Behind the Curtain of Lesser Known Performing Arts Jobs

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Linda Zoolalian cues the supertitles for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. This one is for Tan Dun’s “Water Passion After St. Matthew” at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Jamie Pham.

Discover these lesser known but indispensable occupations in the performing arts.

By Libby Slate, from Performances Magazine, July 2016

L.A. Opera patrons who rely on supertitles to understand the text of what’s being sung can thank the woman wearing a headset and sitting in a space above the wall chandeliers on the right side of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion auditorium.

Linda Zoolalian has prepared and cued the supertitles—librettos projected in English on a screen above the proscenium and elsewhere—since 2003. Three years ago, she began cueing supertitles for the Los Angeles Master Chorale as well.

Zoolalian, whose other positions include rehearsal pianist for Pasadena Opera and adjunct professor at Pasadena City College, obtains score texts from the L.A. Opera library, other opera houses or a local company that provides opera translations.

“Every opera house gives it to us differently—it could be a PowerPoint presentation or a Word document,” Zoolalian explains. “I take it and input it to our own proprietary software and add the timing. I decide how fast or slow each title will be, with the music. Sometimes I shorten it if it doesn’t fit, or decide the punctuation. And I’m an editorial fanatic—I’m really picky about [word]spacing.”

Zoolalian is there to cue the supertitles for some rehearsals and every performance. During the show she sits with her score, watching the conductor’s baton on a monitor and cueing a technician, who sits with a laptop on the fifth level near the spotlight crew. There are generally between 450 and 650 changes of projection per opera, with Zoolalian usually instructing, “Fade in—go. Fade out—go.”

“The reason you have to be a musician to do this is that we’re used to reading full scores. Singers might forget a line or come in too early or too late. For the big, fast sections, you have to count like mad! Recitatives can be frightening.”

For Master Chorale concerts, Zoolalian sits in the Walt Disney Concert Hall lighting booth and operates the computer cues herself. “People think supertitles are automated,” she says. “But it’s really artistic. You’re trying to cue beautifully with the singers.”

Timing is also crucial for Laura Gibson, video producer for the Hollywood Bowl, who creates film montages for such programs as John Williams: Maestro of the Movies. Together with Brian Grohl, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra manager and pops program manager, she chooses clips, then spends weeks with editors matching footage to music.

The first half of the John Williams concert features music conducted by David Newman, including montages for Sunset Boulevard, the Godfather saga and Forrest Gump and a Paramount Pictures retrospective.

“You have to hit certain feelings—have some comedy, some drama—and end with a big finish,” Gibson says. She calls herself “a pretty big film geek and score geek.” In choosing montage clips, “we scan the film, looking for little gestures, moments of humor and romance. We pull 25 to 30 shots and whittle it down.” There can be 170 clips in a montage.

She and Grohl start discussing clip possibilities early in the year; editing at a postproduction house takes eight to 12 weeks. Through it all they consult with composers and studios. Gibson includes scenes she knows audiences expect—the shower scene from Psycho if it’s a Hitchcock night, for instance—and those they might not. “We have to find things that land on the beat,” Grohl notes. “We don’t slow down or speed up the music.”

Skills are both visual and verbal for Jeffrey Hutchinson’s sometime gig: He’s a “reader,” the scene partner for actors and actresses auditioning for plays. As such, he’s played both genders and, he says, “everything from an old grandmother to a baby. Even a pet: There might be an incident where a dog barks or a cow moos.”

Hutchinson was the reader for Geffen Playhouse casting director Phyllis Schuringa for Stage Kiss—which, coincidentally, featured a reader as a character. “I was reading for two different men and women,” he recalls. “I found it fun to capture individual traits and genders.”

Hutchinson prepares by reading the script and highlighting his lines. An actor-director who appeared in the Geffen’s production of Take Me Out, he himself has auditioned with readers, some of whom seemed neutral in their delivery. “They were flat. I didn’t find that interesting,” he says.

“I try to give a reading as close as possible to the traits of the person the actor’s going to be with. It brings out the best audition. But you have to be careful not to be too histrionic. There’s a delicate line between giving actors plenty to work with and upstaging them.”

Hutchinson knows how to walk that line: After observing his work as a reader, Stage Kiss director Bart DeLorenzo offered him a role in Go Back to Where You Are, which ran at Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles—without an audition.

And how’s this for art imitating life? He’s playing a dual role.