MSU students get “technical” about theatre

While watching a play one can’t help but be drawn to the actors and dialogue, but what happens behind the scenes? All the lighting, sound, and technical work are critical pieces to constructing a quality performance. 

Minnesota State University, Mankato graduate student Danny McDonnell and senior Jason Wagaman got their starts in tech from being involved in theatre while in high school. Both of them realized that there was more to theatre than acting.

“I acted in high school and I knew that stage management was a career, so when I came here [MSU] as a stage manager, I got roped into the scenic shop and I loved doing handiwork like this,” said Wagaman. “I was like, ‘Wow, you can make a living doing this,’ so I just continued to go down that path.”

McDonnell shared a similar experience. “I saw that there is so much happening behind the scenes and I liked being a part of it regardless if I was an actor or tech person. I kind of just started doing more tech stuff while acting and I just fell in love with it,” said McDonnell. “As long as I am a part of the process, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Wagaman recently worked as the Technical Director for the department’s production of “Tartuffe.” Responsible for bringing the scenic designers’ visions to life, the day of a performance is a rushed process of trying to get the set and props on stage as quickly as possible.

“I communicate with the director, scenic designer, and lighting designer to see which elements they would like first. Once that’s completed, it’s making sure that everything is safe for actors to use and ready for actual performance,” said Wagaman. “It goes into more tiny little notes that the stage manager and director give me.”

McDonnell is one of the sound designers for the Theatre department, and credits the department for his ability to be adaptive to changes that may quickly arise. 

“[Theatre] is something that we are trying to hone and craft to make [our shows] better,” said McDonnell. “It’s being able to take those critiques as more of a constructive thing rather than a deconstructive thing.”

While Wagaman has learned several practical skills, the most difficult part of his job is trying to stay hopeful while constructing sets.

“Staying positive can get difficult, and that’s a big thing in the industry known as tech-director burnout,” said Wagaman. “I think there’s ways to avoid that. Not beating yourself up too much when some scenic elements don’t look as good as you were hoping is one solution.”

Both Wagaman and McDonnell agree that people tend to underestimate how difficult jobs in theatre tech actually are. 

“[Tech people] aren’t actors, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to do design and run crew and all this other stuff. To be fair, it’s something that a lot of people sleep on,” said McDonnell.

“I think a lot of people look at it and go, ‘Oh, that would be easy and a fairly quick thing,’ but they don’t really understand how long it takes to put 24,000 napkins into chicken wire. I think people who are involved backstage a little bit see that and are more understanding,” said Wagaman. 

McDonnell encourages students who are wanting to engage in the technical aspect of the theatre to be proficient in “multiple hats” to not only be able to find more accessible jobs in the workforce, but to also still be involved with the processes of shows.

“The theatre world is a very difficult field to get jobs in, so if you’re able to be an actor, try being a sound and lighting designer or a technical director. You’ll have an easier chance of finding jobs,” said McDonnell. 

“Designers put in hours of work just as much, if not more, than actors do during rehearsal time. Actors often work on their scripts and get them memorized, but without us, the actors wouldn’t have lights or sounds or costumes to wear. It would just be people on a stage saying things in the dark.”

Header Photo: Students in tech put in long hours to help get the set ready for performances. From being a stage manager to a sound designer to a tech director, there are several jobs for getting involved in the technical aspect of theatre. (Courtesy photo)

Write to: Emma Johnson at emma.johnson.5@mnsu.edu

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