has seen 'em all - and worked hard to get their shows off the truck, on the stage, and back on the road again

| 26 January 2006


Danny Nilles (Deborah Stalford photo)
 

Danny Nilles never turns the radio on in his truck, rarely seeks out live performances, and hasn't even hooked up the speakers on his home stereo. "I have sensory overload," he shrugs, attibuting his preference for silence to the fact he's worked in theater production for most of his life.

For 30 years Nilles has hung his shingle backstage at Cal Performances, first as an electrician, then as head carpenter starting in 1984. His title is a misnomer: Nilles doesn't pound nails and frame scenery. His role is to assist each visiting artist's crew in putting its production on in Cal Performances' theater.

"My job really starts when the truck backs into the loading dock," explains Nilles, who knows every last nook and nuance of Zellerbach Hall. Nilles is responsible, he says, for "everything that goes on on the stage" until the show starts, when "all power is relinquished to the stage manager who calls the cues."

Well before an artist's arrival, Nilles receives a plot or schematic that details the show's lighting requirements and specifies where the scenery will hang. Mounting big productions, such as Mark Morris's Hard Nut ballet, requires a lot of lifting, coordination, and teamwork. That production includes 25 stagehands and 22 people on wardrobe detail, in addition to numerous dancers and musicians.

"I couldn't do anything without my crew," says Nilles. "They're the people that put in the blood, sweat, and tears - and they do bleed sometimes and they do sweat a lot. Forty-hour weeks are normal, 60-hour weeks are common, and 80-hour weeks are not unheard-of - we do three or four of those a season."

Last week was one of those 80-hour weeks. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company arrived five days before the first of two performances. Nilles and his crew spent the week setting up the production, then struck the stage on Saturday night and finished loading the trucks at 2 a.m. They returned early Sunday morning to load in for the evening's performance of the Brad Mehldau Trio and Bill Frisell Quintet, then packed up the bands' equipment later than night.

"The show is a kind of rest period for us," says Nilles. During the performance, Nilles' crew responds to lighting and scenery cues and handles props. When the performance ends, the heavy lifting resumes. "You know the old saying: 'you have to get the show on the road'. because it's going to L.A., Seattle, or wherever, and they have to load in the next morning."

A lifelong love affair

While large-scale calamities at Cal Performances are rare, Nilles has averted a variety of potentially major glitches. He's seen a bearing in the curtain break and wind currents cause scenery to tear or twist. Once the light board broke while Mikhail Baryshnikov was dancing, and the lights had to be operated manually until the board could be rebooted at intermission.

Some shows, while artistically successful, are fraught with challenges. In 2002, Cal Performances presented the Abbey Theatre's production of Medea starring Fiona Shaw. Nilles and his crew moved 600 cinderblocks into Zellerbach Playhouse - as well as 10 inch-thick plate-glass windows weighing 450 pounds each - that had to be carried into the theater by hand. The final performance of Medea wrapped up on Sunday afternoon. "We were trying to get the show out the door - which is faster than loading," explains Nilles. "I remember seeing the sun come in at 6 the following morning."

The view from the back

Back in the '70s, when Nilles was Cal Performances' electrician, the lights were operated manually from the back of the theater. Since the advent of computers, lighting cues are executed with the push of a button.

"I got to watch all these shows from the front in the way they're supposed to be seen," he says wistfully of his days helming the lights. Whether from the front or his current vantage point from the side of the stage, Nilles says, he has seen "every top performer in the world: Oscar Peterson, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Marcel Marceau, the Gyuto Monks of Tibet, Keith Jarrett, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Russian National Orchestra, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra with Kent Nagano." Nilles saw Judith Jamison's entire career arc - first as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, back when Ailey was alive, and now as the director of the legendary company.

The view from backstage is decidedly different. Nilles has watched prima ballerinas in their toe shoes make their stage entrances "smiling and looking beautiful." When they come offstage, "they go flat-footed, their bodies drop, and you can almost see the tears in their eyes," says Nilles, who explains that the ballerinas' sheer physical effort forces some of them to take hits off an oxygen tank kept backstage. "I really feel a lot for them," he says. "They're putting everything into their performances."

One of Nilles' favorite memories came at the end of an onstage conversation between Timothy Leary, the '60s psychopharmacological and counterculture revolutionary, and G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who helped plan the Watergate break-in. When the two men finished their conversation, Liddy turned to the audience and asked if there were any questions. When no one responded, he opened his jacket and told them, by way of encouragement, "I'm unarmed."

Occasionally the elements conspire against the performers - even indoors. During a performance by the Julliard String Quartet, the auditorium was hot and the air was stuffy. The group began its first piece, while a woman sitting dead-center in the front row fanned herself with a program. After they finished the piece, the quartet came offstage and told Nilles "they couldn't go back and play unless she stopped fanning herself or unless she fanned herself in time with the music." One of the crew informed the woman of the performers' request, and she duly put her program away, "somewhat embarrassed."

Fortunately for Nilles, he doesn't get starstruck. He sees the artists and dignitaries who grace Cal Performances' stage as "just regular people doing their thing." One such regular guy, former President Bill Clinton, gave a talk on globalization to a packed Zellerbach Hall in January 2002, then obliged the stage crew's request that he sign the wall in Nilles' office.

Between rehearsals and the real deal, the head carpenter has seen approximately 6,000 performances in his three decades at Berkeley. The thrill isn't gone: Nilles still has "wow moments" every time the curtain goes up.
"I feel very lucky that I get paid to see and be a part of what other people pay their hard-earned money to enjoy," he says. "I'm entertained every day."