Behind the Scenes of the Willson Auditorium

Katie McGunagle, photos by Zach Hoffman

When you go to a production at the Willson Auditorium, you may glimpse young people quietly running the light and sound control boards in the back of the hall. Others work back stage, assisting with set changes, costumes, and makeup.

These stagehands are all trained by Michael Hillenius, Willson Auditorium’s manager and technical director, who has been working his wizardry at the Willson for over two decades. Hillenius has designed and managed lighting plots and sound for the Bozeman Symphony, The Montana Ballet, Sweet Pea productions, Moon over Montana Concerts, Tanya’s Dance Company in Belgrade, and numerous Bozeman High School drama productions. The high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, designed by Michael, won a national award for its concept, set, and talent and was invited to attend the Edinburgh Theater Festival.

Many would agree that Hillenius’ touch goes beyond phenomenal lighting concepts and set designs. His productions seamlessly convey moods and transitions through exquisite backdrops and effects, transporting audiences effortlessly into other worlds, conversations, and stories.  

Hillenius grew up in Prescott, Arizona, where he picked up practical carpentry skills helping his mother work on their house. Hillenius discovered the magic of theatre at a young age. As a college student at Northern Arizona University, he found a true mentor in Dr. Clifford White. Under White’s guidance, Michael learned the fundamentals of acting as well as principles of stagecraft in small theater spaces. Primarily, White instilled in Hillenius a passion for excellence and remarkable performances. White would also serve as a model for Hillenius’ own capacity to mentor younger individuals and students keen to learn the tricks of the drama trade.

During his tenure, many students started working with Hillenius while they were still in high school; others became involved when in their college years or as young professionals in Bozeman. All agree that Hillenius teaches them to be thorough and to take pride in their work.

Sometimes Hillenius has to consider how to use backdrops imported from famous scenery houses on the East Coast, has to fit the unique dimensions of the Willson Auditorium stage house, and needs to provide multi-level entrances and exits for actors and crew members.

However, those patrons who attended last October’s Intermountain Opera Bozeman production of The Tender Land, by Aaron Copland, experienced some of the magic Hillenius created “in-house.”  He designed the entire set for The Tender Land, drafting it four times before the director approved the plan. Construction drafts followed, and finally he and his crew set about constructing the barnyard, barn, and house. To the physical pieces they added a delicate scrim overlay and special lighting effects to reflect or heighten the mood of the scenes or the time of day.  These technical aspects involved working out a lighting plot, placing and gelling specific lights, and plotting sound cues. Finally, he scheduled run-throughs to guarantee everything would run smoothly. The Tender Land’s crew consisted of Peter Feddock, Dan Heywood, Mike Andrews, Jessica Hayes, Seth Reichert, Courtney Yovich, Ashley Milleson, and Michelle Lu.

Many of the Willson’s crew members, all trained by Hillenius, go on to work back stage at the Ellen and Rialto Theatres, in various Sweet Pea productions, and in music venues across the community. Under Hillenius’ capable direction, students acquire extensive stagecraft experience, including knowledge in lighting, sound, construction, and backstage management. Many stay on in the theatre business, understanding that show business really is show “business.”

The next performances at the Willson Auditorium will be The Bozeman Symphony’s Concert Recorder Mania! – Sat., Feb. 3 at 7:30pm and Sun., Feb. 4 at 2:30pm; The Star Spangled Symphony Free Family Concert – Saturday, Feb. 10 at 10:30am and 1:00pm; The Montana Ballet Company’s Cinderella – Sat., Feb. 24 at 4pm and Sun., Feb. 25 at 2pm; and The Intermountain Opera’s production of the opera Falstaff, by Giuseppe Verdi, a brilliant comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The comic opera runs for two days only: Friday, May 11, at 7:00pm and Sunday, May 13, at 3pm.  

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