By Sara Cruz
Have you ever wondered what the job of a “technical director” is? All the other production jobs seem to be self-explanatory, lighting designer does lighting, scenic designer designs the set, costumes, props, and stage manager, we all have an idea of what their contributions are.
But what about technical directors? What is that? What do they do?
After talking to Chip Davis, the Technical Director of our production of Machinal, I discovered that a TD is the person responsible for making the scenic design come to life on the stage. They are in charge of figuring out how the set will be constructed, what materials will be used, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build, and problem solving when it comes to the specific needs of a show. They are also “Captain on Safety”. It is their responsibility to make sure that all the props and scenic elements are safe for actors to be on or around.
There is no rule book for every possible situation. TDs have to be prepared for each production’s specific needs, and Davis said the set for Machinal (designed by M.F.A. Jeremy Smith) involved a unique challenge: more than a mile of string.
“I had to call textile companies, sewing companies, friends that work in yarn construction, to figure out what to use. It worked out really well that I came across this elastic that is used in some winter coats and we were able to get it from the catalogue used by the costume designers. We ended up using over 6 thousand feet of string, so over a mile,” said Davis.
Associate Professor of Theatre Technology Paul Brunner shared why Technical Direction is an exciting career. “A technical director must have a design sensibility, but today they are well-versed in structural design, mechanical design, management, advanced materials, electronics and automation, and all facets of health and safety and standards for our industry.” It is also important that the TD has knowledge of new technologies that emerge every year and can be advantageous to their productions. Technology’s role should be to support the storytelling and help illustrate it in ways that were not possible before. “It should never be a distraction to the audience,” said Brunner. Even though technology is advancing quickly there are still many things that have stayed the same. Broadway scenery built with classical platforms and soft covered flats is still constructed the same way as it was back in the 30s and 40s. In Julius Caesar (Ryan Miller, Scenic Designer and CJ Sneath, Technical Director) for instance, a lot of traditional platforming ideas were used, as well as pneumatic wheels so they can be easily lifted and move freely as necessary.
Coming out of school, there are a lot of opportunities for a M.F.A. in Technical Direction. This is Davis’s last season at IU Theatre & Dance and he already has a job lined up after graduation! He will be a technical director and a professor at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.
“For large theatres you can start as an assistant. Going in as an assistant is still a very demanding job and it’s a great entry level position. You can also TD at a smaller theater company or higher education institution, which is what I am doing,” said Davis. “Also, there is an area outside theater that is called ‘theatre project planning’, which is helping build a new theater as a consultant, and we are all qualified for that too.”
Davis did his undergraduate degree in Arts and Education at University of North Carolina – Ashville. He was an actor in one of their productions, when one day the Technical Director brought the model for the set and asked for help painting it. Davis was the only person who showed up to help! He got a job there the following semester, and started doing more and more of it, and eventually it became a passion. “I think what is most exciting about my job is that I get to work with incredibly creative people all day, I enjoy making their ideas happen on stage.”
Machinal is on stage from Feb 23 through March 3 in the Wells-Metz Theatre at Indiana University.
Sara Cruz is a graduate student in the Arts Administration program in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is a Marketing Assistant for the Theatre this year, and brings great talent and enthusiasm to the job.
Sara is from Brazil and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC before coming to IU.