Spotlight January 2015

January, 2015
Wu Chen's Notes

Welcome to our first issue of Spotlight, the Tech Tools newsletter! As we begin our second official year, I want to thank everyone who participated in our programs and helped us in so many different ways. In response to the feedback from all our participants and instructors, we’ve made some changes to our operations. Check us out again this year and keep giving us that feedback on Facebook and the website!

We’ve grown our team and we’re really excited for the possibilities this affords us. Additionally, we’re partnering with Minnesota Playlist to give all our workshop participants discount coupons for a 1-year Talentbook Profile!

This monthly newsletter is one of those new things. Articles will vary from month to month, and will include interviews, opinions, methods and gear reviews! This first issue carries an important essay from Marcus Dilliard, a major figure in the theater design community, on the question of advanced education and a conversation with Tech Tools instructor Bill Healey. Next month we will feature an interview with Tech Tools participant and props designer Terri Ristow. I hope you enjoy it!

Lastly, we’re hosting a monthly get together for folks to meet, drink and share ideas informally that will alternate between St. Paul and Minneapolis. We’ll start this month in Minneapolis at Republic: come join us the second Monday of the month (the 12th) from 7pm – midnight!
 
Cheers,
Wu Chen Khoo
Tech Tools co-founder and Operations Director
techtools.wuchen@gmail.com

 

Participants having a blast at a public sound design workshop taught by Katharine Horowitz
SOAPBOX
The Graduate School Question
by Marcus Dilliard

 

     The decision on whether or not to attend a graduate program in Theater Design and/or Technology is, in my experience, an exercise in predicting one’s own future. I have colleagues who have highly successful careers in lighting design or design-related fields who have B.A. or B.F.A. degrees; they have never indicated any regrets about not having attended an M.F.A. program. And then there are the colleagues who, shortly after receiving their Master’s degree, left the field completely. It seems to come down to how well you know yourself and perhaps more importantly, how early in life you know what it is you want to do.
 
     Let’s start with a few generalities. My advice for high school students who are looking into undergraduate programs tends to be very simple: unless you are absolutely certain that you will become a stage designer or technician and are equally certain that you never wish to teach at the university level, stick with a well-rounded B.A. program. The options, should you change your mind after one, two or three years, will be much greater. Study everything you think might be remotely related to what it is you want to do – art, art history, music, psychology, physics, film, engineering, etc. Don’t limit yourself by assuming that designers and technicians need to know only about theater. But if you are absolutely certain about your goals, then do your homework on B.F.A. programs and get into the highest-profile program available to you.
 
     Assuming that you are one of those undergraduates who changed his or her mind once or twice, the decision to enter a graduate program will be an easy one. I began my undergraduate career “knowing” that I wanted to become a chemical engineer. That lasted until day one of my sophomore year, 15 minutes into my first metallurgy course. I eventually graduated with a double major - Biology and German Language and Literature.  Theater was, for me, completely extra-curricular and until my senior year, all about acting. I took one theater course, an acting practicum, because it was a requirement for acting in a production of The Tempest. So when I decided, at the 11th hour, that I wanted to become a lighting designer and not a microbiologist, graduate school was an absolute necessity.
 
      B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs are all about the connections you make while in school. Yes, the training is obviously important but if the instructors doing that training don’t have the connections to the outside world, you are only getting half of what the best programs can offer. Pay close attention to where the instructors in a given program are working and how much they are working. Both are equally important.
 
     If you are still reading this, I’m going to assume that you are an undergrad not in a B.F.A. program and are contemplating graduate school or you are a working professional contemplating a return to school. Anyone currently in a B.A. program should be indulging his or her curiosity about the world in as many ways as possible. (See paragraph 2.)
 
     If you are a working professional contemplating an M.F.A. program, make a list. Ask yourself what it is that you wish you could do: read music, draw and render, create puppets, paint scenery, drape an evening gown, program every lighting console known to the world, etc. Once you have that list, find the graduate program that will allow you to accomplish everything that’s on your list. Keep in kind the connections you need to make; your newly acquired skills aren’t going to do you or anyone else any good if no one knows that you have them.
 
     The one question to ask yourself when considering a Master’s program in theater is this: “Do I ever see myself teaching at a college or university?” If that answer is yes, then you will need the terminal degree in your field. For most of us, that’s the Master of Fine Arts. But even if the answer is no, keep in mind that predicting the future can be a tricky thing. I never thought that I would teach lighting design… but times, circumstances and interests change. I did not begin my teaching career until I was in my early-fifties. Without the terminal degree, that would not have been an option. And without the contacts I made while at Boston University’s School for the Arts, I would not have joined the Guthrie nor discovered the Twin Cities theater community.  I could not have predicted any of this when I was 17.
 
      Best of luck, no matter which path you choose to take. And feel free to contact me if you have any questions – mfdilliard@umn.edu.

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Meet Bill Healey!

Bill Healey is the current lighting supervisor at the University of Minnesota Theater and Dance department, Twin Cities campus, a freelance lighting designer and a member of IATSE Local 13. He recently designed lights for A Christmas Story at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Bill was previously the Head Electrician at the Ordway for over a decade, and is a well-known figure in the Twin Cities theater scene.

This conversation took place on December 17th 2014.

For the full interview, please go to our website at www.techtoolstraining.org/Spotlight

 
Bill: I was born in Saint Paul but I was a military brat for 5 or 6 years. Then when he shipped out [to Vietnam] we had been at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and when he got out he went back to college, got a job. We spent 4 years in central Massachusetts, before we moved back to the Midwest. He got a job here and I spent my junior high and high school years in Iowa. [We] came back up to Minnesota cause that’s where both of my parents are from and [I] went to college at Saint John’s University to be a classical humanities major. History was my thing and classical literature. I had been playing in high school with the brand new Light Palette remote designer’s console that had just come out. I had learned the language because nobody else could or would and had played with lighting in high school on just an “Ooh! What does this do?” level and kept on going in college and switched to a theatre major.
     When I got out of college and was freelancing around one of my first gigs was sub board-oping at [Children’s Theater Company]. I had been working carpenter overhire at the Guthrie, saw the posting for a draftsman needed at Children’s Theatre and applied for that. It was still hand drafting. [Dan Culhane] was just sitting down and learning this new thing called CAD you know in 1988. So I hand drafted half a day and then built in the shop the other half the day and after being there for [a] couple of months, all of a sudden this little dude comes walking through the scene shop and he stops and looks at me and goes, “I know you!” It was Barry Browning who had toured with Zenon [Dance Company] and he goes, “Saint Ben's, right?” I say that’s right and he was like, “I got a hang tonight and tomorrow and I need another body.” and that’s how I got in.
      A couple of months later I was running shows and Andy Mayer and I were left in charge of the entire production department along with the stage technicians. Everyone else went over as the running crew for Rembrandt Takes A Walk in Moscow so all of a sudden all the technicians were left in charge of the building. I didn’t blow anything up, there were no fires, all the performances went fine. CTC paid my bills for a good 4 or 5 years: really well for a single person when my only responsibility was for 1 or 2 cats. It was a really great way to break in because I was able to meet all sorts of people, designers of course and other technicians around town and you know, start to work around town a little bit.
 
Wu Chen: When you say break in it sounds like you happened to be lucky.
 
B: That’s how it always is. Where you are, when you are, you know. I tell a lot of our students here that you can have all the talent and skill but you’re not going to get jobs by just sending resumes out: you need to get out there and do stuff. You have to be as flexible as possible. I worked as a prop assistant at Chanhassen because I had enough skills to kind of get by. I love building little things but I’m not great at it. But yeah, working at Chanhassen in props and working at Jeane Lune with Joe Skala. He and I worked building shows for them for years but that was all show by show. If you can be competent and you can present yourself and communicate well with people and express what you don’t understand and learn it as quickly as possible; that is how you start getting to do what you want to do. And you’re right, luck. It’s breaks.
 
W: Where did you pick up such a wide variety of skills?
 
B: Well a lot of it was just classes: learning stuff in college. Our dad is not a handy man by any stretch of the imagination.
     When I first started working in a shop in college, [that] was where I really got into it and wanted to learn as many different tool and material skills as I could. They did a really good job for a teeny tiny little program in the middle of nowhere liberal arts college whose mission isn’t necessarily to turn out as many theatrical professionals. Their real mission is to just create awareness for all these kids going through these 2 really reputable schools but they still actually turn out a lot of quality theatre people. I think part of it was because of the way they really holistically wanted you to experience everything; it was required. Everybody had to do some shop time: more than just your practicum hours for some class or something like that, and for those that showed an interest and an aptitude they were able to cater some projects to each individual.
     Like my last year, I could have kind of an internship in-house under the technical director who was also the facility events coordinator. Peg Murphy was her name, she was great, and so I basically learned how to run a roadhouse, how to run the scene shop, and also design scenery for the fall production. I designed the set for it and was also the TD and the production manager for the facility, which was invaluable. Then I had to deal with all the forwarding with all the tours and the continual resident artists; [we had] Minnesota Orchestra coming up, Chamber Orchestra coming up, a lot of dance companies, some of the national tours.
 
W: Including Zenon.
 
B: Including Zenon, exactly. And that’s how I met a couple of people which later in my life I have circled back to with the Minnesota Opera. That was an introduction to 2 individuals who worked for the Opera but were also part of the [IATSE] union so there was a connection that was made there. Just that one extra semester probably has paved the way or started me stronger on the road. There was also a really strong connection with the design professor up there. [He] had been the TD at the Guthrie in the early 70s so he was able to just phone down there and [recommend me]. So I went down there.
     [Guthrie Master Carpenter] Tom Truax didn’t chase me out after the first day. I got a few talking-tos, which I deserved and that was great. Having that experience with people who were willing to not bandy about words or cut corners with their criticism because you don’t necessarily get that in college. You don’t necessarily get someone chewing you out. In some places you do. I did well enough to be invited back.
     I’d be able to come down and do some interesting stuff like when they were still touring. [One January] myself and one [other] overhire [acted as] the “house guys” for them to practice that process in communication: loading the show in, re-teching it, and doing a load out. A lot of those experiences were set up by the experiences I was given at college.
 
W: Stepping back a bit. So you went to school for history, classics, and you were saying that you dabbled [in theatre] in the high school?
 
B: Where we were living [in Iowa, was the] home of Maytag. There was money in town: they had built a 2 million dollar performing arts facility onto the high school that opened for my senior year. But even before that, in junior high, when you were getting in speech classes and debate club. A lot of those people where also involved in theatre. There was never anything that was big in our family, but that just kind of social network in junior high and high school led me to that just through friends. “Hey we need another body to play this guy in the Importance of Being Earnest.” That was like the first. I don’t know, that’s really not my thing, but enjoyed the sense of community and camaraderie and that entire process of putting something together, even in the stilted junior high production model. You know, everybody has that one moment, that one spark, right? Where you’re going, “This is kind of cool.” I sang in choir as well, competitively throughout the state, so there was always just that group of people I was around that also then lead me into theatre.
     I didn’t want to be like a performer necessarily, but there was something about it that is really appealing because it is the start of an artists’ process, which unless you grow up with it it’s totally foreign and new. The process of peeling stuff apart and putting it back together and how can I interpret this and what do I really think and what am I trying to say; all of that is not necessarily part and parcel of your average upbringing for most kids.
There’s a lot of just kind of regurgitation [in schools] unless you have a really strong teacher, which I did have an English professor who was quite remarkable in opening some of those doors, but generally it’s about do your homework, get your grades, move on; it’s very linear. There’s something about, well, any art form that works beyond that. It’s not necessarily all about the end game and the goal. It’s as much about the process and the questions you ask, the discussions you have, and the arguments you have during that process that are part of getting to that goal. You can’t just skip to it.
      I [also] found there was just that other element, that different element because you’re doing it with a whole bunch of people. That link of actually participating in that process with other people you know is what I really dug. It’s what I thought was really cool and you’re a teenager right? Everybody’s searching for something. It doesn’t have to be the answer but you’re looking to make connections. People [are looking] to make connections.
     One of the English professors that also headed the drama club was a great guy, excellent teacher. All these pallets of equipment just showed up at the loading dock of the new [performing arts] facility full of lighting instruments with this big box with this light board in it, this computerized light board! “What the hell is that?” you know. I had done nothing, very little, and he said, “Ok here are the manuals, here’s a matte knife, here’s a wrench, off you go!” He showed me some basics of how to hang a light but we got to figure out how we wanted to set up a rep plot for this room, how we use the counterweight system, now we hook up the console. A lot of it was him letting me go. The only computerized class I had before this involved punch cards so this was totally new to me but I figured out how to make it work and how to turn stuff on. I thought it was like all of a sudden, not only conquering this whole brave new world but the process of just fucking around with a bunch of lights on a bare stage. Making connections with visual images, from film and some of what I’d seen performatively, but mostly on the larger scale of how you could affect an environment with light.
 
W: A lot of people today seem to think you need to go to school to work in technical theater.
 
B: I want to feel that it’s not a requirement but also, to certain levels, I know the fact that I didn’t go back and get my masters, I know that has affected … the opportunities available to them for employment. Not necessarily as a designer, but there are just certain places that if you don’t have a BA or a BS or any kind of equivalent degree they can’t even talk to you.
 
W: What places?
 
B: This is what I’ve learned. I didn’t need a masters to do anything that I’ve done, any place that I’ve worked I have not needed a masters, but there have been times and places and opportunities that I couldn’t even try to go to because I don’t have my masters. So, it’s thinking not necessarily about what I want to do right now, it’s about making sure you create as large of a pool of availability to be able to turn a different direction down the road.
 
W: But there’s a trade off when it comes to something like school. 7 years in school are 7 years I’m not generating an income and when you’re starting out many people say you work for virtually nothing. [Does the Arts & Entertainment industry] simply exclude people who don’t have the stability to do that?
 
B: I did do URTA auditions coming out of undergraduate school and I did have full ride assistantship offers to get my MFA at 3 different schools, so I had choices. None of them were schools I was interested in because at that time I thought I was a scenic designer. But [John Jensen] said [that] whether they called [me] back or not, to knock on his door and [he would] look at [my] portfolio and critique it. He did not call me back.
     So after I went and did my rounds with the schools that did call me back I went and looked them up and they basically kind of very pointedly critiqued my portfolio and [told me] why they wouldn’t be interested in bringing me in which was really good to hear. I said, “You didn’t call me back, but these schools did.” He said, “What’s the first thing on your resume?” and I said, “Scenic carpenter at the Guthrie theatre overhire for the past 3 years”. He said, “They just want to bring you in to run their scene shop. They’re going to give you all the design classes, all the opportunity to design scenery, one a year maybe, but really they’re paying you to have competent personnel building their shows.”
     I thought, well do I want to get my MFA just to get my MFA? I had their letter offers in the mail. I talked it through with some of my professors, some of my family and decided, you know, I’m already working down in the Cities. I’m going to pick up different skills if I go through this and I’ll get my MFA and it’s not going to cost me a lot, if anything, cause they were full TA-ships. There was a part of me that really wanted to do that, to just do that and get it over with but there was another part of me that said, you know what I if that’s their attitude and they can’t come out and say it, because none of them actually said that to me, right? I’m not so sure, maybe I just want to learn by doing and doing it in an environment that I have more control over and made that choice and immediately started working.
It all worked out. I had nothing to complain about. I don’t know if my having an MFA or not would have influenced or affected anything. The timing obviously would have completely different and my expectations coming out of a graduate program would have been very different than “I’m just going to go down to the cities. I’ve got someone to room with for a few months so I can get some money together to get first and last month’s rent and get my own tiny little studio apartment…”
     So everything worked. It all worked. Not all of it was easy, of course, and there were times in those first 5 or 6 years where I was a professional sofa surfer, you know, but I don’t regret it because I’ve had opportunities because of the timing and what I did and the connections that I made. Everything that would have happened had I made another choice would have been a completely different path that is. Probably. Being at this stage of life at a University, I don’t know, maybe that would be the only place where things might meet again because teaching has always been something that I want to do, but everything in between: all that experience, all those great different companies I probably would have never ever, ever gotten hooked in and connected with…
     So, is it required? Is it a good idea? It all depends on where you want to land. I’m much more of an “I’m going to take a step forward and see what I step on, see what stone appears in front of me and follow that path” than trying to chart out all the steps of my future. I think that’s such a waste of energy it’s unbelievable.
     It’s about being flexible, being open. I had a conversation with a student just the other day I told them, “You just showed us something that none of us knew you had, don’t ignore that. You just discovered something about yourself that’s fucking amazing. You’ve been saying ‘I don’t do this, I don’t do this,’ and then you’re forced to do it, all of a sudden you just fricking shoot to the moon and everyone is just standing back going ‘what?’ Don’t ignore that.” That’s what life is about. Life is going to show you where to go and what to do, you know? Don’t be entrenched with your preconceptions and so stubborn that “no, this is what I came here to do. No, you just discovered that you can do this and not everybody can, not everyone can to that degree.”
     On the counter point of that, I know that there are things I wanted to try to do that I know not having an MFA affected, didn’t eliminate but affected strongly, my ability to go in that direction. It’s all about choices and going with your gut. Really just listening and paying attention to what the world is telling you is out there for you and what you can do and what you can excel at and then just embracing that. There are people that really, really want to be this but you know what? You’re not so good at that. You know, if you’re lucky someone’s going to pull you aside and say “yeah, not so much.” I was lucky enough to have people throughout my career pull me aside and say, “You know, I know you really love that but you really should focus on this cause you’ve got an aptitude for this, you can do it really well, and you can apply all sorts of other talents that you have in this direction. Use all of this that you’re doing now to inform all of that you’re going to do in this tangential path but don’t get don’t be stubborn.” Listening. Listening to people when they tell you that. That’s the biggest thing.
 
W: What about critique in the workplace? [At the university] you’ve already got the dynamics of the instructor and learner, but it’s a different dynamic with co-workers.
 
B: Everyone needs to be aware. We all have our history and our strengths and our experiences. I always try to approach somebody that I’ve never worked with before, no matter if it’s a local extra coming off the board for a call, [knowing] they may have a way of looking at and thinking about this problem that I’ve never even thought of before. [The students here] ask me these questions all the time as if I know everything, I don’t know everything. I’m still learning, you know. We all should still be learning and I always try to approach every situation professionally with that same attitude. When I was younger it was easier in some ways because it was kind of, not more reverence to the more senior people but there’s a part of it that’s that. Just because I’m young and fast and quick and smart and have some experiences and have a piece of paper that says I have learned this doesn’t necessarily mean everything that I know is better than everything you know. I’ve learned walking into the Ordway, even after years of touring nationally and being a production manager and a resident LD and working in 2 large rep theaters, I thought I pretty much had a handle on stuff. A whole world of knowledge that is passed down verbally passed down on the worksite from one generation to the next and has been for 150 years here in the Twin Cities. That was totally new to me. I walked into it knowing that there was this other pool of information that I had learned on tours… There’s a lot of those guys that I learned a ton from early on about the craft.
     To get back to the main issue, always approach something as if you’re going to learn something from the other people, from new people... There’s a difference between humility and self-deprecation. To be humble and to approach other people in how you work with them with humility does not mean you’re self-deprecating, it doesn’t mean you’re discounting you’re own experience, you’re own value, and you’re own qualities. That’s something that I see a lot of younger kids and even before I taught at the University, up and comers, not really appreciate. Yeah, you’ve learned a lot and you’ve done a lot and you’ve got mad, mad skills but, you know, that person over there that you just kind of look at, that may be a drunk or whatever, they’ve got stuff in them that you can learn and is going to make you even better. If you approach them in the right way then you’re going to be able to benefit from that relationship. If you approach them in any sort of a judgmental way then you’ve closed the door to that opportunity. I think that’s the whether you’re in an educational environment or a professional environment it all comes down to how you approach people and how you make yourself open to sharing your knowledge and experience and not holding onto your tricks. That kind of thing and being open to how people want to see and how they project and what their language is. This industry is full of personal vocabularies that you develop with people and there’s always room for more. There’s always room for more.
 
Bill Healey will be designing Gertrude Stein and a Companion at the Jungle Theater, opening January 23rd 2015.
McKnight Fellowship recipient Chris Lutter demonstrates his methods for breathing life into puppets

Wu Chen Recommends...

Part of what we want to do here at Tech Tools is to help foster a spirit of exploration, curiosity and awareness of the world around us.

Lately, I’ve been hooked on the YouTube channel SciShow. It features a massive range of programming, from 10-minute episodes to short 3-minute blasts, all about science and technology. It’s presented in a fun, accessible fashion and the variety is staggering, though the Great Minds series is my favourite. I’ve been watching it for quite a while now (in no particular order) and keep stumbling on interesting episodes I haven’t seen!

 
Copyright © 2015 Technical Tools of the Trade, All rights reserved. All the photos used in this publication are copyrighted to Farrington Starnes and used with permission.