A master electrician's primary responsibility on any production is to execute the design created by the lighting designer. That simple statement is actually a complicated and time-consuming job requiring skills ranging from practical to diplomatic. If you are a master electrician on staff at a major regional theatre, then you are guaranteed to need that full range of skills, plus those of a shop manager at times. Master electricians who hold staff positions not only handle the complex duties involved in executing the lighting design, but they also have to handle equipment inventory, space and system maintenance, and budgeting and crewing concerns that extend beyond one particular production. Regional theatres that are also associated with university programs can add even more lines to the job description. Long hours, hard work, and heavy responsibility — and yet most master electricians you speak to wouldn't change jobs; they love what they do.
I recently spoke with five MEs from some of the country's leading regional theatres and found a group of people dedicated to their craft. Derek Wiles has been ME at the Harvard University-affiliated American Repertory Theatre in Boston since 1998; Bob Christen has been at Chicago's Goodman Theatre for 34 years; Indiana Repertory Theatre's Beth Nuzum in Indianapolis has been ME since 1989; this past August, John Baker moved from the South Coast Rep to the Alley Theatre in Houston; and since 2000, Mike Doyle has been the ME in La Jolla, CA, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
All have at least two performance spaces they oversee, and Doyle has four working theatre spaces at La Jolla, where the playhouse is affiliated with the program at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). All use over-hires but have at least one electrician and a board operator on staff. All those board ops use various versions of the ETC Obsession console at each theatre. All five of the theatres also have full inventories of equipment and use rental gear to supplement extra moving lights and unique LD requests. They all tend to work 40 to 50 hours a week, jumping to 60 to 70 during techs.
LD: What are some tools you really rely on?
John Baker: VectorWorks, Lightwright, all sorts of tools like that, but I rely on my people the most. They are my most valuable tools.
Beth Nuzum: For us, the ETC Source Fours are really put to the test.
Derek Wiles: Microsoft Office. I use Excel; I use Word. I spend a lot of time on my computer. Other than that, the best tool that I have is my roadcase. I bought it when I first got here, and it goes everywhere. In fact, this season it is going to Edinburgh for the international festival.
Mike Doyle: Lightwright is probably my most important tool and VectorWorks. And, of course, my crescent wrench.
LD: Are there any quirks to working in your spaces?
Baker: The interesting thing about the [Alley Theatre] space is that it is not a fly house; it is a tension grid that you walk on. I never worked in a space like that before. For every show, we build a new pipe grid. What is really neat is that during techs, if you need to make a change, you can do it quickly because you can just walk upstairs, walk on the grid, and get to everything.
Wiles: Our space [American Repertory Theatre] was built in the 60s, and we have some amazing architectural quirks, as well as some unusual seating abilities. I once found a book called The Greatest Stages in the World, and our theatre was in it. I would love to know who designed it and if there was a consultant. It has some interesting things, and I would like to know more about the decisions made.
Doyle: We have some theatres here at La Jolla that were built at a time of economic hardship, so they didn't quite get finished. We have a theatre that has pipes that are permanently attached to the ceiling that were intended to fly, but we have no fly gear. We do have a couple of tension grids that are fantastic — probably the best environment for an electrician to work in — period — because everything is accessible all the time. We have one theatre that was built with the grid maybe 5' too low, meaning you can use a 50° or nothing else.
Bob Christen: I don't know that we have any real quirks. I guess our box booms: When we first moved in, we couldn't figure out for a little while how to use them. They are a little quirky because the boom pipes themselves are kind of slanted; they are not plumb. They were tricky at the beginning; first two shows, it took us a day to hang the box booms. We are much faster now.
LD: Do you have other duties beyond just normal master electrician duties?
Baker: Maybe I'll take out the trash sometimes. Seriously, we really have a strong staff here at the Alley, so we don't get much put on us that isn't in our department. Although this year, we have taken on a new thing: projection. We just got three Barco RLM R6 units, 6,000-lumen projectors that are part of our inventory now. Hopefully, we will start doing more shows that start implementing video design and live video projection. It is great because it is all about learning and doing more new things.
Nuzum: Well, yes and no. We all tend to pitch in to do other things. For example, we host the Bonderman Playwrighting competition, and I was cleaning the house with the artistic director — that kind of stuff. Besides the actual space work, you also help with how to light something in the lobby. That is the beauty of working in a permanent regional theatre. You are part of the theatre, not just the production.
Wiles: Video — I am the equipment guy, making sure the gear is there. I also do some design. We are starting to do more and more projection. This year, we have done at least four shows with projection. When I first got here, we were doing a lot of super-titles, a lot of PowerPoint, and as we moved into more projection, we've used media servers and full Watchout.
Doyle: The rise of the use of projections in theatre represents the next big challenge for us. As an emerging discipline, projections seem to fall to different people at different times. From a design point of view, we've had dedicated projection designers, but we've also had designs come from lighting and scenic designers. The matter of who takes care of projections from a technical standpoint seems to be in flux. I wonder if this is how carpenters felt at the beginning of the 20th century, when they were asked to start plugging in lights. Although we recognize the need for a dedicated projection department, finding and funding qualified professionals is a challenge. Currently, our sound department handles the bulk of projection needs. Another outside responsibility would be that, in association with UCSD, I do some teaching. This arrangement puts me in situations where I might go from discussing $3-million musicals with the likes of Howell Binkley to teaching undergrads that don't know the difference between a Fresnel and PAR. The dichotomy is one of the most interesting parts of my job. The sheer variety of what I'm asked to accomplish on a daily basis is the main challenge that keeps my job interesting.
Christen: Not really other duties — I do also design at times here at the Goodman. This season I was lighting designer for our annual A Christmas Carol and the current production of Rabbit Hole, both in the Albert. Last season, besides A Christmas Carol, I designed Crumbs From the Table of Joy, Romance, and the David Mamet Festival One Acts. I go by “Robert” when I am a lighting designer and “Bob” when I am the lighting supervisor. I have control over my own budget here, which can be interesting when I am also designing. Robert tries to stay in Bob's budget. Ultimately, Robert would win, but Bob still keeps him within reason.
LD: What is your least favorite aspect of the job?
Baker: Maybe that I'm here too much.
Nuzum: When I have to tell someone no, they can't have something.
Wiles: It is not uncommon to show up at 8am and be here until 1am. It is not uncommon to pull a week, week-and-a-half — during tech — of 18 to 20-hour days. So not sleeping is my least-favorite aspect.
Christen: Dealing with the lighting designers — I'm kidding. Seriously, probably the hours.
LD: What is your favorite aspect of the job?
Baker: It is always neat to set up a show one way and see the decisions made as to why things need to change, and then be able to go in and change them very fast. The Alley is a good, challenging company. I feel like we produce as good a product as anywhere in the country.
Nuzum: Working with my favorite designers — we have become friends, and I enjoy the chance to see them.
Wiles: I really enjoy the works that we produce. It is not standard fare. We brought in a show from the SITI Company — we did Wings of Desire with a company out of Amsterdam. Robert Woodruff did Britannicus, and we did a version of Oliver Twist with Neil Bartley from London. What I love about being a master electrician is solving problems and working with other people. For example, this year I have had to solve problems ranging from custom neon to a 380V transformer. It's always fun coming up with solutions to problems and working with people because everyone approaches things differently, and we all learn from each other.
Doyle: I think going from the plans on paper to seeing the final results on opening night — that transition is still the best part of the job.
Christen: Dealing with the lighting designers.
LD: What is the something that you think people don't know about house master electricians?
Baker: Probably that we try to think more about the aesthetic of lighting first before we think about electricity and voltage — I work like that, and I like when the people on the crew do that as well — think about why the light is doing what it is doing rather than just plugging it in.
Nuzum: I just think people don't know what we actually do. It is similar to most of the other departments in theatre. An audience member doesn't realize that we make our own costumes, we build our own sets, or any of that. For what I do, I guess they don't realize the amount of work. I do as much work for my job at home as I do at the theatre. It is paperwork and working on light plots that need to be modified and researching new technology because there is really not a lot of time for that while you are at the theatre.
Wiles: I think it is simply that the job is much more than just lighting — paperwork, scheduling, coordination, projections, and negotiation.
Doyle: I think people don't always understand the difference between a master electrician and an electrical engineer, particularly people outside of theatre. They assume that I could double as a private contractor to, say, upgrade their home. They don't understand the specifics of what it takes to work in theatre and the specific demands on a master electrician and how they are different. They don't really understand the kind of technology you are working with or the creative demands that are placed on you when it is an electrical prop or something else that you are trying to create out of thin air.
Christen: That we are really very interested in making the situation work — we want to solve the problems and get the show up.
At the end of the day, when the curtain goes up, all of the master electricians I spoke with agreed that the job is challenging, hands-on, creative, and extremely rewarding.
Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology. He can be reached at email@example.com.