NICEVILLE — Crestview High School graduate Josh Long gets several dozen people's immediate attention when he calls out, "Pipe coming in!"
Long and Crestview resident Mike Patenaud can lower some often hefty equipment on the heads of unwary fellow stagehands at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center.
"When you hear 'pipe coming in,' that's the most dangerous time to be on the stage," Northwest Florida State College theatre professor, actor, director and set designer Clint Mahle says.
Long, Patenaud and the rest of a combined student, local professional and traveling stagehand crew spent the morning of Nov. 12 loading in "The Addams Family," the most recent touring Broadway musical to play the venue.
Few audience members are aware that the choreographed performances they see in the theatre are preceded by a similarly choreographed and professional pre-show flurry of activity.
At 7:30 a.m., student and local professional stagehands gather for a load-in briefing, dividing into carpentry, electrical, costume and sound teams.
A half-hour later, the teams begin unloading tractor-trailers that arrived in the wee hours. For "The Addams Family," equipment, props, costumes and scenery traveled 500 miles from Shreveport, La., the night before.
By 10 a.m., the four trailers are empty, their contents distributed around the stage, in the wings, in dressing rooms or zooming up into the fly-space above the stage.
Long — one of Mahle's students before he graduated from NWFSC and went to the University of Tampa to study film and communications — says he likes keeping in touch with his theatre roots.
"I like being able to switch around," he says. "I never feel lacking for something to do. It keeps me on my feet."
About 90 percent of the production's approximately 50 stagehands are NWFSC students, Mahle says.
It's about the kids
"Student crews run this place. It's all about them," Mattie Kelly Arts Center Technical Director Bob Whittaker says. "They have opportunities to observe and watch, and that's when it hits home.
"You can tell them all you want in the classroom, but until they actually do it, it doesn't really hit home."
First-time student crew members team up with professionals. Many techies who travel with the shows patiently guide students through the load-in process, becoming valuable professional contacts in the process.
Many NWFSC students who graduate with a two-year fine arts degree and head off to other schools to complete their theatre studies say their experiences on Mattie Kelly stage crews gave them an advantage over their classmates.
"This and Clint's acting class helped prepare me for the University of Tampa," Long says. "I was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone in my class."
"We want everybody to be successful," Whittaker says. "We also do it to train the kids. You're not only learning; you're (also) getting paid to learn.
"It's a win-win for the college, the kids and the community."