Episode 178: Putting Together A Tech Theatre Unit
Drama Teacher Josh Hatt does not have a background in Tech Theatre. In fact he shied away from teaching it for years. But when it became part of his curriculum, he dove in with both feet. It was a great experience and now he’ll never shy away from tech again! Listen in to learn how he developed his eight week unit exploring lights, sound, costume, make-up and staging. You too can teach tech!
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama teacher resource company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 178 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode178.
Today, we are talking tech and putting together a tech theatre unit.
Hands up, how many of you fear tech? How many of you avoid including it in your program? Well, our podcast guest today was in the exact same boat as you. Now, he is a total tech convert.
So, let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: All right, I am speaking with Josh Hatt.
JOSHUA: Hello, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: All right, tell everybody in the world where you are right now.
JOSHUA: I am starting my second year at an international school in Shanghai, China.
LINDSAY: I love the internet. Not always! We had a little difficulty connecting but we’re here now and I think it’s amazing. It’s evening where I am and morning where you are.
JOSHUA: Yes, it’s Friday morning. It was funny because I was trying to coordinate what time we were doing this and, now, I’m back and I’m twelve hours ahead of you guys. So, we’re like, “Okay, Thursday night at 8:00.” I’m like, “Wait, what does that actually mean for me? I don’t remember.”
LINDSAY: Twelve is pretty good, though. You know, it’s when I get the most trouble when I’m even dealing with coordinating Mountain time and Pacific time. It’s like, “Okay, you are this time, I am this time. We’re all good.”
So, this is your second year at this school. Just how is that going? What is it like to teach in an international school in China?
JOSHUA: It’s amazing. We work at an American school. And so, it’s not much different, honestly, than any of the international schools as far as curriculum-wise. I’ve done the MYP curriculum before. This school, they do a lot of common core. It’s incredible and, because it’s a private school, we’re really lucky. I luck out. I get to work in this beautiful two-story black box theatre and I get to take little sixth, seventh, and eighth graders through a little dramatic journey through there. It’s magical. We kind of joke all the time. I was like, “I work at Disneyland! This is amazing!”
LINDSAY: You know what, that’s a pretty fun description of teaching theatre. I love that!
JOSHUA: It’s amazing.
LINDSAY: I’m very excited, actually, about what we’re going to talk about today because I know that this is something that teachers are asking us and pleading with us all the time – how do I do tech theatre? How do I teach tech theatre? The fact that you’re doing it with middle school students, I think, is even more exciting and interesting in terms of getting some people some good information.
Why are you doing tech theatre with your middle school students?
JOSHUA: You know, I’ve never done much outside of plugging a sound system into a small performance because I’ve always had the experience of being a middle school teacher. You know, we get forgotten sometimes and it’s like, “Great! We have a room, let’s have a middle school drama program.” Of course, we’re resilient and we persevere and we make it work and beautiful.
I had the opportunity because they had just built this brand-new theatre space at the school. The high school got a brand-new black box theatre. And so, I inherited the old one which is only thirteen years old. Let’s be serious, I walk in and I’m like, “This is amazing! Look! There’s lights and this a legitimate sound system.” We have set pieces. “Oh, my gosh! Let’s do tech theatre! Let’s make this happen!”
LINDSAY: Actually, I really love that you’re coming from the perspective that it’s not your background, that you don’t have a background in tech theatre because a lot of our folks listening, they’re in the same boat and tech theatre, some of them let alone have theatre backgrounds. So, I love that you’re like, “Yup, tech theatre, we’re going to do tech theatre.”
It’s kind of like you were learning along with them.
JOSHUA: Oh, my gosh, yes! I was a couple of days ahead of the kids. Again, we had lights that we could use. We were using these ancient gels and things. I was like, “Hey, guys! Let’s do tech theatre! Let’s look at what makes a theatre performance effective and, instead, let’s look at what can make it technically effective and what does that mean and what does that look like?’ The discussions we could have was incredible. It was absolutely incredible to have sixth-graders discuss what can make their scene – you know, their Little Red Riding Hood, you know, tiny scenes – how can we make it look technically effective and what that actually means.
It was like, “All right, I want to use red.” “Why? Why do you want to use red?” “I want to make something look really creepy.” I’m like, “Oh, I like where you’re going with this. Let’s explore this.”
LINDSAY: First of all, I think the conversation on the tech side is kind of important because it is such a big part of theatre that often gets kind of waylaid. You know, we always have this focus on the onstage stuff. Why not have a focus on what else goes into making – I love the use of the word “effective” – what else goes into making a theatrical production effective?
You’re making them think, Josh!
JOSHUA: Yes! And, yes, we are. In turn, they’re making me think. They’re like, “This is an issue. how do we solve this issue?” I’m like, “How do we solve this issue?” You know, we kind of take a village approach to “how do we overcome this thing?” It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, what happens when the soundboard goes down?” which happens. You know, “What happens when the lighting board goes down? What do we do?”
As a result, my theatre students are so much more resilient. Of course, you do your thumbs up, thumbs down at the end of a unit. They’re like, “That might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah, are we going to do it again next year?” They’re like, “Heck, yeah!”
LINDSAY: That’s exciting! Wow! That means, well, it was not only the unit. It was the way that you approached the unit because, you know – let’s call it your guidance – your guidance, Josh! You brought them through!
Let’s talk about that. How did you set up your tech theatre unit?
JOSHUA: It was really cool, if I do say so myself.
LINDSAY: Go ahead.
JOSHUA: We looked at first, we watched some videos.
You know, we’re in this brand-new room and it was interesting because we were in this other room at the beginning of last year. And so, your basic – we called it the drama studio – you know, I mean, we were fortunate to have this big, open space but really not a lot of tech stuff.
Then, we moved over into the black box theatre. We all kind of looked at it together. I was like, “All right, guys, let’s do this.” We’d been working on some stuff. And so, we looked at the lights first. We really just kind of broke it down.
We were like, “What is tech theatre?” We looked at, you know, we have the possibility of lights. Okay, awesome. Let’s make that a little mini thing. And then, we have the possibility of sound. Okay, cool. Let’s not do too much at one time. Let’s first look at how can lights contribute to a technically effective performance.
We’ve been trained to say the word “curtain” when we want to start a show and then “curtain” when we’re done with a show to let the audience know that we are done All right. Now, we can turn the lights off, guys. Let’s do it. So, it’s kind of training that. Now, we can guide the audience through this thing.
We watched a bunch of YouTube videos and there’s a billion videos out there with examples of what can make a scene look effective. It’s like, how can lights contribute to this performance? And then, it started opening these conversations about, well, how do we take the audience with us? At this point, it’s like, “Who is the most important player of a scene?” We’re like, “Well, I guess the audience.” I’m like, “All right, how do we make this a performance for them?”
They really started thinking about the audience and the audience’s role in a scene. It was really quite remarkable, actually.
LINDSAY: When you’re talking about looking at the lights, are you doing just the sort of the design question aspect or are you doing the technical – not necessarily the practical but looking at the lighting instruments and how those work? Or is that just something for another day?
JOSHUA: It was all of that. At the beginning, I was terrified, you know, to do this. I’m like, “You guys are ten. All right. Can you handle this?” You know, I’m kind of thinking it through this.
First, we take it through the concept of, well, let’s plan for our success. And so, what does a red light do to a scene? What does that make the audience feel? I was fortunate enough I had this light mounted on this block of wood which had been used for shadow theatre in years gone past for the high school students.
We took down a bunch of gels. I was like, “All right, guys! Well, I need a group of four. You guys, run into the middle of the stage and make a tableau about something.” Then, I had other students kind of come around and we looked at what a green gel would do to that scene and then we looked at what a blue gel would do to that scene and then a red one and things like that. I’m like, “Why have I never done this before? I could have done this with a flashlight, for heaven sakes!” To really take a look at that.
Of course, then we go through the conversations and then I was like, “All right, well, I don’t want you guys to break your necks. If you’re going to go up into the catwalk, let’s talk about safety – when not to touch the light.” It was quite surprising at how professional these students really were. They were hooked instantly when they walked in the room and they could see how light could actually contribute to their scenes.
So, we just did some blank scenes and were like, “All right, let’s talk about mood now because we can do that. What mood do you want to convey to the audience?” They were like, “Ooh, let’s make this really scary!” or “Let’s make it look like night time,” or something. And then, they went through that and discussed it. I said, “All right, here’s the safety. You guys are trained now to use the equipment. Go nuts! Make some art, kids!”
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. I’m going back because you just said… you put so much in there.
The first thing I would say is, to anyone listening, Josh is absolutely right. All of this can be accomplished with a flashlight. You can put a gel on a flashlight. You can do front lighting, back lighting, top lighting, side lighting with a flashlight. It accomplishes the exact same effect on a very small scale. But, if you’re listening to this going, “Oh, there’s no way!” For example, “Oh, we don’t have a black box so we can’t do lighting.” Yes, you can. Or “My administration would never let middle schoolers up on the catwalk.” Okay, so get that flashlight out. You can do the exact same things that Josh is talking about in a lighting unit – talking about mood and how different gels set the scene.
When you talk about they were trained to work on the lights, did every kid get a chance to go on the catwalk and adjust? Was it adjust the Fresnels and put the gels in and hook up everything? Did everyone get to do something like that?
JOSHUA: Every single one. I put the fear in them. Like, “Okay, guys, we’re working with a one-chance system. If you mess up because you’re not paying attention, you’re going to have to come sit by me and come hang out.” So, they kind of understood what was at stake. We talked about it – there are some serious safety consequences here, you know, if you’re goofing around. What we ended up doing was I had a water bottle on the floor and then I had some other stage pieces and I was like, “All right, let’s focus a light here.” Let’s make a hard focus or let’s soften the edges and things like that. Everybody became a lighting technician through this.
You know, it’s very interesting that you said that – you know, everybody can do this if they wanted to. It wasn’t until I had this space and I’m kicking myself in the butt. Tech theatre, I always just had the attitude – “No, I can’t do it, I don’t have the stuff.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m just middle school. There’s no way.” Now, it doesn’t matter what space that I ever have.
I will always teach tech theatre because I think it gives such a perspective of the village approach to what drama truly is – like, this collaboration piece. Like, it completely transformed the way that I approach drama now and the way that my students look at what drama is because, I mean, let’s face it, we get the students that, you know, at my school, the way the system works is they either do choir or orchestra or band or drama. So, really, we get everybody.
We get the drama enthusiasts and then we get the ones who were kind of there because they’re not musically gifted or talented or interested or things like that. This tech theatre unit gave every single student an opportunity to find interest and passion in it. And that was just lights! That was just the start of lights where these kids in it completely, I had such a profound impact on me as a professional, actually.
LINDSAY: That’s so awesome. I mean, when you get right down to it, the tech side can be very creative, you know? I love light on stage. Light is one of the ways that you can create a world. You can be technical and you can be a technician but you can also use the other side of your brain. You’re absolutely right; there is a piece for everybody in technical theatre.
JOSHUA: Yeah, it really is, and because every kid in the class went, we rotated through. As soon as we did lights, then we started playing with sound and we watched YouTube videos. In fact, I’ll share the link with you guys. It was Mary Poppins, the remix of the trailer where we watched, you know, the happy airy fairy bubbly movie trailer and then somebody, some mastermind genius recreated it to make it a horror movie instead. I was like, “Look at what sound can do to your scenes!”
LINDSAY: I’ll riff on that. You know, we’ll put a couple of those in the show notes because there’s also one for The Shining that makes it look like a sitcom.
JOSHUA: Yes! Yes! We used both of those examples.
LINDSAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s so perfect! Oh, my gosh! That is an amazing example for how sound can impact, eh? Oh, my gosh! That’s amazing!
JOSHUA: Everything. Everything!
And so, what we ended up doing is, of course, we record everything in class so that we can then watch it later and be like, “All right, what worked? What didn’t work? What would we have to do to enhance that?” It’s like, “Wow! My goal was to really creep the audience out but everybody laughed.” “Yeah.” “Okay, cool. Why? What could you do differently next time to change or mold that experience?” It’s had such a profound impact on the way that my students think about drama. You mentioned it before where it’s like, you know, a lot of people look at drama and they think, “Okay, well, it’s Brad Pitt or it’s Angelina Jolie, that’s what drama is.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no, my friend! No, no, no! Yes, they are a part of it. They’re there,” but my students now truly look at drama as a profession.
They look at it as a profession and all the pieces that go into it, they’ve got such a different appreciation of what drama is and what goes into a piece because I ask them at the end of the year. I’m like, “What has changed? How much of your perspective changed about what drama is?” They’re like, “Dude, it’s so much work!” and they’re like, “Yeah, but it was so cool because I got to design lights!” They’re like, “Yeah, well, I got to hang the lights!” and they’re like, “Yeah, and then I got to design the soundboard using my computer and apps for sound effects and things like that.” They were designers, they were technicians; it was incredible.
LINDSAY: Wow! What a great exercise, too!
For sound, did you have them searching for music and for sound effects to add? Did they do blank scenes again?
JOSHUA: Yes, they did! Yes, they did the A/B scenes and what happened was they’d be in groups of four or five where I’d have two people on lights, one person to angle and set and do the designing, one person to run the board.
And then, with the sounds, yeah, we used a program called Soundbite which, again, I’ll share with you the information with that. It’s free. It shuts down every fifteen or so minutes and that’s their way of saying, “Please buy my product!” which I would recommend. I’ve actually since bought it and put it on our classroom thing – I think it was like $40.00 – where the students can find their music.
They sourced their music from wherever they do. They get an idea and then they can include it in this computer program or even on their iPads where they are then controlling the sound effects and the music, all from their fingertips. We just did a little tutorial workshop and they ended up teaching me things. I’m like, “Hey! How did you actually make this piece of music into an MP3?” Or they’re like, “Oh, well, let’s just record it on whatever!” They were finding their own music. They were creating their own music and soundscapes. It was limitless.
They would run their own tech. They would have little tech rehearsals and then they would show their little masterpieces and we would film them and the school community is like, “What? You did what?” It was really great being able to have conversations then about subtext and, I mean, what a great exercise of what subtext is. They’re like, “But I can only say these words.” I’m like, “Yeah, but what can you do to communicate that mood?”
LINDSAY: Yeah, love it! I think that’s awesome!
Okay. So, we have light and sound. What did you do next?
JOSHUA: Oh, well, then we looked at building scene. It was piece by piece by piece. We used the A/B scenes and what these blank scenes did is it just provided this little tiny blank canvas. I’m like, “Okay. Let’s create a world. Like, what happens when you’ve got a script or you’re devising your own piece and you want to create this world that the author, the playwright hasn’t given you these clues, these details?” You know, some people just don’t work like that. You want to create this world, this environment.
It’s like, “Okay, you’ve got sound and you’ve got lights and you can do that once the scene has started and the performance has begun. But now you have an opportunity to create an environment as somebody walks into your space. It doesn’t matter if you have a black box or you’ve got any room in a closet or anywhere. How do you create the space?”
We looked at fairy-tales and different things like that. We got all these boxes and schools are full of these cardboard boxes and art department has paint. You know, if you’re not fortunate enough to have your own budget or something like that. It was like, “Cool, let’s create this scene. What does it look like?” It’s this no more, just like jumping into the middle of the floor and having this scene. I mean, yes, that’s great. It has its place but let’s create this experience for an audience.
You know, “Where are you? What is your setting?” “Oh, well, we’re in a forest.” “Cool. What does it look like?” “I guess trees.” “Cool. How do you make them?” “Uh, I guess I could just cut out this thing.” “Yes, yes, work with me, people! Go, build! Go to build thine forest!”
You know, they run and they create and they just love it! It’s complete mayhem and I guess that was the biggest thing. As long as I could keep my cool and just step back and trust that these now theatre professionals – I call them professionals, you know, from the beginning of this unit. Like, “We have to be professional. We have to make good choices. Yes, we’re kids. Yes, we’re humans. We’re going to be creative. We’re going to create these beautiful masterpieces. But we’ve got to be professional as we’re going.” And so, gradually, being able to step back and just watch them work and support them and question them and challenge them and challenge their choices. It was incredible.
LINDSAY: So often, middle school students, they’re really given a bad rep – that they’re not thinking for themselves and we can’t put them in a position where they’re in-charge of their own decision-making when it comes to a particular unit and it just really sounds like they were in-charge.
JOSHUA: They truly were, and they were so proud of it, too.
LINDSAY: Oh, yeah, of course, they were. I’m sure you could just see the wheels turning about how plays are actually made and that realization that it’s not just “let’s get onstage and do some improv games.” It’s “oh, where am I? Oh, how does the light create a mood? Oh, how does the sound give subtext?”
And then, when you did costumes, what were they working with in terms of creating costumes for scenes?
JOSHUA: With costumes, we ended up running out of time, to be honest. But we talked about costumes and used them. They ended up just bringing things in, mixing and matching. We used the costume closet that we had at the school. But, again, it was that big picture conversation. The grade eights, we really focused a lot on the use of costumes where we had designers work in a little company we had for the eighth-graders.
“It’s okay. You’ve gone through all the work to create this beautiful sound plot. You have this beautiful lighting plot. You know, you’ve really thought through your lights and you’ve really thought through your staging. What are you wearing? Now that you’ve gone through all of this work, now what have you got to wear?”
We didn’t get into it too much but we touched on colors, symbolism, and wearing complimentary things so you’re not super clash-y with your set. You’re not wearing a purple shirt with a purple background and conversations like that. But, really, again, just looking through it big-picture lens.
LINDSAY: And then, how did it culminate? Were you assessing them all along the way? Or, at the end, did they have to do a scene from a play and put all these pieces in? What was the end result of the unit?
JOSHUA: I did it a little differently with each of the grade levels. They all went through the same stuff. Actually, right now, I’m kind of thinking about what am I going to make specific sixth grade? When am I going to make seventh and eighth and so on?
But what the eighth graders I had do, I took a project-based learning approach through Buck Institute. We had this amazing Buck Institute rep come to our school and teach us the school. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh! Drama is project-based learning! We’ve been using this stuff, we’ve been doing this stuff for years. We’re the experts – you know, by just putting the jargon into it.
So, what I did with the eighth graders is I made them, again, a company. And so, in each company, they had the players and then they had the designers and technicians. What we did with them was I gave them scenes of a play that we did at the school. I thought that was a really cool way. “You’ve seen what the school play did. Now, you go put your own spin.” They then designed everything. They had a production notebook. We did these walkarounds. We did gallery walks and stuff as far as the planning and implementation. Yeah, the culmination for the eighth graders was a scene from a play.
Retrospect and feedback, the students really would have been appreciated picking their own scenes. I’m like, “Well, cool. It makes no difference to me.” So, we did that.
With the six and sevens, I actually then had them devise their own scenes. Instead of taking somebody else’s work, they created their own work and did everything. Again, they were a theatre company. We did everything that we did with the eighth graders – only they created their own thing where the eighth graders used somebody else’s material to kind of then prepare them for their work when they go on to high school.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome!
As we wrap this up, what three pieces of advice would you give to middle school teachers? Or anybody, actually, because there’s lots of people who are terrified of teaching tech theatre. What would you say to them? What’s your advice to say “don’t be afraid”?
JOSHUA: My advice, honestly, first of all, is to do it.
Again, it’s transformed the way that I see drama and drama is such a creative vessel and it’s so full of all these things that we know. We know it’s full of this collaboration, cooperation, and critical thinking and everything.
And so, be okay with not being in control. Be okay with being able to sit back and exploring something together with the kids. We are not the be all, end all, grand high wizard of drama. And so, if you can be cool with that and then you take a group approach which kind of is what theatre is anyway – you know, it’s a bunch of these professionals coming together to collaborate – do it.
It’s totally cool. You’re going to mess up. I messed up. They saw me as a collaborator rather than the keeper of all the answers. So, yes, to put that thought into one – do it; be okay with not being in control; and get messy. Go to YouTube and watch the stuff.
I didn’t even touch on the makeup work that we did with the students. I am not a makeup expert but you go to YouTube and watch tutorials, they teach you the fundamentals. Just like anything, you need practice.
Just play. Get dirty. That’s what drama is. Make mistakes and analyze those mistakes so you come up with your own truth and it’s brilliant. You will not be sorry.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s an awesome place to end, Josh!
Thank you so much for talking with me today. It’s been exciting!
JOSHUA: My pleasure! It’s good to be back!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Josh!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
So, Josh is not only a drama teacher; he’s also a member of our Drama Teacher Academy. On top of that, he’s an instructor for the Drama Teacher Academy!
We have in the DTA from Josh a Google Drive in the Drama Classroom course and, upcoming in the summer, everything that Josh has talked about here in this podcast is going to be a DTA course. That means many units in lighting, sound, costume, makeup, and staging.
Doesn’t that sound awesome? It sounds awesome to me. Wee! Awesome! Wee!
Head on over to DramaTeacherAcademy.com to learn more about what we have to offer in the land of DTA for teachers, professional development, resources, lesson plans, curriculum linked to standards – all the wonderful things! Or you can click the link in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode178.
Are you doing one of our plays? Take a rehearsal picture and send it to us!
Working on a monologue in the classroom? Take a picture and send it to us!
Are you a member of the DTA and you’re using an exercise? Well, take a 30-second video and send it to us!
We want to showcase you! We want to brag about what you do!
Where do you send all this? email@example.com.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.