“The Event” or The Most Humbling 36 Hours I’ve Spent in a Theatre

My job as the artistic director of the festival, at its most basic function, is to run around putting out fires (the irony of that metaphor will become apparant shortly). During any given summer day, five to ten emergencies of varying levels of urgency pop up, ranging from foul weather to sick actors. Occasionally, something really big comes along, such as the set of Henry IV being blown away by a tornado or my leading tenor being hospitalized for kidney stones. For the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to the constant stream of challenges and there’s not much that really ruffles my feathers. In fact, I enjoy meeting each challenge with a team of talented creatives. It’s exhilerating.

One of our ongoing challenges for the past couple years has been to find a way to replace our 50 year old, leaky roof. And now that we have a plan in place to raise the funds necessary to do the fixes, we decided to replace the section of the roof over the theatre before the summer and the rest of the roof in the fall. So, on a hot, 90-something degree day in the middle of reliable drought, we tore the roof off the Grace Theatre. And of course, as Murphy’s Law would dictate, the one and only rainstorm to hit Princeton in at least 2 months came tearing through town that night and dropped a few hundred gallons of water onto the festival stage, where our production of The Marvelous Wonderettes had a finished set, and opening night was less than a week away.

When the rain started, I was in rehearsal in the basement of the Prouty building and one of the festival’s costume designers came running over to gently tell us “The theatre is flooding.” Now, when someone tells you that, you tend to assume that there at least a little hyperbole involved. But when three more people came into the rehearsal room in the next few minutes to insist that “No, really, Dexter…the theatre is flooding!”, I started to get very, very scared, left the rehearsal and hurried over to the Grace.

Sunday, 7am (10 hours after the storm)

If there is a sight that no theatre producer should ever have to see, it’s the sight of a torrential downpour in the sacred space of your artistic home. Soggy ceiling tiles, insulation, water… all crashing down onto the beautiful, lovingly-built set of Wonderettes, making the gym floor warp and splinter. Every container that could hold water in the building was enlisted to catch the…pardon the term…tempest.

Luckily, I have a staff and crew who are not only prescient, but completely on their game. They acted quickly to save tens of thousands of dollars of lighting and sound equipment, pianos and theatre seats by either moving them into the covered portion of the building or covering items with tarps. But as the storm died away in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 17th, one certainly remained. We were in deep trouble.

The first and most pressing problem was the hundreds of people who held tickets to a show that needed to start technical rehearsals in 2 days for an opening in 5 days, on what was currently a mountain of watery mush.

The second, and more insidious problem was the clear danger of what the water damage might continue to do to our building if we didn’t get it out immediately.

What followed was the most amazing act of unity and teamwork that I’ve ever seen in all my years in the theatre.

Yes, that’s daylight.

I called a meeting of the staff and crew together at 7am on Sunday morning, about 10 hours after the water had started pouring onto the stage. We crafted a plan for that day, not knowing where we might end up but willing to give it a try. We moved the rehearsal for the cast of Wonderettes to the Prouty building for the day, refusing to let the girls see the huge amount of damage that had been done to their set, and we set to work with shovels and mops.

Throughout that entire day,  the water continued to drip on us and about once every hour another heavy chunk of ceiling would cave in. But we just kept shoveling. When the acting company arrived to start the day’s rehearsal, I sat down with them to tell them what was happening. They asked if there was anything they could do, and I told them that if they wanted to help, we would welcome their hands that night after rehearsal.

At 10pm, every single member of the acting company showed up at the theatre, grabbed a broom, a shovel, a sponge or a mop and worked alongside every single member of the staff and crew to clean up the theatre, remove damaged, wet tiles and insulation from the ceiling and start the process of rebuilding the Wonderettes set.


15 hours into the cleanup process, the entire faux-gym floor of the Wonderettes set had been torn up, wiped down, dried out and reinstalled. Several thousand pounds of wet insulation and ceiling material had been removed from the building and replacement ceiling material had been painted and was ready for installation.

Throughout the first day, I was on the phone with just about everyone, trying to find out everything I could about what I was facing. A patron recommended that I contact Dan Ziegler of Ziegler and Sons to see if he might be willing to let us use his industrial blowers and dehumidifiers to dry out the building. That was probably the single smartest phone call I could have made. Within three hours, Mr. Ziegler showed up with a truckload of water abatement equipment and removed over 100 gallons of water from the building overnight. During a moment when we were at our most vulnerable, Dan Ziegler didn’t hesistate to come to our aid. I will never be able to repay his generosity.

By Monday morning, we were facing a far different story. We had a clean-ish stage, we were on our way to being dry, the debris had been cleared and the new roof had been laid, protecting us from further damage. Over the course of the day, we patched the holes in the theatre ceiling, rehung our lighting instruments and tested them to make sure everything was still functional and allowed Dan Zeigler’s equipment to take another huge step towards drying our the building. The Grace as starting to look less like a war zone and more like a theatre again.

Tuesday, 1pm (36 hours after the storm)

By the third day, Tuesday the 19th, the moisture levels in the theatre had come down out of the danger zone and we spent the morning mopping and scrubbing the floors and walls, removing all the remaining marks of what we were now calling “The Event.” At 1pm, 36 hours after the damage had been done, the cast of the Wonderettes walked back onto their stage for their scheduled technical rehearsal, without ever having to witness the devastation.

No one can quite believe what we did what we did. The roofers who walked into the building the morning after the storm came back a couple days later to see how things were coming along. Their jaws hit the floor. Dan Zeigler kept marveling at how fast the crew was working.

Personally, I’ve never seen a group of near-strangers, who’d only known each other for a week or so, work so hard to give their fellow company members such a precious gift: The Marvelous Wonderettes never had to fear for their show. We, all of us, had their backs, no matter what the cost.

With everything that I have, I want to say thank you to the cast and crew of the Festival 56 2012 season, who, in every way, and in this way specifically, make the festival possible.


About festival56drama

Dexter Brigham is the Artistic Director of Festival 56, Illinois' largest summer theatre festival, located in Princeton, IL. Founded in 2004 by arts supporters in the community working with a group of theatre artists from New York City, Festival 56 now offers 10 mainstage productions each season in three venues. Our programming ranges from free outdoor Shakespeare in the park and productions like Ibsen's A Doll's House, Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie or Moises Kauffman's The Laramie Project to world premier productions of new musicals like Absolutely Anything (a musical adaptation of The Rivals) and familiar classics from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein and many others. Visit festival56.com for information about the current season!
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