The technical director

By Mike Lawler

“The title technical director,” says Drew Campbell, head of the M.F.A. program in theatrical technology at the University of Texas at Austin, “is a very squirrelly term. People use it for all different kinds of jobs.”

 “As a TD you’re going to be dealing with dozens of technologies... You’ve got to have really wide-ranging knowledge.”

Technical directors are in fact the backbone of the theatre. They are the ultimate problem solvers, the essential link between what directors and designers see in their heads and the physical expression of those visions. TDs, as they are universally known, are responsible for some of the most unglamorous work in the arts, and yet without them little of the spectacle that today’s theatergoers have come to expect would be possible at all. Every theatre has one (or someone who does the work, no matter what their title is) and each faces a unique set of challenges.

They work in vastly different organizations—struggling semi-professional theatres, college and university theatre programs, big resident companies and commercial producers, and everything in between. They oversee the building of scenery in wildly varying shop facilities and load their sets into every imaginable kind of theatre space and stage configuration. What they have in common is that they all work under deadline and struggle with budget constraints, whether the budget is hundreds of thousands of dollars or whatever happens to be in the petty cash box.

Building for the elevator

Anthony Contello  started working at the Alley Theatre in Houston as a high school student on the scene shop’s overhire list. Now he’s the company’s technical director, overseeing a brand-new 17,000-square-foot shop that sits fourteen floors above the Alley’s two theatres. He supervises a crew of twelve that includes his assistant, a shop coordinator, a lead carpenter, a stage supervisor, a paint charge, a scenic artist, and five carpenters.

Contello’s job is probably as close to typical as it gets for a professional technical director working in regional theatre. But even a conventional TD in an indoor space encounters some unique challenges. At the Alley, one of the most important considerations of Contello’s day-to-day work is the size of the freight elevator. Everything that’s built in his shop has to be transported from the fourteenth floor to the theatre spaces at ground level, so “almost all of our scenery has to be able to break apart and fit in our 10’ x 14’ freight elevator.”

In rural Wisconsin, about an hour west of Madison, is an outdoor classical company called American Players Theatre. Founded in 1979, it has grown from a simple stage in a natural amphitheatre in the midst of hilly farmland to a 1,153 seat outdoor regional theatre. Bill DuWell has been the technical director at APT, which does five shows in rotating repertory each season, for the past eight years. The rep schedule, which means the shows are all up at once and rotate on the stage throughout the season, presents unique challenges for a technical director.The scene shop at the Alley Theatre in Houston. (Photo by Jim Caldwell)

Unlike Contello at the Alley Theatre, DuWell has more than his share of the unconventional. “The weather, combined with the rotating repertory, impacts everything we do,” he says. Many traditional approaches to scenery construction used in indoor theatre must be altered to allow for the variety of weather that sets will be exposed to in the course of APT’s June-through-October season. Most scenery is framed with light gauge steel, which must be rust-proofed, rather than wood. DuWell’s charge artist, who is responsible for single-handedly painting the five sets to the designers’ liking, mixes sand into the paint used on all horizontal acting surfaces to provide traction during wet weather.

Another major concern is wind. “We get wicked storms here,” DuWell says, and that means either eliminating scenery that is too tall or engineering creative ways to secure it. Accounting for all of this demands a lot of pre-season analysis and DuWell spends much of his planning time considering factors such as scenery storage and the time it will take to move one show off the stage and the next one on. In the same way that Contello must keep his elevator in mind, DuWell must build each show to break down into pieces that will install quickly and store easily in a limited amount of storage space.

“We work very hard to preserve design integrity while remaining acutely aware of the limitations of our presentation style,” DuWell says. With so many limitations and a modest seasonal scenic budget of $21,000, the presentation style of APT is one that stays relatively simple. DuWell, who describes himself as an “old school dude,” seems to like it that way. “I like telling stories in simple ways,” he says, “and I am fortunate to be working at a place that really relies on the basics.”

High tech, big budget

Throughout the country, however, constantly evolving technology has become an integral part of a TD’s job. New technologies are a major component of Campbell’s program at UT. He currently has M.F.A. students who are focusing on multimedia, interactive video, and scenery automation. Having spent four years as a technical supervisor at Universal Studios in Hollywood, Campbell knows how important it is for his students to be exposed to all aspects of technology used in the entertainment industry in order to keep them apace with the ever-changing job market they are headed into.

Campbell, who is the author of a book titled Technical Theatre for Non-Technical People, says the idea is to give his students a broad overview so that they will be able to communicate effectively with specialists whenever their jobs may demand it. In addition, he strongly encourages his students to focus on an area that they wish to specialize in. He wants his students to have the vocabulary and skills required to learn new technologies as they arise and be able to communicate effectively with specialists that they may have to work closely with or manage one day. “As a TD you’re going to be dealing with dozens of technologies: carpentry, welding, plumbing, networking, automated lighting, show control, pyrotechnics. The list goes on and on. So you’ve got to have really wide-ranging knowledge.”

Ed Leahy, technical director for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is very familiar with using technology to produce spectacle. He’s responsible for a seasonal scenic budget of $500,000 and regularly oversees productions full of spectacular effects and complicated scenery. Leahy’s job differs from the work of most TDs in that he has no scene shop of his own. All CST scenery is built off-site by a Chicago area scenic house. Leahy admits that out jobbing scene construction has its pros and cons. The biggest downside to this approach to technical direction is a lack of control, he says. “On the other hand, it’s an asset because when difficult things need to happen, they come up with solutions.”

With a seasonal operating budget of $13 million, CST can afford to try out innovative production approaches. Leahy describes some of CST’s productions as “outrageous in terms of spectacle,” and says using new technology to work out creative solutions to the challenges that land on his desk keeps his work interesting. A graduate of the University of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program, Leahy says, “I love my job. I’ve got big budgets to do cool things in cool shows.”

‘The practical side of the storyteller’s brain’

For all their differences, TDs everywhere still share the same basic responsibilities. One of the most important jobs almost all TDs share is managing the scenic budget. To do this properly they must be able to estimate the costs of a production: what kinds of materials are needed, how much of each, and how long it will take the shop crew to build the set. Sometimes certain scenic elements will need to be handled outside of their theatre, and it’s the TD’s responsibility to obtain bids for this work as well.

Production work always happens under deadline pressure, and the TD must make sure that sets are installed and ready on schedule. Relationships with scenic designers are also a crucial part of every TD’s job. DuWell boils all of this down by describing himself as “part of the practical side of the storyteller’s brain.”

DuWell, Leahy, and Contello all have assistants, known as ATDs, to help them keep up with the details. Leahy describes his assistant’s duties this way: “I keep an eye toward the future—the ATD keeps an eye on the facility as it is right now.” DuWell usually employs two ATDs, whose tasks include handling all technical drafting, some purchasing, and carpentry work during the build process.

Most TDs do not spend much time honing their own carpentry skills. Neither DuWell nor Contello work in their shops regularly and Leahy will only occasionally need to build something onsite, in which case he employs CST’s loading dock as makeshift shop. Contello tries to be on hand when it is necessary, and DuWell says “if I’m building it’s as a last resort or I need to fulfill an urge.”

Above all else, DuWell believes that having superb people skills are essential to being a successful technical director. He is keenly aware of how he fits into the big picture at American Players Theatre and keeps in constant contact with any member of the company that affects, or will be affected by, the work he does.

Paths to a TD job

For students considering a career in the scene shop, DuWell thinks that college and professional experience as a scenic carpenter are the best avenues to earning the title technical director.

Contello began working full time right after earning his diploma from a Houston performing arts high school. His advice to students interested in becoming TDs is to get on the over hire list (the people a TD hires for temporary work) of a local theatre. “This way you can experience first hand how the business really works. It is also a great way to learn the variety of ways things can get done.” Contello believes students of technical theatre should embrace their individual ideas for tackling technical jobs. “There are a number of ways to approach the same project,” Contello says. “One of the hardest things to do is teach someone a new way to build or approach a project. It is good to be aware of the variety of approaches that may exist.”

Finally, Campbell notes that even without the goal of pursuing a career in the shop, being involved in theatre in high school or college teaches valuable lessons. “It teaches you to work with other people, to be collaborative, to work on deadline, to be creative, to be comfortable being up in front of people,” he says. “These are all really important skills for anything.” Campbell also has some concise advice for young design and production students who are interested in entering the ranks of professional technical directors. “Be a jack of all trades and master of one,” he says. “You need to have that one thing that you are an expert at, because that will be your avenue to jobs. And be a nice person. Seriously.”

Mike Lawler  is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.