Drunken Designers (or, How I Learned to Stop Caring and Screw Theatre), Part 1

Warning: This article is VERY LONG and contains a lot of personal information. If it doesn’t interest you, please don’t complain – just move on.

After much debating with myself, I decided to begin posting this three part series about my life in theatre. I hemmed and hawed (and howed and hummed) about the editing process of this first one, because I felt a little worried about the value of its content. I finally decided that it would be difficult to take anything away without eliminating what I felt were vital elements to this story. If I were writing this for a magazine or something, you’re damn right I’d trim it down, but I’m not, so I didn’t. Constructive criticism in this vein will be tolerated, but only barely, since the style and construction of this series is not the point. So, without further blabbering, here goes:

I began my brief career in theatre during sophomore year of high school. I ended it after graduating with an Associates of Arts in Theatre Technology from Casper College (Casper, Wyoming). I am currently a junior Adventure Education student at Fort Lewis College (Durango, Colorado).

I wake up smiling.

I never skip class.

I have a 4.0 GPA.

I sleep at night.

And it has been almost a year since I last was drunk on the job.

This is my story, in three handy parts.

To start with, I’d like to reprint a section of my admissions essay to Prescott College:

“…

Those years behind, I moved on to high school, and the most important transition I’ve faced so far in my life. It was in high school that I found technical theatre. My eldest brother, Sam, had gone to the same high school six years back, and he was a “techie.” The fact that I idolized my brother led me straight into doing tech for the two shows a year my school produced.

As is to be expected, my “friends” from junior high had abandoned me for other exploits. I never blamed them – everyone changes in those formative years. Being friendless, the welcoming atmosphere of the techies was a great thing for my mental well-being. I found some life-long friends in that group of misanthropes and hooligans. For background, technical theatre at Poudre High School was what you did when you enjoyed theatre, but despised authority. Actors take orders – techies make their own. It was fun being rebellious. Our technical director was a rebel from the old school; she wasn’t in opposition to our exploring the more “off-limits” areas of the theater. In hindsight, I think she was living vicariously through us. She was paid poorly, but my god did she love theatre, and her students.

At a certain point, that all had to end. Senior year was hard on all of us; the director (not the technical director – the overall show director) became more and more demanding, safety regulations became more and more restrictive, and the culture turned rotten. Even so, I was convinced it had nothing to do with theatre, and everything to do with the horrible director – a drama queen if I’ve ever seen one. Half my crew decided not to keep up with theatre when they left. I stuck with it, with nothing short of mixed results.

… (removed section regarding my experiences in the outdoors) …

Casper College mailed me a letter in Spring of senior year. Put simply, it said they’d pay for my tuition and fees if I came into the theatre program there as a technical student. That meant I’d only have to pay for housing and food. I had a very meager savings and a stubborn love of theatre, so I accepted the offer.

Too much has happened these past two years to describe it all. I’ve grown too much, seen too much, and learned too much to synthesize it into an essay. I don’t think I have to tell anyone that college changes a person. I entered the theatre program at CC with high hopes and dreams of one day being in a big theatre somewhere. Those dreams quickly plummeted, as I realized a few things about life.

1) Theatre is emotional business. Pay is low and artistic gumption is high, so vast amounts of emotion are invested in the work done.

2) This investment leads to drama, both in the literal artistic sense of, “We are making drama here!” and in the petty high-school sense of, “Why is everyone so dramatic?

And

3) When drama (of both kinds) was happening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sunset I’d watched over the Diamond Peaks near Cameron Pass, back home.

It’s very troubling to cease caring about the thing you used to be so passionate about. And that led to a long period of sadness for me. Months went by when I had no clue what to do with myself but work myself to death for a selfish theatre.

Late one night, I climbed to the top of the theatre building (not a difficult proposition), and pondered for a while. The sun came up, and as it rose in the east, the light played on the mountains to the south, and I remembered that sunset in the Rockies, not so long ago.

Now, as my year draws to a close, I’m a month away from my Associate of Arts in Theatre Technology, a month away from an expedition to Nepal with my father and some CSU students, and about five months from starting a new chapter of my life. And though, given the chance, I wouldn’t take back the last several years of my life, I certainly hope these next few have a happier ending.”

The essay that this section was taken from won me an extra few thousand dollars of scholarship money at Prescott College. If I could have afforded it, I probably would have gone there to pursue my degree. I hope that, by reading this, you will get a glimpse into my emotional state, and the short history behind my theatre career.

A Glossary of Terms

If you fully understand the roles and titles of people in a theater, skip this section. If you are unfamiliar, or want a refresher, read this. I think knowing these terms is important to the next two parts of the story. Note: These roles are the standard ones used by 99% of theaters, but non-professional theaters and schools often blur and alter these roles for the sake of simplicity or tradition. Casper College did a fairly good job of retaining the standard usages.

  • Techie – Generic term for a theatre technician. Can be applied to any job not related to performance.
  • Technical Director (TD) – Responsible for all aspects of the physical production of a show. This includes managing the carpenters, painters, electricians, and so on. This person is not necessarily on the “Design Team,” and thus has zero say on design elements. ATD’s (Assistant Technical Director), TCD’s (Technical Carpentry Director), MC’s (Master Carpenter), MRD’s (Master Rigging Director), and UTD’s (Union Transport Director) are other titles that fall under the Technical Director title, but usually those exist only in very large or specialty theaters.
  • Director – Responsible for the “style” of the show, and is the ultimate authority over all design elements. They also take the job of giving the performers instruction.
  • Light Designer (LD) – Responsible for all electric elements appearing in a production, except when this interferes with the Sound Designer (speakers, radios, etc.). Their primary job is to create a lighting plot for each scene in a production that follows the style set forth by the director. In poorly staffed theaters, this position is often covered by the TD. LD’s frequently have an Assistant LD.
  • Sound Designer – Responsible for all auditory elements of a production. This usually includes microphones, speakers, nonlocal music, and sound effects. In poorly staffed theaters, this position is also covered by the TD. Most Sound Designers have an Assistant Sound Designer, and a crew of “gaffers,” (Yes, just like in film).
  • Scenic Designer – Responsible for the design of all physical aspects of a production (not including lights, obviously). They may or may not provide construction specifications to the TD. Some designers simply provide sketches to the TD to build, while some provide intricate instructions. Again, in poorly staffed theaters, this is covered by the TD. Assistant Scenic Designers are not common, except in large productions.
  • Master Electrician (ME) – The ME is in charge of the physical implementation of the LD’s plot, and they must also create a “hook-up” in order to organize said plot for use on a computerized lighting control board. They often have a crew of electricians to work with them.
  • Stage Manager (SM) – The stage manager is the Director’s bitch. They are in charge of maintaining order during rehearsals, firing late employees, and generally keeping copious notes on the entire production. The also call cues during the performances. This is a difficult and often unsatisfying job, but it pays fairly well and provides you with a lot of power.
  • Backstage Manager (BSM or BM) – The backstage manager is the stage manager’s bitch. Unlike the SM, they are backstage during the performance, and are in charge of managing the crew.
  • Grid – The web of piping above the stage and audience that LD’s hang lights from. Can refer to the entire system or to the area directly above the stage.
  • Booth – The room at the back of a theater which (depending on theater) houses the light and sound boards and the SM.
  • Rack – The pile of amplifiers, crossovers, and other computer gear that organizes how sound is produced in a theater.
  • Upstage – The part of the stage farthest from the audience.
  • Downstage – The part of the stage closest to the audience.
  • Theatre – The term used to define the “concept” of performance/acting/etc
  • Theater – The term used to describe a building in which “theatre” is performed

I’m now going to explain a few things that either the essay missed, or that it couldn’t explain.

First, my roles, from show to show, starting in tenth grade, were as follows:

  • Sophomore PHS – Crazy for You – Set construction, stage crew
  • Sophomore PHS – Cyrano de Bergerac – Set construction, Assistant Sound Designer, Sound Board Operator
  • Junior PHS – Damn Yankees – Set construction, Sound Designer
  • Junior PHS – The Birds – Set construction, Sound Designer, Assistant Technical Director
  • Senior PHS – 42nd Street – Set construction, Assistant Scenic Designer, Sound Designer, Assistant Technical Director
  • Senior PHS – Our Town – Set construction, Assistant Scenic Designer, Technical Director
  • Freshman CC – A Chorus Line – Sound Board Operator
  • Freshman CC – It’s a Wonderful Life – Master Electrician
  • Freshman CC – As You Like It – Props Master
  • Freshman CC – Flight – Sound Designer
  • Sophomore CC – Thoroughly Modern Millie – Master Electrician
  • Sophomore CC – Inspecting Carol – Light Designer
  • Sophomore CC – Fahrenheit 451 – Sound Designer

As you can see, I’ve traveled the roles pretty dramatically. In most of those positions, I did a very good job. That may sound like hubris or something, but it’s true. I had my share of failures, like the horrendous “Train Affair” during 42nd Street, or my terrible model of a deer in As You Like It, but for the most part I got overwhelmingly good reviews from critics, and issues that I got blasted for were usually someone else’s fault (like faulty wiring causing screeches during A Chorus Line, or poor directorial decisions in Fahrenheit 451). I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, just laying out the facts.

Second, none of what I did could have been done without help. Theatre is a collaborative art, just like film, and without the aid of some very cool people, I’d never have done all I did, and I probably would have either a) killed myself, or b) left theatre much earlier.

Third, when I say in the essay that, “Too much has happened these past two years to describe it all,” I mean it. Many of those things were not directly related to theatre, but to its culture. I’ll go over some of those things in Parts 2 and 3.

Part 1 is now larger than a Source-Four Revolution, so I’ll wrap this section up. Please check back in a few days for Part 2, wherein I describe what it’s like to be in that crazy culture.

3 thoughts on “Drunken Designers (or, How I Learned to Stop Caring and Screw Theatre), Part 1

  1. 1) You can write articles for this site? That’s neat.

    2) That fucking train.

    3) It seems our theatrical lives at Poudre were somewhat interrelated.

    4) Sharon was pretty neat, I liked her.’

    5) I look forward to reading the next two parts of this series. It sounds like it might be much of what I’ve experienced in theatre, and might continue to experience.

  2. 1) You sure can. We’ve got all sorts of opportunity for abuse here.

    2) No kidding. An endless series of issues there. ENDLESS. I would have prefered to burn the fucker down and have everyone pretend they were on an invisible train. It didn’t help that Dulcie thought she knew better than us and continually forced us to do really dumb things. But that’s a story for another day.

    3) They were indeed. That’s where we met. Where we fell in love. Where we learned what passion is. Etc.

    4) Sharon was awesome. She had her problems, but she had more passion for her students than anyone I’ve ever known. We got to know each other extremely well.

    5) Good. I’d imagine that most theatre is very similar in a lot of ways. The core of its existence is, after all, competition and art. Those things don’t usually combine well.

    6) I miss you, Vvienniy.

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