SOCHI, RUSSIA – Fisht Stadium looked quiet from the outside Thursday, the one address in Olympic Park that wasn’t swarmed by the 90,000 visitors who came to attend a sporting event or take in the sights around the plaza. None of them knew that inside, thousands of people were working around the clock to prepare the Sochi Games’ grand farewell.
Michael Shann has come to know the 40,000-seat venue as if it were his living room. As the producer of the Olympics’ Closing Ceremony, the Minneapolis resident is putting in 12 to 16 hours per day, seeing to the final details of a complex live show that will be televised around the world Sunday night. Shann has been developing the production in Russia since October, first in Moscow and for the past two months in Sochi.
Through his 20 years as a producer for The Walt Disney Company, Shann made the connections that led him to Russia. Sunday night, he finally will get to enjoy the show he helped create, watching the 3,500 performers, fireworks and technical wizardry from the second row of the control booth.
“At this point, there’s not much I can do, other than make sure everything’s running smoothly,” Shann said during a break Thursday. “The night of the show, I’ll be listening and keeping my fingers crossed.
“This is a bucket-list item for me. The Olympics are a life experience that I think everyone should get a chance to experience. It’s great to watch on television, but it’s really something I wish everyone had a chance to see live.”
Shann and his wife, actress and director Shelli Place, moved from Los Angeles to northeast Minneapolis two years ago to be closer to their family. The native of Spearfish, S.D., cut his teeth in the business with Disney, where he began as a stage manager.
He has worked in California, Florida, New York and Tokyo. Shann has produced events for Disneyland’s 35th anniversary, a Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl stadium, Disney movie premieres and the Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood parks at Florida’s Walt Disney World. Those projects gave him the experience needed to oversee spectacles such as the Olympic ceremonies.
Six of his former Disney colleagues are working on the Sochi shows. Last year, Shann was producing corporate events and trade shows when a fellow Disney alumnus called about a job with FiveCurrents, the company contracted to create Sochi’s Closing Ceremony. The project they initially discussed did not get off the ground, but Shann soon found himself in Moscow, signing on for the Olympics.
While the Opening Ceremony focused on Russian history, Shann said the closing will have a lighter feel, celebrating the country’s rich cultural tapestry. In Moscow, he worked with a mostly Russian creative team, discussing their vision and figuring out how to make it come to life.
The work he did in Moscow involved overseeing the construction bids for sets and scenery, establishing budgets, recording music and completing models and designs.
“The creative team had a lot of freedom, and they would come to the technical and production teams and assume everything could be realized,” he said. “And for the most part, it could. It was great fun to be around a planning table with French speakers, Italian speakers, German speakers and Russian speakers, all trying to speak English.”
On a backstage tour Thursday, Shann showed off the two enormous hangars attached to the stadium, each large enough to house a 747. The scenery is attached to giant tracks on the ceiling in those staging areas so it can glide out over the field of play. Details of the Closing Ceremony are as tightly guarded as a Russian state secret, but Shann said it will include nods to the country’s traditions in music, dance and circus arts.
Last week, rehearsals were running 12 hours a day, with technical adjustments and corrections being made during the other 12. Shann spends most of his time in the control room, checking in with segment producers, the music team and others who manage specific areas of the production.
“There’s someone I’m in touch with each day who touches every piece of all of this,” he said.
When his work in Russia is done, Shann will return to Minnesota to resume his work with corporate projects. He’s also reviving a musical comedy he produced at the Ritz Theater last year — “Disenchanted! The New Musical Comedy That Gives Fairy Tales the Bird” — and is on the board of directors of the Jungle Theater.
At the Olympics, Shann was able to attend only one sports event, a speedskating race, because of his packed schedule. Sunday, he finally can relax and take in the show. And after that?
“Rest!” he said.