Mike East, a Clemson graduate who owns a company that builds stage sets, got a big opportunity to create a towering structure on a tight deadline for the 50th anniversary tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
But there was one problem: He had no place to build it.
That’s when he turned to friends in the Clemson Department of Performing Arts.
In short order, East and a crew of more than a dozen people – including some Clemson students and professors – were hard at work building the 32-foot-high set on the Brooks Theatre stage.
“We’re feeling good,” East said, taking a break from working on the massive set in late May. “We’ll make our deadline.”
On May 30, East’s set – an expansive industrial scaffold — was disassembled and loaded into four tractor-trailers, driven to the Port of Charleston and shipped to London to be reassembled at the famed Barbican Centre.
The set will be sent back to the United States in the fall for a two-year national tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that journeys to major cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland and Miami, and also swings by Greenville’s Peace Center for a week of performances in August 2020.
“It was a struggle to complete, but the project is very important to us,” said East, a 2007 Clemson performing arts graduate who was inducted into the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities Hall of Fame in 2017.
East has been involved in a variety of productions, from opera to multimillion-dollar Broadway shows. A former technical supervisor for the Spoleto Festival, East has managed and installed more than 100 shows.
East’s Charleston-based company, TTS Studios, had originally been contracted to create the “Jesus Christ Superstar” set only for the musical’s U.S. tour, beginning in September. Plans called for another company to build the set for the earlier London production.
At almost at the 11th hour, however, the producers asked East build the set for the London performances. It would need to be built by late May, at least three months earlier than planned.
The new timeline created a challenge: The large spaces in Charleston that could be used to construct a theater set were occupied with productions associated with the city’s annual Spoleto Festival.
That’s why East called his former colleagues at the Brooks Center on the spur of the moment. Luckily, the Brooks Center was not being used during the last two weeks of May.
“Having the relationship with the professors and the crew here made our lives infinitely easier,” East said. “It relieved a lot of the potential stress.”
Six Clemson students and at least two performing arts professors worked with six employees from East’s TTS Studios to build the set, one of the largest projects in the three-year history of East’s company.
The structure, which East describes as “post-apocalyptic,” has the appearance of an industrial steel grid – with a fallen steel cross in the center of the stage. The beams are actually aluminum covered by plywood.
The structure was designed by veteran set designers Tom Scutt and David Arsenault.
The purpose of completely building the set only to disassemble it before it was shipped to London was “to make sure it’s going to work, that it’s safe,” East said. “It’s an abnormally high set.”
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