Inside the Vault with Bag&Baggage TD/LD Jim Ricks White

by Michael Eddy

With over 30 years working in theater, Jim Ricks-White, had been teaching stagecraft at Portland Community College, Sylvania and the resident lighting designer for Hillsboro, OR-based Bag&Baggage Productions, when the company asked him to come on full time as technical director and facilities manager. The request followed the company opening its new space—The Vault—a repurposed former bank building. In theater, Ricks-White has worked as a stage manager, TD, LD, set designer, properties artisan, and pyrotechnician and toured for many years as a technician for Showco and Vari-Lite. He’s worked in venues as small as a 99-seat black box and as large as the Olympic Stadium for the 2012 London Olympics.

As its name implies, Bag&Baggage Productions (B&B) is a malleable theater company that started touring in 2005 with nothing more than just a van, simple sets, and a handful of actors. The company quickly grew, with double the audience numbers and budget size. In 2008, the company moved into the Venetian Theatre in downtown Hillsboro, calling it home for eight years until the converted theater went up for sale. Ever resourceful, in 2016, B&B bought and turned a 5,000-square-foot former mid-century bank building into its permanent residence just two blocks away. Giving a nod to the building’s former history they named it The Vault. The new space would provide them not only with a permanent residence but an opportunity to make a new mark. The building was built out as a black-box-style theater with a simple, unadorned performance space of untreated walls and a flat floor, which would lend itself to the work the company envisioned.

“This was a great opportunity,” said Ricks-White. “We didn’t just imagine a theater; we imagined a multipurpose venue. We immediately started thinking about how we could use technology to give us the flexibility we didn’t have at the Venetian. That meant no permanent staging or lighting rig. It would be like getting back to our roots of being very flexible.”

Ricks-White talks us through the space, “Our maximum seating capacity for theatre is 160, but we’re flexible. We have an in-the-round configuration that is as small as 99, and a corner configuration that’s as large as 120. The performance space is 48-feet x 52-feet with 18-feet clear to the lighting grid.”

Light the Lights

For lighting and audio, he has gone with hard-wired power and data drops for flexibility. “I have, basically, panels in multiple places in the grid and a few on the floor,” he continues. “We have six ETC SmartBar dimmers in the grid, which can move around since I have eight plug-in points for power above the grid and four more on the floor, so I can take them down and move them around. In terms of DMX, we have two Ethernet drops, so we run ETCNet out to a node and then change to 5-pin DMX from there. For control, we use an ETC Ion console.”

The lighting fixture inventory is currently split 60/40 tungsten to LED. “We’re slowly moving over to LED,” comments Ricks-White. “I’m not buying any more conventional instruments; when I have money to spend, I buy LED units. I am finding it pretty easy to mix and match tungsten and LEDs. We are running ETC Lustrs—they have that really nice color and a nice CTO. I am also using CHAUVET Maverick MK2s with CTO in them as well.

“As far as sound in the space goes, with the size we are, my actors don’t need microphones and reinforcement,” notes Ricks-White. “All the sound that I’m really doing is environmental. If I have a band or an event, then we work out a rental package for their needs.” Most of the audio for the theater is for sound effects and playback. “I’m using a Soundcraft SI for my console along with JBL 12s for my speakers with an 18-inch JBL self-powered sub. Then I have four little Behringer self-powered Euro speakers that are my ‘put-them-where-I-need-them’ speakers.”

Casting Shadows 

One of the goals of the company, when planning The Vault, was to go with more projection and projected scenery to cut down on built scenery. They chose to go with a range of projectors and dedicated control. This also works well when they rent the venue for meetings and events. “For the theater productions, I’m running seven Mitsubishi projectors, including one spare,” says Ricks-White. “We also have the big BenQ LK970 BlueCore laser projector, but I save that for movie projection and events. The unit’s 4K resolution with 5,000 lumens is good for films since it’s got the best blacks and the best zoom capabilities. For controlling the projectors, I’m using ArKaos’ MediaMaster. I really like its flexibility. It does everything we want and more. I’m getting more and more proficient on it, since I’m more or less self-taught. I do bring in Jeffrey Smith, who helped us design the projection system, every so often to do projection design for some of the more difficult projects.”

Lessons Learned

After having been working with the space for two seasons, it’s interesting to see what Ricks-White has learned about it—and what he’d change for a future space. “We’re under-powered for what we’d like to do. That comes to mind first. When The Vault was renovated, they put in a 400-amp service. I really wanted a 600-amp service. Also, if you plan to do something outside your building, be sure that there’s power distribution on the exterior of the building. The decision to put in the 200-amp company switch in the power distribution room, was made before I got here, and there’s no way to get it outside. I have a beautiful 200-amp feed with nowhere to go.”

As to other advice he would give another TD renovating a space, “I would suggest that an LED lighting rig is very important, moving lights are invaluable and digital lighting is absolutely invaluable. They make changeovers so much quicker and easier. I would say put in a really healthy Wi-Fi system. Everything is moving that way quickly. Put in both a healthy Wi-Fi and a healthy Ethernet system for your projectors. We’re running Ethernet and converting HDMI to Ethernet, running it through the walls to the nodes and coming out of the nodes and switching it back to HDMI right before it gets to the projector. You need good solid Ethernet connectors. And don’t forget to think about mundane things like sufficient storage space.”

Wise Words

When Ricks-White was growing up, he worked for his grandfather in construction, and he shared some advice to his grandson. “Two of the things that he taught me, and stick with me were, gather really good people, excited about whatever the project is, and leave them alone. Just keep them all pointed in the same direction. It’s amazing what they’ll do if you don’t ride them. I think that’s very true in this industry. The second thing is, know when to listen. Because, again I practiced my entire life and I still learn something new every day. Technology moves so quickly. If I stop listening, I’m behind. Mentorship is important. I’d say 80% of my knowledge came from mentorship; the rest I learned in school. I made connections and people took me places like Showco and Vari-Lite. Take the opportunities that come along. If you can go and do something—and not get hurt or hurt somebody else—and learn something in the process, say yes!”