This article was originally published in the Harker Quarterly Spring 2011 Edition
The Harker School has a highly developed technical theater program now offering new opportunities to its most devoted theater tech students, and a trio of upper school student technicians is leading the way.
Seniors Araby Martin and Michael Prutton, and Christophe Pellesier, grade 11, took major leadership roles in the design, technical execution and personnel management of this year’s edition of the grade 5 show, “Go West,” becoming the first students to take on such a level of responsibility for the successful coordination of the lower school’s largest production.
Each student took on a highly specialized role. Prutton designed and ran the lights, and Pellesier took on elements of sound design and live-mixed it during performances, adjusting levels and coordinating between input from 32 different sources. Both were complex positions in a show featuring 120 10-year-olds. Martin took on managing the frenetic flow of movements backstage, keeping the young performers focused and knowledgeable about their next moves, ensuring that microphones changed hands properly and that props were utilized to plan. “I love kids,” Martin said. “I loved working with them.”
According to Prutton, Martin has the gift of a booming voice and the will to use it. When she and Prutton have collaborated on projects in the past, Martin often played the part of group leader and cheerleader – the active, vocal organizer next to Prutton’s more measured tactics.
“Araby gets it. Araby knows how to stage manage,” said Danny Dunn, lower school performing arts technical director. Prutton and Martin have each stage managed productions for the Harker Conservatory at the upper school.
The student techs are the end product of a long process. Harker is able to grow its own technical staff because it has the professionals in place to train them. Having a technical director is rare, said Dunn, and Harker has three, all consumed with technical theater. Brian Larsen at the upper school and Paul Vallerga at the middle school, along with Dunn, teach classes, work after school and mentor students all while helping students at all three campuses with more than 75 performances a year. The eagerness with which all three await the new theater building and the opportunity to teach their students in a space equal to the students’ abilities is clear.
Students as young as grade 5 volunteer after school to “operate complex lighting and sound systems, build scenery and create the magic,” according to Dunn. “The absolute enthusiasm of the tech students who can’t wait to give up their weekends to work extremely hard is amazing!” said Dunn. “They do it because they love it.”
By grade 6, and continuing through grade 8, classes build on earlier encounters and take a step up in challenge and complexity. During a span of several months, students are asked to design every aspect of a scene from a play. Everything from how the work is illuminated to each article of clothing must be considered.
There are more classes and opportunities for upper school students and plenty of opportunity for practical application as assistants, stage managers or assistant directors on projects across campuses, including the grade 5 show. Allowing tech students to handle critical jobs in lower school productions meant students could “cut their teeth” in a less demanding venue than the upper school performances.
With the technical infrastructure already set up via the technical theater program on the lower school campus, the adjustment was a match and the students really began to stretch their wings.
“Michael originally was simply going to be the lighting operator,” says Dunn. “But because he was so experienced and very eager to take that next step, I offered the bigger job to him and he jumped on it.” Making the challenge more exciting, and more complicated, Harker had just added a new lighting board to its equipment, from which a live technician can remotely adjust and pre-program equipment.
“He really got to sink his teeth into it,” said Dunn. “Sometimes, moving lights don’t know what you want them to do. He was able to beat them into submission quite nicely. I think he might know how to use that board even better than I do. The lights in the show sure looked great.”
Pellessier, meanwhile, was tasked with juggling a plethora of audio equipment, managing and adjusting levels of sound remotely, and balancing how much sound was projected to various areas of the theater. All of the sound was manually operated live, so whenever an actor with a microphone left the stage, Pellissier had to turn it off.
“We had sixteen wireless mics, and several of those swapped between two, three, four different people. We had at least 24 people who had wireless mics in the show. Plus, we had seven hanging mics. And every on-and-off, of every level, of all of those mics, Christophe had to control, and at the right time, and at the right place, bring them down,” said Dunn admiringly.
“The goal was that I was going to be there, right over them, to help or fix,” said Dunn. “We met that goal. By the time the show went on, I was just there for the moral support. That was the absolute ideal goal.”