On the lookout for 'Hot Johnny' Behind the scenes with Spoleto's set builders

Jeremiah Lewis and Sam Vettrus check the rain system on the set of "Kat'a Kabanova" at the Sottile Theatre Tuesday.

On any given day during the Spoleto Festival, everything appears to run smoothly.

It's something of an illusion, though, that depends on the skills of a small army of behind-the-scenes workers who have been preparing sets since January and are ready to react at a moment's notice in emergencies.

With about 30 different artists, ensembles and productions, and around 150 distinct events over the course of 17 days, many overlapping or concurrent, something is bound to go wrong. It could be a technical malfunction, a broken prop or piece of scenery, or the heat and humidity and constant motion will put a piano out of whack.

Stage managers, technical assistants, piano tuners, lighting and sound experts and carpenters based at the Spoleto scene shop, a mammoth warehouse located off the Upper King Street Extension, stand ready to address a "Hot Johnny," their name for any critical failure that must be resolved fast.

"A 'Hot Johnny' is anything that happens that needs to be fixed in an hour," said Paul Hunter, special projects coordinator of the Spoleto scene shop. "Usually they come on the phone because an email or text message isn't fast enough. My phone is the 'red phone,' and if it rings, we jump."

The staff at the scene shop is always ready to jump. But most of the time they work in a more deliberate manner.

Starting in January, Hunter and his two dozen co-workers craft, execute and deliver projects large and small for the festival, constructing whole opera sets, building platforms for orchestra players, manufacturing signs and more.

Typically abuzz from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and often later, the cavernous workshop is a sort of artist colony buzzing with carpenters, electricians, welders, painters, sound designers and production office workers.

Most of the techs were bit by the theater and entertainment bug during their high school and teenage years and decided to specialize in this sort of work, or at least keep a hand in it, according to Hunter.

Their importance to the smooth functioning of the festival might go unnoticed, but they're not looking for recognition.

"We don't want to be in the spotlight," said Jarrod Jahoda, master electrician for special projects. "I personally get satisfaction in knowing the job got done. I figure if the person watching the show notices a cable ... or a light is hung wrong, then we have failed because we should be invisible."

Each successive season brings with it its own share of technical and artistic challenges, and this year was no exception.

"You're always trying to find the path of what's going to bring the project to fruition," Hunter said. "I think that this year 'El Nino' had the most interesting path, and opera tends to be one of the more challenging technically."

Each season entails large-scale projects - set design and construction - but the day-to-day job requires an immense amount of poise and multitasking. The staff is organized according into teams, each assigned specific tasks.

The vibe of the scene shop can range from the methodical calm of a winter's day set build to the acute concern of a Hot Johnny.

"The only way you can react is to calmly assess what the problem is, what they need, and we pull it, make it, and get it down to them as quickly as we can," Jahoda said. "The big trick is that you have to be calm. If you stress and freak out about it, you're going to miss what the problem is."

Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.