To most people, a discarded three-by-three glass cube looks just like that — a glass cube. To Ryan Ahlert, however, it’s so much more. “I’ve used the ice box as a window, and I’ve used it in lighting designs to make a cool refraction,” says Midtown Productions’ technical director.
In Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, a play about two Alabama hunters, Ahlert transformed the box into a pond. “I lit it from underneath to make a little lagoon, like a glowing swamp,” he says. “We do a lot with very little money.” That, he adds, is just what you have to do when you run a theater company.
And he would know. Ahlert’s a Holy City theater veteran, practically from birth. Thanks to his mom, Sheri Grace Wenger, founder of Midtown Productions, Ahlert grew up on stage. From hanging around dinner theater at The Colony House Restaurant (now the Harbor Club) where Wenger started in 1989 to helping his mom build Midtown at the corner of King and Calhoun streets in ’98, Ahlert’s childhood was spent surrounded by thespians. “I was dragged to rehearsals when I couldn’t even talk,” he says. But it wasn’t until 2007, after he’d graduated with a theater degree from College of Charleston, that mother and son decided to go into showbiz together.
The two opened Charleston Acting Studio (CAS) on James Island and have been teaching drama and putting on plays ever since.
But while Ahlert can be found both at CAS and on stages around town, — most recently as the saucy Tybalt in Threshold Repertory’s production of Romeo & Juliet — it’s his lighting design work that’s gotten a lot of recent attention. “I love performing, but being behind the lighting board is a bit more relaxing,” Ahlert confesses.
Relaxing is one way to put it, although the term “complex” might be more apropos. In Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, Ahlert not only designed the lights, he created the sound, the set, choreographed, and directed. “We all wear a lot of hats around here. Sometimes I get overloaded with the amount of stuff I take on, but it gets done,” he says.
He hardly sounds burdened. In fact, quite the opposite. The challenge, Ahlert says, keeps him going and inspiration is all around.
“One the coolest things I’ve done was in Driving Miss Daisy. I built set pieces from a wood frame and stretched muslin over, then projected images on to it,” he says. The idea came from a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Wright brothers exhibit. “You look at their planes, covered in canvas, and can see the structure from within,” he says. The play won him last year’s Theatre Charleston’s award for Outstanding Lighting Design. Incidentally the show also won Theater Charleston’s Outstanding Play award too. Daisy, an aging Southern grande dame and her black driver Hoke Colburn, spend a large amount of time, as one would expect, in a car, in the show. “We projected old vintage photos of Atlanta behind them, and old images of the Piggly Wiggly,” he explains. In another scene, an image of an ink-on-paper sketch of a synagogue stood in for an actual set, an effective yet thrifty alternative.
Cost continues to play a roll in lighting decision-making. For The Exonerated, Ahlert combined prison sound effects like an alarm and the buzz of an electric chair with flashing red light cues. “We have a giant LED color-wash. You can get any color in the spectrum. I bumped the slider that was red each time the alarm sounded,” Ahlert says. The result, CP reviewer Melissa Tunstall says, is chilling. In fact, one audience member sobbed through the performance on opening night.
The irony is even though Ahlert often finds himself behind the light board, he has no electrical training. “It’s all trial by error,” he says. After teaching theater at First Baptist High School he says he realized he had to know how to do it all — lights, sets, the works. “I learned by necessity,” he says. For Ahlert the old saying is true, necessity is the mother of invention.