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Talking Technical Direction with 5th Avenue’s TD Erik Holden

Michael S. Eddy • Current IssueSeptember 2020TD Talk • September 2, 2020

Recently, Stage Directions had the pleasure to speak by phone with Erik Holden the Technical Director at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Holden has been the TD there for a little over seven years.

Tell me about the role of technical director and how you’ve approached it throughout your career.
Being a technical director is interesting because at every theater the title of technical director is a little different. At 5th Avenue specifically, we’re a union house, top to bottom, which means that my role is not as physically hands-on as it has been in the past. My work at 5th Avenue is much heavier on the administrative side and show planning, less on the actual building. I develop drawings for our shop, and my responsibilities still include the direct stage work. But if you were to make a diagram of the jobs, I think you would think, “Oh, there is a lot of production management work within that as well.” So it’s a little bit of a hybrid at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

How are you handling things during the Covid-19 shutdown?
I think that the crystal ball of theater life right now is pretty murky. We are trying to develop plans for all sorts of different scenarios. I think the great thing about theater and theater makers is that we are problem solvers. And so, once we’re given the green-light to go ahead with things, I think we’re going to come up with solutions. We stopped work right in the middle of production for a show, which means I still have that show sitting on my stage. However, we had to get a lot of the rental gear and stuff back to its owners. So we really looked at the work that needed to be done and with a lot of planning found ways to do our work, get the rental back out the door and not be working too close to each other, but it took different thinking. Amazingly, I feel we found—in an effort to not have 10 people around a big piece of scenery or three people moving lights—a bunch of solutions, which now we think, “Well, why haven’t we been doing it like that all the time? That’s just a better way.” Like we were able to do some of our harder access box booms and stuff way easier than we have ever done. It just takes thinking outside the box a little bit.

What was your training, and tell us a little about your early career?

I went to school at Southern Oregon University for an undergrad degree, and then I went to California Institute of the Arts for my masters. After I graduated from CalArts, I wanted a change of scenery, so I moved to Spain with very little plan other than, yeah, I wanted to move to Spain. I moved to Barcelona and ended up with a company out of Britain, that supplied event labor for event production. Since I had a master’s degree in theater, I think I stood out a little bit, and I ended up meeting a number of production companies, and kind of working all over Europe. My home base was in Barcelona, but just a lot of travelling around, mostly doing corporate events, some theater stuff, some live events.

Then through a mutual friend, when Cirque du Soleil were bringing their shows across to Spain and were looking for some people that were local I ended up working for Cirque for awhile, moving shows around mostly Spain for them. When my wife and I ended up deciding to come back to the United States, we chose Seattle a little bit randomly. We liked the West Coast but I didn’t want to go back to Los Angeles, so we came to Seattle. I worked as a freelancer for a number of years, building all sorts of, I used to say, funny things. I had a little shop where I mostly just built things out. From networking with people I came to the job at the 5th when they were looking for a TD.

BLISS at 5th Avenue Theatre

What do you think are some essential skills for a technical director?
People, for me, are always at the heart of it, at the heart of theater. Our work is collaborative, and I think it is essential that you can work with people and be able to listen to people’s ideas and really, really invest yourself in what people are trying to do. That for me has always been essential. If you don’t like working with people, then why work in theater? It’s built around people. Certainly being able to navigate all kinds of people and be able to meet people where they’re at. Listening is a big component of that. You’re not going to get along with everybody, and that’s fine, but I think being able to like any work environment, be able to meet people with empathy and try to put yourself in their shoes more, that’s always been key for me. I love working with theater people. I love working with people that want to solve problems and work collaboratively. It’s part of why I am in theater, because I want to work with people. 

I actually started out as a lighting designer in undergrad and then realized that I was okay at that, but I was much better at helping other people achieve their ideas than I was at coming up with the original idea. I also realized that I liked building things. As a TD, I think you have to be able to look more macro. I am interested in lots of things. Being a TD in theater, it gives me the chance to work on all sorts of things. I work on hydraulic systems. I work on mechanical systems. I work on lights. I can satisfy both the right and left brain. I still create art, but do it in a left brain mechanical kind of way. Each show has its different challenges and some are challenges that you’re excited about and some are challenges that you’ve done before, and so you have to use your experience, but also you have to come up with new things and new approaches as well.

Have there been particular solutions that you and your team have come up with to challenges that you really liked?
That’s an interesting question. Well, what I love about my team at the 5th Avenue is, my house crew is really talented and also comes from varied backgrounds. People have different approaches to challenges and how to get to the same solutions. I really appreciate the collaborative side of making specific solutions to bring things to reality. So it isn’t a specific solution that I really like but the process of getting to the solutions.

Secret Garden at 5th Avenue Theatre

Is there a show where you thought, that solution really works?
We certainly have done things that have been successful. One that I really like, was, we did a production of Secret Garden, a few years ago, that had a lot of automation in it working all at once. What I loved about that show was that even though there was a lot of things moving, what was beautiful about it was that it wasn’t in your face automation. You didn’t think, ‘Oh, look at all this gear and technology.’ It was just part of the show, which for me is always a success. Especially with automation, you don’t want it to call attention to itself, you just want it to be a part of the overall visual impact of the show. At one point in time in that show we had 17 different axes moving at the same time. That’s a lot happening, some of it was very simple movement and some of it was more complex but the overall pictures that it was creating and putting together felt really satisfying. Anna Louizos was the Scenic Designer for that production.

How do you handle automation? Do you work with a company like Creative Conners or build it in-house?
A little bit of both. Our brains are Creative Conners’ products and we’ve had a really good relationship with them over the years. They have also built us some custom machinery. They built us a stage elevator a couple of years ago that we gave them some pretty intense specifications for and worked with us to meet those needs. We needed a pretty intense elevator and we needed it to be able to come apart and go away and then come back again. They always come up with some really clever things. What’s always nice about stuff like that is when both you and the vendor are pushing it. Then it works out for them and it works out for us. Also we build a lot of our own machinery. We’ve got a lot of experience between us all here at the 5th to come up with solutions for things.

What’s a piece of advice you got early in your career you still find applicable today?
Probably something along the lines of ‘completed mediocrity is better than unfinished brilliance’. I don’t want to suggest that mediocrity is acceptable in terms of craft or anything like that, but at the same time, I think the real message there is understand your parameters and build within them. We all shoot for the stars on some of these projects. We definitely try to push the boundaries of what we can do with our time or with our money, but when something is unfinished or is unrealized, then it doesn’t exist. It could be the most brilliant idea ever, but if it never sees the actual light of day, then what is it really? 

Create the best product you can within the parameters you have to work within, especially the time and the money. Certainly there are times where we really, really like an idea, and even if it’s outside of what we think our actual scope is, we try to realize it. You have to also have the wherewithal to be able to make a judgement call and say, “This is a great idea, but we’re just not going to be able to do it.” I think that’s when the collaboration of theater can really kick in. I think it’s those moments that can create the most powerful theater, when the team can actually really get together and creatively look at a problem and say, “This is how we can do this and tell the story,” because at the end of the day, it’s got to be about storytelling. It can’t be about automation. It can’t be about lights. Those things should never be the heart of the theater. The heart of the theater has got to be the storytelling. If you’ve got a strong story, then let’s tell the story. If we can’t have 30 people on trampolines to tell our story, well, what’s the other way that we can tell our story. When collectively you find that answer, those are the shows that I have personally found the most satisfying; where I leave with the best feeling of accomplishment and success. 

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