By Ron Smith
If you’ve attended an Off Broadway Players’ production, then you’ve witnessed the handiwork of Christopher Runion. Christopher is the “man-above-the scenes” who designs and operates the lighting and sound effects for the OBP shows. You may not ever see Christopher himself, since he works in the booth located above the seats in the rear of the J.F. Hillyard auditorium. Never in the actual spotlight himself, Christopher puts the actors in the best light possible and creates amazing sound effects to enhance the audience’s enjoyment.
Christopher’s talent for all things technical began at an early age. When Christopher was in elementary school, his father, Dwayne Runion, began to operate the sound board at their church. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Christopher at age ten was the one working the worship sound board. Later, as a Broadway High School student, he became involved with the tech crew for the spring musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There he honed his organizational skills by designing spreadsheets to schedule which actor had a microphone for which scene. Not only did he manage dozens of light and sound cues simultaneously, but he also fixed immediate problems with microphones, lights, and electronic equipment, all while the show was in progress.
Christopher gives credit for his theatre skill and knowledge to his studies in tech theatre at EMU, where he gained more hands-on experience in set construction and light installation, often creating lighting plots from scratch. His father’s influence continues to be a strong factor in his stage work. Christopher says, “When it comes to hanging lights and running cables, my dad has taught me the importance of cable management. I cannot stand wads of cable. You’ll find everything I install neatly coiled, wrapped up, and free of twists and knots.”
So, how did this local tech theatre wizard come to be a vital part of community theatre? Tim Reger, who directed plays at BHS at the time, asked Christopher to come on board for the OBP show Road to Appomattox. It was immediately obvious to the directors of Appomattox that Christopher was talented and experienced in all aspects of light and sound play production. Since then, he has been a mainstay for community theatre in Broadway. Dearly Departed, the most recent OBP offering, was Christopher’s tenth production with the group.
With all the complexities of lighting a stage and creating original sound effects, some unexpected things are bound to occur. Sometimes Christopher himself creates the unexpected to have some fun with the actors. He explains: “In my early days with the Off Broadway Players, for shows with two weekends of performances, we would always have a Thursday ‘refresher’ before the second weekend, to ensure the actors were still on top of their lines after a few days off. The longstanding tradition was that this rehearsal was just for lines; therefore, it allowed the sound operator to go crazy with bogus sound effects. I would spend days going through the script and trying to figure out what to ‘throw’ at the actors on that night. It was all in good fun. So long as the actors got their lines, all was well.”
Christopher is excited about some recent improvements for the J.F. Hillyard stage: “Just this past year, thanks to J.W. Fiske and my dad, we were able to upgrade the lighting system at Hillyard. Before this, any show required two people to operate lights – one in the booth, and one backstage, as the lights over the stage could not be controlled from the booth (due to the age of the system), and they could not dim, either. The shows I worked with this system were a bit challenging, but we made it work. With the new system, where everything is controlled from the booth, things are so much easier.”
Asked what he hopes to see for the new community theater planned by the Town of Broadway, Christopher says, “I love history, especially local history. Throughout the entire design process, we have taken into consideration the historical significance of the building as a former cafeteria/gymnatorium. (We hope to see) a number of original elements retained – from the brick walls to perhaps even the original gym floor. I hope that the general public will know that our intentions were not just to give new life to this structure, but to respect its rich history – as a number of patrons have already mentioned that they, or someone they know, performed on that same stage while they were in the school many years ago.
“Working in many venues – the former New Market location of the Off Broadway Players, J. Frank Hillyard Middle School, Broadway High School, EMU – and seeing theaters at places like Dollywood, I have learned what does and often does not work when it comes to the technical needs for a theatre. Therefore, I’ve worked with my dad (in hopes that the) technical side of the new theater will have all that we need, (as we plan) to incorporate elements that I’ve seen from other theaters.”
Like so many other community theatre volunteers, Christopher has a day job, too. He has been employed for almost four years at the local WBTX Radio Station (102.1 FM / 1470 AM) in Broadway. Thus, when he’s not working on anything ‘technical’ for the theatre, he spends much of his time immersed in southern gospel music history. Christopher adds, “While the two fields seem unrelated, many times my audio production skills come into play when creating sound effects for theatre shows.”
Whether he is cueing lights and sound for the stage, writing feature articles for the Chimney Rock Chronicle, or playing another Gaither song on the air, we all hope that Christopher Runion continues to let his light shine.