Learning to Ask, Asking to Learn: There's No Getting around It: Technical Theatre Jobs Require Specific Knowledge. but, as 6 Case Studies Confirm, the Most Important Underlying Skills Are Communication and Collaboration

By Miller, Stuart | American Theatre, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Learning to Ask, Asking to Learn: There's No Getting around It: Technical Theatre Jobs Require Specific Knowledge. but, as 6 Case Studies Confirm, the Most Important Underlying Skills Are Communication and Collaboration


Miller, Stuart, American Theatre


WE'RE LIVING IN WHAT IS SOMETIMES called the Information Age--an apt name for the constant flow of facts and data in which we swim, all possible by ever-accelerating breakthroughs in computing. The catch, of course, is that, in a society where the one constant seems to be technological change, we may have too much information to process, too many systems to learn--and much of it will be obsolete by die time we've taken it in.

"You could probably have a full-time job just keeping up with the changes in technology," says Erik Lawson, who started as an audio engineer and is now a sound designer based in New York City.

"it is more and more important to be well trained in technology," concurs Pat White, director of education and training for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). "There are more demands on stagehands and designers than ever before: You have to use computers and you have to be constantly updating what you know at every point in your career."

To that end, IATSE established the IATSE Training Trust in 2011 "to make sure our workers have access to quality training in safety and craft development," says Liz Campos, the fund's executive director. "As technology a vehicle to deliver changes, we want to make sure everyone has standardized training." That information has to trickle down to workers everywhere, Campos suggests, adding, "There has been a lot of interest from the locals."

Technology has much to offer, of course, but it can he an impediment, too. "We see a lot of the bright-shiny-object syndrome," observes Joe Pino, associate professor of sound design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "By that I mean students who are obsessed with whatever is newest, Who say, 'Look how cool this is, look what we can do with this!'"

That's why Pino thinks that education that focuses too much on technology is a waste of money. "A student in his or her first year will find that any technology they learn has been replaced by the time they get into the field," he says with a shrug. "We don't have a single software course anymore--there might be a class or two about how to use a specific tool, but instead, we teach a way of learning and working, so the students will go out with a skill set."

Additionally, Pino reports, people working in the field are always telling him they're happy to teach their assistants how to do specific tasks. "There's always someone who will teach them on the job," he says. "We teach our students instead how to be artists, how to listen, how to think conceptually--not how to program this or that kind of mixer."

For many entering or already working in the field, then, formal training and study in theatre technology is just one part of what it takes to do the job. "We all need to keep up with current technology," concedes Mike Lawler, author of the new book Careen in Technical Theater (and this issue's essay "The Technical Answer," page 38). "But it seems the more common practice is to learn from colleagues and as needed for specific work."

Lawler believes there are training issues that extend well beyond technology. He's critical of all but the best schools for failing to provide enough mentoring and hands-on lessons in those broader areas. "All too frequently, academic programs are pushing to produce more than they should and end up using students to get the shows up and running, rather than producing less and focusing on skill-building," Lawler reasons. He also dismisses the notion that a heavy production workload prepares students for realities of working in the theatre. "This line of thinking misses a crucial point: Those with well-established skills, honed under quality mentorship in school, will be better equipped to deal with the deadline pressure they will encounter than those who never gained the basic skills needed but learned to get things done, even haphazardly."

Still, Pino argues, learning on the fly is also a lot easier now because today's students were raised in the digital age and thus aren't as intimidated by technology and change as students were just a few years ago. …

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