Kat T. Nakaji stands in the middle of the workshop at the American Repertory Theater.
Kat T. Nakaji stands in the middle of the workshop at the American Repertory Theater. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

The Foundations and Dreams of the Technical Theater Scene

At Harvard, technical directors are few and far between. They build the sets for the dozens of plays produced on campus, often taking on long hours in the shop. While the work can be time-consuming, there are reasons for staying, and perhaps, changes to come.
By Allison J. Scharmann

The show I worked on last semester, ‘/underground,’ I looked at my build hours spreadsheet and found out that I worked 100 hours over the course of three weeks,” Gabrielle S. Preston ’20 says. “Which is not great for also being a student and a person.”

Preston is the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s technical liaison, and one of just a handful of student technical directors who execute the set design of the dozens of productions the HRDC and Theater, Dance, and Media department put on each year.

The show I worked on last semester, '/underground,' I looked at my build hours spreadsheet and found out that I worked 100 hours over the course of three weeks.

“I’m a full-time student trying to take five classes, and also have a social life and not be doing things sometimes. [Tech directing] makes it incredibly difficult,” Preston adds.

Compared to the myriad of student actors and directors on campus who seek to put on shows at Harvard, the number of students who do technical theater is much smaller, and every show may require them to design and execute the lights, costumes, sound, and set.

“In general, the sort of core staff or technical staff of people who make theater on this campus—it’s a small circle,” Preston says. “We kind of all know each other.”

Gabby S. Preston '20 is the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club's technical liaison.
Gabby S. Preston '20 is the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club's technical liaison. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Beyond general technicians, the pool of technical directors is even smaller. Emily E. Bergquist ’18, the former president of HRDC, estimates that, at any given time, there are typically only three or four active technical directors on campus.

“I think in traditional settings or professional settings technical directors are people who coordinate all of the technical elements of the show,” Stephanie N. Ferrarie ’18, an active producer and technical director on campus, says. At Harvard, however, technical direction is a bit different.

“The biggest role [of a technical director] is to build and construct the set, and manage the process of building and painting the set,” Ahan T. Malhotra ’21 says. He explains that the technical director is also responsible for organizing a show’s “load in,” in which the show moves into a space or stage, and “strike,” when a show moves out of a space. Malhotra is tech directing the freshman class’s First-Year Musical, “Hitched.”

The Experience Barrier

Preston, along with Bergquist, American Repertory Theater Production Supervisor for Pedagogical Programs Kat T. Nakaji, TDM Production Manager Andrew J. Gitchel, and HRDC Campus Liaison Abigail G. Sage ’21 all point to a lack of experience as one of the most prominent barriers preventing students from getting involved in technical theater.

For Preston, high school formed an intense introduction to set construction. “I got here and realized I was kind of technically experienced enough to jump into things,” Preston says. “It’s very difficult to come in with no experience in a technical role and just take a project on.” Preston acknowledged that, while there are people who learn technical direction and other technical roles on the spot, the process is by no means easy.

Malhotra, who has never tech directed a show before “Hitched,” credits the HRDC’s biannual Backstage Week with teaching him the skills necessary to tech direct the First-Year Musical. Backstage Week, which is generally held the week after Common Casting (the process by which most students audition for HRDC shows), is an opportunity for students to learn and practice technical skills. “For backstage week essentially I just cleared out my evening and every night I was going to the different workshops they had and they were super well organized,” Malhotra says.

Sage, a freshman stage manager, urges students to get involved regardless of their experience level. “I did come in as a freshman with experience, but a lot of really, really talented people come in as freshmen with no idea what they’re doing,” she says. “By the time they’re seniors, they’re light designing shows or they’re tech directing shows and doing things that they didn’t necessarily think they’d ever do as freshmen.”

“I think one of the biggest barriers is that there’s fear and apprehension that if you’ve never done it before you’re not going to be able to do it,” Nakaji says.

The experience barrier may also present another challenge to the pre-existing theater community: Members who want to work with new potential technical directors must also think about the time it takes for them to learn the necessary skills, as well as the opportunities available to teach them. Nakaji stresses the importance of matching student technicians with appropriate shows for their skill levels.

I think one of the biggest barriers is that there's fear and apprehension that if you've never done it before you're not going to be able to do it.

“One thing I do see is that a lot of times people will be like, ‘We don’t have a lighting designer for the MainStage, we’ll just get someone new!’” they say. “And I’m like, ‘Oh no, not on the MainStage. This is not the moment to learn how to do lights.’”

This learning curve is steep for the students who do seek out positions as technicians or technical directors without prior experience, Preston explains. “You’re learning your position as you’re doing the production, which is fine or would be fine. But it’s not necessarily supported with the very high caliber of theater we want to produce and [there’s] not a lot of tolerance for trying stuff and failing."

'A little bit of a tradeoff.'

While the time commitment varies for different productions and roles, it can force students to make hard choices about what activities to take on or give up. For some students, there’s even less of a choice: A work study requirement can make taking on this time commitment even more difficult.

The technicians’ dilemma does not go unnoticed by the other students who work with them. “Designers do end up signing on to a lot of shows and it can be very overburdening for them,” Sage says. She is currently stage managing two productions. When I ask her to estimate her own personal time commitment, she laughs. “More than anyone ever should.” She estimates her workload to be around two to five hours every night, plus work outside of the rehearsal room.

“It’s actually really hard to have a regular job,” Preston says, “I know a lot of people who work at Widener because you set your schedule every week and it’s just hourly shifts.” Bergquist, who was an upperclassman mentor to Preston, also works at the library, along with a number of other students who are technical directors or who have other time-intensive theatrical roles.

Bergquist, who doesn’t qualify for work study, also works for the Office of the Arts and previously held several different internship positions at the ART. The artistic and theatrical nature of these positions made them more complimentary to Bergquist’s work with the HRDC. “You’re working in a theater setting so if you need to sit there and send an email to your lighting designer, they’re going to understand that,” she says.

But the increased time commitment needed during tech week and the production week leading up to a show’s opening night requires Bergquist to rearrange her work schedule in order to make the same amount of money. “If I have a show a month out, I’ll really load up on work shifts and make as much money as I can in the two or three weeks leading up to it because I know I probably won’t be able to work as much the next week,” she says.

A similar logic follows when it comes to academics. Malhotra sought more front-loaded courses for this semester, keeping in mind that the month of April would be consumed with technical preparation for his show.

The ability to participate in other extracurricular activities is also a consideration. Malhotra, who is involved in the Harvard Financial Analysts Club and Global Platinum Securities, notified members of his other commitments that he would need to spend all his free time in the theater during tech week. “There is a little bit of a tradeoff,” Malhotra says. “I think it’s manageable and you have to plan for it.”

Much of the strain on technicians comes from the large number of shows they need to mount each semester. “Creating art onstage requires a significant amount of people and it requires people who have a similar mindset and are moving in a similar direction,” Gitchel explains. “I think we’re stretching our resources thin in terms of people, and even more so ‘qualified’ people.”

“What ends up happening is you have one student who does everything,” he says. “They get burnt out and they stop working in theater. And then they’re not passing on any of the knowledge that they’ve gathered.”

I think we're stretching our resources thin in terms of people, and even more so 'qualified' people.

“There’s an ongoing concern if I want theater to be a serious extracurricular and this is how much time I’m putting into it: Does that hurt me later when I’m trying to put a resume together to apply to jobs that aren’t theatrical necessarily?” says Preston, who is uncertain about technical theater as a career. When not working at Widener, with the HRDC board, or designing and building sets, Preston is also the Secretary of Harvard Undergraduate Voters Choose, an election reform project. “I’m picking between what I want to do artistically and what I want to do professionally.”

Producers and Directors

The shortage of trained technical directors not only increases the workload of the students who end up doing the bulk of Harvard’s tech directing, but also the workload of the producers on campus.

Bergquist’s introduction to technical theater at Harvard was, in a way, accidental. She began with the HRDC as a stage manager her freshman year, eventually graduating to producing, which she found to be a much better fit. According to Bergquist, producers at Harvard have three areas of responsibility: finances, publicity, and what she calls “the technical side.”

Emily E. Bergquist ’18 was President of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and lives in Adams House.
Emily E. Bergquist ’18 was President of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and lives in Adams House. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

“It’s similar to what production managers do in real life,” Bergquist explains. This undertaking entails making sure a show’s set, light, sound, and costume designers meet their deadlines, ensuring the visions of each designer are consistent with one another, fostering communication among the designers as well as between them and the director, and just about anything else that comes up during the production process.

While productions often have more than one producer to divvy up the workload, the shortage of technical directors can change their roles drastically. The lack of a tech director on a show Bergquist produced resulted in her spending eight to 12 hours every week for a month in the scene shop overseeing set construction herself.

“The producer and director work very closely together to build the staff for a show,” Bergquist says. “So the producers are the ones who are responsible for filling those holes with either other people or with yourself.”

The responsibility that comes with her role informs much of Ferrarie’s technical involvement as a producer. “Everything comes back to you and reflects on you. That means you have a lot of stake,” she says. “I got into being a TD [technical director] because I had to build from producing,” Ferrarie says.

Ferrarie added that while the technical duties expected of her in addition to her other responsibilities as a producer can be overwhelming at times, she doesn’t like to complain. “I can build, I would never have been able to build. Two or three years ago I couldn’t build anything but I had to,” she says. “That’s why I’m doing it and why people ask me to TD and do carpentry for them.”

Similar to Bergquist, Ferrarie often spends 10 to 15 hours per week in the scene shop during build weeks, of which there tend to be two or three per show depending on the set. “I think that producers should know that part of the job is taking on extra responsibility,” Ferrarie says. “It’s not about delineating like ‘I’m the producer and I am just somebody who’s handling paperwork’ because that’s not what makes it fun.” Having experience both tech directing and producing taught her the importance of collaboration between the people in these roles.

Bergquist cautioned against relying on producers exclusively to make up for the lack of technical directors and designers. “I’m a well enough trained technician that I could fill that role but, for example, if a show needed a costume designer–I don’t know the first thing about costume design. I could not take on that role.”

'Dream of dreams.'

Some say the problem is simple: There aren’t enough technicians at Harvard. The solution? That’s more complicated. Students and faculty alike see a path forward that requires close cooperation between the Theater, Dance, and Media Department and the HRDC.

“In terms of solving this problem they have to be linked, they have to work together,” Bergquist says. “Because the HRDC has resources that TDM doesn’t, and TDM has resources that the HRDC doesn’t, and they’re both affected by this problem. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to work closely together.”

To address the experience barrier, community members say there needs to be a more efficient system of training students as technicians. As of right now, this responsibility falls collectively on upperclassmen, TDM faculty, and the production managers of Harvard’s numerous theater spaces.

Gitchel conducts much of the structured technical training of students on campus. He and his colleagues in the TDM department run a series of training modules during the academic year that are required for TDM concentrators and open to all students. The modules currently offered are Stage Management, Scenery, Lights, Costumes, Sound and Video, Theater Safety, Producing, and Professional Administration Structures and Unions.

In addition to his many responsibilities, including but not limited to maintaining Farkas Hall, working with student groups to stage productions and develop designs, purchasing materials, and supporting all TDM thesis projects, Gitchel also teaches classes on tech theater.

“I think a year ago Kat Nakaji and I offered our technical [class] which was less design and more actual execution,” Gitchel says. “We learned about design. But also some of our projects were ‘build a video design rig with a projector and a cue lab’—so a little bit more hands on. We had lab time with that class.”

Bergquist, who took the introductory course, called it “an amazing class” but added there was more to learn than there was time to teach it. “There were so many days where they were like, ‘If we had 17 more classes I could explain to you how this works but you just have to trust me that it works,’” she says.

This semester, TDM is offering a course titled “Design Foundations: Scenography Studio,” an exploration of set, light, and construction design taught by MIT’s Director of Design for Music and Theater Arts, Sara Brown. Preston, who is currently enrolled in the class, referred to Brown as “amazing.”

Bergquist pointed out, however, that the Scenography class is much more focused on design than the technical aspect. “We have to expand the classes that we’re offering,” she added.

The TDM department is on the same page. “I think the goal is to continue having these sorts of introductory level classes,” Gitchel says. “I would hope that students who are interested in making theater but maybe not as a career path would still take these classes.”

More informal training of technical directors and technicians is dependent on older students passing on their knowledge to younger students. “I think mentorship is extremely important. I keep documents and documents of tips and I just share them with younger producers,” Ferrarie says. In addition to her responsibilities producing and technical directing, Ferrarie also trains the newer tech directors with whom she works.

Ferrarie also emphasized the importance of building community between technicians and cast members. Her experience working as a carpenter with The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players was highlighted by the closeness of the cast, all of whom she got to know because they helped technicians build the set. “I think building community that would make a staff member come back, it’s an expectation that needs to be set,” she says.

“I think mostly that there’s just a lack of awareness that these are real positions and real jobs to be had in the world,” Nakaji says. “It’s not an afterthought. It’s an integral part of building a design, of building a show, and how to bring those people into the creative process.”

I think mostly that there's just a lack of awareness that these are real positions and real jobs to be had in the world. It's not an afterthought.

Addressing the effects of the time commitment associated with technical direction is a different problem. “Frankly, it’s a big time commitment and that’s never going to change,” Ferrarie says, “and I don’t think it should because then you’ll have shoddy work.”

The OFA sometimes hires and compensates student shop assistants for work on specific shows or in specific theaters, but the program doesn’t apply to the work of student technical directors or technicians broadly.

Preston believes that to make positions in tech theater more accessible, Harvard should consider compensating student technicians for the work they do to create Harvard theater. Doing so, according to Preston, would allow more people to participate in technical theater rather than having to choose between working and creating art.

Bergquist believes such a program could incentivize people to learn technical skills, but doesn’t believe it would fix the “fundamental problem” of addressing how more students can and should be taught these skills. “This is something that came up when we were talking about TDM giving course credit for working on productions, because it can be very tricky of where is the line of what qualifies for work study and what doesn’t,” she says.

Nakaji hopes for expanded resources for student technical directors and technicians.

“My dream of dreams for technical theater on campus is to just have a dedicated technical scene shop where it’s just students, it’s just for undergraduates,” they say. This workshop would provide space for students to construct their own sets, as well as sewing machines and tables for costuming, and a light box, which is a small studio space with a light board that can be used to practice programming lights. “An experimental place where people could go and work out an idea, because right now we’ll have really great ideas but not necessarily a space to work out what that would look like.”

Kat T. Nakaji is the Production Supervisor of Pedagogical Programs at American Repertory Theater.
Kat T. Nakaji is the Production Supervisor of Pedagogical Programs at American Repertory Theater. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Nakaji believes that this technology would not only be enjoyed by existing technicians and designers, but would also attract new students to technical theater at Harvard. They joked, “This is very like a ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it they will come.”

Reasons to Stay

For every challenge the technical theater community faces, there are even more reasons to love the work. The students and faculty interviewed for this piece often identified and praised those in their tight knit community. “Kat Nakaji is one of my heroes in life,” Bergquist says. “Kat does the job of twelve hundred people by themselves.”

“The students here are obviously very amazing individuals in their own right. Everyone puts forth tremendous effort,” Gitchel says. “So it’s exciting to work with students who have a high threshold for achieving things and working with something they may not have encountered before.”

Berquist is particularly proud of the diversity of the technical theater community at Harvard. “I think it would be very easy for our community to say ‘we need people we need people we need people,’” she says. “But everybody that I know has been very supportive of not just people, but [have said] we need women and trans people and people of color.”

I miss it when I'm not doing it.

“It’s cool to like make something with your hands when you’re in a space that isn’t typically run by women," Ferrarie says.

And even aside from the community, there’s a draw to the craft of set-building itself that keeps convincing Preston—one of the most involved tech directors on campus—to come back, despite all of Preston’s other commitments.

“I love building things, I really do,” Preston says. “I miss it when I’m not doing it.”

Note: Allison J. Scharmann was the Assistant Stage Manager and an actor for “Operation 1600,” a play put on by the HRDC.

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