University responds to demand for technicians

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Photo by William Freedberg.

The set of an upcoming undergraduate adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, #romeojuliet, will include elaborate projected images — virtual representations of walls, floors and of the actors themselves. While 10 years ago, technologically advanced projects such as this one may have been difficult to execute, members of the undergraduate theater community can now stage their ambitious ideas more easily.

Over the past decade, Yale has constructed three new undergraduate theaters and renovated two others. During the 2013-’14 academic year, various groups within the University have invested a total of over $65,000 in maintaining and increasing the technological potential of these theaters, Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan said in an email. By experimenting with theater’s technical aspects such as light, sound and set design, students have been staging increasingly complex shows.

But the demand for skilled student technicians has not always been met. Stuart Teal ’14, who specializes in lighting design, explained that because the number of students with the necessary skills to fulfill productions’ technical needs varies from year to year, directors and producers have sometimes found it challenging to assemble a full team of technicians for their shows.

Janine Chow ’15, a sound designer, said the theater community is currently suffering from a lack of sound designers. Many experienced sound designers graduated in 2013, she explained, and there were not enough new designers to take their place.

“The number and complexity of shows fluctuate independently of the number of technicians available to work on them,” Teal said. “I never want to say there is too much theater, but sometimes you might not have enough designers to cover all of the shows.”

In 2007, student production teams often lacked members specializing in design, according to Kate Krier, head of the undergraduate production office. It was typical for actors and directors to try to complete entire projects on their own because they could not find enough designers, she added. Today, she said, almost every senior project in theater studies has a fully staffed creative team behind it.

Both the theater community and the University have responded to the student productions’ rising demands. Over the past five years, professional technicians employed by Yale — and particularly employees of the Undergraduate Production Office — have become more involved in student-run shows, adopting the roles of mentors to members of the student theater community.

At the same time, members of the theater community interviewed said students have placed more emphasis on peer education, with experienced student technicians investing more time and effort in passing their knowledge on to their peers.

 

A STEEP LEARNING CURVE

In the last year alone, the University has used its Arts Discretionary Fund — a Yale fund used to finance various art-related projects each year — to purchase new, technologically advanced equipment for undergraduate theaters.

Off Broadway Theater technical adviser Justin DeLand noted that last year marked Yale’s first ever investment in light-emitting diode technology, explaining that LED lights are brighter, have more color options and use much less energy than OBT’s previous light system. The University also purchased a new digital sound board and speaker system for the theater, DeLand added.

Although improvements are allowing students to undertake theater projects with more ambitious light and sound design than in past years, members of the theater community interviewed said mastering the technical aspects of the field can be difficult.

Janine Chow ’15, a sound designer, said sound design presents unique challenges to production teams because sounds create an entirely new force within the play, rather than simply enhancing other aspects of a production.

“Unlike lighting, which illuminates actors, sound interrupts them,” Chow said. “The designer needs to incorporate the sound into the movement and aesthetic of the play.”

Al Nurani ’17, a light designer who has worked on two productions this season, explained that the theoretical side of lighting design is difficult to master. While the act of hanging a light may be simple, he said, hanging it in a way that illuminates actors or objects to achieve a particular effect is a skill that takes a long time to learn.

Eliza Robertson ’17, the master electrician for the upcoming production “Valhalla,” explained that many aspiring student technicians start out by working as beginner crew members in order to learn basic technical skills. Usually, Robertson said, students will acquire a decent amount of hands-on experience by working in these roles before they move on to roles that require expertise in a specific area of technical theater.

Chow said she thinks experienced sound technicians’ biggest priority at the moment is training new sound designers and building student interest in the field, noting that she has become a peer mentor for the UP Office in an attempt to inspire underclassmen to learn sound design.

UP’s Peer Mentor Program, which was established in the fall of 2012, pays experienced student technicians to any answer questions for students new to technical theater. According to UP’s website, the students help their peers with “issues ranging from developing a project, producing, designing, build, and through load-in and the tech process.” The mentorship program is one of several ways students just entering the field can receive support and guidance on campus.

 

A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY

Teal said he thinks there was a deficit in the student technician community during his freshman year at Yale — a deficit he attributes to the previous generations’ failure to sufficiently educate their successors. But the current generation of experienced technicians is making a sustained effort to instruct their less experienced peers, he explained.

All four freshmen technicians interviewed said their transitions into the technical theater community have been made significantly easier by the support they received from more experienced student technicians. Hannah Friedman ’17 said she thinks that students share technical knowledge because of the collective expectation that each generation of student technicians will eventually transfer their skills to their younger counterparts.

Professionals in the Theater Studies Department and the Undergraduate Production Office have also responded to the high demand for skilled technicians by directly participating in student production teams as well as educating students on theater technology and design. Members of the theater community interviewed said the number of technicians serving as technical directors or sound and lighting designers in undergraduate productions has increased over the past several years. Krier said that though UP’s primary concern is safety, the office aims to provide overall guidance and assistance to students involved in performing arts shows.

“We are here to support every aspect of the production process,” Krier said.

Members of the Undergraduate Production Office have recently adopted roles as mentors to undergraduates interested in technical theater and design. Krier said Technical Director for Theater Studies and Undergraduate Production Tom Delgado DRA ’09, who has extensive experience with lighting design, sometimes invites students who are interested in the field but do not have a lot of technical background to assist him in his projects, thus allowing them to improve their skills.

Delgado said he has taken on many different roles in undergraduate theater shows in the past year — he was a lighting designer in “The Water Play,” a set designer on “The Spitfire Grill” and currently plays a supervising role on “The Paper Bag Princess.” He added that UP also hosts a “tech boot camp” each semester during which students receive hands-on experience in various areas of technical theater.

Yale Drama Coalition President Nikki Teran ’14 said that when Delgado found out about her interest in lighting design, he offered to teach her about the field. When Teran later worked as a lighting designer in a theater company, she put that knowledge to use.

“Every skill I used there, I learned from Tom,” Teran said. “I wouldn’t have learned lighting design at such an early stage from anyone else.”

Tim Creavin ’15 said he thinks the professionals who participate in undergraduate theater help students interested in pursuing the field after they leave Yale acquire skills they would not otherwise learn on campus.

“Since Yale is not a conservatory, we don’t have classes that teach us these skills,” Creavin said. “Having professionals here to teach them to you definitely encourages more students to pursue directing, producing or technical theater as a career.”

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