More Than a Carpenter
Ranson, Ron, Stage Directions
Technical Directors Round Up
professionals lend their insights on what every budding TD should know about training and
he technical director, or TD, is a vital link in the successful operation of North American theaters. It is a unique position found in very few locations outside the USA and Canada. The strength of the visual look of our theaters now depends on well-trained, energetic and creative individuals who have a mastery of management and engineering skills. Yet the availability of TDs seems to be in short supply. How did we get to this strange stage?
The position of the technical director has evolved rapidly over the last few decades. It wasn't long ago that the scenic designer had to assume the responsibilities of supervising the construction, engineering, painting, load-in of sets and props, and perhaps even run the technical rehearsals of his/her show. However, as theater productions have become increasingly sophisticated, the role of coordinating the many artistic departments, including working within tight budgets (and perhaps unrealistic deadlines), has greatly expanded. A common complaint is that the responsibilities of the technical director are now beyond what most people can handle effectively. This leads to rapid burnout.
Another element that has limited the availability of TDs, is the large increase in training programs for scenic designers. Whether intentional or not, this has contributed to a drop in the number of potential TDs by valuing the work of the designer over that of the TD. The current theater market is flooded with scenic designers vying for a limited number of design jobs while advertised positions for TDs remain plentiful.
To help evaluate the situation, I asked theater colleagues from the USA, Canada, South Korea and Singapore for their thoughts on the role of the TD and the essential training. First question: What does a TD do to support a production?
Pam Nichol, technical director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, helps clarify the role by saying that the definition of a TD is "a slippery concept and one that changes in every theater." As a TD, she feels her job is to make sure "everyone else in the production-designers, carpenters, painters, stage crew, property artisans, stage managers-has the information, tools, people and time to do their jobs. I'm not the one doing the building or painting, but I make sure that the people who are can just get on with it. I'm here to make people's lives safe, easier and better."
This broad job description is difficult to break down into tasks. The list seems endless! But the managers I polled agree on the following basic elements:
The TD is a "commander of the battlefield," writes international scenic designer Taesup Lee from South Korea. "We don't have a system of technical direction in Korea yet, so, as the scenic designer, I have to do the engineering and coordination myself or train someone to do it for me." When Lee interviews a TD, he lays out a tough list of standards and attributes for his future "commander." His requirements are "a good basic knowledge of mathematics and physics, chemical and mechanical engineering, excellent craftsmanship and a thorough understanding of all aspects of theater production,"
In the recent past, we promoted shop carpenters to assume this important leadership position, often without the proper supplemental training to keep them out of trouble. Worst yet, many artistic and departmental administrators rose up through the ranks without experiencing the sophisticated design and directorial demands now being shouldered by technical directors.
These administrators seem to live in a different artistic zone and don't understand the pressures on contemporary technical directors. "One of the main reasons it is hard to find experienced TDs," says Peter Urbanek of the University of Toronto, "is that after being worked to death by regional theaters, they go and build houses for a living. …