It’s technIcal

By Dana Taylor

The movement towards standards in technical theatre education
technical theatre education in the average American high school usually takes on one of two forms: a program that addresses the technical needs of the show or one that serves the technical education of the students. Programs or classes rarely attempt to do both. The ones that are focused on production seldom even identify what students need to know beyond the requirements of the next show. It would be better if we redesigned our methodology, examined the core knowledge required to perform tasks, and turned technical theatre into an area of curricular study. Unfortunately, few of us have a dedicated technical theatre class and if we do, the enrolled students receive most of their instruction through the production of shows. Students may learn a great deal about technical theatre during their school career. But because so much of that learning takes place outside the curricular day, we don’t necessarily take the time to evaluate those newly learned skills and the knowledge necessary to execute them. If this material is important enough to teach, isn’t it important enough to test? Most of my fellow arts educators are not in favor of standardized testing, though such tests are a reality in the

core subjects like math and English. As we all know, the arts are considered a core subject under the U.S. Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but districts are not obligated to test students in these subject areas. I may be in the minority, but I like tests, particularly as a way to evaluate students’ technical theatre expertise. The simple fact is that students who can pass my technical theatre exams are almost always of greater value to our crews than the ones who can’t. Of course I have students who don’t perform well on the written exams but do show great skill in the scene shop and control booth, but not often. I am confident that my technical theatre grading system takes into account both skill and knowledge; hard workers always pass my classes easily, even if their test scores are a bit low. The test I use is one I created, and it works for me and my students (examples from my technical theatre exam are on page 32). Why then would I want to consider using a standardized technical theatre exam? The short answer is that such a test would provide guidance as to what we should be teaching. The long answer is that unless we are told what is important, we

will likely only teach those things that we are most comfortable with and in our current skill set—that’s as true of me as anyone else. It’s not enough for us to simply teach what the next show needs or how to use a new piece of equipment. What would be of greater value is to teach what the colleges and universities expect of our students and what the entertainment technology industry requires of entry-level workers. At the very least, this would provide a baseline of knowledge and skill that every theatre student—technicians, performers, and administrative personnel alike—should be expected to acquire. Just to be clear, I think both skill and knowledge are important for any student to be competent in technical theatre. Much of what technical theatre requires are skills: how to hang a light, build a platform, paint, sew, etc. The knowledge required informs the skill, and the skill makes the knowledge meaningful.
Above: welding a rail, San Jose State University. Clockwise from bottom left: sewing a costume, Ithaca College; using CAD to create a light plot, Willamette University; focusing an ERS at the 2010 Thespian Festival Tech Challenge; in the scene shop, Seton Hill College; assembling a flat, Tech Challenge; and working on makeup, Seton Hill College



Plaster line d. Corner blocks d. as well as professional theatre. and there hasn’t been a recent technological upgrade for Cclamps. amps c. frequencies d. Cue line b. Fresnel b. Double purchase b Single purchase c.Sample questions from Mt. Certainly the above list is not high-tech. as well as the performance style associated with the play and its execution. and their use in construction. Center line c. lighting. including an understanding of loads. Multipath b. But the infrastructure. MFL or WFL lamps: a. Intermodulation d. drafting conventions. lighting. potential acoustic gain A 1:1 weight ratio is a reasonable description of a____system. Vernon Senior High School’s technical theatre exams An invisible line that divides the stage in half (SL-SR): a. Striplight The component parts of a Hollywood style flat are toggle. here’s a list of the most desirable skills and knowledge: • Mathematics—including algebra. watts. Plaster line d. electricity. Center line c. and construction elements. It is our responsibility as secondary school theatre educators to provide the opportunities and training that will help students succeed in cutting-edge college and university technical theatre programs. This list seems to be pretty fundamental to me. • A well-rounded knowledge of historical periods and how period can impact scenic. Of course. now known as PLAZA North America) surveyed its membership on the need . the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA. bracing. Arena d. lighting. Proscenium line The most flexible performance space: a. but not everything—a flat is still a flat. • Ability to work cooperatively and develop an understanding of the value of a collaborative work environment. Phase Incoherence —D. a. Ellipsoidal reflector spotlight d. rails and____. legging. Keystone b. a. Thrust stage c. calculus. they do influence the way we teach these things and how we allow students to demonstrate understanding. they will expect new students to be better prepared. or costuming idea. including methods for fastening. Counterweight system All upstage measurements are taken from the____. Creating a recognized body of knowledge and skills that technical theatre professionals agree constitute the standards in the field can be a foundation from which we can begin to create pedagogy and assessments. Curtain line b. many things have changed. Models for change: ESTA’s glossary of terms In 2002. consensus building. though one comment I’ve heard is that colleges are teaching 1950s tech in the twenty-first century. painting. control. and trigonometry but also basics like fractions—and its use in construction (even in just reading a tape measure and understanding dimensions). but it does say something about what higher education tech programs deem important. PAR c. the relationship of volts. Blackbox It uses NSP. • Basic knots and their use in rigging and construction. and putting set pieces together. • Basic drafting skill that includes an understanding of scale. drafting. a. both powered and manual. lighting. • Ability to read a play and analyze for scenic. and team effort that supports the common needs and goals of a production. and amps. • Basic electricity. it simply suggests that the skills and knowledge needed by students to succeed in technical theatre haven’t changed appreciably in the last fifty years. While these changes don’t eliminate the need for the basic skills and knowledge listed. and costume needs. Stiles c. Manual purchase d. and communication tools for theatre production have changed exponentially. as well as the appropriate techniques for wiring plugs. a. rigging. decibels b. I don’t know if every college-level instructor would agree with that notion. and resources.T. Chorus line The creation of phantom frequencies by two or more wireless mics is called____. • Tool knowledge (function and use). • Basic sketching skills that include the ability to create a rudimentary drawing that reflects a vision for a scenic. Header Equalization refers to the manipulation of____. and scenic painting. • Basic construction techniques. and costume needs. tools. a. and rigging. TEACHING THEATRE • An understanding of art movements and styles and how they can impact the look of a play. And as college and university theatre departments continue to upgrade their own technical capabilities. What colleges expect Based on an informal survey I conducted with college-level technical theatre colleagues. Dropout c. Proscenium stage b.

50 per test. around the head just above the ears c. right above the eye brows b. Properties 6. Electrics 5. regardless of their specialization. camera.nocti. is $12. Arizona and New York have the most comprehensive exams. New Jersey. Washington. warm or cool d. materials. New York New York was the first state to acknowledge technical theatre as a vocational program within secondary schools. Costuming/makeup and hair 3. a committee of entertainment field experts whose task was to identify fundamental knowledge and skills required of all entry-level entertainment technicians. study guides. research. Running crews 7. from the hairline on the forehead to the nape of the neck Stairs that run from the stage into the wings are called: a. under the guidance of the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI). The written test is available (online only at www. Currently. The specific disciplines covered are: • Lighting and electrics: theatrical lighting and allied electrical applications • Rigging: theatre and arena • Costuming: fabric and construction methods • Multimedia: projection. but would also raise the standards for technicians by identifying specific skill sets. providing training. thrust b. NOCTI is a private company specializing in the creation of vocational education exams and support materials. access to it is by subscription only (annual fee is $15 for professionals and $10 for students). and the development of technical standards that impact the industry. Scenic and prop construction 4. The New York NOCTI technical theatre exam includes 229 multiple choice questions (see the sidebar above for some examples) and a skills orientation performance component that features six different specialty skill sets (from which a student can choose one). Additionally. around the head over the ears d. and offering an opportunity to test applicants’ competency. While the ESTA committee’s mission has been modified over the last several years. and a pre-test. proscenium c. Florida. rigging crew ESTA is a trade organization that supports its members through the encouragement of better business practices. consultants. and New York. audio crew b. to better prepare students for the final examination. it’s recognized as the first attempt by any organization within the entertainment technology field to truly define what technicians should know.300 terms. blank stairs Gel colors are usually described as: a.eset. Founded in 1987 as the Theatrical Dealers Association. The New York NOCTI exam’s seven evaluation areas (plus the performance skills test) include: 1.) believed that certification would not only be reflected in improved skills and a more efficient workforce. hot or cold b. etc. five states offer vocational training in technical theatre: Arizona. Here’s a brief overview of each technical exam. The most current version of the technical glossary—known as “Essential Skills for Entertainment Technicians” (eSET)—can be found at www. in the round d. Stage management The performance skill sets (and task times) are: • Costume: pattern and sew an apron (three hours) TEACHING THEATRE . ESTA formed the Essentials Skills Working Group. and practice tests. The survey results confirmed that the majority of respondents (entertainment equipment manufacturers. dealers. In 2007. amphitheater Where is the proper place to measure the size of head? a. fire stairs c. running crew Vocational education and technical theatre standards Federal law stipulates that all state vocational and technical education programs—known as Career and Technical Education (CTE)—include an exit exam. tint or shade c. agree on a definition of each term. work roles and protocols • Properties: hand and personal props • Staging and scenic fabrication: construction. escape stairs b. tests for each discipline area. grand staircases d. It includes more than 2. NOCTI recommends that students who take the test have a minimum of three years of training and classes in technical theatre.for credentialing entertainment technicians. and set dressing • Effects: audio and visual • Safety in each discipline Sample questions from the New York NOCTI test Which of the following stage configurations has an audience on three sides? a. and recording • Audio: sound reinforcement and recording • Venues: theatrical spaces. Currently. and ultimately. There is also a performance evaluation guide available for $7. Their first step was to identify a body of terminology required of beginning technicians. stage managers for $19 per test. create an exam to measure a technician’s understanding of this glossary. soft or loud Stage safety suggests that hard hats are to be worn by the: a. In response to the survey. the state created an exam for CTE technical theatre students with the help of technical theatre experts and educators. it recognizes the importance of creating a common vocabulary within a jargon-filled industry. Understanding technical theatre 2.

and stage management are all reasonably “tool free” and should be easy to incorporate into your program. It includes a digital mixing console. Scenery: practice theatrical construction techniques that realize the set design. • Develop strong interpersonal communication skills. will help our students learn and integrate all of the production elements—lights. safety. • Develop a technical theatre portfolio and résumé. 3. 7. entry-level workers would not be doing these tasks. 2. ing exactly the same equipment. but we lack a small system that a student would need to set up to prove their understanding of audio components and signal path as required by the New York audio performance task. knowledge. and those of your students. However. Vernon (Indiana) Senior High School and is technical theatre editor for Dramatics magazine.—clearly positions technical theatre as a business and a career choice and reinforces its CTE status. Technical theatre education needs to be more than just building in my school. cable. the performers who rely on technicians to make it all come together into something extraordinary when the curtain goes up.5 hours) Detailed elements of the evaluation areas and the performance skill sets can be found on NOCTI’s New York Assessment Blueprint pages at http:// www. but it does not include a skills component. 4. Every school is different.nocti. educational guidance. For example. • Understand the role of unions and professional affiliations as they relate to theatre and related industries. Arizona. Defining a body of skills and knowledge that can be taught both in and out of the school day. rigging.cfm. construction. electrics. 11. • Utilize social networks appropriately to further career. class availability. Dealing with limits In all three exams. and properties. flats. 6. the exams focus on a broad range of elements that mark a well-trained technician. portfolios. counterweight rigging. Stagehands: perform tasks necessary to support the production. teaching time. and yes. and the proof that they have been attained are what really matters. They are: • Exhibit computer literacy as related to technical theatre. Make-up and hair. skills. line array speakers. consider starting work on things that are slightly more beginnerfriendly and perhaps less expensive. in the industry. As you reevaluate your technical knowledge and skills. you’ll have to consider how skilled you are in teaching technical theatre. and focus a three-unit light plot (two hours) • Sound: set up a sound system (two hours) • Stage management: tape out a ground plan (one hour). Stage management: apply organizational and communication skills to managing a theatrical production. Dana Taylor teaches tech theatre at Mt. with no two hav- . Sound: practice audio techniques that realize the sound design. and ESTA’s efforts to evaluate the core competencies of technical theatre are commendable. or create a mini-prompt book with blocking and cue annotation (1. Lighting: practice theatrical lighting that realizes the lighting design. Explore how technical theatre realizes the design process. • Research job. He co-chairs the media development committee for The ESTA Foundation. Arizona Arizona’s vocational education technical theatre test was completed in 2009. with particular emphasis on costuming. Arizona’s.) The Arizona test features one notable addition: it includes a “practice marketable workplace skills” section that lists competencies that are not included in the same kind of detail in the New York and eSET exams. Costumes: practice theatrical construction techniques that realize costume design. If you want to move into more tool-oriented work. Further. we have a very nice audio system. If your state has a CTE program that embraces technical theatre (or will soon). the lack of a skills-competency thread in the eSET and Arizona exams highlights the challenge of creating technical performance exams. and financial considerations may inhibit your ability to upgrade your pedagogy to prepare your classes for a rigorous test much like the ones described here. communication skills. etc. and higher/continuing education opportunities. Rigging: employ safe rigging practices. 5. and thirty microphones. audio. hang. costuming. rigging. Properties: collaborate with the director and design team on a property list and set dressings. use the New York. Here are competency categories of the Arizona test: 1. TEACHING THEATRE 10. Drawing attention to the “marketability” of skills learned in technical theatre—social networking. In each instance. begin with the basics of construction. Aside from your school’s equipment and technology limitations. and the first test given in 2010. 8. and lighting. 9. The test touches upon a broad range of experiences and knowledge. New York’s.azed. including scholarships in technical theatre. and eSET lists of competencies to evaluate your own program. A full list of the competencies included in the Arizona test can be found at https:// www.• Makeup and hair: period styling (two hours) • Construction: construct a 2’ x 4’ fabric-covered theatrical style flat (two hours) • Electrics: set up. (ESTA’s eSET test lacks stage management and hair and makeup because. Practice marketable workplace skills. costuming. Investigate how theatrical design components contribute to theatrical production.