In recent years, the steady encroachment of technology into the craft of professional theatre has exerted an equally strong influence on the business of higher education, forcing students and educators alike to come to terms with the need for technical training both in the classroom and onstage. Students aspiring to careers as designers want to learn the language and uses of these new tools and learn how to communicate with the technicians who operate them.

“Ultimately, though, designers get work from their ideas, not from the technology or because they know how to operate an Intellabeam,” says John Culbert, dean of the theatre school at DePaul University. “The questions that need to be asked are, what can the technology be used for and what role will it play? Of course, a lot of what we learn in theatre is the development and communication of ideas, and we'd like the students to get excited about how they can use this technology to advance their ideas.”

“We have a CNC router in our shop,” adds Steve Waxler, theatre design and production chairman of the school of opera, musical theatre, drama, and arts administration [OMDA] in the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. “It is a marvelous piece of equipment, but does this mean that we can throw away all of our saber saws and jigsaws? Of course not. A jigsaw can provide a certain sense of immediate gratification that is important, yet we need to recognize up-and-coming technologies, even if they're not available at a student's first job.”

Prospective students today have a choice of selecting among hundreds of undergraduate programs that provide either highly focused technical training, survey art, history, and the humanities or a discriminating blend of both. For many, the first and perhaps toughest problem is to evaluate their own career interests and set priorities, not an easy task at any age.

Educators and administrators face an equally complex problem as they endeavor to balance a curriculum tailored to the needs of their students while simultaneously managing enrollments and upgrading equipment and facilities to professional standards. “Undergraduate programs in particular are always real tricky to get right, and it can be the school of hard knocks,” says Chris Barreca, dean of the production design program at California Institute of the Arts.

“How many people really know at age 17 what they want to do?” Culbert asks. “One challenge we always face in developing a specialized undergraduate program is to create a marriage that works from both perspectives.” Adds Waxler, “I'm not always thrilled that our students want to specialize in one discipline, but I've found that if you don't let them get into an area that interests them, they quickly get restless.”

“At Cal Arts, we used to have an undergraduate technical direction program,” says Barreca, “and I honestly think that there are both good and bad aspects of teaching technical studies at this level. But even what is required of a trade in our business demands both a keener intellect and a higher level of technical knowledge, somewhat analogous to the difference in training between an electrician and an electrical engineer. If this is someone's interest, why shouldn't they pursue it?” Barreca adds, “Hopefully, the pervasive idea that working in the live performing arts somehow requires a more sophisticated sensibility has died a horrible death.”

Cindy Limauro, professor of lighting design and former head of the design program at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, says, “Within educational circles, there are definitely two polar points of view about specializing in one area, especially at the undergraduate level, but if a student is really interested in technology, I don't think there should be a stigma about wanting to pursue that.

A production of The Baker's Wife at Carnegie Mellon. Photo: Joshua Franzos/Joshua Franzos Photography

“Within our lighting program, for example, we take a more holistic view, because the artistry of lighting is the interaction between both design and technical theatre,” Limauro continues. “Not that technology is going to drive an idea, but we would be doing students a disservice for them not to know how to face the world upon graduating. To learn to design with moving lights, I think we need to teach a process that goes through the artistry and also provides students with a sense of confidence.”

What's Out There

Students interested in an educational program featuring both technical training and a diverse set of opportunities in stage, film, or television have a wide range of choices available to them from coast to coast. BA, BFA, MA, or MFA degree programs are offered with a variety of concentrations, ranging from more traditional disciplines such as costume design and stage management to contemporary programs specializing in stage automation and entertainment technology.

North Carolina School of the Arts dean John Sneden says, “Part of the mission of the design and production school is to serve the design and technical needs of all of the programs, even though each school is considered separate but equal.” Despite staging nearly 20 performances on campus annually, some “minimally supported and others quite major, with the biggest being the opera,” Sneden points out that almost 95% of their designers and technical directors are students.

“We often invite professionals to come in and describe what they do as it might apply to the artistry of what our students are learning,” says Sneden, “and students need to hear what would be expected of them once they graduate.” Designers in the lighting program attend a two-week intensive arts workshop each December, which provides demonstrations and hands-on experience with automated lighting systems. In addition, North Carolina offers a specialized program in stage automation, which instructs students how to design and operate these types of systems.

At DePaul, the availability of more than 40 adjunct faculty members in the design and technical production department encourages students to serve as assistant designers to faculty members or as interns — to the extent that it does not conflict with their school obligations. “Learning how to balance your time and not become overcommitted is a big part of the design training process, particularly since it's not uncommon for professional designers to have at least 12 projects going at once, all in various phases,” says Culbert.

Dan Hanessian, acting dean and director of design technology at the State University of New York [SUNY] Purchase Conservatory of Theatre, Arts, and Film, explains, “We want our students to spend more time learning how to think than what to think. It's vastly more important they learn that there is no one way to do anything in this business.” Students applying to the undergraduate school at Purchase can earn a BFA in design/technology.

“One of things that differentiates us from some of the other programs in the country is that we're only 30 minutes outside of Manhattan,” remarks Hanessian, “which allows our students to learn directly from working professionals on our faculty. Students come here because we offer a real-world training program that focuses on what it takes to work professionally, what the future may hold, and how to develop as both an artist and a technician. Most importantly, these skills can later be applied to slew of other areas outside of theatre.”

Limauro notes that Carnegie Mellon is traditionally based in drama but the curriculum is constantly being updated. “One good example,” she says, “is our newly developed MFA program in the entertainment technology center that is aimed at merging arts and sciences, where students can co-direct projects that blend drama with computer science.”

At Cincinnati, Waxler notes that the “OMD” in the title of the program — opera, music, and dance — perfectly describes what the school focuses on. “We're really integrated, part and parcel, each fully producing two mainstage shows plus workshops, annually,” he notes. Waxler adds that the school encourages faculty to add coursework as needed to keep up with new technology. In sound design, for example, the school is contemplating a separate track to focus on mix engineering. Within the scenic design program, one faculty member designs on the computer and another does it completely by hand.

“Money is always an issue with creating a technology track, unfortunately,” says John Uthoff, associate professor of lighting and sound design at Kansas State University. “It's getting to the point where the use of the latest moving lights, color scrollers, and computer technology is now common enough that you have to have access to it for training. One of the great difficulties we face in arts education is that it's nearly impossible for schools to do developmental research in technical theatre; this just isn't at the university level in our field.”

At KSU, students preparing to receive a BA degree from the department of speech, communications, theatre, and dance take introductory courses in design, stagecraft, and production before splitting into individual areas of focus.

Uthoff admits that “Not having an MFA program does have something of an impact on our undergraduate study. We do feel that an arts and sciences BA allows our students to hit all of the other areas of theatre while still receiving a strong foundation in the arts. With the BFA degree, I've found that some people love them, others hate them.” [For more on that dissenting view, see "Ming Cho Lee on Grad vs. Undergrad, below.]

At the UCLA school of theatre, film, and television, Bill Ward, chairman of the theatre department, is quick to point out that the school's ties to the film and television industry are a major draw for the theatre program. “Part of the culture of theatre is to invent your own opportunities, and I can't stress too much how our interest in working alongside the film and television department has grown in the past decade. We have plays written by our playwriting students that are being directed by film directing students, actors auditioning to appear in student films, and designers serving as production and costume designers, creating soundtracks, and learning a broader range of skills.

“At UCLA, our undergraduate program is essentially an intense conservatory training within a liberal arts degree,” Ward continues. “Students leave with the same quality liberal arts education as they would receive from any other program in the humanities. In terms of technology, we can offer students classes in automated lighting design or designing sound for film, wherever their interests lie.”

“When we reconceptualized the program some years ago, our emphasis on production was substantially reduced.” says Rich Rose, associate dean of the school of theatre, film, and television. “We carefully examined which skills we wanted to emphasize, and as a result, our undergraduates are taught to be successful as assistant designers. We treat all of our students as if they're here to learn theatre first, and often they find something that just clicks the right way.”

Founded by Walt Disney as sort of an avant-garde think tank to explore new ideas in interdisciplinary work, Cal Arts also has close ties to the film industry; it is no stranger to technology either, which is an integral part of the program. “We have an SGI [Silicon Graphics] lab on campus that we consider to be out of date, but I doubt many people would be overly sympathetic,” Barreca chuckles. “Our programs run the gamut from lighting and costume design to integrated media and all sorts of independent-minded tracks.

“For undergraduates especially,” he continues, “we'd like to see more exposure to the arts in general. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to see a lot of theatre or design more productions, but rather that you expose yourself to the idea of being an artist. If a student says they have an interest in making films, I give them my single-spaced, three-column-wide list of favorite films to immerse themselves in.”

These are just a sampling of some of the programs available to undergrads looking to blend both the artistic and technical aspects of design; there are many, many more schools out there offering similar programs, and any prospective student should explore all options before coming to a decision. And as Barreca notes, the path you choose in the end should be based on what you really want to do. “It doesn't matter what you decide to do as an artist,” he says, “if what you do really sets your socks on fire.”

Technical Schools: What They Offer

NYC Technical College

The advent of automated lighting and other related theatre technologies has created an entirely separate demand for highly qualified operators, technicians, and product designers who can use these tools. It is equally important that students who wish to pursue a career in these disciplines can communicate effectively with the designers who will use the equipment. “We want our students to have an understanding of the design process, but we're not training them to be designers,” explains New York City Technical College department chair Charles Scott. “Whether their interest is in theatre, theme parks, opera, or the circus, we don't have preferences or set limits that cut down on employment possibilities.”

Certificate or associate degree programs such as those offered by New York City Technical College in Brooklyn and Full Sail in Orlando provide non-traditional alternatives that emphasize equipment and technical skills as compared to other theatre schools.

“We have a very narrow focus as compared to traditional theatre schools, but then, very few others are training 75 technical students from the US and abroad, either,” explains Scott. The school presently offers a bachelor of technology program with concentrations in show control, lighting, sound systems, or scenic construction to high school graduates who want a very specialized education “that serves the needs of the entertainment industry, both in New York and nationally,” says associate professor John Huntington. “One important distinction that we emphasize is that we are not a theatre program or a design program. We also strongly support a core education, since we know that not everyone will end up in this field.”

There are two fully equipped sound and lighting laboratories on campus and others in design that will feature rigging and scenic technology. “We recently received a $1-million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation just to train students to run stuff,” adds Scott, “but not to provide support for producing. Here, we have no opening nights, but given our location, our students have no shortage of both freelance and volunteer opportunities.”

The situation at Full Sail is similar. “We cover some design topics, but it's not our focus,” says Susan Kelleher. “Our students are trained to be programmers, or perhaps lighting technicians, serving more in support positions, not as designers. Some pursue that avenue in other ways after they finish, but that's not what we're here to do. Compared to other schools, students at Full Sail are definitely exposed to more than just theatrical experiences.”

According to program director Dana Roun, “Our students can receive an Associate of Science degree in about 13 months, with over 1,500 hours of intensive training in show production and touring. Most of them come with a little bit of hands-on experience but want more technical training, especially in live production. We're also careful to teach our students that even though they may have acquired some of the tools necessary to assemble light plots, shop orders, and such, they will need considerably more experience before they're ready to find work as a touring designer or house mixer in an arena.”

Ming Cho Lee on Grad vs. Undergrad

Ming Cho Lee, Oenslager professor of design and co-chair of the design department at the Yale University school of drama with professor Stephen Strawbridge, has been teaching for 34 years. Yale College, the undergraduate school, offers a BA degree in theatre studies. The drama school is strictly a professional graduate school, offering MFA degrees in a wide range of disciplines including set, costume, lighting, and sound design, and technical design and production, as well as acting, directing, and other related programs. An accomplished stage designer worldwide, Lee spoke with Entertainment Design's contributing editor Ted Ferreira recently about higher education and theatre study in the US.

ED: How are undergraduate and graduate programs set apart?

Lee: I have always felt that there is a huge difference in the focus between undergraduate study of the arts and graduate professional study. Yes, they are related, but the nature and focus are vastly different.

ED: Do you think undergraduate students should pursue a specific discipline?

Lee: If a student is only interested in either technical theatre or design, I think it is a crime for the school not to recommend or even insist on their taking an array of classes in history, art, and social sciences. You must have a sound basis before you can concentrate. What makes American theatre education problematic is a fascination with the how-to rather than the content and context. Why does higher education continue to think of theatre as a business degree? I am more interested in the development and maturing of a person. It is enormously important to ask, ‘What is the purpose of having a theatre program within a liberal arts school?’ in order to understand the relationship and what students should get out of liberal arts study.

ED: What about a student seeking a bachelor of fine arts, for example?

Lee: I must admit that I am very skeptical about BFA programs. There is too much practical concern, too much concentration at too early an age. Should one's life and life's work be determined at the tender age of 18, without the benefit of time to explore, to examine, and to reflect? What's the big rush?

Too many people see theatre as a mere vocation. For example, I don't see how you can be a visual practitioner in the theatre without first being a visual artist with sufficient knowledge of history of art and architecture. If you cannot draw, and have no sense of what you are drawing, how will you be able to articulate your ideas? You don't learn to draw and the rest of it in the theatre department.

ED: Is technical training at the undergraduate level advantageous?

Lee: Of course it is, unless it becomes the only part of the education. There's no wrong or right way to teach design or technical theatre, but for an undergraduate this is a critical period in his/her growth, to develop as a person rather than as a professional or a practitioner. I won't say to a student, ‘I'm not going to allow you to study technical theatre,’ but, for instance, how can you be a sound designer without first at least taking Music Appreciation 101?

ED: What advice would you offer to the prospective graduate student?

Lee: First you must have a sound, broad undergraduate liberal arts base. Then, if someone is serious about theatre, they must explore its range and depth — and for that, graduate school is essential. Would you refuse to consider graduate school if you were training to be an architect, or medical school to become a doctor? Why should the arts be different? Otherwise, you are doing a disservice to the arts. Just as a bad doctor is dangerous to health care, a bad artist is dangerous to one's spirit and one's soul. Theatre is as complex as medicine; it's about life.