Bringing Disney magic to the stage is no small feat, especially when you’ve also got to move the magic thousands of miles, from theater to theater, state to state and country to country.
Cue Ben Heller.
He’s the technical supervisor for the North American touring production of Disney’s “Frozen,” which opens at Proctors on Nov. 10.
As one might imagine, Heller has been pretty busy lately. He and a team of lighting, animation and set designers have been working in Schenectady since Sept. 30 to set the stage for the entire touring production.
The set designs of Broadway shows are typically complex, but “Frozen” takes things to a new level with a flurry of lighting special effects, as well as animations and stunning set pieces.
As the title implies, there’s also lots snow and ice.
“Frozen” follows sisters Anna and Elsa, who live in Arendelle. Elsa, who is destined to be the queen of Arendell, can conjure snow and ice. She discovers early on just how dangerous her ability can be when her suppressed magic covers the city in an eternal winter.
Anna has to team with Kristoff and a snowman named Olaf to find her sister and stop the eternal winter.
Christopher Oram brought the story line to the Broadway stage with the set and costumes, raising ice spikes through the floor, dropping snow from above and coating nearly every scene and set piece with it. The frigid set echoes the sparkling landscape of a Norway winter.
For the touring production, everything has to essentially look and feel the same as in the Broadway show. But the equipment must be nimble — easy to move and pack up.
“The biggest challenge scenically is, I’ve worked with Christopher Oram for over a decade and he likes thick scenery. And the first thing you don’t want to have on a tour is lots of thick scenery,” Heller said. “We had to put the show on a weight-loss regimen.”
Instead of removing set pieces, they tried using different materials and mediums. They also utilize video effects, via projectors and a large back-wall video screen (which is equivalent to the largest HD TV one has probably ever seen).
“The biggest difference when you take a tour out on the road for a show of this size is that you can’t go through the stage floor. In New York, we have a drum table with a bunch of ice spikes that come out. We now have to do that number, which is ‘Monster,’ [through] a series of ice spikes that travel on [tracks],” Heller said.
The ice spikes, made of polycarbonate, are covered in sequins and glitter in some places, and left clear in others.
“They’re all controlled wirelessly, and they all have several lights in each of them that can zoom up and down and change color,” Heller said.
During Act II, on both sides of the stage, there are what Heller refers to as “ice legs,” essentially set pieces that look like giant glaciers. They contain millions of LED lights that can make them glisten, mimicking actual ice. Swarovski crystals are also used in the snow to create the snow effect, some of which can be seen on Elsa’s dress.
Beyond the ice, there’s a mountain or two of snow.
“There’s analog snow, which is fire-retardant batting, like the stuff inside your sofa. In front of it, you have digital snow. A lot of what we’re doing here is [layering] different ways of understanding ice and snow, using all the tools in the tool kit,” Heller said. “It all ties together beautifully.”
Framing the set is a large ornate proscenium that’s not quite as is seems. It looks like it’s made of heavy carved wood and would probably weigh thousands of pounds. But the effect is made using a flocked fiberglass finish.
“This is the only show that’s ever done [this]. This is something we demo-ed for a year and a half leading up to Broadway. It’s pretty cool. It’s as close to clear as you can get with fiberglass to remain fire retardant, and then covered in this flocking to look like wood,” Heller said.
It’s an impressive piece that sets the tone for the rest of the set, including the ornamental ice bridge, the sweeping ice palace and the European-inspired town of Arendelle.
While the cast spent most of the past few weeks rehearsing in studio spaces in New York City, the crew has been setting up everything at Proctors, allowing them to map out how they’ll bring the snow-filled Broadway show on the road.
This isn’t the first time the theater has worked as a set-up venue for a tour. Heller helped bring the touring version of “Anastasia” to life at Proctors last year as well.
One of the reasons Proctors is a great launching spot, from Heller’s perspective, is its location. “For me personally … the fact that we are near the same resources we have on Broadway. [That] we’re a truck ride away and not an air freight or days by vehicle is a great thing,” Heller said.
Most of the larger set pieces were created by PRG Scenic Technologies in Windsor, New York. Others were built in Calgary, Canada. Thus shipping isn’t as much of a problem as it is in other areas.
The size of the theater also makes it a good place to start. “The worst experiences I’ve had on tour is when you tour in a humongous house, you think you’ve figured everything out and then you jump to a tiny East Coast theater and nothing works because you have half the space,” Heller said.
Starting at Proctors gives the cast and crew a good idea of just how much space they’ll have in an average theater.
Throughout the tour, which is booked out for two years, the set will travel from city to city in more than 16 trucks (Heller was still working out the exact number when The Gazette interviewed him). The load-in time in each city will be over 24 hours and load-out time will be around 10, though it will be longer coming out of Proctors because it’s the first time the crew will have packed up everything.
For now, the crew and cast (who recently arrived in Schenectady) are focused on bringing the wintry story to life onstage, using Disney magic and more than a few clever special effects. “Frozen” opens at Proctors on Sunday, Nov. 10, and will run through Sunday, Nov. 24. For tickets and more information, visit proctors.org.