Since this is the 35th Anniversary issue of Entertainment Design/Theatre Crafts, I've been thinking a lot lately about the past 35 years of my life, how I got into the business, and where I was in 1967. It all began in the first grade (you do the math) at the Christmas show. My school had the latest cafe/gyma/torium with a lighting system that consisted of eight 60s-era silver bullet-style fixtures with R lamps tied into light switches. One of my jobs, besides singing off-key, was to control the lights for the different scenes. This was followed a few years later by my work as an altar boy, where I got to flip breakers to turn on the houselights and the stage, I mean altar, lights. From light switches to breakers — all I needed was a dimming system.
Michael Eddy a few years ago
Jump ahead to high school, where we had a brand new auditorium with then-state-of-the-art equipment. One day my friend dragged me along so he could meet girls, while ostensibly building scenery and working on the shows. There was an opening on the sound crew, and since I was not cut out to be a wood butcher, I started running the sound console. Though it quickly became apparent that my friend was not going to stick with theatre, I was hooked. The lighting console, a Century Strand (yes, it was a few years before they would flop the names) two-scene preset console with 30 dimmers, looked much cooler, sort of something out of Star Trek, so I quickly switched over to the lighting crew.
My teacher, Ray LeBlanc, ran this theatre like it was a showplace; he had a student crew to maintain the space as well as crewing everything from choir concerts, a musical and a play every year, to industrials, dance recitals, body-building shows — basically anyone who rented the auditorium for an event. We actually got paid and got a lot of experience in a short amount of time. We were much cooler than the AV geeks, because we had much more expensive equipment and a 1,000-seat auditorium. We were the theatre geeks! It was a great drama program for a high school and it was an excellent setting in which to learn.
Mr. LeBlanc was a very important mentor, providing me with a lot of good information and guidance when it came to theatre. Of course, my father was my first role model and mentor, but he did not know much about the theatre (I come from a family of engineers and teachers). While in school I had not the first clue about what I wanted to do in life, nor where I saw myself in five or 10 years. My father once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I replied an engineer, just like him. After explaining to me that my math grades sucked and I should reconsider my goals, I somehow made the leap that I wanted to become a lighting designer in theatre. My father trusted my decision; his advice was, “Do anything that you want as long as you don't become a bum.”
Mr. LeBlanc took me and other students who wanted to go into theatre around to a number of schools and looked at a lot of training programs. I ultimately ended up settling on the University of Evansville, which, while a small program, was the right size for me, and since it was heavily into training actors, left a lot of room to learn the technical side of theatre and design. I got not only a solid grounding in theatre, but also in art and life. College fueled my curiosity in how things work. In school I found more mentors to help me shape my career goals and bolster my knowledge base, not only in theatre but in life as well. Some mentors guide by example and some toss roadblocks and obstacles in your path to see how well you will handle the curves life will throw at you. At the time I found it amazing that you would put in 18- to 20-hour days and while professors outside the department would let you slide on assignments and homework, none of the theatre professors would let you get away with anything. In the real world, if you cannot handle the workload, you have a problem. Most productions cannot afford to let you slide if you are a little overworked. It is very interesting to see how a little perspective on something shows you that maybe the teachers and professors actually knew what they were talking about.
After college, I made the obligatory move to New York City to become the next hottest lighting designer the town had ever seen. I found new mentors in designers that I was assisting and master electricians with whom I worked. I gained a lot of useful information and expanded my knowledge base as well as my network of contacts in the theatre. But after a year freelancing as an electrician, board operator, and design assistant, I came to the conclusion that I could continue on that level but was not cut out for the freelance life of a designer. I needed a little more regular paycheck.
Funnily enough, I came back from a summer theatre job and was unemployed for the first time since I was a teenager. I was scared to death. It was August and I had no clue if I was going to find work, since all of my contacts were still out of town.
I wanted to stay in theatre, but didn't know how to go about it. Eventually I found work with Kliegl Bros. Stage Lighting, training people on their new control consoles. (In a very bizarre twist, not 10 minutes after I accepted the job at Kliegl Bros., I was offered a permanent position as master electrician of a theatre at the Juilliard School! A mentor and good friend suggested that since I had accepted Kliegl's offer, I should honor that agreement and thus I've ended up on this side of the industry. In hindsight, it was the best decision that I ever made, and would not change it if ever given an opportunity.) Up until that point, I had never thought about work other than the traditional designer/crew person in theatre. What I quickly discovered — and have worked in ever since — is a wide and diverse industry that supports the theatre, as well as film, theme parks, architecture. There are myriad manufacturers, dealers, and distributors, as well as production companies to find work with.
Over the years in the entertainment technology industry, I have found a number of mentors willing to share their advice and experience with me. I highly recommend finding mentors to guide your career and life; it is well worth the effort. If you see a production and something about it really grabs you and speaks to you, why not write the designer a note complimenting them on their work; everyone appreciates feedback. You can also ask them for some advice or guidance. Keep in mind, however, that people are busy and if you set up a meeting or a call, set a time limit and express that time limit when you arrange the meeting. And stick to it — don't waste their time or they may be reluctant to help other people out.
I would also recommend joining the United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT) or the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA). Attend sessions and seminars about careers in the business. These usually have working professionals on the panel speaking about the realities and real-world requirements of working in this industry.
I also strongly encourage people to mentor others. If you are a working professional, take the time to answer notes and emails from students and people starting out in the business. There is a wealth of experience in our industry; I firmly believe that it is important to share this knowledge with others.
Over the years, while speaking at colleges and USITT meetings about working in the industry, I've met a number of parents much like my own, concerned that their child is about to ruin his or her life by going into the theatre. What I tell them is, while it is true that there are few opportunities to make it as an actor, director, or designer, there are plenty of other roles to play in entertainment and an education in the theatre is one of the best preparations for life. We learn collaboration skills, analysis and research skills, and untold life lessons. Even if you do not continue in theatre, the lessons learned are very applicable in many areas. If you have the basic skills, a good work ethic, and a desire to grow, you will be able to find work. Along the way you will meet many people who can act as mentors for you and your career. And I can almost guarantee that you won't become a bum.