"It's 9am, and I have just put three 20-somethings into a bathroom with a portable recorder and a script. It must be KCACTF time." Elisheba Ittoop, sound designer
The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival was started in 1969 and developed by Roger L. Stevens, Kennedy Center founding chairman, as a way to encourage and recognize the high-caliber theatre being produced by universities and colleges throughout the country. Gregg Henry, artistic director of KCACTF, coordinates this massive festival every year, connecting young playwrights, actors, and designers to their peers and working professionals from across the country. They convene at The Kennedy Center every April to participate in five days of the National Festival, which includes various master classes.
In January and February, student designers from every region of the country present their work. In lighting, sound, and stage management, eight students each are selected to travel to the National Festival. There, they take part in "The Project" in the Theater Lab, created by eminent lighting designer Beverly Emmons twelve years ago, with the support of Barbizon, and this year ETC.
The premise is interesting, and a bit fast and furious. In the weeks leading up to the festival, the students were given a five-minute scene from I am not Batman by Marco Ramirez (years past have included scenes from Macbeth and Naomi Iizuka's Language of Angels) and notes on the scene from the scene's director. When the student designers arrive in Washington, they watch a run-through of the scene, performed by a professional actor, and are able to talk to the director. Over the next few mornings, two or three student groups a day begin focusing lights (each designer has 30 minutes to focus) and recording sound effects and music (in various places around the Theater Lab, say, the bathroom...).
The light plot has 29 units on it, from which they may use no more than 14, and they must specify lens types for the ones they choose to use. They can add up to six more units of their own choosing anywhere. During the afternoons, they have 40 minutes to cue the scene with their student stage manager.
Throughout all of this, Emmons and a team of mentors oversee and advise the students. This team includes logistical coordinator Eric Cornwell (who co-founded the master class with Emmons), sound designer Rob Kaplowitz, and Brad Buffum, production stage manager for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre. Once cued, the scenes are run and the students discuss their process.
Their peers, the director, and the mentors then discuss what they saw and offer feedback and constructive criticism. Emmons and the other mentors ask of the students, "What do you want to do next? What caught your eye or your ear?" The student groups are then allowed to refocus lights or move loudspeakers and re-edit sound cues. They re-tech their scene, based on what they learned from the process. The scenes are run again, with final comments afterwards. Emmons says, "We try and replicate the professional process in which you get notes! You get a chance to think about it like editing, you get a second bite of the apple."
The lighting designers have twenty units overhead, of which they can only use sixteen. "We'll hang them anywhere they like, and they can have any color, gobos...," says Emmons. "If they want any special kind of equipment, they can ask." For many student designers, this is their first time working with a union crew. The Kennedy Center technicians are on hand to work the focus calls and move the loudspeakers.
When programming, the students communicate what they need to union programmers. Tracy Cowit, a two-time KCACTF student designer and winner of the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in Sound Design, found it "slightly intimidating" to sit next to a programmer, having to be very specific with her QLab programming. The crew also critiques the students' work, focusing in on how they communicated their programming needs and handled their focus calls. The students also assist their peers, which for many might be the first time they have assisted another designer.
Some years, the mentors let the students know that there will be a mystery guest on the final day of "The Project." In the past, designers such as Natasha Katz, Nancy Schertler, Mark Bennett, and Ken Billington have attended and designed the scene with the same parameters and equipment the students have. It is a chance to see a designer they have most likely heard about and respect, working with the same tools they have at their own disposal.
Sound designer Rob Kaplowitz says that the three things that come out of this experience for the students are "artistic growth, human connection, and professional development." He goes on to say: “Artistically, this is the first exposure many of these students have to designers who are not their teachers or fellow students. Many have never met or spoken with anyone who is earning their living in the industry. Some don't even have sound design instruction on their campuses— they've taught themselves by reading textbooks, websites, reference manuals and plays.
“Needless to say, this means that there is a lot of room for mentored development, Kaplowitz continues. “And these students often simply blossom —they realize that the ideas they've been struggling to codify, the tools they've been teaching themselves, and the role they think might exist are not only real and useful, but that these are topics on the minds of many others. They learn a bit about technology, a bit about tools and techniques, a bit about assisting, and, hopefully, a lot about how the text, direction of the play, movement of the actors and choices of their collaborating designer are all critical to the creation of a successful design.”