Culture | Behind the scenes

The hidden world of McGill's hardworking theatre tech crew

The latest production by the English department’s Drama and Theatre program was unveiled last night at Moyse Hall. The play is Measure for Measure, and the shrunken of soul (or the most fed-up of fifth-years) might consider Shakespeare’s themes of hypocrisy, repression, and dubious sibling love rather well suited to English studies at McGill. If so, then the department’s twice-yearly productions, and genuine collaborations between supervising professors and committed students should be a rebuke to such cynicism. The most visible aspect of Measure’s multimedia staging, however, is also the least publicized. The technical arrangement of sets, lights, sound, and props is the assigned class work of the little-known course―“Stage, Scenery, and Lighting.” Its students are responsible for mounting every show, and its confines offer a training and meeting ground for many of the technicians underpinning the McGill student theatre community.

The course has been taught for the past 15 years by Keith Roche. A graduate of the National Theatre School and the owner of his own production company, Roche describes the year-long course as part “boot camp” and part “practical exam.” Students arrive without any required experience, work on their production skills in Moyse Hall’s cavernous workshop, and then, in four weeks, build a show. The first semester’s class is designed along the lines of a vaccination – sudden exposure and quick adaptation –―while the second leans more toward student responsibility. There are few equivalent courses at McGill. Alongside Catherine Bradley’s “Costuming for the Theatre” (also geared toward the biannual shows) and Myrna Wyatt Selkirk’s courses in acting and directing, Roche’s class represents one of the very few arenas for practical experience and professional development in the Drama and Theatre program. “Our goal,” he says, “is to give the students as much experience as possible and, at the same time, to change the way technicians are viewed.―The work is not just fun, it’s a job.”

In the case of Measure for Measure, the job has been as serious and time-consuming as any other. The technical side of theatre begins with the director’s concept, a fairly complex one for professor and Measure for Measure director Patrick Neilson, involving a building in renovation and two sets of projections. The set is first developed with scale drawings, modelled by a cardboard maquette, and then built in the workshop before being disassembled, moved on stage, and put back together. Light and sound designs take shape simultaneously. Aside from their regular class time and homework, students put in an extra ten hours a week and, during the days prior to opening, attend rehearsals from six in the evening until midnight. Jordana Globerman, a veteran of last year’s class and the assistant set designer this time around, points out that “the demands are very intense for this class, but that is what is needed for productions of this calibre to come about.”

Money also helps. Roche receives up to $1,500 from the English department per show, but any surplus needs must be met through bake sales, Moyse Hall rentals, and general scrounging. As Roche says, “We beg, borrow, and steal.” He often buys mis-tinted paint at half-price and tries to avoid delivery charges. At other student theatres, budgets are even tighter. Shows at Players’ Theatre and Tuesday Night Café Theatre (TNC) work with about $700 apiece. Even so, all of McGill’s theatre groups are on fairly good terms and often share equipment and personnel. Moreover, in tech, as with acting, half the fun comes from improvisation. Peter Farrell, joint technical director of TNC along with Eric Chad (currently Roche’s student), recalls once stealing a door frame from a Leacock construction site. On another occasion, he bought an electric hand-cleaner from Home Depot, used it for 24 hours, and then returned it. Moments of similar backstage inspiration, Farrell says, are known in the business as “techgasms.”

If you’re anything like me, theatre holds for you both the allure and the fear of performance. I slipped sideways into tech through shyness, but that is not the most common route. Technicians and designers are artists in their own right, mixing science and self-expression, and their work gives as much life to the stage as the director’s vision or the actor’s presence. “Some people in tech don’t even like theatre,” Farrell tells me, but most, like Globerman, find backstage a place “to be creative visually, work with your hands, and learn from and collaborate with many other creative and talented people.”

Different hopes burn for the future of McGill’s student theatre. Roche would like Drama and Theatre to develop into a full-fledged professional school, along the lines of the Music Faculty, while Farrell and Chad want to see a greater investment in McGillSTAGE, the five-year-old collaborative venture between theatre groups. Josh Teichman,―technical director at Players’, student labourer on Measure for Measure, and professional technician since the age of 14 (hired because the boss thought his name was “Techman”)―simply desires “publicity for the theatres themselves and more people to work the shows.”

To get involved in the backstage work of student theatre, email a group’s tech coordinator or sidle up to a show’s director. Those in search of multiple techgasms should register for “Stage, Scenery, and Lighting 2.”