Highlander Excerpt: A Look Inside St. Margaret’s Theater Technical Arts Program

This feature story is an excerpt from the upcoming Highlander Magazine, which will be a digital-exclusive edition coming soon.
Before the actors utter their opening line on stage, the world where the story takes place must be dreamt, envisioned and built. 

At St. Margaret's, that is the role of theater technical arts, a hands-on and vibrant program for Middle School and Upper School students which has seen a surge of popularity in recent years. 

The class is a performing arts elective taught by technical director and resident designer Gordon Richins as a hands-on course dedicated to understanding, designing, and crafting performing arts productions. Students learn the basics of theater terminology, gain practical skills, and properly execute basic production needs. Students learn to be agile problem solvers, vision-filled designers, electricians, stage managers and talented leaders. The coursework develops many life skills and hones in on creativity to plan for sets. Students also pick up an understanding of how applying elements of lights and mixing sound for productions are vital to producing a dramatic theater presentation.

“Theater technical arts students are the ultimate problem solvers, the essential link between the director's imagination and the innovation which brings the idea to life,” said Dan Pacheco, St. Margaret’s director of performing arts. “As Mr. Richins continues to grow this program, the results can be seen in the wonderful sets, lighting design and sound that enhance our performing arts productions throughout the year. Our theater technical arts students are doing amazing work.”

In order to equip students in dreaming and building intricate stage designs, carpentry is introduced and basic skills are mastered: using cordless drills and pneumatic staplers. Students also become versed in other tools which are used to mount platforms and attach walls of the set. As the class progresses, basic painting skills and treatments are introduced. Lessons include other important elements to building a set, such as lighting, sound and projections.

The ebb and flow of the course is based on production needs for a particular semester–and each production varies. The Lower School production of Winnie the Pooh and the Middle School production of SpongeBob the Musical Jr. were made up of several painted cutouts. Other shows like Frankenstein, The Giver and The Importance of Being Earnest might be more crafty and conceptual.  

That variety makes theater technical arts a unique class offering students an assortment of lessons based on the production season. Students have the ability to flex their creative muscle by developing different skills each semester, which encourages outside-the-box thinking. For example, the set for The Importance of Being Earnest was made up of a large wall of rose panels made from ribbon. The class learned how to stretch fabric on a wood frame and use fabric glue and ribbon to create 17 rose panels that made up the back wall of the stage; the result was a three-dimensional wall of roses which glowed on stage when the panels were lit from behind. This production involved plenty of meticulous planning and collaboration and, as a result, interpersonal skills like patience and important qualities like determination were fostered. In essence, the technical arts course is intentionally designed to allow students the freedom to practice their craft.

“All productions are stage managed by students. We try to have Middle School and Upper School students run their school productions, respectively,” said Mr. Richins.

For the Upper School class, students have the opportunity to decide which area of production they are interested in pursuing. Students with more experience and proficiency are paired with those desiring to learn more in that area of design. As a result, students learn through collaboration and mentorship in specialty areas like set design and construction, lighting, sound, and video. 

“If a student is more interested in lights, then we will focus on assignments to equip them to be more familiar with that area of design,” Mr. Richins said. “The goal is that by the time students reach Upper School, they have acquired the skills along the way to help them become expert designers.”

The personal growth fostered through a broad range of artistic opportunities is a value the theater technical arts course upholds. By partnering with esteemed industry experts, students are exposed to current trends and innovations to add to their experience. Because of the amount of shows that are done at St. Margaret’s, professional lighting designers and sound designers are often contracted to help with larger productions. This year, Upper School senior Jack Justus will be designing lights for the Upper School production of Footloose and will work with professional lighting designer Jacob Olson as his mentor.  

Students continue to study sound design by working with Siavash Davarnia, sound designer for Iranian singer Ebi, for larger musicals. Sound design includes learning how to set up speakers and microphones and assist running the sound board. Additional talents and experts at St. Margaret’s include Justice Musick-Corson, Spencer Keane and Chance Hygh, who provide collaboration on construction, painting and supervising.  

“Our students are very talented and eager to learn and work on the shows. Sometimes I feel I need to step back and just let them shine,” Mr. Richins said. “This year's production of Frankenstein was a good example where the students took the show to the next level.”

An embodiment of a student’s passion and development in this program is found in Jack Justus. Jack discovered the world of technical theater arts in grade 6 when he volunteered to assist backstage during a Middle School musical production. Jack was intrigued as he uncovered the partnership between technology and performance art. He nurtured his curiosity by continuing to volunteer for different roles in theater production–backstage hand, running audio and running the lightboard to name a few. Once he was in the Upper School, he stepped into the role of an assistant lighting designer, working with Tartan alumnus Espen Garner. Jack remarks, “In the tech process for Mamma Mia! I got to see how a show comes together from a designer’s perspective rather than a technician, and that is when I realized that I had found my place.”

Technical arts allow students from wide-ranging academic backgrounds to collaborate on a project that involves multiple parts. Unlike typical classroom projects limited to small groups, these large-scale productions involve up to 20 students behind the scenes, creating a unique blend of fun and controlled chaos that's exceptionally rewarding, according to Jack.

“Lighting design attracts me because it allows me to utilize both my engineering and artistic skills,” Jack said. “It involves an extensive process of researching the show and devising a visual concept, which appeals to my creative side. By integrating my interests in technology with my creativity, lighting design encapsulates everything I've learned at St. Margaret’s into one fast-paced, rewarding project. It's the perfect mix of STEM and arts, incorporating lessons from English, computer science, and physics.”

Currently, more than 50 students participate in technical arts. The program supports 18 shows a year: six theater productions, two dance performances, four music concerts, two Tartan Jams, one Tartan Revue and three film festivals. Students also participate with the design of Halloween carnival games for all of the Lower School students to enjoy as part of the holiday festivities. 

Mr. Richins shared that the students enjoy belonging on production teams and work on designing or building sets on multiple shows. “I feel that the students are becoming very skilled each year and I am able to assign them more of the design work. Many students who are involved in productions and technical theater are eager to be part of a production, but they may not be interested in the aspect of performing or singing on stage. Technical arts provide these talented students a chance to be involved in theater and use their artist skills in a different way.”
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