Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
sept_2008v2011006.jpg sept_2008v2011005.jpg sept_2008v2011004.jpg sept_2008v2011003.jpg sept_2008v2011002.jpg


The Magazine of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences



Backstage at Wolf Trop

From the Wings at America=s First Performing Arts Park


By Lynne F. McGee


      A cool summer breeze blows through the open-sided theater in the woods and stirs the audience of Washingtonians and tourists, some dressed up, others in shorts and T-shirts. The houselights dim.  On the lawn, under the stars, families have finished their picnic dinners and sit quietly on blankets. A spotlight illuminates the stage.  The eager audience breaks into applause, and another performance at Wolf Trap Farm Park begins.

     But this is not a midsummer night in Vienna, Virginia; it is a winter evening in a living room anywhere in the United States, and television viewers are being transported to a performance that was recorded live in the country’s only national park for the performing arts.  On Stage at Wolf Trap brings the diversity of Wolf Trap to millions of Americans who cannot visit the park located sixteen miles from Washington, D.C.

      Carol V. Harford, president of the Wolf Trap Foundation, says “The purpose of the park is to make it possible for anyone who is interested in seeing good live performing arts to come and enjoy that presentation in the beauty and naturalness of the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We had long thought that [television] wold be a superb way to develop further the congressional mandate to make Wolf Trap a park for all people.”

     On Stage, in its second season, is a series of one-hour specials broadcast in stereo on PBS.  It features such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, the New England Ragtime Ensemble, the National Symphony Orchestra, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell.  Last June the Wolf Trap Foundation and Maryland Public Television (MPT), with the underwriting by the Electronic Industries Association, produced Wolf Trap Presents the Kirov: Swan Lake, a two-and-a-half hour special that won an Emmy for the outstanding classical program in the performing arts.

      On Stage is a collaboration between the nonprofit Wolf Trap Foundation (which arranges all of Wolf Trap’s performances and educational programs), the U. S. National Park Service (which runs the park), and MPT (which produces the series and is underwritten by Martin Marietta Corporation).

      Wolf Trap Farm Park, which showcases a wide variety of talented artists in pop, classical, country, jazz, ragtime, and more – some widely know, others not – is the fulfillment of a goal that Catherine Filene Shouse, founder of Wolf Trap, has been working toward for many of her ninety years.

      In 1966, Shouse donated to the U.S. Government one hundred acres of her Virginia farm for a performing arts center.  Her gift, which included buildings and funds for the construction of a sixty-five-hundred-seat outdoor theater, was accepted by an act of Congress, and in 1971, the Filene Center opened.  Ten years later Shouse also donated the land and funds for a year-round performing arts center, the Barns, where some On Stage programs have been taped.

     In sixteen seasons Wolf Trop has presented 33,477 artists in 1,283 performances, which include 162 operas, 213 dances, 203 symphonies, 51 recitals, 154 musicals, 83 jazz concerts, 33 country concerts, 228 pop concerts, and 156 specials.

     The Filene Center was designed in the late 1960's with television production in mind.  From 1974 to 1977 Washington, D.C.-based WETA produced In Performances at Wolf Trap with a grant from Atlantic Richfield.  The PBS series included fifteen programs of pop and other nonclassical music, opera, and dance and was hosted by Beverly Sills, a member of the Wolf Trap Foundation Board of Directors since 1973, and David Prowitt, executive producer of the series.

      Each In Performance had an average audience of 1.7 million households.  In one week during the summer of 1978, WETA produced five Live from Wolf Trap shows – underwritten by WETA, PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Allied Chemical – that reached an average of 2.9 million households.  In 1979-80 WETA broadcast a few additional Wolf Trap specials.

      After a fire completely destroyed the File Center on April 4, 1982, television, which had brought Wolf Trap to the public, proceeded to bring the public to Wolf Trap.  The U.S. Government pledged $9 million to help rebuild the theater, but $11 million more had to be raised from individuals and businesses.

            The television series that preceded the fire, Harford claims, were instrumental in the incredibly successful fund-raising effort.  She says, “One of the thrills ... was that gifts came from all fifty states, seven foreign countries, and two U.S. territories.  A great number of those contributions were from people who knew Wolf Trap only through television.”

            Even the catastrophic fire was not able to shut Wolf Trap down.  Contributions poured in as Shouse, who has spent a lifetime’s savings to build the original Filene Center, and many friends of Wolf Trap worked frantically.  In early June, less than two months after the fire, a temporary structure was purchased by Wolf Trap, and on June 15, the 1982 season opened.  In January 1983 construction began on the new Filene Center, and on July 30, 1984, it opened.

            The Filene Center, with its rolling lawn for picnics, and the smaller Barns provided a relaxed, friendly atmosphere for the interaction of artist and audience.  Spectators swing and sway, sometimes singing along and dancing in the aisles.  On Stage tries to capture this rapport between audience and artist.

            On Stage director Phillip Byrd uses visual images to draw attention to the music.  Byrd, a freelance producer-director who is also a trained musician, says, “The best thing you can do is use the picture on the screen and the viewers’ eyes to open up their ears and cause them to hear things they would not have heard otherwise.  The pictures don’t call attention to themselves; they call attention to what you’re hearing. If you do it right, the pictures come off not as a string of visual effects but as part of the music.

           Byrd, president of Brandenburg Productions in new York, approaches each performance like a conductor.  “I like to look at the discipline of making a television program much as we look at the discipline of making music,” he says.  “A conductor stands in front of an orchestra and waves the stick, but he has given a great deal of thought to what he wants the music to sound like. The people at whom he is waving the stick must give him all their attention, but they do different things.  The violinists are making music just like the trombone players, but they’re reading stuff that looks different on the page, and they have gotten to that point of making the music by studying different things.

            “It’s the same kind of thing in a television production.  The cameraman, the engineers, the switchers, the shaders, the grips, and the stagehands – they’re all playing the same piece of music, applying a slightly different discipline to it, but generating one finished product.  My role as director is like the role of the conductor.  It’s me and my seven-camera orchestra.”

           To prepare, Byrd first looks at the score.  When possible, he watches the artist live and listens to videotapes and audiotapes. “I wind up preparing a shooting script for the cameramen and the technical director,” Byrd says.  “When it’s possible, every cameraman has in front of him a shooting script laid out shot by shot.  I plan the shooting up front so that it becomes editable at the back end, which means occasionally recording multiple shots on different videotapes at the same time.”

           Byrd believes his background in music – a minor in college and a stint playing trombone in the U.S. Army Band – is essential. He says, “It’s probably more important to think of me as a musician first, because I try to make the picture as musical as possible. The music background is more important than the television background.  It’s a whole lot tougher to teach a television person how to play an instrument than it is to teach someone trained in music how television works.”

           Byrd finds something to enhance each performance.  Sometimes it is introductions and asides by hosts like Beverly Sills. Sometimes performers provide insights.  On Rostropovich Conducts Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich, who was exiled from the Soviet Union, described his thirty-year friendship with Russian composer Maxim Shostakovich. 

           Lon Tuck wrote in the Washington Post in September 1985, “The most gripping of many powerful moments on tonight’s broadcast of the epic Shostakovich Fifth Symphony from Wolf Trap comes not in the performance – fine as it is – but in an interview with conductor Mstislav Rostropovich ... [Rostropovich says], ‘Galina [his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya] and I had to break it to Shostakovich that we were going to the West for two years – that was the original plan.  We were weeping as we explained to him that we were no longer able to work as artists in the Soviet Union and that another reason we wanted to go to the West was so we could make his works known in the entire world.  His parting words were, “Whose arms shall I die in now?”  We left the Soviet Union on May 26, 1974, Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975.”

            While On Stage uses state-of-the-art equipment, Byrd avoids gimmicks that might interfere with the music.  When Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by guitarist Joe Pass, sang “I’m just a Lucky So-and-So,” Byrd stayed on a tight three-quarter shot of the two artists.  “For five minutes we sat on that one shot,” Byrd says.  “There was no reason to cut.  Any change in the picture would have been an intrusion. Sometimes I think the best thing I ever did was that one shot. It was the decision not to do anything.  There was something musically significant happening between the two people.”

            The two-and-a-half minute overture sequence of Wolf Trap Presents the Kirov: Swan Lake, demonstrated Byrd’s ability to capture the essence of a performance. He says, “I wanted nothing that was unrelated to the dance and the performance, and I didn’t want to do any voice-over.  I felt the music should be without corruption.”

            As the overture begins, titles in Russian and English appear over aerial views of the theater in the woods and its crowded lawn and full parking lot. Next, the camera comes closer and peeks into the packed house, then moves inside toward the closed curtain. As Tchaikovsky’s music builds, the viewer is taken behind the curtain to see the anxious dancers stretching and pacing about.  When a stage director points, two men quickly pull the curtain rope, the audience breaks into applause, and the dancers begin the ballet.

           Through Byrd’s vision and Tchaikovsky’s overture, the television viewer feels the excitement of the audience and the tension of the dancers and shares in that magic when the curtain goes up.  Byrd says, “Everything we did bore a relationship to what the audience was about to see.  It made sense; it wasn’t artificial.”

            With its diversity, On Stage sometimes presents artists who excel in their fields and have a small, devoted following but who have not yet received national attention.  Michael Dougan, writing in the San Francisco Examiner in September 1985, described how twenty years earlier he had stumbled into Preservation Hall in New Orleans and “discovered” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

           Dougan wrote, “They are my Prince and my Springsteen, the only act I would stand in line to see.  But telling the uninitiated about this astonishing group has always proven difficult: ‘A bunch of ancient men playing outdated music, hmm?  Sounds swell, Mike.  We’d love to go with you, but we have to wash the cat that night.’  In part that’s because the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has never had substantial television exposure.  Tonight PBS stakes a step [with On Stage at Wolf Trap] to correct that problem.”

            The King’s Singers, an English sextet who sing close harmony a capella, appeared in a special Barns performances that was taped before an invited audience.  Most of the audience had never heard of the group that is well known in Europe and has appeared in Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center.  One young man joked, “I thought it was the King Family.”  The show was a memorable mix of humor, harmony, and beautiful music that included medieval madrigals, folk music, and pop.  The uninitiated audience was delighted to discover not only a new group but a style of music unlike anything it had ever heard.

            Producers hope that the series – like Wolf Trap itself – will attract viewers with its reputation.  Thomas Gherardi, television counselor for the Wolf Trap Foundation, says, “One objective of the series is that every program be so good that the person who watches the King’s Singers today – [already] knowing about the King’s Singers – will watch our Preservation Hall or our opera because he or she is accustomed to identifying Wolf Trap with quality performers that ought to be seen.”

            Harford agrees.  “I’m hoping the same philosophy will apply to television that applies here.  We find that people often just decide to come to Wolf trap.  They don’t really come for a particular show, but if they have a free evening, they’ll come here because they know that whatever they come to [see] will be good.  I’m hoping there will be a transference [of that attitude] to the television audience.”

            Because of the need to cater to both the television viewers and those seeing the performance live, the lighting of the shows is critical.  “Lighting the audience is a stickler,” says John Potthast, MPT producer for the 1986-87 series.  “Audiences don’t like it, yet if you don’t shoot the audience, you might as well record these people in a sound stage.  You must reach a compromise.  We have audience lights on only during applause.” Potthast also notes that performers frequently enjoy being able to see the audience.

           Lighting can also be a problem between artist and television producers.  The artistic director and members of the Kirov Ballet, Potthast says, “were very concerned about lighting.  The majority of Swan Lake happens at night.  The stage was very dark, and they were concerned it would be overlit [with] television [lighting].  But we had to increase the light.  We had to achieve a balance between what they considered overlit [and what was] enough light for us to tape.”  While some scenes appeared rather dark on television, Byrd says they were an accurate representation of what the live audience saw and what the Kirov intended.

           While one might guess that the technical facilities in an outdoor theater in the woods wold be rustic, Byrd describes Wolf Trap as TV-friendly.  “Television was given good consideration in the original center,” Harford says, but “we learned in those eleven seasons in the original center improvements that we would like to make, though we didn’t expect to have the opportunity.  When we did [because of the postfire rebuilding], we wanted to make the most of it.  That’s why the booths in the orchestra section are where they are.  One of them is a broadcast booth; another is a lighting booth.

           On Stage brings the nation’s only national park for the performing arts, with its wide array of programs, to millions; between 2.25 million and 2.5 million households see each first release, compared with the 7,500 who can attend each Filene performance and the 350 in the Barns.

            Gherardi says, “The ingredients that make good television at Wolf Trap are the artists and their feelings about performing at Wolf Trap and the director and the production staff. What the viewer sees is a product of two artists: the performing artist and the director, Phil Byrd.”




© 1987 by Lynne F. McGee