Learning to Ask, Asking to Learn

There's no getting around it: Technical theatre jobs require specific knowledge. But, as 6 case studies confirm, the most important underlying skills are communication and collaboration

By Stuart Miller

WE’RE LIVING IN WHAT IS SOMETIMES called the Information Age—an apt name for the constant flow of facts and data in which we swim, all made possible by ever-accelerating breakthroughs in computing. The catch, of course, is that, in a society where the one constant seems to be technological change, we may have too much information to process, too many systems to learn—and much of it will be obsolete by the time we’ve taken it in.

“You could probably have a full-time job just keeping up with the changes in technology,” says Erik Lawson, who started as an audio engineer and is now a sound designer based in New York City.

“It is more and more important to be well trained in technology,” concurs Pat White, director of education and training for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). “There are more demands on stagehands and designers than ever before: You have to use computers and you have to be constantly updating what you know at every point in your career.” To that end, IATSE established the IATSE Training Trust in 2011 “to make sure our workers have access to quality training in safety and craft development,” says Liz Campos, the fund’s executive director. “As technology changes, we want to make sure everyone has a vehicle to deliver standardized training.” That information has to trickle down to workers everywhere, Campos suggests, adding, “There has been a lot of interest from the locals.”

Technology has much to offer, of course, but it can be an impediment, too. “We see a lot of the bright-shiny-object syndrome,” observes Joe Pino, associate professor of sound design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “By that I mean students who are obsessed with whatever is newest, who say, ‘Look how cool this is, look what we can do with this!’”

That’s why Pino thinks that education that focuses too much on technology is a waste of money. “A student in his or her first year will find that any technology they learn has been replaced by the time they get into the field,” he says with a shrug. “We don’t have a single software course anymore—there might be a class or two about how to use a specific tool, but instead, we teach a way of learning and working, so the students will go out with a skill set.”

Additionally, Pino reports, people working in the field are always telling him they’re happy to teach their assistants how to do specific tasks. “There’s always someone who will teach them on the job,” he says. “We teach our students instead how to be artists, how to listen, how to think conceptually—not how to program this or that kind of mixer.”

For many entering or already working in the field, then, formal training and study in theatre technology is just one part of what it takes to do the job. “We all need to keep up with current technology,” concedes Mike Lawler, author of the new book Careers in Technical Theater (and this issue’s essay “The Technical Answer”). “But it seems the more common practice is to learn from colleagues and as needed for specific work.”

Lawler believes there are training issues that extend well beyond technology. He’s critical of all but the best schools for failing to provide enough mentoring and hands-on lessons in those broader areas. “All too frequently, academic programs are pushing to produce more than they should and end up using students to get the shows up and running, rather than producing less and focusing on skill-building,” Lawler reasons. He also dismisses the notion that a heavy production workload prepares students for realities of working in the theatre. “This line of thinking misses a crucial point: Those with well-established skills, honed under quality mentorship in school, will be better equipped to deal with the deadline pressure they will encounter than those who never gained the basic skills needed but learned to get things done, even haphazardly.”

Still, Pino argues, learning on the fly is also a lot easier now because today’s students were raised in the digital age and thus aren’t as intimidated by technology and change as students were just a few years ago. Indeed, the common thread that emerged in conversations with technicians and designers is that the key to success is not about being up on the latest gizmo or application; it’s about realizing that communicating and collaborating are the best training tools out there.

In a series of interviews with people in the early stages of technical careers in the realms of sound, scenic, costume and lighting, those themes resonated repeatedly. In technical theatre, it’s not who you know or even what you know—it’s what you can learn and how willing you are to ask.


SOUND JUDGMENT: Elize Simon

Elize Simon got her start working in sound, ran as far away from it as she could—then discovered it really was where she belonged. “The story of how I got here is kind of strange,” ventures Simon, 24, a native New Yorker who works as an A2 (audio assistant) for theatre. In some ways, her journey is actually quite logical, since Simon was always handy and theatre was always a part of her life. “My mom taught me to use power tools when I was five and sang Broadway show tunes to me as lullabies,” she says.

Simon attended Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, known for its arts program. On her first day of shop, she showed off her ability to wield a drill, and her teacher, sensing her skill and enthusiasm, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: The school had just received a grant to revamp the sound system and he needed someone to do the work. “He was a lighting designer, so considering that, I guess he did a good job of teaching me how to put together a sound system,” Simon recalls.

In fact, Simon came in on Saturdays and did virtually all the work herself, figuring it out as she went; she then worked as the A1, A2 and the sound designer for the entire school year. “By the end I hated sound with a burning passion and said I’d never go back,” she remembers with a laugh.

So Simon avoided sound for the rest of high school and studied to be a stage manager at Carnegie Mellon, learning a little of everything, from lights to sewing, along the way. She regrets her anti-sound stance of that time only because she now realizes that taking Joe Pino’s ear-training class would have been both fascinating and helpful. But out in the real world she suddenly discovered she wasn’t meant to be a stage manager.

“I need structure, and as a stage manager you have to be the one to make the structure,” she says. “It’s not fun at all—it’s a thankless job if you’re not really confident.”

One night she was complaining over drinks to a friend about how she had lost her way. He, in turn, was complaining that he needed an A2 on short notice. “I said, ‘Why don’t you hire me?’ He said yes. I bought him a whiskey.”

To train for her new gig, Simon shadowed the A2 working on another show for a couple of days. She quickly realized that her training as a stage manager would serve her well in her new role. “Many of the same skills, like organization, caretaking and actor management, are super-useful for A1s and A2s,” she says.

Once she plunged in, Simon found she loved the job, even if she had to make it up as she went along. “As stage manager you are supposed to be the one with the answers when people are asking questions, so I felt uncomfortable asking for help,” she says, adding that when she worked as a stage manager she didn’t feel the sense of community she feels as part of a sound team. “As an A2, if I don’t know the answer to everything, I know I can figure it out—and half the time figuring it out means calling someone or asking someone for help.”

While working on Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas at New York Theatre Workshop last year, for instance, Simon was quick to acknowledge that she was a rookie and asked Jill BC Du Boff, the show’s sound designer, “Can you just do it once and show me exactly what you want?” DuBoff was surprised that Simon was willing to hand over the microphone. But no matter, Simon notes: “I have zero pride—on the first time with something new I want them to show me so I do it right.”

She points to the endless number of names and abbreviations for microphones and monitors and other equipment—jargon that can vary from theatre to theatre. Simon says that when someone starts rattling off things she needs to do with a US 600 and an SM 58, say, she’ll interject, “Hold on, can you speak human?” Even if she’s doing this 10 years from now—and, for now, she has no desire to move on to be an A1 or a designer—Simon figures she’ll still be learning, especially when it comes to technology. “I’ll always be asking questions,” she says with a smile.


FAMILY BUSINESS: Jesse Poole-Van Swol

Jesse Poole-Van Swol, 34, also came to his current work in a roundabout way, and he too emphasizes the importance of the “c” words—communication and collaboration. But Poole-Van Swol, shop foreman at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre Company (who doubles as technical director for other theatres around the city), adds that he’s learned how a third “c” is essential to working in the theatre: community.

Poole-Van Swol’s grandfather dabbled in scenic carpentry and his father followed his footsteps, so young Jesse got much of his essential training hanging around his father’s shop.

“Half of my tools are my father’s or grandfather’s,” he says, adding that while his father died seven years ago, he still finds himself trying to figure out how to solve a problem “and memories will flood back from when I was five years old watching my dad do the same thing. He had no training, so he had to figure everything out on his own.” (The tradition continues: Poole-Van Swol’s six-year-old son now travels around with him to different theatres where he works, and the youngster “already knows my stage directions better than some interns.”)

Poole-Van Swol learned such technical theatre basics as how to build a platform at Pinellas County Center for the Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla. But again, he credits his father for taking everything one step further. “He took my ‘Backstage Handbook’ and annotated it with extra drawings and different tools that he used,” he says, adding that the DIY approach he learned from his dad was as important as any specific pointers. “I call upon that every day,” Poole-Van Swol says. “Thinking outside the box is the way I’ve always done things.”

In fact, the most important lesson he learned at his high school wasn’t about the specifics of the work itself. He is grateful to one teacher, Siobhan Archard, not just for her “immense passion for theatre” but also for emphasizing that the designer and the carpenter are just as much an integral part of putting on a show as the director and actor. “Sometimes I work with people who say our jobs are not that important, and I say, ‘What do you mean? These shows would never happen without us.’”

Poole-Van Swol found college boring and became disheartened with the theatre after several bad experiences in the Tampa area—one theatre appropriated his ideas, he says, and another failed to pay him. He ended up working for lighting companies, picking up knowledge of how to run the boards for clubs and concerts. He also worked at a record store and then at the Home Shopping Network as a scene technician.

“They respected my carpentry skills immediately, but the technology for light and sound had changed so quickly that I felt like I was coming out of the Dark Ages,” he said. “But I was honest about what I knew and didn’t know, and people would show me what I needed to learn.”

After a while, however, the TV gig, which was essentially loading three sets a day in and out, became stale. “I wanted something more artistic,” Poole-Van Swol remembers. So, with his wife’s blessing, they moved to Pittsburgh, where he could start over in a city with more theatrical opportunities. “With my skills and passions, I made my name known pretty quickly,” he says of his work not only at City Theatre but at Prime Stage and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, among others. “I’m working with kids who have master’s degrees, but I have something to add, too.” He acknowledges that when he’s 55 he may wish he had those degrees, so he could more easily move from heavy lifting into teaching.

But Poole-Van Swol is clear about one thing: He’s all about building sets, not designing them. “My son was playing with Legos and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to be a set designer, and you can build everything,’” Poole-Van Swol recounts. He has done some design work but prefers instead “to figure out how to make the pile of wood into a beautiful set.”

At City Theatre he has learned by watching the way the scene designer, production manager and artistic director work individually and together. While deadlines, budgets and artistic impetus may not be directly connected to his work, “I think it’s important to understand how your ecosystem works,” Poole-Van Swol avows. “When you understand what is invested in a show, then you are willing to find a way to make the impossible work.”

As he’s gained experience, Poole-Van Swol has become more comfortable saying, “This is how I think this should be done.” But he has also come to understand that his role goes beyond the particular theatre at which he happens to be working. “I’ve learned how important it is to be part of the larger Pittsburgh theatre community, how we can all learn from each other,” he concludes. “We’re always calling each other up to say, ‘Can I borrow this tool?’ or ‘How do you do this?’ But it’s more than that—it’s about going to see each other’s shows, about the sense of warmth we share.” That’s a lesson that he couldn’t have learned in school.


SEW IT GOES: Emily Blumenauer

Every one of Emily Blumenauer’s friends in middle school got the same birthday present: a purse. Her mother, who was an artist selling her own clothing and ceramics at art fairs, not only brought Emily along to help set up and break down her booths, she taught her to work with clay and to sew. Later, her father bought Emily her first sewing machine.

“I started making purses out of her extra batik fabric, and at every party, I was saying, ‘Here’s your purse,’” says Blumenauer, 27, with a smile. In high school, Blumenauer moved on to sewing her own prom and homecoming dresses.

But the skills Blumenauer now uses as a costume technician really developed when she got to college—where she wasn’t even thinking about theatre. Blumenauer spent her undergraduate years at Florida State University, studying apparel design and technology.

“I loved the drawing and the technical side, and I wanted a way where I could make money doing this,” she says of her decision to enter the fashion world. It was a great education, she says, teaching her everything about draping, pattern-making and computer-aided design. The latter was, at first, the most challenging for her. “It was click-click and you’re done, but it felt like something was missing,” she observes. “Draping is my passion. It’s more organic.”

It was when the fashion world started to feel too commercial and not creative enough that Blumenauer was inspired to enter theatre. She has just finished her master’s degree in design and technical production at Brooklyn College this fall—and she looks back on her schooling as an ideal training ground.

“I would not be where I am today without it,” she declares. “Most of the other graduate students have a theatre background, and in the beginning the terminology was out of my league. But when we’d sit down at the machines they’d have no idea what to do. The terminology is easier to learn.”

Blumenauer learned by multiple means—through classes, working on shows and immersing herself “with theatre people—I did not know any before, but they’re virtually the only people I hang out with now.” She learned early on to not be afraid of admitting she was lost; in her Intro to Drafting course, for example, “I sat two feet from the professor and stopped her every three minutes with a question, and I was always e-mailing or calling with more. I thought she’d hate me, but she loved that I was asking all the time, because she felt she was really teaching me.”

At school Blumenauer always did hands-on work for the shows she designed; she also taught an introductory sewing course to undergrads. Working as a technician or designer outside of school, directors have frequently confided to her that many costume designers from other programs “can draw but cannot make anything.”

That’s a distinction—between “being creative” and creating—that can make all the difference.


SOUNDS YOU HAVEN’T HEARD: Erik Lawson

Erik Lawson picked up some of the technical basics of audio engineering working in summer stock while in college, but he also gleaned knowledge while toiling at theme parks and as a DJ, and especially when he went out to sea on a cruise line.

“I was expected to figure things out on the job or to ask other engineers,” he says of his technical acumen. “Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn’t. But I learned on the cruises that the most important thing is communicating with the artist. After you learn to do that, the technology is not so difficult.”

But Lawson, 39, the possessor of a “lifelong interest in theatre and music,” says it took him until graduate school to really understand the essence of being a sound designer. His first step in that process came when he worked as audio engineer at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, learning from the sound designers who often came from New York to work there. “It wasn’t a direct mentorship,” he notes, “but I got to observe the way they interacted with the show’s other designers, the actors and the director. There was a lot of conversation and collaboration.” He also got the chance to design the sound for local university shows, which was “a great learning experience.”

Lawson then took what he’d learned and turned to teaching as an adjunct professor for Lehigh University, while also working as the school’s audio coordinator. “Teaching was great because it forced me to put my ideas into words, and it gave me the opportunity to take the design process and really slow it down—to stretch it out and explore the text in a way that time and budget does not allow for in the professional world,” he says, making a succinct case for the value of training that’s not entirely vocational or job-oriented.

Lawson loved the experience so much he decided he wanted to be back on the other side, so he enrolled in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama. He didn’t need training on the technical side; instead, he needed experience in “exploring the boundaries of sound design and storytelling.” The coursework was “inspiring,” but Lawson also relished the chance to take electives, like an art department course on “sound art.”

The most valuable takeaways from his school experience, Lawson says, were about the importance of collaboration and the necessity of self-editing—but he was also pushing himself to seek new ideas, even at the risk of failure. “Success can be a horrible teacher if we repeat the same things,” Lawson believes. His time at Carnegie Mellon (he graduated in 2012) taught him to look more skeptically at some of his earlier sound design work—his effects “promoted a specific audience response and reinforced the dramatic action onstage,” he says. “But now I’m in pursuit of an original score that gives the audience interpretive flexibility and a broader palette with which they can engage.” The ideas behind one course with Joe Pino have stuck with him: Students took old synthesizers and toys like the Furby and rewired them to create new sounds that they used in a live radio play. “It was a new way to think about things,” Lawson notes. “Everything is in our laptops, and you can create from software. But this made it really exciting to create from hardware.”

After he moved to New York, that lesson inspired Lawson when he worked on Paul Cameron Hardy’s feeling from Glass Bandits Theater Company, in which all the sounds came from him manipulating household objects, ranging from scissors to a dishwasher. “I would not have done that without that experience at Carnegie Mellon,” Lawson testifies. “I knew if I created the sounds myself, I could get something fresh and exciting.”

New York has “provided its own training,” Lawson adds, since the city’s theatres are often just rooms that need a sound system installed for each production. “So the only way to learn each time is on the job,” Lawson says. “But Carnegie Mellon really prepared us for that, too, because the designers chose every piece of equipment anew for each show. I learned to create the environment I wanted.”


LIGHTING FOR CHARACTER: Dante Olivia Smith

When Dante Olivia Smith was a teenager, her parents moved to Boise, Id., where her father joined the board of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. And so it began. First she worked as an usher and ticket-taker while in junior high school. Then, after seeing every show—“with all the actors looking so glamorous and cool,” she recalls with a giggle—she began studying acting in high school. It turns out she hated it—until she realized that Gage Williams, the resident set designer at ISF, was actually doing something really fun for a living.

On the other hand, working on the sets meant going down into the trap room, where a snake dwelt—so Smith, a former tomboy, instead headed for the catwalk.

“While my friends were working at McDonald’s, I was running follow spots for Bartlett Sher’s Cymbeline,” says Smith, 30, of her Idaho summers. “I was exposed to such talent, and it was more up my alley than set design, anyway. Lighting is weird and ephemeral, and I loved how four different designers in one summer could create different worlds using the same tools.”

That lesson—about how imagination and flexibility matter more than the equipment at hand—has informed Smith’s work ever since. At Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, she dabbled some more in set design, but kept returning to lighting, first as an intern at Seattle Repertory Theatre and then as a freelancer after college. Cornish “gave me the way to deconstruct what I was seeing and showed me how to create on my own,” she says. “It also taught me about being an artist in a community, in a relationship with the audience and the other artists.”

But the real world felt like it was stifling her progress. Not only was it difficult to find work as a designer without a master’s degree; she felt like when she did work, she had reached the limits of her abilities. “I wasn’t learning any more, and I wanted to push myself forward,” says Smith, who saddled that impulse and rode it east to New York University. “I could have just moved to New York for work, but going to NYU not only gave me a network of lighting designers, it gave me the ability to analyze my own work better—and that’s what will lead to better jobs.” Smith adds that, based on her own experience, she encourages aspiring designers to go to graduate school.

The workload at NYU was brutal, in part because Smith insisted on pushing herself. “It’s my only chance to be in a think tank with my peers and with designers,” she told herself. Smith realized that whether she was working on Shakespeare or Sondheim, she needed to relate the lighting to storytelling and that “the simple gesture that moves the story forward” was critical. “It may not be about the time of day—it may be about a character’s emotions.”

That storytelling component remains more important than anything she learned about technological changes. “My friend’s four-year-old can get around my iPhone faster than anyone I know,” Smith says, explaining that NYU teaches only the basic functions of technology, knowing that anything else will soon be obsolete. Echoing the refrain of many of her colleagues in all fields of technical and design work, Smith concludes: “I can always ask for help if I have questions.”


WHOLE CLOTH: Dina Perez

Dina Perez, 30, had loved sewing since childhood, but had made the pragmatic choice to become a chemistry major at Duke University so she could earn a living in the field of medicine. Then she grew bored and restless and returned home to Florida, where her mother encouraged her to reconsider costume design. She went to the University of South Florida “because of my sewing,” she says, “but I fell in love with the design aspect—and my analytical and detail-oriented training from science proved helpful there.” Most of the other students at USF had come from arts backgrounds, she notes, “so I felt like an outsider.”

Deciding she still didn’t know enough about theatre as an art form or about communicating with directors and costume shops, she chose to go straight to graduate school, following her USF mentor, Bill Brewer, to the University of North Carolina’s prestigious School of the Arts. “I wanted more show experience with the safety net of graduate school,” Perez reasons. “What I learned there about clothing construction helped inform me so I can make better designs overall.”

Perez was lucky, because Brewer, a great designer in his own right, continually challenged her to set new standards for herself. Not all her friends had such a personal advantage. “I have friends who chose a school because they were inspired by a particular designer who teaches there,” she says, but once there, these students found that while they “still admired the designer’s work, their personalities didn’t match up.”

Perez echoes technical director Poole-Van Swol: “What was most important was learning how to communicate and collaborate effectively.” For her, that meant adjusting to everyone’s egos and making it a priority that the plays were well served. “I didn’t realize theatre was such a collaboration—that everyone has their own ideas in their hearts about what show is about, and you have to see that it’s not about you but about the story the work is telling.”

The academic work was demanding, to put it mildly. “My second year I had a class where every week we had to present a full design package for a show,” she recounts. “I hated it. It was an insane amount of work, and by the end I felt broken.” But this torment was not without its value: If nothing else, the class taught her time management and prioritization. “In the real world, I’m never doing one show at a time—I can be doing three shows and someone calls and says, ‘We lost our costume designer, can you come up with something in three days?’ Now I know how to work quickly and to present enough information to communicate my ideas—how to focus my efforts where they need to be focused.”

And while the teachers in many of her classes constantly made her draw and redraw till her designs matched her verbal descriptions, the need to produce and move on taught her to shed her perfectionism. “I learned that perfect isn’t necessary—that the sketch is not the final work of art but the stepping-stone to the costume that will be on stage.”

After graduating in 2011, Perez moved to New York, where she often finds herself calling on all the skills she learned along the way. “I’m often a one-woman show—the designer, shopper, draper and stitcher. Sometimes I get one assistant,” she says. So when she worked recently at the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore, which had a full costume shop, it came as something of a relief. “I could hand over my renderings and a pile of fabric, and they made it happen,” she says with a note of wonderment. “I got into this because of my sewing, but I’ve really developed my design skills. Now I find that I’m limited when I work on my own—but with a skilled technician, I can push my own concepts further.”

Arts reporter Stuart Miller writes frequently for this magazine.