“It keeps us on our toes, because it gets us to come up with new and creative ways to deal with the ideas they come up with.” – Daniel Gookin, I AM THEATRE
Having made my bones as a technician in lower-budget regional theatre, I’m no stranger to the consternations endemic to converted houses. I’ve groaned along with my muscles while hauling scenery up and down narrow staircases, and I’ve cursed the ex machina gods when rigging flying pieces in a low-ceiling fixed grid. My first thoughts on seeing the “loading dock” at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Mainstage, a literal hole in the wall with a door 11 feet off the ground, might be translated from the colorful stagehand’s vernacular as something akin to “surely, sir, you jest”.
I have also, however, delighted in the designers’ ingenuity in creating scenes that cleverly hid or embraced the two load-bearing columns in the middle of the stage in Stanford White’s once-upon-a-time casino. It has been in these theatres where love has as much purchasing power as money that I have enjoyed my best, most moving and intimate, experiences as an audience member. The cases that have required the most creative problem–solving (Who put a fire exit downstage left?!) have left me with the greatest sense of fulfillment. And no one does it alone.
A recent collaboration between myself as technical director and scenic designer Michael G. Benson for a Penn State Centre Stage production found the two of us scratching our heads over beverages in a bar. The venue, Penn State’s Downtown Theatre Centre, has neither traps nor wing space, and Michael was searching for an elegant way to get a rolling bar unit on and off from within his wall-to-wall unit set. After a few beers, he spit-balled, “God, I wish it could just pop out of the floor!” “Well, wait a minute,” I said, on a high of slightly lubricated optimism, “why can’t we do that?”
A few crumpled napkin sketches, and a month of hair-pulling later, we had a 36 inch high bar with a floating baseboard, beautifully obfuscated by the lighting designer’s puff of haze, rise and fall from the 29 inch platform in which we’d hidden it, on a scissor lift motivated by a stock motor and budget-friendly screw jack pilfered from the trunk of my car.
As a technical director with no artistic pretensions, I ground myself in craft and logistics, and I relish the execution. Tell me what you want, how I give it to you is my problem. Yet how often have I found that the technician’s craftiness, the tricks up the sleeve, the art of the possible, serve to inform, if not fulfill, a designer’s artistic vision.
Is there an artistic role to be played by the technician in the pre-production process?
When creative collaboration so often happens long-distance, via phone or email, what can we do to engender more of those coveted “Eureka!” moments?
In a business where the mantra “fast, good, cheap, pick two” is commonly flouted, how might we teach young artists and craftspeople that creativity and collaboration can often solve the problems that the most generous budget cannot?
Valerie Narehood is a technical theatre coordinator for the School of Theatre at Penn State University. As a carpenter and technical director, Val has spent 15 years kicking out scenery, including work for Penn State Centre Stage, Bristol Riverside Theatre, the Berkshire Theatre Group, Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park, and formerly D.C.-based Unlimited Scenery Studios, among others. She did her undergraduate work in theatre at DeSales University and holds an MFA in theatre technology from Penn State.