Photographing food is one of my favorite things. Whenever I have an opportunity to turn my lens toward some artfully created dishes I do so. I am also drawn to light and its effects, whether it’s the shadows or the beams, light is a big part of photography. Combining the two, food and light, can’t help but be exciting. I recently photographed an event at the Collins Center for the Arts, on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, that was a theatrical and dramatic blend of food, light, music, community and an example of what can happen when people come together for a cause.
This event was the annual gala dinner, a prestigious and lavish affair always well attended by the areas art supporters. A pinnacle on the Collins Center’s calendar, it is generally combined with a high caliber concert performance which in past years has included musical guests such as Liza Minnelli and K.D. Lang and other incredible performers like Bill Cosby. The Gala committee begins far in advance in the planning for the event, determining theme and setting for each aspect of the evening, knowing the importance of this occasion in the Collins Center’s support arena.
Having photographed this event last year and being closely connected to the venue’s management, I knew the importance of the evening and was prepared to adapt to the challenges of the setting. This year’s performer was Ben Vereen, who brought his “Steppin’ Out” repertoire of Sinatra, Broadway hits, and other classics to the stage in the Hutchins Concert Hall. The Gala committee took a queue from Mr. Vereen’s song list and fashioned an evening quite out of the ordinary.
The opening reception and cocktail hour was held in what is known as “The Black Box” a room draped in black and lit with stage lighting that is used as a practice room for students of the University’s School for Performing Arts.
An abundant, overflowing, teeming, kaleidoscope of cheeses, breads, crackers, fruit, sliced and cubed this and that stood in the spotlight. Arriving guests were escorted in through the innards of the theater building, giving them a small taste of what was to come.
The dining area was set on the stage of the adjacent Hauck Auditorium. The backstage workshop was to serve as pre-prep area for the caterers, headed by Bill Dalton from the University’s Black Bear Catering. The Collins Center’s Scott Stitham created an unbelievable setting; that of a working stage, with stagehands, props, set pieces and open overhead catwalk. Purple, green, pink and the bright spotlight illuminated the walls, casting colorful beams over and around the diners.
The tables were covered in gray velvet with sequins sparkling throughout. Black napkins and polished silver continued the stage and screen theme and water glasses reflected the scene. A cutout silhouette of Ben Vereen, top hat and cane in hand, served as table centerpieces.
The stage set for dining proved stunning as well as challenging to shoot. I was given access to the third floor work area to be able to photograph from above as the guests began to arrive and the caterers started serving the meal.
Here are some of the images of the dramatically lit stage, from that perspective, from above.
The theater’s three story spiral staircases were illuminated in purple lights. As I crept my way down, I was able to photograph the scene from various levels, as waiters hustled to serve dinner and stagehands stood ready. From floor level, the lighting was intriguing and interesting, with the stage’s shadows and cabling providing visual interest from all around the diners.
The challenge here was in the extremes of light and dark. I used a high ISO setting in order to avoid blur as much as possible and didn’t attempt to focus intently upon the guests, as the table illumination from above was spotlight white hot. I felt it was best to interpret the setting itself, the stage, the venue’s inner workings, rather than those in the scene.
I loved the utility of these ladders. The lighting gave them the look of stage pieces with personalities, shadowy and perhaps sinister, but in reality, they have probably stood there in that spot, against the back of the stage, for a long time.
A few moments during the dinner were about the people. Though once again I battled the extremes, the lighting crew did an amazing job creating a behind the scenes approach to giving commendations.
When honors were due, a small, traditionally lit stage was an appropriate injection of glitz that was in keeping with the occasion. The Collins Center’s Hilda Award was presented to Bob & Trisha Quirk for their support, involvement, and encouragement of performing arts.
Dinner concludes and the guests head to the Hutchins Concert Hall to be wowed by Ben Vereen. During the show, I had a few moments to get a preview of the dessert reception that was planned for after the performance. Maine’s own Whoopie Pies – made to order in combination s of filling and cakey pie – were in the spotlight here.
Black Bear Catering created the Whoopie Pie bar. For those not as enamored with the state treat as I am, Black Bear also crafted some amazing pastries.
I love the tuxedo chocolate dipped strawberries.
Coffee, tea, whole milk and a full bar were set up for guests to enjoy along with live music and dancing in Miller’s Café in the lobby of the Collins Center for the Arts.
Nearing midnight, after the Village People’s YMCA brought folks onto the dance floor for one communal whoopie pie infused “its fun to stay at the . . “, coats were collected and goodbyes said. The staff dispersed to their respective homes and could breathe in relief that another Gala was over. It was a good show.
Creating an event like this takes a cast of many. By supporting the arts you support a whole community of people who care about fostering a creative spirit and encourage others to find themselves in theater. Performing just might be one of the oldest forms of expression.
I’m incredibly thankful to the event’s coordinator, Adele Adkins, for once again giving me the opportunity to photograph the community’s supporters of the arts. Scott Stitham’s backstage crew and the way they brought the theater to the forefront made this almost an educational experience for guests if they chose to see it for its reality.
Unless you have these kinds of connections with what it takes to make an event like this happen, you really don’t know how much of people’s lives go into a show. From my own experience, married to the theater operations manager, my husband Joe, I can tell you that keeping the arts alive, as people like to say, is not something anyone on the Collins Center for the Arts staff does without commitment and compromise. So much goes on behind the scenes to bring it together. A regular person attending an event like the Gala, seeing a quartet in the recital hall, enjoying a comedian’s stand up act, or watching a touring version of My Fair Lady doesn’t know about the lives of those who really make it happen. They can’t imagine that someone had to pick up the performers at the airport and squeeze the guy with the cello into the back of the van somehow and make sure they had enough hotel rooms booked for their crew and find a vegan margarita pizza for the star and launder the hundred sweaty towels the actors used offstage. They don’t consider the child care arrangements made or vacations scheduled around that performance, whatever it is.
And that’s totally fine. They come for the show. That’s what they get: a great show.
Maybe there’s another point to the “backstage” approach of this year’s Gala at the Collins Center for the Arts. Maybe it was about the reality of theater life, the actual gears and pulleys, lights, sound, and birthday parties that get coordinated around the opening of the curtain at 7:05 so that the show can go on. Maybe it’s the metaphor for the theater of life we’re all in – okay I’m getting carried away here – the point is that it takes a lot of good people to run the show and a lot of good people standing behind them.
My experience shooting this year’s Gala at the Collins Center for the Arts was a good one. I hope the images here and in the full gallery of photographs from the event reflect that. The staff, crew and caterers really care about this place. Thanks to everyone for accommodating me so that I could get the shots. You guys are great.
Enjoy the show!
Images from the 2011 Collins Center for the Arts Gala can be viewed at my original website: 2011 Collins Center for the Arts Gala