Sunrise to Sunset: Putting on a Show

Backstage at the Filene Center. Photo credit: Ryan Haderlie
May 23, 2019

Each summer, Wolf Trap plays host to hundreds of thousands of visitors who are excited to share a night of outstanding entertainment with friends and family. But, what does it take to make these phenomenal performances happen? Take a behind-the-scenes look at a typical day of preparation at the Park.

Backstage at the Filene Center
Wolf Trap’s crew starts building the stage for the night’s performance.

6 AM

Before dawn, and even the night before, crews from the National Park Service (NPS) and Wolf Trap Foundation work hard to prepare for an excellent show day by prepping the Filene Center’s dressing rooms and backstage areas, mopping the stage, and cleaning the seats and lawn.

Just after the sun begins to rise, the National Park opens to the public and rangers are ready to greet the day’s visitors. While hundreds of parents and young children venture through the Meadow and over the bridge to Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods, Wolf Trap’s dedicated team has already been busy loading in production equipment and sets for the night’s performance. According to Ryan Haderlie, Wolf Trap’s Assistant  Director of Concert Production and Operations, a typical rock ’n’ roll show day starts with emptying an artist’s tour trucks, unloading cases, and “building the stage from headliner to opener.”

Stagehands then begin building the show by putting together truss units that hold the artist’s lights and hanging production elements. After securing the trussing to a walk-over grid 104 feet above the stage, the load-in process continues with an electrics crew and carpenters who set up motors, platforms, monitors, video walls, and special lights. Although most of this work goes unseen by audiences, Haderlie explains,“It takes an army to put one person on stage each night.” On any given day, Wolf Trap’s house crew contains 14 regular staff members, with 200 years of combined experience, plus up to 60 extra stagehands.

Wolfie and Ranger
Rangers welcome new visitors and patrons to the Park every day.

12 PM

Around mid-day, Wolf Trap staff draw a new design on the Park’s giant chalkboard. Patrons are often excited to see what the day’s design will be—and eager to add their own touches!

In the early afternoon, the Park comes to life when artists are welcomed to the Filene Center and the backstage crew returns for a soundcheck or rehearsal. For debut artists, this is often the first time they’ve had a chance to see the Filene Center in person. On pop or rock show days, a typical soundcheck can last anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. This is the artist’s time to make sure everything is ready for their performance. Occasionally artists use this as a chance to rehearse new material, especially if Wolf Trap is an early stop on a long tour.

Also in the afternoon, many artists and visitors take advantage of the winding trails through the woods. If you’re lucky, you might spot a musician taking a quick break after soundcheck. Returning summer 2019 artist Chris Thile of Live from Here has enjoyed Wolf Trap’s trails for years sharing, “Another thing I really look forward to is, maybe just maybe, getting a run in on those trails back there in the woods before the show.” Between 2 PM and 5 PM, the House Manager, head ushers, and additional rangers arrive to inspect the Filene Center, set up parking, and make sure everything is ready for patrons. According to House Manager Sam Swersky, head ushers often use this time to research the night’s performance, finalize seating needs, and gather information on pre-performance talks or activities.

Lawn rush
Patrons race during the lawn rush to find the perfect picnic spot.

5 PM

As the day progresses, the Filene Center becomes a flurry of activity. Wolf Trap staff open up the Box Office, prep food at Concessions, and set up the Gift Shop and artist merchandise. Both paid and volunteer ushers arrive for a pre-show briefing, while rangers assist with patron parking, visitor security, and getting the lawn ready for guests. On any given night, around 30-35 paid ushers and a loyal team of 80-95 volunteers work to ensure an excellent evening. As Swersky notes, “We do our best to make sure thousands of theater-goers each night have a safe and enjoyable experience.”

On the west side of the Park, the Encore Circle Lounge begins to buzz with excitement from Wolf Trap members and, next door, OVATIONS by America Eats opens with bustling servers and patrons dining on Chef José Andrés’ scrumptious take on American classics.

On popular sold-out show days, it’s not unusual to see a line starting to form early at the main gate with fans eagerly waiting for one of the evening’s well-known and beloved traditions— the lawn rush. For ushers, a highlight of working every night is counting down 3…2…1…GO and watching generations of fans dash to the lawn to find the perfect spot to spread a blanket.

While audiences enjoy life on the lawn, artists start to warm-up and prepare for the show. Last summer HANSON warmed-up by taking full advantage of the pianos backstage to rehearse a few new songs before performing with the NSO.

Hanson backstage
2018 summer artist HANSON rehearses new songs backstage. Photo credit: HANSON.

8 PM

Just as the sun starts to set, the Filene Center house lights dim, a hush comes over the crowd smiling in anticipation, and the artists are ready to rock. For Haderlie, his crew, and the hundreds of staff and volunteers, the best moment of the night happens once the lights come up, the artist takes the stage, and the crowd starts to cheer. Swersky shares the sentiment and appreciates “the moment when the artist has truly touched the hearts of the audience.”

It takes a village of artists, volunteers, staff, stagehands, rangers, ushers, and even you, a great audience, to create an exceptional evening out at Wolf Trap. Every role is required when it comes to putting on a show.

Photo credit (top photo): Ryan Haderlie