Thursday, Jan. 19, 1995:
On a typically nippy New Haven evening, an eager audience poured into Woolsey Hall for what was to be a heartwarming performance of concertos and overtures by Yo-Yo Ma. But just as Ma was about to take the stage, the night took a chilling turn.
There was a sudden crash, followed immediately by haunting screams that echoed through the frozen hall. Something had gone awry. A 9-foot tall portable light had come loose from its fittings, falling on audience members seated along the hall’s balcony. Three individuals were treated that evening for minor injuries, and the incident — much to Yale’s chagrin — made front-page news in the New Haven Register the next day.
Unfortunately, this incident is not unique in Yale’s history. In 1998, a theater set collapsed during a performance of the Yale Dramatic Association’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” harming 12. A year later, a 60-year-old woman suffered a fractured skull, among other injuries, when a railing on the student-constructed bleachers gave way during a production of “Woyzeck.”
“Yale wants its theater scene to make news,” Office of Undergraduate Productions Supervisor Jim Brewczynski DRA ’86 said. “But they want to stay in the Arts and Living sections, not the front page.”
He added, “And that’s why we’re here!”
Indeed, the Office of Undergraduate Productions, founded in 2000, was assembled shortly after these accidents occurred to ensure that similar events would not arise. And since the Office’s inception 10 years ago, Brewczynski said students working on undergraduate productions have suffered only seven stitches.
The Office was put together by an involved search committee, which included among its members the deans of Yale College and the School of Drama. This committee first hired Brewczynski after his former Drama professor, Ben Sammler, introduced his name to the group. Once on board, Brewczynski got in touch with an old friend, Rorie Fitzsimons, to take on the position of Senior Technical Director of the Office. The two had known each other from work, as they both were founders of their own theater and event production companies in Connecticut.
In their first eight years running the Office, Brewczynski and Fitzsimons worked out of windowless, cinder block rooms slightly larger than an Ezra Stiles walk-in closet. Although last year the Office moved to its newer, and much more spacious, loft atop Trailblazer on Broadway, Brewczynski said the original rooms, set just off the main stage of the Off-Broadway Theater, were appreciated for their befitting symbolism. This office, quite literally, allowed the two to oversee student productions to ensure that the shows met state and University health and safety codes.
From their Broadway offices, the two are also responsible for helping students find access to performance spaces, lights, equipment, props and a host of other production necessities. Currently, the Office manages a handful of inventories, renting items out for far below market prices to allow students the opportunity to produce nearly 130 shows each year.
Given the range of services Brewczynski, Fitzsimons and staff are charged with providing, one wonders how student productions were mounted before their office’s existence.
According to Leslie Hammond, a newly recruited Technical Director, “It was the Wild Wild West before the Office.”
Prior to the existence of the Office of Undergraduate Productions, students were responsible for procuring all of the necessary materials for their shows from a number of dispersed campus inventories, which were maintained by a handful of disconnected individuals. Often, students had to dip into personal funds to rent equipment from local light and sound shops, after failing to find resources at Yale.
“They’re both always very helpful and available,” Dramat President Emma Griffin ’11 said of Brewczynski and Fitzsimons. She estimated she has worked with Brewczynski a few times, and sees Fitzsimons on a “semi-daily basis.”
At 7 p.m., on a Tuesday evening, Broadway street lights are alight, New Haven sirens are blaring, and most Yale offices have closed shop. But at the Broadway Rehearsal Lofts, the lights are still on, and Brewczynski and Fitzsimons are sitting around a conference table — Blackberries in hand — discussing their schedules for the next day.
“I have a meeting at the Drama School, and then I have to go to the Rep, but I think I should probably schedule that meeting with the fire department tomorrow,” Brewczynski said, running through a list of tasks on his phone. Fitzsimons responded with a similarly convoluted list of meetings, appointments and tasks.
This, according to Brewczynski, is a typical workday schedule. Meetings start early in the morning, sometimes before 9 a.m., and the pair don’t leave campus until late in the evening — normally shutting shop around 7 p.m.
But they have no complaints.
“When I go home and tell my wife what I did during the day, she still, after 25 years, asks me, ‘Are you ever going to get a real job?’” Fitzsimons said, laughing.