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What Makes Techies Run

By Deborah R. Waroff

"...AND THIS fine set was carefully crafted by Master Carpenter Scott Kirkpatrick, whose imaginative use of one-by-threes with two-by-fours makes for an exceptionally light but sturdy structure. Not only did George Lindsay's lights enhance the play's atmosphere, but they always hit the actors just right. Lindsay also edged areas cleanly without extraneous ambient light.

"Finally, Stage Manager Mary Ettling got all the actors on stage on time, and got all stagehands off stage before the curtain rose."

So went the rave that was never written. But the characters and compliments are real enough. The audience at a Harvard show is pretty unaware of techies--the backstage and front office people who organize, frame and run a production--except as names on the right hand side of a program. But from the inside they seem pretty significant, much more so than in professional theatre.

In New York a tech director, carpenter or stage manager is an employee--someone whom you hire on the basis of credits he has piled up. At Harvard a good techie is a scarce commodity. He has rare skills which are essential to a show, and more job offers than he can possibly accept. And, of course, Harvard techies don't get paid.

NO WONDER two out of three Harvard Dramatic Club officers are techies--Jenny Tarlin '70 and Mary Ettling '70. And two out of five members of the club's executive board are techies. (This proportion is lower than that of some past boards.)

Tech people are a special breed, and can seem like a pretty strange one until they explain themselves. Why would anyone spend 40 hours a week in the Loeb shop hammering nails, sawing boards, and even taking nails out of boards? How can a stage manager sit through a month of three-hour rehearsals six days a week, and then still go on to make sure everybody and everything is in the right place at the right time for from three to seven performance nights? Why will a lighting designer and his master electrician pull all-nighters to hang their lights?

The answers have to do with the nature of the tasks themselves, the nature of theatre, life at Harvard, and, of course, the individuals involved.

A set designer's role and motivations depart from general patterns. He probably works more closely with the director than any other techie, and also comes closest to being an actor. While he doesn't take a curtain call, his work can draw applause, and his name is attached to it.

RANDY DARWALL '70, Harvard's current star undergraduate designer, and Howard Cutler '68, a graduated great, share an artist's concern for developing their work; on the other hand, carpenters learn and innovate, but are less conscious of an evolution. Also, a builder cares less about which play he works on, because he's not involved in interpreting it.

Because he wants to go professional, Darwall designs an enormous number of shows--and has worked on Gilbert and Sullivan and Loeb shows simultaneously twice (Patience and The Dybbuk; Ruddigore and She Stoops to Conquer).

But Darwall is tired of going show after show and will only design Bonds of Interest this semester. He has branched out from a realistic style into an often impressionistic one. But he feels stuck there, wants to "pause and reevaluate," and is now taking a course with Eric Martin in set design toward that end.

Cutler acted at Harvard, but then decided he liked designing better. But he maintained an "actor's attitude," picking shows carefully, with an interest in theatre rather than set-making for its own sake. Cutler eventually narowed his field down to Timothy Mayer's shows because "he [Mayer] runs a more interesting project."

Working fairly consistently with Mayer at Agassiz both summer and winter, Cutler feels he and others of the group developed artistically by building on what went before; each set was an opportunity to make a "new space" in that loveable but limited theatre. From his Plebians Rehearse the Uprising (May, 1967) to his tow-storied Midsummer Night's Dream (July, 1968) set ("a poor man's architecture, not a framework"), Cutler has been highly conscious of progression within the company.

BESIDES LOVE of theatre, the chance to work with people and collaborate moves these two artists to design for the stage rather than sticking to pure plastic art. As Cutler put it, "Just painting along in the basement of Mem Hall isn't all that much fun."

Sooner or later virtually every techie gives the same reason--"people"--as an at least partial answer to why he does what he does. HDC Corresponding Secretary Mary Ettling has been described as a wonderful supertechie "who will do anybody's dirty work." She does all that "shit work" because she likes the people she does it with and for, and because "someone has to."

Bill Carter '65, a legendary techie who sometimes worked for Mayer, commented from the perspective of a three-and-a-half year absence that theatre provides "an association of people not completely defined by a glass of scotch. People become friendly by common experience, more than by academics. It isn't necessarily so, but since theatre is the largest single activity [at Harvard] it must do very well whatever activities do."

The attraction of people for people plays such a large part in threatre here that "girl power" is a major means of enticing people to get tech work done, especially the twenty people needed the two days before opening night.

IT'S INDISPUTABLY difficult to meet people and reach out to them while reading Veblen in a dorm room; how much better to take hammer in hand or pass the crescent wrench.

Given a number of people with common goals and common experiences, you get groups--"task-oriented groups," as the Soc. Rel. department would put it. There are few loners backstage in Harvard theatre--after all, it's a cooperative venture. The groups vary in size, elasticity and penetrability.

The Loeb has a reputation for cliquishness that persists year after year. The other day one Cliffe was overheard warning another who had just been cast in a mainstage production, "Just don't become a Loebie." And as a freshman I was warned against the evils of the "in-group," which supposedly would not let a newcomer rise above the level of 3rd assistant prop man.

Clique or not, that certainly was a terrifyingly impressive, distant and coherent group of people. It was the same Tim Mayer-Thomas Babe directed group that Howard Cutler worked with, and included comedian Stephen Kaplan '68, stage manager Victoria Traube '68, and producer and HDC president Honor Moore '67, Peter Jaszi '68, and Michael Boak '69, among others.

BUT AT LEAST there were advantages in that clique. It revolved around Mayer--he had charisma, "talent, flash, élan that brought people in, and a controlled theatrical madness." Scott Kirkpatrick, who built for the summer company for two seasons and produced Erie said they felt they were doing something good that wasn't in existence anyplace else around here. "We thought we did a good job, and that we could affect people."

As Cutler said, working with the group long enough allowed thing to be built on what had been done before. They developed a "vocabulary" for working with Agassiz' small stage--the false proscenium, thrusts and rakes--all of which have served heirs to the stage.

Of course, plenty of other good techies (and actors) worked with that group, but not exclusively. Lighting lady Sara Linnie Slocum, Kirkpatrick, and others were independents.

The Mayer-Babe group may be the archetypal theatre group, but it's far form the only one. Many directors work consistently with at least a few of the same techies. Techies work for their friends, and for directors they respect and like and have confidence in. Director Leland Moss, for example, can always count on Harvard's leading young man of the tech scene, George Lindsay, to tech direct for him. There are usually a few people Lindsay can call on--Ted Shortcliffe used to work with him, and Mike Madison and Jussi Helava have been helping out recently, along with Miss Ettling. Lindsay complains of problems in holding master electricians when he designs lights--these are the people who help set up lights and operate the control board during the show. ("They all turn out to be lighting designers the next week.")

Certainly Lawrence Senelick, who directed Flea in Her Ear and Women Beware Women, has his people, especially a dedicated and erudite stage manager, Dave Brownell.

THE DUNSTER House Dramatic Erection group, formed last year, rivalled the Mayer one for cohesion, although it had an altogether different approach. Instead of having a central figure and a one-Production-at-a-time commitment, it was a group made up only of techies who enjoyed working together and would run off to save any show that needed saving.

It all began when Patricia Pilz '71 was designing lights for Gypsy--and six days before opening had no set to light. She called up light man Al Symonds '68, of Bwana Bus and Lighting for help. He'd worked with Paul cooper '69 and a few other standbys from Dunster House, like Randy Darwall. The next day a sign appeared in the Dunster dining room, "Pat's up shit creek. Come and help."

One person had the keys to the Loeb, another to Grant-in-Aid storage, and they went around raiding flats for the set. Darwall came with paints; and after the set was done and lit, they formed the society. As the only girl present, Miss Pilz Couldn't vote.

The group has pretty much dissolved this year, because many members moved off campus and Miss Pilz decided "to see if there was something else in life" (other than building 18 shows, as she did freshman year).

Supertechies of the 40-60 hours per week variety sometimes go through this kind of withdrawal after a year or two or three of tech overdoes. They're seldom academically inclined to begin with, and can hide form academics enough to almost flunk out, or end up on probation.

BWANA BUS and Lighting is a small group, its regular members being only Don Blair and Al Symonds. In the summer of '67 there was a Bwana Bus with chairs and rug and ashtrays, serving both as a place for moving cast parties and as transportation to stationary ones. It seems that Bwana Bus gets thanked or credited on almost every program at Harvard. Now they work mostly for pay and are noted for extraordinary speed in hanging the lights for a show.

Actually, the workers on every production form a group; the factor of working together seems to always bring this result. Gilbert and Sullivan, musical comedies, every Harvard house--all end up with cliques which last at least one show, sometimes more.

As the permanent, central theatrical unit of Harvard theatre, it is the Loeb that people identify with cliques--the "Loebies." But it's difficult right now to detect any groups there that are solid enough to merit the term.

Indeed, the Loeb, at present, seems to bear the stigma of ingrowth--scaring people off, alienating them from other Harvard theatre--without the advantages of a core of people to depend on for solid team work.

THIS IS a down year for the Loeb, as far as techies go. It's not that there aren't any competent people, but there simply aren't enough, and shows are having trouble getting built. It already looks like Bonds of Interest will be shorthanded, and Poor Bitos' set didn't get finished for the opening. This is nothing new--Plebians had no set for its final dress rehearsal, although the parts were sitting in the Loeb shop (only to be rescued at the last minute by Peter Johnson, a revered set builder-designer, the day it opened).

A lot of the problems the Loeb is having and has had before stem from the nature and mechanics of the building. It's big and beautiful--and terrifying in its enormity and shining complicated technology.

The equipment of the huge main-stage, which can hold anything, at first seems heaven for a designer; the possibilities are unlimited. But they aren't. Randy Darwall noted that "you can't fill it, and when you try the results are grotesque." And for that reason you have to deal with lots of negative spaces. Howard Cutler mentioned that it's "so theoretically flexible that you have to design the theatre first." The theatre is "insoluble and something always screws up" every set.

THE SIZE of the stage and the level of polish the lush building demands means large outputs of time and labor for techies. Thus it requires a totally different attitude to work there than in any other theatre around.

The Loeb always needs that new blood which is scared off by the rumors surrounding the place, and often must tap house who staffs when it's short on labor. But besides being scary, there exists no attractive or formalized way to learn at the Loeb. The freshman apprentice program was not credited with great success by anybody. Donald Soule and Frank Hartenstein, the Loeb technical and assistant technical directors, are there to prevent fingers from being cut off and equipment from being destroyed; they'll answer specific questions, but they are not there to teach.

Perhaps new techies do and will feel like outsiders. Even in the task-oriented group there's no such thing as instant friendship. Or perhaps, as HDC Recording Secretary and frequent producer Jenny Tarlin feels, you just have to wait for your groups, your class, to "grow up" before you feel at home.

Still, the equipment can transcend its demanding and intimidating nature. In a way, it's beautiful: the ordered levers on the light board which make light and darkness respond to to touch of a finger, a button that makes part of the stage go up and down.

People who seek friends aren't the only ones who work in Harvard theatre, and those who do have other reasons as well. Academics don't satify these people; working on the crew is kind of a high.

As techies' elder statesman, Scott Kirkpatrick said, "Some of us enjoy doing something reasonably well, something not anybody can do--and with artistic integrity riding on it."

PRODUCER Jenny Tarlin said, "It's sort of like having a baby. You can see it and touch it. We're at Harvard at a time when all progress is in a very abstract sense; what you do in theatre is much more tangible. I like to stay close to earth."

For Career oriented people such as George Lindsay, who want to be professional techies, the Loeb may not offer training, but it does offer a chance to make mistakes and correct them for the next show.

Technical work also has immediacy. A set has to be completed by an opening. You can support an exam answer with bull, but not ten actors on a stage.

"Maybe student life doesn't provide what people are looking for," said Bill Carter, trying to explain why techies tech. Later, apologizing for sounding like Dean Ford, he mentioned the Classic Harvard experience--"growth and change." Maybe teching-it is a way to experience that change.AI Symonds, master light man

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