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Tips for Success When Tech Isn’t Your Specialty

Technical theatre is not my specialty. I admire the creative types who create artful mood lighting, whip together fabulous costumes, make props with little more than glue and glitter, and build sets that transport audiences to all manner of wonderful places. So the following tips come from my own learning process within the world of technical theatre. 

It is possible to succeed when tech isn’t your specialty. It’s important to learn as much as you can about various technical theatre disciplines, not only so you know what is achievable for your classes and productions, but also so you can appreciate the work of technical experts and share that appreciation with your students. Read on for five tips for your technical theatre discovery process.

1. Admit you are learning and learn together with your students.

Yes, you are the teacher, but that doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. This is a great opportunity to learn about technical theatre along with your students. Watch clips from filmed plays or musicals and analyze the technical work. Discuss what was most effective, and how they might have created the effects. Learn about your school’s technical equipment together – read the instruction manuals, and then practice making the equipment work. Create simple documents giving step-by-step instructions on how to use the equipment – how to turn it on and off, troubleshooting, and so on. Read and share blog posts about technical theatre – you can start right here.

2. Narrow your focus.

You don’t need to focus on every single area of technical theatre at the same time. Choose one area to start your focus – for example, just focus on sets for this semester. Or, if you teach different grade levels, select a different discipline for each grade – grade 9s learn about costumes, while grade 10s learn about sound design, for example. This can encourage students to continue drama studies throughout their time in school, as they’ll learn about a new technical area in each grade.

3. Learn from an expert.

Whenever possible, bring in guest speakers, host workshops, and engage experts in your learning process. Reach out to technical theatre specialists – perhaps you can arrange for a backstage tour of a nearby theatre, or have a professional theatre technician come in and speak to your students about what they do for a living. If you hire technicians to help your school production, observe them as they do their work and ask questions. If possible, take a course or workshop yourself and share your new knowledge with your students. And what better way to get hands-on experience in a new technical theatre area than to get involved in a production? If you’re not already involved with your local community theatre group, get in touch with them and join the crew of their upcoming show. While you’re learning, see if these experts would be willing to help out with your upcoming production in their area of specialty!

4. Let your students take the lead.

Switch things up and have your students become the experts. Divide students into groups and assign each group a different technical theatre discipline – sound, lighting, sets, props, costumes, hair and makeup, and so on. Have each group complete a research project on their technical area and present it to the class. There are many different topics to explore, such as what tasks their technical theatre area involves, why it’s important in the theatre, the history of their discipline, common equipment used in their discipline, safety concerns, and training/education necessary to work in that area. Have them show what they’ve learned by demonstrating how a piece of technical equipment works (sound or lighting) or creating a piece to share with the class (set mock-up, costume piece, hair/makeup demonstration).

5. Keep it simple.

You may have grand technical plans for your class production or extracurricular show, but productions can be just as entertaining and spectacular with little or simple technical aspects. You could set your show on an empty stage, have students perform in simple black pants and shirts, mime props, create live sound effects, or even all of the above. Challenge yourself and your students to create an interesting and engaging low- or no-tech production. Add additional technical elements as your confidence and skills grow.

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