Theater Needs Tomorrow’s Technicians Today

by Warren Djerf (Wenger Blog)
Jack Miller, Director of Stage Automation for the School of Design and Production at UNCSA
Jack Miller, Director of Stage Automation for the School of Design and Production at UNCSA

A fair amount has changed in terms of theater production and technology since Jack Miller, Director of Stage Automation for the School of Design and Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), started in theatre education at the school almost 30 years ago. Yet the need for well-trained, passionate and hard-working technicians has remained the same. Bringing UNCSA renowned training and acknowledging the need to address the demand for automation techncians, Miller launched the school’s three-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in stage automation in 2001. “During the 1990s, more and more automation advancements were happening on Broadway and in rock ‘n’ roll tours,” recalls Miller, “and while automation was taught as part of UNCSA’s technical direction program, we felt the subject justified its own MFA.”

Approximately 1,300 students attend UNCSA in five schools: dance, drama, music, filmmaking and design & production. Miller’s design & production school is approaching 300 students; all disciplines are included: costumes, wigs, makeup, sound, lighting, set design and technical production. Most UNCSA students are technically minded; several have undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering, with a theatre minor. Without theatre experience, Miller believes it’s very difficult for them to have success with stage automation.

High Demand, Limited Applicants
Miller says UNCSA’s technical graduates are in high demand, evidenced by an annual spring job fair that has grown each year. In 2017, nearly 50 companies attended, including scene shops, repertory theaters, cruise lines and manufacturers like J.R. Clancy.

While it’s impossible to guarantee every graduate a job, he says the odds are currently very good. Their students’ typical problem is more about deciding which job offer to take. “For every good technician, there are 100 performers – that’s just the name of the game,” he comments, “and those 100 aspiring performers may all be vying for only one job. That is not the case for technicians. Technicians are in demand and the automation technicians are in high demand.” In fact, some of the most prestigious U.S. performance facilities are having difficulty filling openings. “It’s crazy right now – I can’t really explain the void,” states Miller.

Despite the promising employment outlook, UNCSA has been struggling to attract applicants the past several years, even in a “hot” area like automation. Contributing to the problem is that as a state institution, UNCSA lacks scholarship funding that many standard liberal arts universities can offer. Still, each year UNCSA prefers to enroll three students into the stage automation MFA program; ideally there would be nine students at any one time. Of course, three students a year will not alleviate the industry shortage. Applicants to UNCSA are rigorously evaluated; yet even once students are admitted, their numbers are gradually pared down. Miller notes, “If we start out with a dozen freshmen in technical direction and we have between six and eight by the time they’re seniors, we’re doing pretty well.”

Passion Required
UNCSA graduates with an MFA in stage automation are actively working throughut the industry, from regional theaters to national productions like Cirque de Soleil, all across the country. As to what factors determine their career success after graduation, Miller believes work ethic is foremost, even more than hands-on experience. A student’s work ethic is developed and revealed over the program’s three-year term. It’s usually strongly related to their passion for theatre. With incoming students, he looks for passion more than almost anything else.

“If you can work someplace other than theatre – go do it. But if your passion is here – if theatre is what you’re compelled to do – then we’re set to go,” Miller tells his students. “People don’t choose this industry for the money or the predictable working hours,” however he does note, “More often than not, when my stage automation students graduate, they’re making more money than I am.”

Over his tenure at UNCSA, he’s watched students change; he also hears his colleagues bemoan today’s ‘Millennial Student’ or ‘iPad Student’ for their shallow approach to theatre education. “There are many students today who just want to be fed answers for the tests,” Miller contends. “We try to counter that attitude as much as possible.” He appreciates UNCSA’s conservatory learning model of theatre education, which keeps students busy with a blend of shop time and classroom work. “I always remind students that the theatre curtain goes up at 8:00 p.m. – you can’t say you’re not ready,” Miller remarks. “A manufacturing plant might delay a product shipment a week if it’s not completed, but theatre people learn to live with hard deadlines.” That production truth brings it all back to the need for a passion to work in theater.  

 A previous version of Warren Djerf’s article first appeared on the Wenger Blog. SD thanks them for sharing this informative article with our readers.