Q&A Spotlight: Back to School – Teaching Technical Theatre

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Teaching Technical Theatre

Tom Barrett

During this back-to-school season, we wanted to learn more about theatre education and its connection to the real world. We visited with Tom Barrett, who is starting his 26th year at Macalester College. Barrett teaches technical theatre and oversees six annual campus productions – four theatre and two dance – including lighting, sound and construction. He also squeezes in outside design and tech direction work occasionally.

YPP: What are key “tools” – literal or figurative – in your toolbox?

Barrett: 1) Communications. Without question, verbal and visual communications skills are essential. You should be able to use a pencil and paper, whether for writing notes or sketching. Solid communicators are better able to collaborate.

2) Catalogs. I use my Grainger and McMaster-Carr catalogs – print and online – as problem-solving resources to find ideas and materials to engineer solutions.

3) Safety. College students believe they are immortal, so it’s especially important to focus on safety. This includes following OSHA rules and working closely with campus health and safety officers. I want my students to learn smart, safe choices – both in school and in their jobs. For example, after I began training my students in aerial lift safety, I became aware of the lack of such training in the industry. Now a number of former students/coworkers advocate for training among their peers.

4) Sharp Chisel & Block Plane. Maybe it’s because my German grandfather was a carpenter, but I still use my chisel and block plane regularly. A couple of weeks ago, while I was working alongside a union carpenter, he was surprised when I pulled out my block plane. Although he had a small power sander, he was soon using my block plane because it worked better. Sometimes the old way is the best way.

YPP: What should theatre pros know about today’s students?

Barrett: Many students today have different priorities than I did as a student. The last few years of the economy had an impact. Many students are scared about finding a job and paying off their student loans; that fear is impacting their choices.

It’s interesting that other students are less concerned about money but more protective of their free time. For example, they’re often uninterested in working overtime for the extra pay.

And finally, while students are tech-savvy and work intuitively with computers and smart phones, they are less skilled with their hands. I’ve noticed this shift. Students are coming to college with little or no experience making things. Many high schools no longer have tech shops, woodworking classes or graphic arts studios. They’ve been replaced with media centers. As a result, working with their hands is a scary idea for many students. It sounds kind of crazy, but most students are probably more comfortable programming a CNC router than pounding a nail!

YPP: How do you help students gain hands-on, technical fluency?

Barrett: I’m experimenting this fall in my technical theatre class. I want my students to connect thinking and working with their hands in a responsive, artistic manner.

I’ve structured the class so students collaborate less, which is not the traditional theatre way. While collaboration is crucial in theatre, students often make deals when working together. If one student is not comfortable doing something, someone else in the group handles it. So students avoid conquering their fears or insecurities.

In my class, students work alone most of the time on individual projects. Then we come together as a group to discuss, examine and problem-solve, while also exploring the process they are creating as a whole. I’m insisting they work with some hand tools first, and eventually power tools.

YPP: Any advice for college students hoping to work in theatre?

Barrett: A former student recently thanked me for this piece of advice: “Never be too proud to grab a broom and sweep the stage.” People will notice your effort. And be humble, because you don’t know it all.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask if you want to learn how to do something. Most theatre people are happy to share their knowledge if they feel respected and see you are eager to learn. There’s a lot to know in this business. Within the scope of a four-year theatre education, you’ll just scratch the surface.

I may sound like an ‘old guy’ but realize that your word and your work are really all you have. If you do good work, if you show up early, you’re going to get called back and you’re going to get more work.

2 responses to “Q&A Spotlight: Back to School – Teaching Technical Theatre”

  1. Meg Bubolz says:

    Good advice to all. I am tempted to substitute “many career fields” in place of “theatre arts” and spread this advice around.

  2. Drew McCollum says:

    as a technical director for an off-broadway theatre in nyc i could not agree more with the answer to the last question. i have 3 theatres and a large center to take care of. i always need carpenters. good work, good attitude and respect put you at the top of our call list.

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