By Sarah Moon
Those of us who work in theatre often say that our co-workers are like a family. For Melissa Nelson, Chris Nelson, and Sam Beschta (née Nelson), their co-workers really are family. Collectively, these siblings from Bethlehem, Connecticut, have worked behind the scenes on upwards of 475 stage productions. At Hartford Stage, since 2008, they have worked together on 23 productions.
Each sibling has different favorite aspects of the work they do. Mel, for example, loves load-in – the week when the set that’s been built in the shop is installed on the stage. “There’s a certain day during load-in,” she says, “the up-day -- the day all the walls and curtains go up, when it really takes shape, and it all looks good.”
For Chris, it’s the process of building itself that provides the most satisfaction. “Building is my passion. I’m a lot of a perfectionist. There are a lot of hard projects that you’re given. Once the show is running, I like seeing what my projects are being used for.”
Sam really enjoys automation projects. “The automation challenges we’re presented with recently have been really excellent,” she says. She cites the Bombay door and elevator built last year for Water by the Spoonful, which went on to win the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. “Test-fitting [the doors] for the first time was awesome, seeing that they actually rocked up into their position was hugely rewarding.”
Sam has also developed a way to make tedious tasks more interesting by setting up a challenge for herself. “We don’t often have a lot of time to complete things, so if I’m building stud walls, or platforms, it’s getting as many done as possible in the time allotted.”
While most of a set is dismantled and all the pieces that can be recycled are (Hartford Stage has a few devoted dumpster divers that salvage discarded iron, plywood and 2x4’s), pieces like the elevator and Bombay doors from Water by the Spoonful that could be used in future shows are kept in stock. “It’s a point of pride,” says Chris, “having one of your projects stay in stock.” And getting into re-used stock makes a set build a lot easier. Right now, for example, the shop has one 8-foot, one 16-foot and one 28-foot turntable (a large, circular insert in the stage floor that is automated to rotate at different speeds). If a set designer calls for a 17-foot turntable, office staff would negotiate with the designer to see if he or she is willing to use the turntable already in stock.
Sam, Mel and Chris all say the time crunch of the build period is the greatest challenge of the job. “When you’re in a time crunch, and the deadline can’t change, you start working later and later, and everyone starts getting stressed and a little cranky,” says Chris. Sometimes, a build can still be going on during load-in, meaning not all hands are on deck for the heavy labor of putting up the set in the theater.
But no matter how crunched, the set always goes up, and those who made it get the satisfaction of seeing the finished product put to use in front of an audience.
Each sibling came to scene construction by a different path. Sam started as a vocal performance major at Radford University in Virginia. She became interested in building sets when she went out on stage one day to rehearse and saw a crew hard at work building the set for Scapino!. Mel went to school at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, where she received her BA in Design and Technology. Chris attended State University of New York-Delhi, where he studied carpentry and building trades and received licensing in residential construction.
Sam began working at Hartford Stage as an overhire, an employee hired by a theatre on a show to show or seasonal basis, in 2004 and became Master Carpenter in 2010. Mel, while also working at Yale Rep and Long Wharf, has worked at Hartford Stage on 68 shows since 2004, in the scene shop, in props and as run crew. After college, Chris was working in housing construction and had his own company. When the housing market started to slow in 2008, he was invited to work as an overhire for Hartford Stage’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2012, he was hired for a full-time position as Staff Carpenter.
When asked about their favorite set, Sam, Mel and Chris all name the set for last year’s The Whipping Man, a “bombed-out” mansion in Southern Appalachia. Mel calls it “one of the most visually stimulating shows.” Next, they mention Water by the Spoonful for its automation which included a couch on a platform that could flip 180 degrees using a hydraulic effect. This season’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was cited for its paint job, 2010’s Gee’s Bend for its “river” and 2008’s The Bluest Eye for its rain effect.
Right now, for Abundance, Sam is building a light bulb drop rig and Chris is building the ground row, a set piece designed to look like something interesting, like the horizon line, or a row of bushes, while masking the lighting instruments that are hiding behind it. They’ll also be building a star drop with imbedded fiber optic lights to produce the effect of a night sky on the Western range.
Change is inevitable, and the future may lead these three siblings in different directions. Mel is hoping for an eventual move to California, where she says she would “love to do what we do, but work in movies.” Chris says that he wants to continue building, but that he “loves working outside,” and hopes to eventually return to residential construction, though he would be doing so with an expanded skill set. The most imminent change is the one in store for Sam – an expansion to the family. Married to Assistant Technical Director Mike Beschta, the two are expecting a baby in August.
To get a feel for the set load-in process, view this time-lapse video of the load-in for 2009’s Noises Off.