Starting in Theatre: A Spot Of Belonging
By Liam Klenk
Working in Zurich’s movie theatres as a student, I especially enjoyed working at Cinema Corso. The eight-hundred-seat movie palace was a remnant of glorious times.
Located at the historic Bellevue plaza at Lake Zurich, it looked far more like the kind of place where one would sip champagne and enjoy arias, instead of munching popcorn and shedding tears during Hollywood’s latest love story. Yet, Corso was indeed a theatre. Every June, the large cinematic screen simply disappeared into the hidden theatre rigging and gave way to a beautiful stage with ancient wooden floors and crimson red curtains. I was entranced and I volunteered for any opportunity to work during Corso’s Theatre Summer Festival.
Being an usher made me happy. I could feel the creative force from backstage with every fiber of my body. I longed to be back there, to be part of the show family. But, for now, just seeing the audience’s happy anticipation was enough to keep me going. I remember witnessing Stomp on our stage when they first toured through Europe. There was all that stomping on stage. The Swiss audience went wild at the end, shouting “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” And, at the same time, 1,600 hands and feet clapped and stomped in the auditorium like a stampede of Buffalo. They gave their all to make the cast come out one last time before they left us to head for the next stop on their tour. Corso truly shook in its foundations that night and my heart beat in turn, loving every moment, tears streaming down my face, knowing this surely was one of the places on Earth where I belonged.
Additionally to my favorite month of the year, Corso offered regular gala premieres with Hollywood stars being present. Needless to say, I volunteered for every one of those as well. Mostly, I stuck to my work as an usher, seating the excited audience after they had savored champagne while nibbling on hors d’oeuvres.
Then, one evening our managing director came to me and said, “Mr. Klenk, you seem highly motivated. Why don’t you take care of that light over there?”
To be completely honest, I didn’t have a clue what the man was talking about. I only remember nodding and listening to quick instructions from someone. Fifteen minutes later I was alone, the auditorium lights dimmed and I held on to the spotlight (Don’t ask me the model or make. Not a clue. Total relic.). My arms ached from its surely thirty kilograms of weight. My brow, in turn, seemed like Niagara Falls due to the intense heat coming off of the housing. I managed to keep Oliver Stone in the spotlight as he walked up to the stage for a brief speech before the audience was going to view his latest movie Natural Born Killers. While he spoke, I had to hold the enormous spotlight steady. The device was truly not from this century and there was no mechanism to lock it in place other than the operator’s muscles. Five minutes into Oliver Stone’s speech, my arms were trembling uncontrollably and I just prayed to whatever gods might be listening, “Please, stop. Keep it short. Pssst.” Truly, Oliver Stone needed to shut up before my only slightly trembling sphere of light would begin darting all over the theatre like a giant firefly.
Thankfully, I did survive my first wrestling match with the oversized piece of machinery with professional pride intact, audiences delighted, bosses happy, and, the following morning, inevitably, a muscle ache that would have made any Olympic weightlifter proud. Just like that, I became the regular follow-spot operator for all gala events at Cinema Corso. My arms never stopped trembling. However, I enjoyed it all: Setting up my follow-spot before the show; deciding on filters and angles; and the quick rehearsals (we sometimes had) with celebrities like Phil Collins, Harrison Ford, Kate Bigelow and Luc Besson. Each time, I challenged myself to keep the trembling in check, to not miss a beat, stay on track, be alert and improvise if necessary.
When the cinema company finally purchased a newer model follow-spot three years later in 1997, I found myself being almost disappointed by how lightweight and well shielded it was compared to my old “iron buddy”.
No more aching arms. No more grilled shoulders. I continued lighting the way for a number of years, always ready to work extra hours whenever the follow-spot was needed for yet another exciting cinematic event. I became part of the inventory, the specialist, the go-to-guy for anything to do with follow-spot lighting for the evening. Feeling right at home with what I was doing, it still never occurred to me to view or claim it as a profession. It was just something extra I offered the company in my spare time.
Years later, when I worked backstage for The House of Dancing Water in Macau, it finally hit me. This wasn’t my first time working as a backstage professional. I had been a follow-spot operator for seven years of my life already, without ever being the wiser. I had found my spot of belonging, long before I knew it.
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