Episode 205: Talking Tech Theatre Programs
We’re talking tech theatre in the classroom. What’s the first thing you should buy to build your tech theatre program? How do you design a set when you don’t have a theatre program? These questions and more!
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 205 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode205.
Today – oh, I was going for it, and then I pulled back. I pulled back! Oh, I pulled back! Ugh.
Well, that happens sometimes.
Today, we are talking tech theatre.
If you are struggling with the tech side of things or you don’t have a tech background and you want this for your students, you want to provide this for your students, then this is the conversation for you. It is a great one!
At the end, I’ll give you a little more information on where you can get some great tech units.
I will see you on the other side!
LINDSAY: Hello everyone! Thanks for tuning in!
I am here today with Dan Mellitz.
LINDSAY: I like to start by asking, where in the world are you right now?
DAN: Currently, I am in Barrington, Rhode Island, which is one of the many places I have been in the past ten years. But that’s where I am located right now.
LINDSAY: Awesome! You gave two exams today. We’re talking tech today and we’re going to get into all about how you got to be where exactly you are right now in Rhode Island, but can you just share what you gave as their final exam? It was the advanced tech students who were making the thing, right?
DAN: Their final exam was to build a tech table for our program since we currently don’t have one, so they had to team up in two teams and design separate ones and then come together and combine their designs to a final design. And then, together, they built their final design and had to go and make sure all the measurements were correct because they sit over the seats and then they had to make sure it was portable. They did a really good job. I think they need some tweaking. It’s gotten a little heavier than it probably should be. But right off the bat was a really good choice as a final project.
LINDSAY: Well, not only is it an interesting choice as product, but it’s a practical kind of test for them to do and a sort of real-world test, huh?
DAN: Yeah, I’ve done sometimes where it’s like you’re doing all this – you know, build a platform and build some stairs that you don’t really need because I have a million of them – and then you just take them apart and it seems like a waste. This is a very practical item.
I’ve done ones where they’ve had to build backstage prop tables that are foldable. I like practical items because then I can use them, and they get to see them in action rather than just seeing them get thrown away.
LINDSAY: I love that, and I know that people who are listening love that kind of thing, too.
Another thing that I think you and I both know is that a lot of people listening are struggling with how on earth they teach tech. They don’t have tech backgrounds. They don’t have any access to tech. You know, we know lots of people who are putting on shows in their cafeteria.
I know that you have got this great website of resource help called The Techie Green Room which everyone listening can find in the show notes. I kind of feel we’re totally simpatico and on the same page with helping teachers in any which way we can, right?
DAN: Yeah, I think so.
LINDSAY: I think that’s where you’re coming from, right?
DAN: Yeah, I think it’s a really great place to be. I think there’s a lot of other resources out there, and I think I’m definitely not the only one, but I think I’m close to the only one that is dedicated directly just to the tech side of it because there’s so many programs – you know, there’s drama and tech and there’s a lot to weed through.
I know, over the years that I’ve taught technical theatre, sometimes, you just need a direct access to the tech side of it. It’s hard to weed through everything when you’re on a clock and you need to find something quick. I think that was the goal.
There’s so many size programs out there. Some have technical directors, some don’t have technical directors. Sometimes, it’s a drama teacher who’s doing everything. Sometimes, it’s a drama teacher hoping someone will help them with everything else.
The resource is there just to help middle and high school primarily, but anyone really in the educational world to help them streamline that and maybe get some inspiration in a place that might be more streamlined than somewhere else.
LINDSAY: Also, I think tech is one of those places. A lot of resources are written for people who already know.
LINDSAY: And there’s a language that they use and there’s lots of terminology that they use. Well, I’m one of those people, when you don’t have that knowledge and you don’t have the language or the terminology, you look at some of those sites you feel a little lost.
DAN: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the reasons. I mean, mostly because I work in middle and high school, but you’re right. when you look at some of the resources that are really meant for college or above and you said you don’t know the language and it’s hard to find your way around it and really you just need to know maybe how to put a flat together or maybe how to do something really basic that you’re not going to be able to find in something that’s talking about hydraulics and all that kind of stuff.
LINDSAY: For sure.
Let’s back up just a little bit.
LINDSAY: What was tech like for you in high school? Is that where you got interested? Was it a little bit later? What was it like for you?
DAN: I actually started out as a performer in high school. I went all through high school as a performer at school shows, outside shows, community shows. And then, I went off to college to be a performer. Throughout that whole experience, I was still just better with the hands-on stuff. I liked how that was all coming about in college.
I was really the only acting major that actually liked doing tech crew assignments, so I would get put in charge of a lot of them. Just over time, I really figured out that I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be a tech student and my college was fortunate enough to let me join their brand-new tech program with all the freshmen instead of my acting senior class. At least that gave me one good positive step out the door before I jumped into the world by myself.
LINDSAY: That’s interesting. It’s like, “Well, there’s your red light right there!” When you’re the only person who is actually enjoying the tech side.
DAN: It’s a good omen to say I think that’s where I should be.
LINDSAY: I was the exact same. I thought that I would be an actor, and I would die. Apparently, you don’t die for not acting.
DAN: I still think I might die from not being in the theatre, but at least I’m somewhere.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s the thing, eh? There’s so many different facets of a theatre life, and there’s so many different ways to get enjoyment out of theatre than the product. For me, and I think a lot of people in the education angle, finding joy in the process of theatre has been great for me – just to not put all the eggs in the basket of the show.
DAN: Yeah. As most parents probably say, “There’s more jobs in tech theatre than there are as an actor.” My parents were definitely happy about that.
LINDSAY: What part of tech do you think is your forte?
DAN: You know, I think, probably the top would be construction just because that’s where it started. I think that, in order to make a living, you have to learn more, especially when you’re working with children’s theatres for the most part.
You know, the more parts you can design, the more money you make. You know, over time, I learned to do lighting and sound. I never made it to costumes, but pretty much everything else I’ve sort of dabbled in. You know, you get a bigger paycheck and that’s great, so you keep going.
I would say construction. And then, I just love sound. There’s a lot for me to still learn about sound, but I still love it.
LINDSAY: Awesome. There’s so much for many people to learn about sound, you know. The mic game alone probably takes years to master.
DAN: Yes, that’s the battle we are currently going after right now.
LINDSAY: Good. Stay strong! Stay strong in that battle!
You started as an actor. You trans—not transformed. You transformed into a tech guy!
You transferred into the tech world. And then, you were in the professional world for a bit.
DAN: I was! Right out the gate, well, my wife and I moved to Connecticut, back to where I grew up, and I took on a lot of just random children’s theatre gigs because they were often the easiest ones to get into as a brand-new designer. I did a lot of children’s theatre. I got a job as the tour manager for the Connecticut Opera’s program.
Unfortunately, a lot of the programs in Connecticut were hit hard by the recession, so a lot of them closed while I was there.
You know, it was really just starting off as children’s theatre and community theatre all over the state, mostly just trying to make a living, but also just being able to try everything, and I think being able to try all those different places allowed me to then try all of the different things – like designing lights and stuff because there were smaller programs or smaller companies that were okay with me learning at the same time I was working.
I think it was a really good way to go through the children’s theatre.
You know what? It was my first chance working with children in the theatre world professionally and that’s I think where it all started – children’s theatre – and just learning that a lot of these companies just need that extra hand as a techie and someone who can do a little bit of everything to get them through.
LINDSAY: Yeah, we spend a lot of time. Theatrefolk actually started as a children’s theatre production company, and that’s how everything started here – writing and performing and wishing we had someone who knew a little bit of everything.
DAN: Yeah, definitely.
I think that was the best part for me, and that’s what I love the most when I ended up becoming a technical director. Just the idea of knowing enough about everything and having the desire to bring everything together and being that person who sort of takes everyone and sort of brings it all together at the end and sort of makes it all pretty and look great on my own.
And then, when it came to the education side, seeing my kids and my students really come together and be proud of their work as they learn that it’s a huge community and that everyone has to work together for it to work properly.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s always the best lesson, I think, that can be learned – that sense that you’re not doing it alone, and everybody has to do their part to make it all work and come together.
DAN: And it’s hard. It’s a hard concept for some people to learn – that it’s your design and it’s what you want, but sometimes you just have to back off a little because you know it’s for the better good.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. Absolutely!
Okay. You went from professional to the education world. What made that decision?
DAN: After working for a while in different places, we ended up down in Savannah, Georgia, which was a whole other experience. We decided the south was not for us. And so, as I was looking for jobs to move back north, you know, at the time, I didn’t think I was a teacher. I mean, I was not a good student in high school or college, and I never thought I would be going back into education.
When a job showed up in the DC area that was a technical director, I really started looking at it as more of a job than anything else. I think, over time, once I somehow got that job even though I hadn’t done it before, I really got to know my students and I had a real connection with them and I got to really see them grow and experience theatre in a new way, and they really became their own community with me, and they learned so much. Some of them are doing theatre now in New York.
It’s just a really great experience, so I just kept it going. You know, getting into education was a great step. I then went off to a boarding school to work up in Western Massachusetts which was a whole other level – being there all the time, having all this evening to work. And where I am now. It’s another boarding school and it’s just a lot of great community.
The work is strong, and the kids really, really want to get deep into the work, and it just fuels me to do more and teach them more because they want it. I never thought that would be something I would do, but here I am!
LINDSAY: It’s always interesting. I think that, to me, that’s so important. That’s that process piece where you’re actually helping others gain skills and strength through theatre, you know, as opposed to just making it all about us. Like, “It’s me! It’s me onstage!”
There’s so much more, as they say.
DAN: You know, I had a student a few years ago who did a project for another class about me which I was amazed at in the first place. It was all about this concept of being backstage and how you’re not upfront. You know, it’s not about you and, a lot of times, you don’t get that recognition.
“Why do I do it?” You know, I do it because I love inspiring all of the students to go forth and make this art and be part of this team of performers and potentially educators and designers and really create something amazing.
Yes, sometimes, it’s hard not to get all the praise that the actors do. Sometimes, especially in education, you do get a lot of praise as being a designer and a techie and it’s really wonderful.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s so nice!
Now, let’s get into some advice and some help for our friends in the trenches, those folks who are one-man bands who are doing it all themselves, who don’t have those tech backgrounds, and either they’re expected to have a tech element or they’re putting on a show and they want the full picture.
The first question I have – and this is something I see quite a bit where a teacher says, “I applied for some tech money, I’ve been given some tech money, I don’t know what to buy! – if you could give some advice for a tech element, what is the most important and the most useful thing for them to buy? Whether it’s something with lights or sound or I noticed you had a thing on your site recently about air casters which I thought was insane – you know, something with construction.
If you’re building the tech side of your program and you have some money, what should you buy?
DAN: That’s a really good question.
Lights are amazing, but I think there’s ways to get around it. I think what I would choose first, based on your population and who you have, I think I would go for tools for the scene show or something to really build sets because, you know, you can get used wood, you can get donated wood, but tools are not that easy to come by.
So, basic tools to get you started – either a miter saw which is going to be stationary or some basic saws – because I think there’s a lot of kids out there, students who just need that hands-on. It’s something new. It’s something that they can tangibly touch.
You know, lighting is out there, but it’s expensive equipment. To make it worth it, I think, it’s going to cost more than just a little bit of money you get from the school board. You know, I think the tools in the shop, the kids can really get their hands on it, they can feel it, they can touch it, they can hear it, they know it’s working, and they can see the fruits of their labor in three dimensions which I think is really great.
You know, I say to a lot of my students who come through our intro class, “I guarantee most of you won’t be in the theatre, but you now know how to use a tool in your future – whether that’s one day in your own house or wherever it is. It’s a really good experience to have and lesson to learn.”
I would say that the tools would be the place to be.
LINDSAY: Awesome! That is a great answer! I love that!
Now, let’s move into a design question.
For the teacher who’s doing it all and wants that set element – I’m making this up as we go. What’s your piece of advice for someone without a design background to design a set?
DAN: I think look at the basics. Use your script to your advantage. A lot of times, unless it’s something like Shakespeare that gives you absolutely nothing – for the most part, not right out-front, at least – use the script to your advantage.
I mean, sometimes, there are scripts out there that clearly state, you know, one I was just working on with some students, it tells you you’re in a room. It tells you a fireplace and what’s on that fireplace and where the door is and to the left of the door is a window. There’s a lot of scripts out there that actually just tell you what’s there. In terms of the design aspect, those are great places to start because it’s right in front of you. You don’t have to really think about it too much.
If you’re looking at things like large musicals, I think you can really just, again, look at the script, but look at your space. You know, really put it to the size of your space. Don’t go overboard.
Sometimes, the best musicals are done when it’s just blocks. Maybe you can get away with blocks that transform into other things. If you have some parents who maybe are in construction or something like that, use them to your advantage in terms of building your design.
I think there’s a lot of good ways to just use the basics – you know, different size blocks. It doesn’t take that much to build, and you can really then see what you’re doing on the stage pretty quickly. It doesn’t take a long time to build. Then, instead of trying to, in your head, figure out how it’s all going to come together, you can visually see it and move them around in the space. That way, maybe the design changes over time, but at least you’ve got some blocks and things to work with.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Do you select all the color in your sets?
DAN: I think that’s a pretty open question because I think it depends on the show. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I actually really love dark shows – maybe because I just love fog machines – but a lot of schools don’t allow fog machines because of the nature of the building. You know, I often am trying to push the fact that there are different types, too – there’s low-lying fog, there’s mist machines, haze machines – depending on your system and your security system that can not be triggered by some of those.
But I like color. I think I have been drawn to darker pieces, mostly because I think some of my directors are drawn to darker pieces. I think the most colorful thing I did recently was Charlie Brown, and that’s bright, bold colors.
LINDSAY: I think that’s as far from dark as you can get!
DAN: Yeah, it’s pretty far, but it was also really solid colors. If you’re talking about color, if you’re new to this and you’re trying to figure out paint – because that’s a whole other world – stick to solid colors. Don’t feel like you have to make mixed colors and blend colors.
You know, sometimes, solid colors work just as well.
LINDSAY: Oh, well, there you go. See, I gave you an open-ended question.
DAN: You did.
LINDSAY: You came back with a very good solid answer. Stick to solids.
Actually, the thing that was really interesting to me about the fog machine – aside from the fact that fog is very, well, it is so cool onstage – it’s that whole atmosphere piece which I think, for me, not having a tech background, that’s what I always return to when I think of how am I going to do any tech, and that’s the atmosphere that the lighting creates or the sound creates or the set construction creates.
For me, that’s what I always think about with tech rather than the actual technical and the technique of it.
Where does atmosphere play for you?
DAN: I love atmosphere. I think it’s one of the most important things I like to create because I think – and I teach this to my students all the time – that you can transform your audience. Before they even start watching a show, you can have transformed them into the world that you’re hoping to create without them even knowing it.
You know, I did a show a long time ago. It was The Diary of Anne Frank. I created this whole pre-show atmosphere. It was this beautiful, happy Israeli music of them dancing. And then, slowly, over time, they got darker and darker and darker.
By the time the show was about to start, there was images of Auschwitz and the sounds of Hitler giving speeches and the footsteps of the soldiers. Afterwards, I could tell that they’d all just come from this happy “oh, we’re going to see theatre!” right into the world of the show, and it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve watched, and it’s just fueled me from there to make atmosphere, bringing that audience fully into the room rather than letting them just sit there and, right in front of their face, something transforms and they’re not quite ready for it. You know, it’s really letting them experience it from the moment they walk into the space, so I love atmosphere.
LINDSAY: You just created the world of the play without a single word.
I think what you actually just described would be just an awesome tech project – a sound project for a teacher without any tech, right? Here’s your play. How are you going to create the world of the play? What’s the journey before the play starts? And then, before the first word is said?
DAN: Right, and that’s what I teach a lot of my students when I talk about sound design.
“How do you transform the audience into the space?”
We talk a lot about sound and how it affects us all, even when they’re not really paying attention. We do a huge piece about the music they listen to and when they listen to certain music and when they listen to certain things and what mood they’re in. Does it transform their mood out of something? Without them knowing it, they’ve now made an atmosphere around themselves.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. Any time we can throw in something there, you know, because that’s another question that comes up all the time. “I don’t have anything. How do I do tech?” It’s like, “Well, here you go!”
DAN: Yeah, I mean, that’s sound, computers. Most kids have computers or somewhere there’s a computer.
LINDSAY: All of those programs have apps for phones now.
DAN: Oh, yeah, that’s true – iPads, phones, pretty much everything you can get your hands on can do it.
LINDSAY: As we wrap up here, let’s talk about training your students. I’m going to make an assumption – you can correct me or not – that your students are the ones who build your sets.
Do you have student stage managers? What is the student involvement in the tech?
DAN: I think it’s depending on the school and the size of the school. My current school is a lot smaller. We’ve had stage managers in the past, but this year we didn’t have anyone quite interested. But all my students build the shows.
This year, we actually brought in some of my middle school students to work with the high school students which I think some of my seniors were a little overwhelmed by their energy level.
LINDSAY: It’s like herding cats!
DAN: But, you know what? The work got done, and it was enthusiastic, and they were so proud of themselves and they ran the show. I mean, I jumped in because, for some strange reason, I designed a lot of projection in Charlie Brown just because I could, and that took up a lot of my time and I ended up running that part, but my students – from the lights and the sound and the crew backstage – they built everything.
In my last school, it was even more than that. They constructed. They were painters. I was able to bring in some of the art department to do a lot of the painting. They were lighting designers for a lot of our dance companies. They were stage managers and everything you could think of. I just sat there and helped them pull it all together, but it was their show.
LINDSAY: I think that’s really important, and I think that’s really important for someone who’s listening who’s a one-man band – to get the students to do the work not just because you need labor but because it will be fulfilling and there’s something made at the end of it.
DAN: Yeah, they own it. They get to own the experience. They knew I was there. Whether something went wrong or not, they knew it was them doing it, and they know how to fix it and they know how it fix it in real-life situations.
I always say that the best moments during performances are at intermission when the curtains close and, all of the sudden, from the audience, I hear drills and hammers and all this stuff going. Yes, it’s like, “Oh, my god, something broke?” but I also know they’re fixing it and they know how to fix it because it’s all them.
LINDSAY: Last question.
How did you get to this point with your students where they were the ones who could feel that they could fix something, and they could take charge and ownership and make something? What do you do and say on a regular basis to empower them like that?
DAN: I’m not sure I say anything. I think my philosophy in my teaching with them is it’s all hands-on, but I’m there, but I’m not there. If they have something they really need me for on a project, I’m there to help. Obviously, I teach them the proper techniques on how to do something. But I let them try and fail, and they learn over time how to correct it and fix it. Other than stepping in occasionally just because, sometimes, timelines need you to step in, I think that, by learning and trying and failing and failing again, they sort of understand that they don’t have to do everything perfectly.
I’m not expecting Broadway sets because we don’t have the time or the experience. But I am expecting them to do their best. Once they’ve got their hands on the tools, over a period of time, you know, I make it clear that, you know, it takes time. Even drills take time to learn and use properly and they start figuring it out and figuring out how, if they just adjust their hands a little, it works differently.
I just let them try and fail and learn that way. Most of the time, it seems to work. They sort of take hold and they understand and, really, once they finally figure it out, you know, they’re proud of it and then they really push it from there to get the work done and they really want to see it succeed because they know they can do it.
Yes, and we’ll just reiterate again that, yes, you need to teach them how to do it properly, and then let them fail.
LINDSAY: Don’t just give them a hammer and tell them to go to it, right?
DAN: Right! That’s important, too!
LINDSAY: Yes, that’s important, too!
Dan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today!
DAN: Of course!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Dan!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
If you are struggling in the tech arena or you have no background in tech and you want this for your students, I’d like to point you in the direction I am actually pointing right now. You can’t see it, but I am!
I would like to point you to the Drama Teacher Academy. DTA is the education arm of Theatrefolk specifically for drama teachers with professional development, curriculum, resources, and we have a set of mini tech units that covers lighting, sound, costuming, makeup, and staging – all of which can be done in any classroom!
If you are teaching in a classroom, in the cafetorium, and you don’t have any lighting or sound equipment, you can still do this.
We also have a basic lighting course, a blood and gore course, and a number of stage management in the classroom resources. You too can train student stage managers.
Head on over to DramaTeacherAcademy.com. That’s all one word. Or you can click the link in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode205.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end.
Take care, my friends. Take care.