Interview: Lighting Designer Erin Belpedio

Early in 2013, I heard that Erin Belpedio had taken over as the ALD at Bloomington Civic Theater (now Artistry), where I had been resident LD for 4 years. I had no idea who she was at the time, but I kept hearing good things. We didn’t ever meet - our paths just kept barely missing - though I did see her work. A lighting designer, lighting assistant (a whole separate set of extremely valuable skills from lighting designer!) and electrician around town, Erin has certainly made a place here, and I was thrilled to finally get to sit down and talk to her.

This interview was conducted at the Lake Street Dunn Bros. on December 9th, 2014 between Wu Chen Khoo and Erin Belpedio.

A Christmas Carol  presented by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage. Photography: Traynor Productions

A Christmas Carol presented by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage.
Photography: Traynor Productions

Wu Chen: How long have you been in town?

Erin Belpedio: Well, I've been in town and out of school since spring 2013. So it's been about a year and a half. But while I was an undergrad I went to Gustavus so I was in town during the summers.

WC: I know at least that you've been the lighting assistant at Bloomington, worked at Lyric Arts as the head electrician and lighting designer, [as well as] Lake Shore?

EB: Yup, just one show. I was also over at Hudson high school this past fall and did Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. I was also down at Merlin players in Faribault, just for the summer. That was two summers ago but I'll be back this coming summer. They switch, I think, with a community group every summer? And I've only worked with Merlin.

WC: Did you make that connection while you were at Gustavus?

EB: I made the connection after I had left but it was through [Terena Wilkens, Gustavus Technical Director]. The director, Eric Parish, had emailed her and she passed the email along to a couple of us and I apparently was the only one who had responded and was interested. So I got that and Eric and I work well together, and I get to work with him again. I also worked down at Owatonna high school last fall and I'll be back there again this coming February.

WC: You also just came from the Children's Theater call, are there any other places in town you work as an electrician?

EB: Not necessarily. I'm on the IATSE electrician list. [since this interview, Erin is now also a Guthrie and Jungle Electrician -ed.]

WC: When did you sign up?

EB: Well, technically I signed up in 2007, but since I was away in school I mostly did calls since I returned last spring.

WC: How frequently do you get calls?

EB: It depends, really, on how busy they are. Maybe twice a month.

WC: What letter are you? [The IATSE Referral List is divided into letter tiers, with the A-list being the highest and currently the E-list being the lowest. -ed.]

EB: D list.

WC: In terms of the gigs, is that something that you have fallen into or that you sought out?

EB: it's really been just falling into the positions. Having connections, finding out about a position and oh,  I have the time open, I might as well apply. The Hudson High School job was one that they had sought me out. They had got a hold of Kiki Mead and she was unavailable so she forwarded it on to me. So a lot of it I do have to thank her. Oh, and I also did a dance recital at the Phipps [Center for the Arts, Hudson]. But the Owatonna High School job was through the northern boundaries section of USITT. They made a posting notice and I got it on their email. I just applied and ended up getting the job. A lot of these just walked across my desk.

WC: Great. What other resources have you used to find gigs?

EB: Minnesota Playlist. I pretty much search through the design/tech jobs, looking for things that would more or less be in the design area. If it happens to be open in my schedule, I apply for it.

WC: Sure, and has that been a resource that you found to be very useful as a designer?

EB: Yes, definitely. I haven't used it to search for stagehand jobs. I guess it could be if I used it that way.

WC: Are you more interested in design work?

EB: Yes.

WC: More as the designer or as an assistant?

EB: I feel more comfortable doing both while there's still so much I have to learn about both design and the system, I feel I am stronger at it than, for example, a master electrician position. I feel less experienced in practicals and the technical side of it, putting up a show, than I do working with Vectorworks or Lightwright. I have more experience with that through my education. I'm better at it and I feel happier doing that.

WC: So how did you get into the industry?

EB: I got into theater and lighting in high school, at Lyric Arts, which was in my community in Anoka. I'm from Coon Rapids, which is next door. I got into running the light board but I didn't know anything about doing lights. At that point the light board operator also ran the show so in addition to pushing the Go button you also had to follow along in the script. I did that for two years in high school and then got a theatre scholarship for Gustavus with that experience. Then I started doing more work first as an electrician, then later as an assistant designer and designer at Gustavus under Terena Wilkens.

WC: What attracted you to theatre in the first place in high school?

EB: It was a backstage job that wasn't acting. My sister had been acting and I wanted to work on the same show but I didn't want to act necessarily. I enjoyed doing the lighting because I loved working with the timing and learning that sort of control which is less seen in theater and is usually done by the stage manager, calling cues. But I liked being able to have that experience.

WC: Have you ever run a show with a 2 scene preset?

EB: I have. It's okay. I like doing better. I mean, you still cue with a 2 scene preset but it's different obviously. It's a completely different experience. I actually like running...side note: when I was in high school I ran the board and it was an Innovator. (Both laugh) I know. Essentially, our technical director couldn't figure out how to program it so we ran everything by subs. He told me I could either run it by subs or read the manual. I did learn how to program it but I ran it by subs anyway. And I liked it! I liked being able to set the looks. It wasn't actually a 2 scene preset, but we just set it and did try to do some intricate fades. It was more manual, more... tactile.

WC: While you were in school in doing [lighting], were you aware that this was a reasonable career option?

EB: Nope. I learned while I was in undergrad [that] there are professors who make a living doing this in addition to teaching. As I got to my junior and senior and started thinking about what to do after college, it became more intriguing. Going into it, I know it was more of a fun hobby thing to do that later turned into a major.

WC: So even though you went on a theater scholarship you weren't thinking of being a major?

EB: I was thinking it would be a minor, honestly. And then I would do something with history, because I like history. But that flipped. I became a theater major with a history minor.

WC: I'll get back to that history minor in a bit. But you've been doing this for a few years now, do you still think it's viable as a career?

EB: Some days. Um, trying to find the balance between freelancing or in some case trying to find a part time job in addition to freelancing and being able to make somewhat steady income… I'd like to find something and stay in the field, that'd be ideal.

The past six months I was the master electrician for Lyric Arts, which is a new position for them. Honestly, I was trying it out, seeing if it would work with my Bloomington job and the other freelancing jobs. [But it] doesn't work as well with their season schedule. They tried doing more of a summerstock load-in which doesn't work as well when you're trying to go other places. So that was not as successful as a part time job. Having that as a part time job along with other temporary jobs was interesting. It was a little bit too busy, so that was kind of a drawback. Now I've gone back to just doing freelance and overhire. It's not too bad but there's more gaps where I don't have work, like a month or two.

WC: What steps do you take to look for work?

EB: In the spring, when companies put out their new seasons, I start applying for work just out of whatever postings come up. So often it is when the big summer or full season announcements come out. Usually in between when something gets posted or you hear from someone, “Hey we're doing a show, would you be interested?” But again, it's about general browsing online.

WC: Do you feel the town is friendly in terms of getting work?

EB: I do. Especially being able to make connections through Bloomington or Lyric Arts, or really any of the companies.

WC: Would you say that those connections are more valuable than browsing online as you mentioned earlier? Or would you say they are about equal?

EB: It's about equal, but I'd say the connections are even more useful. Having those coworkers and the Union work. That helps.

WC: How about school, do you think it prepared you for what to expect?

EB: Yes. I went to [grad school at] the University of Arizona, so those connections aren’t as relevant up here, just because it's a different part of the country. But Gustavus has been more of a connection for me, mainly because we're known as a school in the Twin Cities and we have a lot of alumni. I'm also still really close to a lot of the professors down there and whenever they hear something from different schools or companies, I hear about different jobs that come up.

WC: What about the the business aspects of what we do? Understanding individual contractor work vs employee work, health care, workers comp, filing taxes with a half a bazillion 1099s. Do you feel school did a good job of preparing you for that?

EB: Not really. I don't feel we really had many discussions about that, in grad school or undergrad, on those specific topics. I think [we] should, considering they're sending us off to the real world whether it’s undergrad or graduate school.

WC: Is that information something you've been readily able to get your hands on?

EB: A lot of it is talking to other people who freelance, especially those have been doing this a long time. You can ask, what sort of information do I need? Especially for companies that are requesting information for taxes you can ask what you need to do for that. They can suggest, all you need to submit X, Y or Z, things of that nature.

WC: How do you decide on things like what to charge, what's your rate? Like at Bloomington, you are offered a flat rate per show, how do you decide if that's enough or not?

EB: That's something I'm still trying to figure out. There are sometimes jobs where I have to supply my own rate. I usually base it off of the Bloomington rate, which is slightly lower than the union rate, at least for electricians. Those are two scales that I know, to help me know what is reasonable per hour or per gig.

WC: Besides at Bloomington, where I know you are in charge of hiring, have you done hiring other places? Perhaps at Lyric Arts?

EB: Lyric Arts doesn't do any hiring. They are volunteer based. When I was a master electrician I was in charge of getting people in, on a volunteer basis. So that's the only place I'm in charge of hiring, is at Bloomington.

WC: You don't set the rate at Bloomington?

EB: I don't. Though I think I could technically change it if we wanted to. What we really have is a budgeted lump sum and it equates to a certain number of hours based on the rate that we pay.

WC: How many hours is that?

EB: 100 hours. We have $1,500 to pay to electricians over 100 hours at $15 per hour.

[The Bloomington Civic Theater, now called Artistry, rate has since been raised to $16.50. -ed.]

WC: How do you go about choosing a number when someone asks you what you want to be paid for a design?

EB: That's a good question. I usually try to estimate how many hours I will spend on the gig. That includes load-in and tech. Typically you can figure out how many hours there are four tech and then tack on extra hours for work notes, cue notes, load in.

WC: Since you're talking about load-in are you counting on yourself as your own electrician?

EB: Yes.

WC: Do you ever negotiate that you won't be your own electrician?

EB: I would if I could. But recently most of the places I've been working have been high schools. They don't have electricians or any type of staff. The only places I have worked where I didn't have to load in my own show where at the Phipps and Lyric Arts because they have the master electrician. For a while, that was me. So I was the designer and the master electrician, but that's a different case.

WC: Were you paid an extra fee for being the designer since you designed as well?

EB: Yes, I was. But I would like to negotiate having an electrician if I knew that were feasible with the company or the school that I was working with.

WC: You said you would add some extra time on for notes?

EB: Yeah, for notes, gas, driving time.

WC: And then what? What would you typically pick as a rate?

EB: I usually try to calculate it to about $15 an hour. Sometimes I can flex it up a little bit.

WC: When you do flex it up, what encourages you to do so?

EB: The type of show. If it's a musical vs a straight show. If it's going to take more time, based on the load in, it depends on the space. A larger space requires more instruments. Most places I work in have some instruments pre-hung, as opposed to doing everything.

WC: Would you typically factor that in as more hours or as an increased rate? Or both?

EB: Sometimes both.

WC: How about the resources of the company itself?

EB: Yeah, knowing what their budget is. I haven't had to do anything out of pocket or anything because usually the companies I work for do have a budget of some sort.

WC: How would you handle a situation where you're essentially being asked to pay out of pocket for an expense?

EB: I always inquire about the reimbursement policy. I haven't encountered a place that doesn't have one yet, but I always try to learn what the stipulations are.

WC: Have you ever had to bring in your own gear from outside for any of your gigs?

EB: I have. Mostly rentals. I've done that with a couple of smaller companies that use larger spaces. Getting enough instruments so that you actually have specials.

WC: Where do you do your rentals through?

EB: Mostly through Norcostco. Some through EMI audio. Some with Monkey Wrench.

WC: So, did you choose to settle here because that's where your family is primarily?

EB: Yes.

WC: How do you feel this town is in terms of working in our business?

EB: Really good. I'm from the Twin Cities but now I'm learning more about all the other theater companies in town that I didn't know as much about before going to college. There's a lot of opportunities and a lot of companies that are around town.

When I was in Arizona a lot of the undergrads dream goal was to go to the larger cities. Which is great, but it was never mine. Some people thought it was weird and it was like no we have theater here. No offense to Arizonians. But I do like the Twin Cities and that's where I'm from and we have such a wide spread of theater here. Yes, maybe it's not as much opportunity for assistant design work and maybe the competition for lighting design work means branching out to high schools and smaller companies.

WC: Which you've done.

EB: Which I've done. Mainly because there aren't the higher paying jobs at the larger companies for someone of my experience level.

WC: Looking at the landscape and the people doing it now, do you feel hopeful about it?

EB: Yeah. It's nice to see them doing union work or part time work at larger companies, like electrician work at Children's Theatre Company, they're able to make a living. Which is nice to see.

WC: Going back again to some of the networking you've been doing at some of the high schools and companies you worked with, do you typically make those connections just threw working with them or do you tend to socialize with them outside of work?

EB: Primarily I've only socialized with the people at Lyric Arts because I'm from that area so we would hang out after work, but even the people around the cities, I see them at different work calls and hire them for different things so I get to spend more time with them even just on the call. It's been a good experience, and not just for getting hired.

WC: I saw this really great description of a British Union stagehand talking about being like a tortoise. You hide out in your dark shell and wait for the phone to ring and then you come out of your shell for 24 hours a day until the show is up and running and then you crawl back into your shell and wait for the phone to ring again.

EB: It's a good analogy.

WC: How do you handle finances? Not just in terms of being able to make a living wage, but also quality of life.

EB: Well, my schedule has eased up a bit and I eased up a bit. I mean I'm not doing three shows in a month. That was last month. It was not a good month, but I got through it. It's nice to go home and actually see my family and have a conversation or maybe be home for dinner.  things like that really help as opposed to coming home early morning and not seeing anybody.  even when I have down time it doesn't mean I get to see people so be able to actually see people or even just to communicate with them by text message. Anything that's not just the 10 people I see every day at work definitely helps me feel... like a normal person. Or even just getting to sit down with a book. I love to read but I don't get to do it that much because I'm constantly working. Which is great because it means I have work, but those take a break moments don't happen very often. I need to make those more of a constant in my life.

WC: Is there a way you can think of to restructure [to improve quality of life]?

EB: Not really. I mean you could not work but then you're not getting paid. Unless that means you're not working two 8 hour shifts because one starts at 8 a.m. and one ends at 1 a.m. Sure, you make the money, but you miss out. I'm not saying you should stop working.

WC: Does that again go back to the baseline pay?

EB: True. Or I could say I could design two shows instead of three because I could even each other out in terms of schedule and how much I'm getting paid. Instead of picking up a third job I could pay more bills with two.

WC: What do you think an obstacle to higher wages is?

EB:  Well, it could be more competition. If you pay higher you would expect more out of your product. Well, I don't know. It's a good question.

WC: Something to chew on. But going back to history. You were originally going to be a history major but then it became a minor. Did you have a specific focus in history?

EB: I didn't, but I ended up taking more Scandinavian studies classes. Gustavus is a Swedish school and I'm also part Scandinavian; Danish. It tied into my own family history. And I enjoy the countries, it's just something I had an interest in.

WC: Have you been?

EB: I haven't! I would love to plan a trip but I have no down time. But I'd love to go.

WC: How do you handle vacations?

EB: I don't have them because I don't have time to have them. That's pretty much how it works. Either that or I have to take a chunk of time and say I won't take work because I'm on vacation.

WC: And are you good at doing that?

EB: No, not at all. I need to be though, for my own sanity. Quite honestly.

WC: Back to Scandinavian history. Why did you switch? Why did you make that a minor?

EB: So when I was a sophomore and had to choose my major, I actually had more theatre credits than history credits, so I decided to declare theater major. And at that point I had already been asked to assist [lighting] and be a master electrician for that season. So I had that experience as well and was able to get more into actual design. And I had gotten a lighting design for the following fall and I had an interest in more of the classes.  So I declared a theater major with an emphasis on lighting design. That was pretty much it.

WC: Do you keep up with the history?

EB: I do. I know it's fictional but I enjoy reading fictional historical novels, just for content.

WC: How far out do you often book yourself? Besides Bloomington where you book yourself for a whole year?

EB:  Mostly, it depends on when I get the job offer. I got the job offer for Merlin Players last spring.  They knew it was coming up so they wanted to get me on board. So that one I booked about a year in advance. It depends on the company, but I'd say usually six to eight months. Usually less with high schools.

WC:  Do you work with students a lot?

EB: I do. Usually there are one or two students interested in lighting or a TA that's been sent over to the theater. In Hudson, they have an auditorium manager who works with lighting. She and I were able to work together really well.

WC:  Were the students you were working with interested in pursuing theater in school?

EB:  Not really. The few I was able to work with had other fields they wanted to pursue. The one gal I worked with, she did more stage management but she also enjoyed learning about lights. The students that I've had while working on musicals have been either my board ops or my spot ops, but they don't know anything about either position, so I've been able to teach them. I've had really good experiences with students being really excited and being able to teach them.  I've been like hey you're going to do spotlight and here's your cues and getting them really excited about it which has been really nice.

WC: So you went to graduate school. What do you think of that decision?

EB: Looking back I would have preferred waiting. I went straight out of undergrad. For me, that program was helpful in some ways. Some of the techniques and the way they set up theatre shows. They work with Arizona Repertory Theatre so they do more of a rep style, which I hadn't had much experience with, any experience, really. It was more of a challenge for me going from a smaller private school to that setting. In terms of working on productions, I was less experienced, which bit me a little bit. It wasn't what I expected, not that I knew what to expect. Education-wise, I enjoyed the courses that I had. They are very similar to the courses I had taken in undergrad, which was a pleasant surprise. Just the way that Gustavus structures their program and so I was able to do very well in academics.  Just not as much in the actual practicum, which did not work out well in the long run. I was only there for 2 years and decided to leave after my second year to come work in the cities. It was still a very interesting experience and I'm glad that I met some of the people that I did, I made some friends. But it's good being back.

WC: If someone asked your advice about graduate school, what would you say to them?

EB: I would suggest [they] talk to the students actually in the lighting program. For me, I got to talk to students but none of them were in the lighting program. I didn't get to hear as much of their take. And primarily I think talking to graduate students, asking them what the differences between undergraduate and graduate. Mainly, what types of things you're expected to do and what time frames, how the theater company is managed. Those are some of the questions I would have asked.

WC: Is there a particular resource, not necessarily just online, but any resource that you would find particularly helpful to anyone in your position in the Twin Cities or the Greater Minnesota area? Specifically within the context of the entertainment industry for someone who is recently out of school, working in the Twin Cities?

EB: The most helpful thing for me was, because I had interned at Children's Theatre Company, I had connections with the company. I was able to get on their call list, which was a big help. In addition I was already able to have the assistant lighting design job at Bloomington. Having the connections, Kiki, being able to know that I at least had work, as opposed to coming here and not, I would say it would be helpful if something like Minnesota Playlist had job search options so you could find electrician work and be able to apply or help you get on the IATSE list so that you can kind of get your foot in the door. To meet people, or to find companies if you're up from out in the suburbs. Someone to know your face. Someone to whom you can say, "hey can I volunteer or work for you?"