Training tyros: the North Carolina School of the Arts continues to teach tomorrow’s theatrical designers

Training tyros: the North Carolina School of the Arts continues to teach tomorrow’s theatrical designers – theatre crafts then & now

Catherine McHugh

When the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA) first opened in Winston-Salem in 1965, there were three schools: Drama, Dance, and Music. Its original purpose was to provide professional instruction in the performing arts to gifted students from the junior high school, high school, college, and post-graduate levels. Within three years of establishing the school, the faculty decided to create a new department for students who were primarily interested in careers behind the scenes–in any area of technical theatre.

John Sneden, the dean of the School of Design and Production at the North Carolina School of the Arts, helped establish a theatre program at East Carolina University before joining the faculty in 1970. “Classes were all under the aegis of the School of Drama, but by 1968, the Schools of Music and Dance–with all of their ballet and dance’ concerts–felt that it wasn’t appropriate to have all of the technical and design support housed there,” he explains. “They thought they might be getting the short end of the stick. So they decided to establish a fourth school, the School of Design and Production, as a separate but equal unit within the school.”

The teachers likened setting up the new department within the framework of the already rapidly developing college to trying to get on a moving merry-go-round that is picking up speed every moment. Because the Design and Production department started off with only 30 students and a small faculty, the teachers designed an experimental general program on the assumption that each student was a potential designer. As theatre professionals themselves, the faculty realized that any production designer is dependent on many fine craftsmen and technicians, who are artists in their own right. Nevertheless, they felt that it was important to have the students focus on artistic development first because they were not yet equipped to concentrate on each craft individually.

Today, a student with the desire to concentrate specifically on stage management, costume design, or sound engineering or any other technical theatre aspect can do just that. The department consists of 200 students taught by 18 full-time faculty members and many areas of concentration, with classes that include: stagecraft, lighting, visual arts, technical direction, drafting, CAD/computer technologies, wigmaking, scene painting, welding, and stage properties.

“We now have a graduate program as well,” Sneden says. “In fact, the School of Design and Production is primarily for college and graduate students. They come here with their portfolios and have one-on-one interviews with the faculty. Most of them don’t want to be performers. They love theatre, but they’d rather do it out of the limelight. They aren’t required to take acting classes, but most of them have acted in high school.”

The four-year undergraduate professional training program is open to college students who wish to concentrate in costume design, costume technology/construction, lighting design, scene design, scene painting, stage properties, stage management, sound design, technical direction, and wig and makeup design. To receive a degree, students must also complete 36 credit hours of general studies credits in subjects such as math, literature, and social studies. For those who wish to continue, a Master of Fine Arts degree is offered in costume design, costume technology, scene design, scene painting, stage properties, stage automation, sound design, technical direction, and wig and makeup design.

In the college classes, the instructors have always taken the “learning by doing” approach to teaching and back in 1968, the department created theatre Space from a large high school gymnasium, which was then broken up into separate sections for productions and workshops. Making the space into adequate theatre facsimiles proved to be one of the founders’ greatest challenges, as many hours of lighting and carpentry labor were needed to make the space work. Now, more than 70,000 sq. ft. are dedicated to separate carpentry, paint, properties, furniture, welding and metal, electrical, costume, CAD, motion control, sound, and wig and make-up shops with production offices for each discipline as well. An additional 12,000 sq. ft. is available as auxiliary construction and paint shops, which are often used for special campus events.

Each department keeps its equipment as current with industry standards as possible. For example, director of lighting Norman Coates lists his section’s inventory as: ETC Source Four lekos and PARs, Altman Q360 Lekos, PAR cans, and fresnels. For automated lighting, they have one High End Systems Cyberlight[R] and three Studio Color[R] luminaires. Dimming equipment includes Colortran ENR dimmers, ETC Sensor dimmers, Kliegl R71 dimmers and a slide pack as well as eight TTI six-packs for class projects and special needs, and a working 12-plate piano board for class demos and instruction.

Control consoles include an ETC Obsession 600, Obsession 2, Expression 2x, and Express 125/250, an Insight and both a Colortran Prestige 1000 and 2000. Included in this mix are museum pieces including Kliegl Command Performance, a Performer 2-III, and some 24-dimmer/two-scene preset boards. For special effects, students have access to three Great American Scene Machines, some strobe PARs and various other stick strobes.

Equipment for all departments is spread out throughout the production spaces and the four performance areas. The Joan Hanes Theatre of the Stevens Center is a renovated, 1,380–seat neoclassical full-fly house with state-of-the-art equipment in downtown Winston-Salem. Operas, plays, and dance concerts, as well as orchestra concerts and recitals, are regularly presented there.

At the Performance Place on the campus there is a 390-seat proscenium thrust theatre and a 200-seat flexible arena theatre. A third black box theatre is currently being built there as well. The Performance Place also includes dressing rooms, a performers’ lounge, classroom and rehearsal space, a design and production studio, and conference and box office facilities in the lobby, which doubles as a gallery. Performances at Performance Place are usually limited to plays.

Lastly, the intimate 188–seat Agnes de Mille Theatre offers a proscenium stage space; dance concerts are regularly presented in this facility. The School of Music uses the 590-seat Crawford Hall of Gray Building for concerts and recitals, in addition to the Stevens Center stage.

Productions go on all year round. “We all join forces when we do the operas and musicals and we sometimes do big storybook ballets,” Sneden says. “We’ve done Petrushka, The Firebird, you name it, really. And then we also have our annual Nutcracker holiday production.”

Since classes are small, the resident faculty of working professionals are fulltime participants in the training program. As part of the training process, the teachers occasionally participate in NCSA productions as designers and technicians. Guest master teachers add to the curriculum with workshops in specialized areas. Recent guest faculty members have included such notable designers as Jonathan Deans, John Lee Beatty, Jennifer Tipton, Abe Jacob, and Santo Loquasto.

Many of the school’s current instructors have returned to their alma mater to teach future generations of theatre designers and technicians. “We encourage them to keep their professionals contacts and to do outside work,” Sneden says. “We give them time away, so they can come back and share their experiences with us.”

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