The world behind the stage: a glimpse into three technical theatre students who work backstage to create an experience on-stage

The world behind the stage: a glimpse into three technical theatre students who work backstage to create an experience on-stage

The world behind the stage: a glimpse into three technical theatre students  who work backstage to create an experience on-stage
May 16
22:02 2018

Behind every costume designed, light hung, and set piece created for a theatre production is a passionate person. Technical theatre is the other world of theatre that is essential when it comes to creating a full theatrical experience.

“We are the visual storytellers that help support the actors and give a full environment for the play to take place,” scenic design lecturer Donna Marquet said.

For the UNT Dance and Theatre department’s final production for the spring semester, “Hands on a Hardbody,” there are six different technical theatre departments. The musical production is set in East Texas and focuses on a competition that awards a truck to whoever can keep their hands on it the longest.

Within each of the six departments, there are many different layers of people all dedicated to creating a smooth, perfect technical experience that the audience is so invested in they don’t even realize it’s there.

Each person behind every backstage aspect of the production has a reason they do what they do, and these are the stories of three technical students who are a part of “Hands on a Hardbody” and have found their true passion behind-the-scenes.

Turning vision into reality

Sitting down in the university’s theatre chairs, 22-year-old Justus Herrera prepared to watch the final dress rehearsal of “The Crucible.” It was Nov. 8, 2017, the day before the opening night of the production he had been working tirelessly on behind-the-scenes as technical director.

Watching through the rims of his glasses, every ounce of stress he had been under for the past four months melted away when he realized his hard work was done and he had helped create a great set for a real theatre production.

“It was euphoric almost and I remember that moment I realized, ‘Oh, it’s done,’” Herrera said. “Four months of the most extreme stress of my life literally gone in an instant — it was a pretty great moment.”

Now, he is working as the assistant technical director for “Hands on a Hardbody.” As one of the two assistant technical directors, Herrera helps turn the scenic designer’s vision for the set into reality on the stage.

“As the assistant technical director, I do all of the ‘un-fun’ grunt work,” Herrera said. “I’m doing almost all the drafting, budget spreadsheets and stuff like that.”

Herrera talks to the scenic designer, Jacob Rodriguez, to make sure the measurements for the set pieces are correct. Rachel Finch

Being on the technical side of theatre is his life now, but it wasn’t always like this. It took his high school director seeing potential in him years ago to switch him from being a football player who needed an art credit to a passionate technical theatre student.

He remembers the moment his director at Houston Tomball Memorial High School asked him and his friend in the tech theatre class to help with a show.

“He was like, ‘Hey, do you guys want to be stagehands for this black box show?’” Herrera said. “And he had the tech shirts already and I was like, ‘You already bought the shirt, okay I’ll do it.’”

The rest is history. He is now in his senior year as a theatre major with a concentration in design tech. Herrera is certain being a technical director is what he is supposed to do with his life. His days are mostly spent working in the scene shop with his technical design peers.

Through Herrera’s job of turning someone else’s vision into a real, usable set design, he gets that same feeling he had when he got into theatre tech during his high school years.

“When you execute set changes like that you get that rush and most theatre people who are genuine in theatre get that same kind of feeling,” Herrera said. “It’s the only thing I want to do.”

The long hours spent working as a technical team are not always easy but looking at the final set during the last few moments before opening night makes every difficult moment worthwhile.

“For me, at the end of the day, that month and a half of being miserable was worth it for that one moment of relief,” Herrera said. “Seeing this artistic envisioning of all these people coming together into one cohesive piece, that makes it all worth it.”

Sewing characters together one costume at a time

Scanning the computer screen as he dealt with paperwork, 22-year-old costume designer Jamie Adams listened to the sound of fabric being cut and the show tunes that filled the costume shop. Glancing up for a moment, he saw it: one of the shirts he had designed for “Hands on a Hardbody.”

“I had seen it in my head but to look up and see something that was tangible, created from my brain [and] on a mannequin dress form right in front of me, it just felt good,” Adams said.

It was a moment that reminded him of the costume design work he got to do in the middle of the paperwork and other duties he had to do.

As the head costume designer for “Hands on a Hardbody,” the process of analyzing characters and seeing costumes go from his mind to a mannequin is something Adams gets to do every day.

“I feel like my job has been done when the minute the character walks on stage and you know who they are,” Adams said. “I can do everything that I can so that in two and half hours you get a fully formed idea of this person.”

He began the process of analyzing the characters and researching for the costumes for “Hands on a Hardbody” towards the end of February. In March he started to design and pull the costumes together.

“Initially as costume designer, in general, you are designing costumes,” Adams said. “When you’re working on a period show you are working on completely designing the garment and thinking about how it’s constructed.”

Adams measures one of the costumes he designed for the show, “Hands on a Hardbody.” Rachel Finch

For Adams, the process of piecing together each costume is an important part of the character-building process.

“My work is all about creating a character, and that’s kind of the same thing the actors are doing,” Adams said. “You have to think about who that person is in order to think about why they wear the things they wear.”

Adams has always been a part of the theatre world. At 5 years old, he got involved in the community theatre where he grew up in Bryan, Texas. He acted in multiple plays but was introduced to costume design in high school by his middle school theatre teacher who also worked with costumes at the community theatre.

Although he has gotten a taste of being in the spotlight as an actor, there is something about working behind-the-scenes to create an important part of the characters that Adams loves.

“The visual aspects of theatre make sense to me,” Adams said. “Costume design is something I feel like I can do. It makes sense to me, and I think I’m good at it — I hope I am.”

Being in the costume shop making his creative visions come to life by cutting and sewing fabric is all Adams wants to spend his time doing. When he thinks about the fact he will get to design costumes for the rest of his life, he said he gets chills thinking just about it.

“I just really enjoy this work,” Adams said.“I wish I could live in a world where everyone could find something they are that passionate about.”

Telling a bigger story through lights

Watching the lights shimmer off the gold, stringy curtain Beks Milligan felt the exhilaration of controlling the lights during the Mr. Colt Pageant at their high school in Arlington. Moving their fingers across the light board they had labeled with tape, it was their first venture into the world of lights.

That night years ago in their high school auditorium was the beginning of understanding how colors mixed and which lighting instruments made the performance look a certain way. It was also the beginning of their passion.

“It was kind of the freedom of getting to make my own decisions in how the show would look and playing such a big role that a lot of the audience didn’t really understand,” Milligan said. “It was really freeing to be such a big part of the show.”

Fast forward to today, Milligan is now the electric shop lead in the UNT theatre department. Working with lights is a process they said just clicked for them, and now they can’t get enough.

“Lighting makes sense in my brain,” Milligan said. “It’s something that I get excited about — of the technology and the way things work.”

As the electric shop lead, Milligan works on all theatre productions, including “Hands on a Hardbody.” They have spent hours in the electric shop and the theatre getting the lights ready for the show.

“Getting to see the show in every aspect from start to finish whenever you go to see the show on the final night, it’s really gratifying and it’s really fun for me,” Milligan said.

Milligan talks to lighting and sound assistant professor Adam Chamberlin about the next steps in getting the lights ready for the production. Rachel Finch

Being involved in the backstage atmosphere of the musical production is exactly where Milligan wants to be. Although their light skills are done backstage, the community of theatre technicians who notice the work Milligan is doing that makes them feel the most gratified.

“Whenever you know that you’ve done a job well done and people tell you that things looked good, it’s a unique feeling I haven’t really found anywhere else,” Milligan said.

As an entertainer on the other side of the stage, it’s always about the audience and their experience but when it comes to Milligan it’s about the people behind the work.

“At the end of the day, I know the audience is our main goal but the audience isn’t why I do theatre,” Milligan said. “It’s the people I work behind the stage with that makes the real connections.”

Ever since the first moment Milligan felt the freedom controlling lights behind-the-scenes during their high school pageant, they haven’t stopped wanting to experience that feeling alongside the technical theatre community.

It’s ultimately what every technical theatre designer is passionate about: giving everything they have to make the operations behind-the-scenes perfect so they can create something bigger than themselves.

“The whole teamwork is really the big reason I do theatre,” Milligan said. “Being a part of something bigger than you is honestly the most gratifying feeling.”

Featured Image: The set for “Hands on a Hardbody” was being designed by the scene shop for the opening weekend of April 26 to 29. Rachel Linch

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Rachel Linch

Rachel Linch

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