People often fall in love with theatre due to its collaborative nature; I know I did. I learned at a young age that I was happiest when I was surrounded by others who were brighter and more creative than myself. Throughout high school, I hung out with kids who were talented and brilliant and I delighted in their intellectual glow. I thrive most when I am challenged and inspired by other people. Theatre people are all about creating magic with a few good artists in the room together. All that said, it’s strange how isolating it is to be a high school theatre teacher in America.
Here in Nebraska, it’s rare when a high school has a dedicated theatre teacher who doesn’t also teach another subject as well. Some small schools offer only a one-act, which a music teacher or counselor will supervise as an “extra duty” assignment. Even more rare, is to have another theatre teacher, or the holy grail: a Technical Director. In most Nebraska schools, this role is far more broadly defined than it is in professional theatre. In addition to the duties traditionally associated with a TD, Nebraska high school Technical Directors also serve as designer, manager, contract writer, carpenter, master-electrician, etc. This past year I’ve been fighting hard for us to hire a full-time Technical Director here at Kearney High. We are getting a new Performing Arts Center next fall thanks to the generous taxpayers of Kearney. It’s going to be an amazing space and my students will be proud to perform there. However, in order to keep this new space in good condition, properly maintained, and safe for everyone who uses it, we really need someone who will supervise it directly. As a performing arts center, theatre is not the only activity that will make use of this space. Several high/middle school/elementary bands, orchestras, and choirs will use it as their main performance venue. Furthermore, the community and the rest of the district uses it for meetings, performances, recitals, etc. It’s a lot to keep track of and change-overs are a ton of work. We really need someone with the technical expertise to tackle this job.
Selfishly, I want a true collaborator and a second teacher to my students. I am a trained director who must also design, build, and focus every set, costume, and light. I am certainly no expert on the technical aspects of theatre, but after a number of years of trial and error, I’m proud to say that I know my way around most power tools and ellipsoidals. However, I would far prefer to have a knowledgeable designer as a partner in the creation of technical elements, because they are an expert on these things. As I begin pre-production work on our spring musical, Children of Eden, my mind is swimming with director ideas; symbols, color schemes, historical paintings, found objects, themes, and research, and I could really use an artistic team to work through these ideas. But instead, it’s just me out there, floating with my thoughts. And you know what? This show is going to be good. I have a lot of good ideas. But, the show could be great. My ideas could be far better with the help of some inspired designers to work with. Together we could find the best way to tell the story.
Luckily, I have my students and they are fantastic. I challenge them to solve problems of the script along with me, which is a great learning opportunity for them. I am also grateful to have a few professional designers in town to call upon. However it is very difficult to fit them in my budget, and they absolutely need to be paid. I try to reach out to one for each show. I rented costumes for the 37 actors in The Crucible this fall, I hired a lighting designer for Cinderella last year, and I will continue to do that as we can raise funds to make it happen.
Teachers of theatre are so often department-less. They get lumped into the English department, but we are not the same. Luckily, I have hundreds of very entertaining students that make the hours spent a bit less lonely. Theatre is a collaborative art, after all. Cross your fingers we get that Technical Director next fall!