Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Backstage Pass

Backstage Pass

By Margaret Bell
Photography by Will Kirk

Intrepid photographer Will Kirk will do whatever it takes to get the shot. Come along for his behind-the-scenes tour of Peabody.

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Thousands of people come to Peabody every year to hear the mastery of our students and faculty artists. What most people don’t see are the inner workings of the institute. Johns Hopkins photographer Will Kirk (A&S BA ’99, English) takes us on a tour behind the scenes. Since graduating from Hopkins himself almost 20 years ago and working for Homewood Photography, Kirk has become Peabody’s unofficial resident documentarian. Our intrepid photographer will do whatever it takes to get the shot. From standing on theater seats, to climbing on ladders, and going above the ceilings. (He’s a professional, folks. Don’t try this at home — or at Peabody!)

Our first stop on this tour is backstage at Peabody’s largest performance space, the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall. Kirk and Stage Coordinator Daniel Chaloux climb up a ladder to the fly rail system above the stage to demonstrate how the arbor pulley system works for lights and set pieces. Chaloux explains that “the battens (the bars that are going all the way across the stage) have cables that run up to the ceiling across several sets of pulleys and down to the arbor — a vertical block that we can add or subtract weights to.” The object, Chaloux says, is to balance what’s on the arbor versus what’s on the pipe in this entirely manual process. The arbors hold the weights while the levers unlock the rope to then pull the ropes. “If it’s in balance, then it’s easy to operate the rope,” he says.

Only visible from backstage is a Così fan Tutte sign from an old production, as well as a red heart from last spring’s production of Chérubin. For the past 30 years or so, Peabody stage crew has had a tradition of always keeping at least one large prop or scenic element of every opera. Those items are stashed and plastered all around the backstage area and piano maintenance workshop.

In the hallway between Cohen-Davison Family Theatre and Joe Byrd Hall, marimbas, timpani, and other drums are usually overflowing out of the nearby percussion studio. Inside the studio, one can see the variety of objects used by Peabody percussionists. Kirk’s eye is drawn to an eclectic collection of wind chimes, machine parts, flower pots, and tin cans. Another centerpiece in the studio is the marimba designed by percussion faculty artist Robert van Sice.

Our backstage tour continues with a view of the newest space at Peabody: the classroom for the Music for New Media program, which is led by Thomas Dolby. The studio is home to a variety of virtual and augmented reality tools and a control room-type console to work with video games and film. A Virtual Reality Club takes place on Wednesday evenings and is open to all Hopkins students.

Kirk next suggests we head into the ceiling of Leith Symington Griswold Hall (by way of secret passageways for authorized personnel only). With the glass ceiling of the George Peabody Library below and the actual skylight above, Kirk climbs a ladder into the empty attic space above Griswold. It’s dark and dusty — the place where you need to go to change lightbulbs for the hall. He gingerly steps across a “pathway” of boards stretching between the joists. Some of the ceiling structure is covered in cloth while other parts are left open.

Another hidden view of the hall lies within the pipes of the organ. In 1998, the magnificent new Holtkamp organ was custom built for the hall, transforming the space. Today, a ladder behind the instrument takes Kirk onto the platform inside the organ where regular maintenance takes place.

Next stop: the roof of Peabody. Kirk has shot the annual Washington Monument lighting in Mount Vernon from this vantage point for years. There’s nothing quite like the sight of the monument and the architecture of the neighborhood from a bird’s eye view. The rooftop itself is pretty impressive with its balustrades and all-copper patina panels. From a certain angle, you can even see the dome of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Storage is at a premium in the 162-year institution, and there’s very little space to keep rarely needed equipment, furniture, and other supplies close at hand. In shooting one of the few attic spaces at Peabody, Kirk has a little fun with his reflection in an old chandelier. As always, he’s the face behind the camera.