For performers and audience members alike, there is little to compare to the thrill of the David H. Koch Theater’s brilliant gold curtain rising before a hushed auditorium, with the adrenaline-filled experience of a live performance it promises. Enjoying such a moment and the program to follow requires the precision, hard work, and talent of a vast backstage team of professionals, who engineer those elements of the evening that crown the spectacle of the artists seen and heard. Steering this vast if unseen ship is Director of Production Marquerite Mehler.
Though every New York City Ballet performance is accompanied by a certain amount of production support, the annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® places unique demands on Mehler’s team. We spoke with her backstage for a peek behind the curtain that reveals much of what makes possible the unparalleled magic of this annual tradition, and learned about her singular role in making it—and every evening with NYCB—come alive.
Please tell us about your background and how you came to work with NYCB.
I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I was a high school theater kid; I loved it and really was good at it. I ended up going to college for stage management at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They had a wonderful theater program—they still do. It is in the cornfields in the middle of a very large university, but they have a very nice Performing Arts Center with many different theaters, and they have a great team. A lot of really great people came out of that program that I still keep in touch with to this day.
For stage management, you train in opera, theater, and ballet. While the skillset is universal, the jobs and the roles and the tasks of what a stage manager does in each of those environments is very, very different. So while I was trained in all of them, and I did a bit of each, I really gravitated to the dance world. Part of what I liked about it was the technical aspect of it; I liked the time in the theater, teching and performing. And that's what we do here—we spend all of our time in the theater. In a more theatrical atmosphere, you're in a rehearsal studio, and you can be more of an assistant director—you can be guiding and blocking, and you're more involved in that rehearsal process. But dance stage managers aren't necessarily in the rehearsal process, they take the product once it's ready for the stage and work with that. And I really enjoyed it.
I worked for some regional companies for a while, then I came out to New York, where I worked for Ballet Hispánico for about three, four years. I had a blast. They are mostly a touring company, so I was able to tour around the country and see so much of it. It was such an important opportunity, because I went from Chicago to a few places in the Midwest, and then to New York City, so really to travel all over the United States—and they did some international tours as well—was just such a wonderful experience as a young person.
Then I was ready to come off the road and settle down. A friend of mine was looking for a stage manager to do Balanchine’s Nutcracker at Stanford; for a long, long time, there was a production there and [NYCB principal dancers] would come and guest with [School of American Ballet] kids. I did that production for one year, and I met [NYCB Resident Lighting Designer] Mark Stanley. When a position opened up here, they gave me a call and said, “You should apply for this job.” Nowadays, and even more so back then, the jobs in the production department didn't open up very often. So it was very much “right time, right place” that I got connected to New York City Ballet. I was an assistant stage manager with them for a blink—I think it was one [onstage] season and one Saratoga [tour stop]. By the end of Nutcracker that year, I became a stage manager. Over the years, and the decades, I became the director of production.
I had such a great learning experience, because with Ballet Hispánico we were bringing the same six or eight ballets on the road to all these different venues. You really learned how to adapt your show, not only to what the physical space gave you to do, but to the people you were working with. Touring was so informative. I spent so much time in all of these various places; when you've spent all your time in two metropolises, you forget how the rest of the country really is. I have lots of fond memories. When we were in Salt Lake City, for one, there was one mom-and-pop taxi service for transportation. They would say, “Well, what's your schedule tomorrow?” and they would take us back and forth.
It was so different from NYCB, because it was the same ballets adapting to the surroundings that you were in every time—and that was an invaluable experience. Here, we tour, but we don't tour as much. But we always have new ballets, the rep is so big that it's changing in that way as well. I've learned over my years of experience that when I’m walking into a different space, in the United States or even in a different country, I know certain questions to ask. I know when we go to Paris, if I want to move a piano, it's not like the props [department] in our theater that deals with the pianos and instruments. In Europe, or in France, it's the musical instrument team that will move the piano. So, if I'm doing Duo Concertant and I need [the onstage] piano to come and go at very specific times, I have to plan for that, because those people are not standing around next to me and able to just shift and adapt. I've learned that we're all doing the same thing, but we're doing it very differently.
Can you describe your current role as director of production as you see it?
My role, and the production department as a team—we help everybody. As part of the staging of any production, for example, we liaise with the costume department—we have a costume warehouse in New Jersey, so we coordinate with the costume department regarding what they need, and set it up around the building. I'm working next week with the Corporate Development team and with Marketing regarding the [Nutcracker] Travelers installation, for an example of the ancillary activities that happen throughout the building. I'm working with [Senior Director of Marketing & Media Karen Girty] on the 2023 Art Series, and how it’s going to get installed. I work with the Press department constantly on what support they need for all of their activities. So, I really touch all the departments of the Company at some point. There's a lot of planning—a lot of short-term and a lot of long-term planning.
My typical day when we're in season, as we are right now, is: The production department comes in at 8 AM. We'll work with the crew hanging lights, focusing lights, and changing over scenery. We'll take a lunch break, and then that afternoon, we'll rehearse with the dancers. That evening, we’ll have the show. When we're in season, we typically do that Tuesday through Friday. Sometimes we work Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings, or Sunday afternoons, depending on if we have to shift scenery around. It's incredibly long hours.
I'm always working on what's coming up next. I'm "in the moment" working with the crew as to what we're doing today, but that's also in relation to what we're doing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. When [Artistic Director] Jonathan Stafford and [Associate Artistic Director] Wendy Whelan start to put together the programs for the next season, they put together what they'd like to do, then I and several other people look at it and see if it's physically possible and if there are financial impacts to how they've chosen to do it. When you put on a ballet like we just did with Vienna Waltzes, it's huge. We have 99 line sets [as part of our theatrical rigging system for lights, curtains, sets, etc.], and when Vienna’s up in the air and in the house, we use most of them. There's just that much going on.
You have to pick and choose—like Vienna Waltzes and Jewels, for example, physically don't fit together. Once we get the programs, I'll lay out the plan and the calendar to see how it flows and what the costs are going to be so we can budget properly. As we get to each season, I'll take those sheets that I budgeted from, and say, “Okay, now the reality: How are we really going to do this? And how does it all flow together? And how does it happen?” I meet with the music department and look at their orchestra schedule, I have my crew worksheets, I meet with the rehearsal department and [Director of Rehearsal Administration Thomas A. Lemanski], and we lay out the right flow for the dancers. Every ballet needs a different amount of time. Making sure that we have a master plan—I put that together in advance of the seasons, and then make it happen.
How has your position changed over the years?
You know, that's an interesting question, and it's kind of hard to articulate. It has, but it's hard to put my finger on why. I've been doing this position for a long time, so I'm very comfortable in what I'm doing, how I do it, and who I work with. In some ways, I think, it should get easier the more I do it and the more comfortable I am. I don't know if we're just doing more—nothing ever gets smaller, everything always gets bigger. We're doing more things with cameras and more with video. So yeah, that's a tricky question that I don't know that I have a very good answer to.
How do you manage working with so many different artists, all of whom have their own unique personalities and approaches?
That's part of the fun of the job. One of the things I really like is that we do different repertory—we do something different almost every night. Sure, we do Nutcracker as a run and we sometimes do Jewels or A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a week, but for the most part, my job is something different every day. I really like that. As I was touching on earlier, we come in at 8 AM, we work with the dancers at 1 PM, we do a show at 7:30 or 8 PM, and we go home at 10:30 or 11 PM. And then we do it again the next day. We're fortunate to have cultivated a nice place to work. The relationships with the dancers, the crew, the designers—we spend a lot of time together, and you really have to have a good work environment for that to function with the demands of the time and the job. And it can be so much fun.
It’s interesting for me when we have new and different designers come in. Very often a choreographer will bring in a non-traditional theatrical designer to do a backdrop, like when [Brooklyn-based artist and architect] Karl Jensen came in to do [the set designs for] Everywhere We Go—he's an artist, not a theatrical designer. The conversations about how we operate are always very interesting. Getting designers to understand that we're going to make this design, then we're going to do [the ballet] eight times over two weeks, then we're going to put [the backdrop] in a box and it might come out in a year or it might not, and when it does come back out, it's got to look like it did the first time. Everyone's fascinated by that, and the designers have to work with materials that will sustain for a very long time.
We work with a wonderful paint shop up in the Hudson Valley that will take a half-inch scale rendering that someone has drawn and turn it into a 40’ by 60’ foot drop. Their artistry is amazing. It's really cool to bring an artist there to have them see their work in process; the painters at the shop are happy to have them come and touch and advise and get involved. To watch [Danish artist] Per Kirkeby touch and paint on his drops [for Swan Lake, 1996] was really special.
We’re in the midst of performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. What are some of the unique challenges and special moments of this production?
Challenges are that it's just big. There’s so much, so it takes a lot of time. I think people would be really surprised to know how many lights it takes, for example, to make the Snow scene look that magical. It's a lot of different lights and different blues and different colors that really make it beautiful—an amazing amount of lights that are just there to catch the snow in the air, and lights that will catch the dancers. That's part of everything we do: it should just look good. You shouldn’t have an idea of the intensity behind it.
One of the nice things about our Nutcracker is that it's all done old-fashioned, by hand, by the stagehands. That's different from the average Broadway production right now, which is all tricked-out and high tech. When you see the snow, when you see the sleigh fly, that's all done through the artistry of the stagehands. That's really cool and getting to be a little bit unique. We're fortunate that we have so much historical knowledge around this. If you were to take this production out of this building and try to do it somewhere else, it would take significantly longer, because we know how this production fits in this building—a lot of the line-set pipes have marks that show where the big window goes, for example, so you're not measuring every little thing, it's sort of worn in. When the tree grows, and the big window closes, it's pretty rare that we don't get a round of applause. We all take great pride in bringing that to the audience, because it is really magical what the show does.
Are there any ballets that you get particularly nervous or excited about producing?
Nervous is a funny word because I try not to get nervous. If I got nervous about everything there is to be nervous about, I couldn't function. With a live audience, with everything live that is being presented at that moment, the number of things that could go wrong is just overwhelming. There are ballets that I see on the schedule, like Sleeping Beauty coming up this winter, it's a beast—like Nutcracker, it’s big and beautiful. When we see Sleeping Beauty coming down the pike, there's a lot of planning and prep that has to happen in order for it to go smoothly. It’s a multi-step process and you have to have a nice pace to make it all happen on track, to get to the moment of the first rehearsal, because there's just so much to do. And we rise to that challenge. We're working hard to put on something really, really lovely.
There are lots of other ballets that we see on the schedule that we’re just excited to see and get to do. Midsummer is another gorgeous production—it's always nice to put up and settle into. We have such a wide variety of rep that we have some ballets that are really intense and a lot of work, where we're running and we feel like we don't have a breath to get everything up in the proper time. Then we'll get a program with, say, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, and the Production department is just loving it. We're like, “Let's do a little Balanchine today.” There are certain moments, like when the curtain goes up at the beginning of Serenade—that image is just so stunning, sometimes we get applause. And the production department smiles, because we're like, “That's part of us.”
What are some of your favorites to watch?
What's really fun for me, having been here for so long, is to watch when new casts come in, and to see a dancer that may have been a Nutcracker Prince now doing a theme in Four Temperaments. I'm excited to see Namouna, A Grand Divertissement because we haven't done that in a while and it's a very interesting ballet, the music is so wonderful. I see something like that on the schedule and say, “I'm looking forward to that.” Carnival of the Animals gets talked about every once in a while—we were supposed to do that before the pandemic, and that's another one that needs a lot of planning and prep to make sure that we can be ready for that first rehearsal. It's very satisfying when you hit all those marks, and you're ready to go.
Can you share any standout memories—times when something went especially well or when bloopers happened?
Anything can happen with a live show, and it generally does. The one thing we don't want is to disrupt or distract from the show. Fortunately, it's rare.
Union Jack has a live donkey onstage in the middle of the ballet. For years—the first decades that I was here—the original donkey, Giorgio, did the performances. He was a seasoned pro. He hit his mark, he gave no attitude, and then he was fortunate enough to get to retire. So, we had to audition for a new donkey, and that fell to me. That was a whole new experience—getting headshots for donkeys and ponies and auditioning them and their handlers. One of the first donkeys we auditioned wouldn't leave the stage—I was like, “Okay, you're not going to work.” Then this donkey came in, and I was thinking, “You can hit your marks and learn your cues. And we're going to give you a try.” I don't remember if it was opening night or the second performance, but he relieved himself at center stage. So, I'm standing there, watching this, and I can't totally see it. Everyone just starts saying, “Marquerite! Marquerite!” and I look, and he's left this giant puddle onstage. We had to bring the curtain down and clean it up. I had to make an announcement that we were going to stop—I channeled my mother and I just said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the disruption. Please give us a moment while we clean up our act.” The audience burst out laughing and I turned off the microphone, and we finished cleaning up the donkey. And then we let everybody know where we were starting from, and off we went.
Years ago, we had a problem during a performance of The Nutcracker. We were doing the transition where Marie and the bed are traveling to the snow scene, so it's very dark onstage. There were very few lights on at that moment, except the remainder of what was lighting the tree. The stage manager started calling me and saying, “The cue won't go, the cue won't go!” We had lost control of the lightboard. We were in almost complete darkness, and no matter what we tried, we couldn't get the next cue to fire. So we had to stop. What I remember about that dramatic day was how quickly people came onstage and noticed that the show had stopped—all of a sudden, repertory directors, people are onstage saying, “What's going on, what's going on!” We had to restart the system, then we had to tell the maestro where we were starting and get everything else set. We were all set to go and I said to the stage manager, “Okay, you can go ahead and take the curtain lights out.” Then, I looked up, and it wasn't snowing. I had stopped the guys from snowing while we were paused to fix the show. So I just turned to the stage manager and said, “Make it snow, start the snow!”
During Vienna Waltzes this fall, one of the dancers in the last waltz lost their shoe. So sitting on stage right was just—the shoe. You couldn't stop staring at it, because you're like, “There's a shoe out there. That shoe shouldn't be there.” We're watching the waltz happen with the big dresses, and I'm thinking, “Is a dress gonna sweep it? Please don't sweep it into the pit, because they're not expecting anything!” Finally one of the men was able to kick it, and I was able to grab it. As the curtain came in, at the very end, everyone burst out laughing, because we were all watching the shoe. And then I took the shoe and I flung it to the other side of the stage so that the woman coming on for her bow would have two shoes.
Those moments are quite adrenaline-filled, dramatic moments, but hopefully they're few and far between. It’s part of the excitement and the joy of the live performance.
It’s fascinating to learn how much of a performance it is for your team, too—a dance, almost, of timing and precision.
We used to have a stagehand, who recently retired, who would do the closing of the big window in Nutcracker. They're back behind the curtain, they know the show, they know the music. They used to come down to the stage managers and see who was conducting so that they could know what the music was going to be like for their cue. And that's one of the beauties of having all of these people together, because you have a different conductor and a different Sugarplum and a different flyman—you have all of these different people making the same show, night after night. People are just rotating in, so it's never the same. Oftentimes, the big window is magical, because the stagehand is making it magical. If it was an automated piece, it would just close and do its thing. But they're adjusting to the tempo, or the stage management call, or whatever they're able to react to. Because they're human.