Backstage Career with Deep Roots
While still in elementary school, John Lucas’ backstage career began as a command performance for his brother. Since that first experience, he’s built a career spanning over 50 years. And he’s still going strong today, at Butler Arts Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“I was in third grade at our local Catholic school when my older brother Fred put me in charge of the lighting crew and running the console for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Lucas recalls. “He didn’t give me a choice but would send me straight to the booth and warn me against telling anyone how old I was.”
Upon reflection, Lucas believes his brother wanted him to take over since he would soon be on his way to the Vietnam War, where he would later be assigned a role painting camouflage on airplanes.
Early Stages. After grade school, Lucas spent time in youth theaters run by graduate students at Indiana University. He also became involved in local town theatre organized by volunteers, all while continuing to participate in K-12 school theatre programs.
While in high school, Lucas earned International Thespian Society points through both theatre technology work and acting. When in college, a director thought he had the “right look” to perform in a Russian opera, so in between working deck cues backstage on the electrics crew, Lucas was out front carrying the czarina. In his first salaried job as a Technical Director/Lighting, he also played the upstairs neighbor in a Neil Simon comedy.
After college, Lucas worked summer stock theatre and eventually found employment on the full-time technical staff at the Butler Arts Center (BAC) in the early 1980s. Today Lucas works as Stage Technician First Electrician. Located on the campus of Butler University, BAC includes 2,100-seat Clowes Memorial Hall and three smaller venues: Schrott Center for the Arts, Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall and Lilly Hall Studio Theatre.
Doubly Rewarding. “Working alongside professional artists who have perfected their craft and students learning theirs is one of the greatest things about working at Butler,” he explains.
Lucas strives to tell students the stories behind what he was taught, which keeps daily conversations interesting. Lucas stresses two rules he learned: 1) Thought is action in rehearsal; 2) Amateurs rehearse until they get it right but professionals rehearse until they cannot do it wrong.
Butler students have the opportunity to interact with professionals because BAC has clauses in its union contract to promote students working on productions. Students are also encouraged to sign up for extra calls, both to earn money and also to meet professional contacts who could be beneficial down the road. Like most universities, Butler has some alumni working in the entertainment industry; that network is also helpful.
Education Continuing. Like networking, Lucas believes learning never really stops. “Education is your friend – you cannot get enough of it,” he states. “Someone else’s way could be just as good as yours, or even better.”
To further his knowledge, Lucas has taken manufacturer training, about products he has or wants, from companies including J.R. Clancy, C&M and Vari-Lite. He also attends IATSE training and takes classes at LDI and USITT conventions when possible. Outside the entertainment field, Lucas has attended the National Hardware Show, Consumer Electronics Show, Farm Progress Show and even World of Concrete.
“Sometimes other industries find solutions before we do and there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel,” he reasons.
For professional development, Lucas also entered a regional SkillsUSA welding contest sponsored by Miller Electric Mfg. Co.; he says his final standing “made my wife smile.” She’s a theater technician who left the computer industry for a “more fun” career; Lucas often volunteers to assist her with school and church installs.
He considers each project a learning opportunity. “Everyone has different equipment and it’s always good to touch anything I can,” Lucas adds, “I learn about other ways of doing things, along with new and different technology.”
Technology Means More. When asked how technology has changed his job, Lucas’ answer boils down to one word: more. “More of everything — equipment, styles, facilities and experimenting,” he remarks. “I’m pretty sure the days are gone of homemade flood lights in coffee cans and cutting gobos from printer’s tin.”
Lucas believes everyone today covets whatever new equipment they can get their hands on. With computerized technology being programmed to perform repeatable or time-consuming tasks, he says more time is now available for artistry.
For example, in the past shows might finally see the lights by Wednesday’s rehearsal before a Friday opening. Now most lights are ready on the first night of rehearsal, even before a lot of the scenery is loaded in. This provides an extra two days for experimenting with the lights while performers are rehearsing.
By reducing the workload of individual workers, improved theatre technology has accelerated load-in and load-out timing for shows. “With people able to work faster, more performances can be packed into the schedule,” notes Lucas.
Summing up industry trends, he cites better sounding, bigger shows growing in popularity, including many shows he considers attention-grabbing rather than truly thought-provoking.
But whatever the theatre technology, he says some basics must never be forgotten. “The equipment over your head, no matter how new or good it is, doesn’t know if it’s hung on something strong enough,” Lucas cautions. “If that wiring isn’t hooked up properly, things will still go bad.”