Four Instructors Discuss How Technology Has Changed The Way They Teach--And The Way Students Learn
Professional Scenic and Lighting Designer
Northwestern University Department of Theatre
Daniel Ostling, who has been teaching design since 1996, approaches his teaching the way he approaches his designs. “The goal is to communicate an idea, and you have to find the best way to do this.” The most useful changes in technology on scenic design for him haven't been anything flashy but rather the basics. “I don't feel that much has changed in the past years,” he says. “What has changed are computers. It has affected all of our lives. It lets me use Photoshop, which I find irreplaceable. It is a great tool to use. I find it pretty organic; you can take to it rather easily. It has changed the way I design and the way I think about what one can do.”
The great value of a computer program, he says, is in the ability to see change quickly without the labor of reworking the original design medium. “Computers have changed the paint elevation,” notes Ostling. “I do the drawing and the original painting, but now I can scan it and then put a wash over it, change tones, color as often as I need. It has given me the freedom to change without having to start over. That is a huge change.”
Teaching this shortcut is one thing; as Ostling points out, access to the computer equipment for students is another. “At Northwestern, we have a computer lab with plotter, printers, scanners, the whole thing. I can say to a student, ‘Why don't you scan that and play with it on the computer, make this change.’ This is my first year being able to do that. Not all schools and all students have access to all computer programs and equipment. The last school I taught at was like that. I would tell my students if they asked how I would work on the computer to create some of my work, but it wasn't something I could really expect as a class for them to do. They didn't all have access to a scanner, quality printer, or the ability to afford Photoshop.”
Ostling hopes students learn that the computer is not the final answer to research either. “I think the Internet is a great tool if you know exactly what you want, but I don't find it great as a browsing tool. I don't think there is anything as great as going to an area of the library and finding a book that was two books down from the book that came up perfect in the catalog search, but now this book you weren't aware of has the key to your show. That's what I think you can't always do on a computer. You aren't free to find something unexpected. There is more to see sometimes.” The bigger picture is something he tries to convey to his students in terms of soliciting work as well: be careful of the portfolio on disk. “I don't like disk portfolios because I can't see it all; you have to keep opening every piece, you can't spread it out and get an overview. Also, 30-50% of disk portfolios I often can't get to open. I can't see their work at all.”
It all goes back to communication for Ostling. For a scenic designer the drawing is your voice, and you have to decide how you want it to sound. “At the end of the day the computer is useful but if I was on a desert island I would still ask for a pencil as the one thing I needed. If you can hand draft and then take a CAD program [class], you are going to be in good shape. I think that plenty of people who do CAD are doing bad CAD drawings. I have seen work that is done from A-Z on a computer and it is often sort of sterile. No matter how you represent it, it has to be a good drawing. It is a drawing you are doing. It is not a technical drawing, it is an artistic plate.”
Professor/Head of the Graduate
University of California, Irvine
Tom Ruzika helped create the lighting design program at UC-Irvine when he started there 30 years ago. Couple that with all the outside projects he has been part of since forming The Ruzika Company in 1985, and it would be fair to say he's seen his share of changes in lighting technology. But sometimes the rapid pace of change has made teaching lighting a tricky prospect. As a result, Ruzika finds that as a teacher it is vital to give the students a good foundation.
“Every three years,” he explains, “we have a class cycle in the graduate program; some classes might only be taught once every three years, but every student will take it before they graduate. This quarter I am teaching such a class, called Lighting Systems. It is the guts, the technical issues of lighting instead of the art of the design. I have taught this class for about 20 years, and what I've found is that I have had to make a clear distinction between the terms technical and technology. The technical is the none-changing, constant of lighting: watts, volts, amps, etc. The technology is the changing, ever-evolving elements, like dimmer racks. I had to decide to make the class focus on the technical because I could spend every day for 10 weeks talking about what's new in technology; LED technology could be quarter unto itself. You couldn't cover it all. The technical, however, is constant and the basics of the technical have to be understood; the technology is based on these basics. That is the foundation the students need.”
Ruzika admits that in some respects building blocks are more than he can sometimes teach. “We need to offer the digital aspects of the design work of today, so we hired a younger professor in order to add as part of the curriculum at UCI classes that deal with how to draft your drawings in AutoCAD, how to work with Lightwright and the whole new world of previsualization. Honestly, I don't teach those classes, I teach mainly the classes that focus on the creative, the artistic eye of lighting. It is important that we offer those classes; the students need to know how to work with different companies and other designers with those programs.”
The scope of the foundation is not as clear a decision, though, when the technology is changing not only the tools used by designers but the job descriptions as well. “There is a change in the students outlooks, in terms of where they are going with their careers in lighting,” he notes. “They realize that they must look to more than just theatre lighting design to make a living. Now they see you can make good money as a programmer of moving lights. That is something that I am now struggling with in our program: do we start teaching that technology, do we start training our young people to fill that role? Do we help them develop the ability to become that second set of eyes as well as having a designer's eye so they can work in either of those roles?”
It all comes down to giving the students the starting point for a working career,” he notes. “We do need to give our students as many tools as possible that will allow them to make money and the tools that will help them be better lighting designers,” says Ruzika. “The more skills they have will help them when they graduate. I believe that our students have at the end of the program really developed a great eye; they are good lighting designers, so you want to give them the chance to use all the tools, moving lights, etc. to fulfill their design. But the reality is that for most their big professional debut will be at a small theatre with a few dimmers, a handful of lights, and the big technology might be a couple of scrollers. So they need to be trained to use their skills to design for that as well. It is important to teach that balance.”
Professor / Head
Costume Design and Technology
The University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music
Dean Mogle has spent the last 15 years of his 24-year teaching career at UC-CCM, a school known for its range of work. His costume shop and his students have had the opportunity to work on everything from grand opera to small dramas, but according to Mogle, beyond the scope or the years, the technology changes are all in the details.
Indeed, costume design by nature is all about the details, and as Mogle points out, technology hasn't made many bold strides in the field. “Costume technology hasn't changed that much, generally speaking, compared to lighting or even the tools of scenery. The costume work is still relatively untouched by computers, but in terms of the dyes, paints, certainly in terms of the less toxic glues that are now available, and most notably the different fibers, fabrics, materials that are now available — that is the costume ‘technology’ that has changed.”
Mogle also believes the actual business of the industry has changed as well. “We do half if not more of our fabric buying on-line. We have gotten fabrics, masks, all kinds of items from all over the world. It has really opened up the possibilities in terms of what is available to both designers and costume technicians. The options and the choices are now huge and the pricing is tremendous; you can really compare and get what you want for what you can afford.”
In terms of teaching and technology, Mogle says the most notable difference is the ability to organize and research. “I find the gathering and dissemination of images and information to be perhaps the biggest change. Research options and techniques have dramatically changed due to the World Wide Web. Libraries, museums and other sources of information are much more available and useable than ever before. The resource of doing research on the web is unbelievable. Most museums now have so much of their costume collections online; some of these things aren't published anywhere else. Not to mention all the cultural research and period stuff. It is incredible.”
Despite the opportunities online, Mogle continues to stress to his students the traditional forms of research. “I often have to scold my students and make them get off the computer and make them go to the library because there are things that they will never see on the Internet,” he explains. “Also being in a library and the feel of the books and the wealth of images that can be seen at once can't be replaced. It frees the imagination; it for me is part of the design process.”
Technology has reared its head in the costume shop in other ways as well. “We are just starting the process of bar coding our costume stock inventory, which will be an incredible resource,” he says. “If you can't find what you have, why bother having it? Today, more and more companies rely on pulling stock because of the cost in building new costumes, so our students need to be able to maintain and organize the costumes. Organizing, archiving and accessing information and resources is so much easier today.”
In fact, Mogle urges all of his students to embrace today's technology to help archive and better organize their own work. “As part of the portfolio preparation, I require students to begin digitizing all of their work (good and bad) for archival purposes. Once it is in an electronic form, they can easily pull images together to adjust and emphasize their portfolios according to the type of interview or job, be it in costume design or technology, academic, or professional. This also saves on the wear and tear of the original artwork. However, a portfolio of their original work is also always required.”
To that end, Mogle points out the digital camera may be the costume shop's most useful new technology. “We use it not only for archiving but the digital camera at fittings gives us the chance to take instant pictures of the choices,” he says. “You can use the images to work with the director, to show your dressers, the actors can use the images as a reference in the rehearsals to know what they have on in a certain scene. It is immediate and it is remarkable how much the digital camera has helped in the shop.” Just another detail that Mogle finds technology helping to check off the list.
THOMAS V. KORDER
Technical Director and Assistant Professor in Graduate Technology Curriculum
University of Illinois Krannert Center for the Performing Arts/Department of Theatre
In Thomas Korder's 19 years of teaching, the technology of technical theatre has certainly changed, but for him teaching is still all about balance. “I think the successful teachers of my generation have discovered that it takes more than just reciting a lecture to be a good teacher,” he notes. “The good programs out there are constantly working to find the right balance of lecture, discussions, demonstrations, lab experiences, and working on shows to give their students a good education in theatre technology.”
Over Korder's career the tools available to find that balance have certainly helped him as a teacher. “I did not have a computer in my office at my first teaching job and didn't know what CAD or the Internet was. Now I have a laptop and desktop at work and a desktop at home. I use CAD almost daily and am usually using the Internet to research something at least once a day. There is now software out there that can do simulations of pneumatic or electrical circuits, and other software that can aid in mechanical design.”
However, when it comes to using technology to teach helps a student understand the material better; that's the real balancing act. “In the area of teaching pedagogy there has been a lot of research and investigation into how students learn and what we can do to help them learn successfully,” he says. “It isn't just about technology, it is about what form of teaching works for this student, on this topic, and in this situation. These techniques can include technology, but many do not. The good teachers realize that they have to keep adding to their ‘toolbox’ as a teacher and not just rely on what they did in the past. Technology doesn't help bad teaching, nor does technology used poorly help good teaching. Technology used well can assist good teaching. Recently I had the luxury of having the time to get all of the lectures for a class into PowerPoint format. It didn't magically change this class, but it did help me to narrow in on what was most important, and allowed me to provide a lot more visual information about the technology I was teaching, in this case fluid power.”
Besides PowerPoint, Korder has found a few other useful software programs for his classes; they include AutoCAD and Vectorworks to show construction drawings, fluid power, and electrical schematics, Microsoft Project or Fast Track Schedule to demonstrate project management techniques and Automation Studio for schematic design and simulation for fluid power, automation, and controls.
Korder finds the Internet as a research tool, while certainly useful, sometimes tricky to move the students away from. “Internet research is a double-edged sword sometimes,” he says. “For example, if you are trying to find a piece of hardware — a six-inch metal ring let's say — just because you can't find it on the Internet doesn't mean they don't exist. You have to go to the store and look, and look in different areas, because you were looking in hardware but other aisles have lots to offer too. The Internet can't replace getting out and seeing what is available.”
The biggest balance for Korder is preparing his students for the professional world of balancing both high- and low-budget job opportunities. “I think we accomplish this mostly by teaching them to be technologists that are collaborators, problem-solvers, and life-long learners. We can't teach them everything, but if we can teach them how to work with other artists and crafts-people, how to approach a problem, and how to investigate the different means of solving that problem, they will be able to face any challenge. Also in their production work the students progress from small shows with small budgets to large shows with big budgets. On all the shows we help them understand how to balance resources with the needs of the production.”
Michael S. Eddy
Chair, Sound Design
Yale School of Drama
Perhaps more than any other discipline, sound design and technology have always been closely linked. You could almost make the argument that audio technology helped create the role of sound designer. Although the tools have grown increasingly more sophisticated, sound designer David Budries' teaching philosophy has remained constant. A full-time faculty member of the Yale School of Drama who works with about ten students each year, Budries says that his teaching has always focused on the practical. “We're very hands on here at Yale,” he says. “Of course, the palette of tools that sound design students work with has expanded dramatically. Just as the evolving technology — digital audio workstations, sequencers, samplers, sound design software like Max and Reason — has allowed me to grow as a sound design artist, it's made it possible for students to develop more quickly than ever. I think it's important to learn a variety of systems, so we don't use Pro Tools, for example, exclusively.”
Yale currently has three workstations, each built on a Macintosh G4. “The smallest one has a one gig processor, the largest is a dual 1.6 gig machine,” Budries says. “We buy one a year to stay on top of things.” Students design sound and compose music for the productions that the Drama department stages, and Budries makes sure they understand the real-world pressures of playing back sound live to a production as well as the design component. “Working a console, making sure that cues are struck on time, these are some of the things our students must learn to do. Most of them have their own computers, and they often bring these machines to the theatre.”
Sound designers routinely comment on the double-edged sword that technology represents. Syncing video clips to audio on a personal computer, for example, is a breeze these days, and having a library of thousands of sounds at your finger tips is also common. But this easy access comes with a price — a job is rarely finished, since producers know how easy it is for the sound design to be called back on line. Budries is teaching the Yale students to handle that kind of pressure.
“In the past we were always a day behind a production. Now we can be very interactive with, and in some cases out front of, a production. That's very exciting. We try to teach everything from the fundamentals of the physics of sound to electro-acoustical playback system designs — amplifiers and mixing consoles — to composition, and of course the creation of sound design.”
Students in his program are expected to learn basic such skills as sound design, script interpretation, composition, mixing, editing, sequencing, sound generation, real-time signal processing, loudspeaker management, and drafting. The tools at their disposal include Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Spectra Foo, SMAART, AkSys, Finale, Sibelius, Waves, Vectorworks, Vizio, AutoCAD, Filemaker Pro, Toast, Jam, and iTunes.
Because technology has become such an essential part of the sound designer's craft, Budries is considering requiring first and second year students to purchase hardware and software necessary for their own basic personal studios. “Since the tools have become affordable this initiative is not as daunting as it once might have been,” he says. “All the students we have polled think this is a positive, reasonable and valuable goal, one that would allow a student to leave the program ready to start designing right away, with tools and resources that he or she is comfortable and familiar with.”
Still, Budries points out that the technology remains but one tool in the process. “Most fundamentally, we teach our students that everything they do — whether it's sample a number of different sounds and manipulate them in a work station to create an effect, bang a couple of rocks together, or write a traditional musical score — is part of the composition process. That's our job as sound design artists. It's almost a (John) Cage-ian manner of thinking about the organization of sound as music.”