A career in theater tech? At my age?
June 19, 2016 4:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I go back to school for theater tech in my 40's?

I've been an at-home dad for 15 years. Formerly, I had a career in sales and marketing. I never completed my BS but I do have a AS in engineering. I've now been given the opportunity to do whatever I want in life. My income is not an absolute necessity. My wife takes good care of us all.
I would like to take this opportunity to do what I wanted to do my whole life. My real passion is technical theater production. I absolutely love lighting design, production design, and everything that comes along with the operation of a theatrical production. Where do I start? I'm in the Boston/NH area. I would love to finally follow this dream I had when i was in 11th grade writing my career aspiration paper that never came true.
posted by Thrillhouse to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was thisclose to talking you out of it until I saw the "my wife takes care of us" thing. If that's the case, then you're gold.

So: I wouldn't even necessarily go to school. I'd start by getting hands-on, because you can learn SO MUCH that way. Start with a small theater company - and trust me, they are legion - and contact them about wanting to join the crew of a show. Some will turn you down, but some may grab you and pull you in the door because stagehands are few. If you have some kind of degree in engineering, you may specifically want to talk to the production bit that fits you best (i.e., if you know electronics engineering, talk to the lighting/electrics side, if you're more structural talk to the scene shop, etc.). Ask lots of questions about the how and the why, and after a few shows, or if you get along especially well with a designer, then ask them about whether there's a scene shop or electrics crew that you could get more involved with.

There are degrees in this kind of thing, but you can also learn a crapton by doing - I technically wasn't university-trained in stage management, but i learned a lot on the fly and had a career in that for ten years, which started simply by my being drafted into being the ASM for a college show and realizing "hey, I'm kinda good at this".

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:21 AM on June 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Look for a local chapter of IATSE. Call them and ask the questions you have. In my experience (admittedly a bit dated), the tech theater jobs on the professional circuit are heavily unionized. Also, they are heavily experience-based (rather than academic). Alternately, I cut my teeth as an undergraduate where working in the theater shop was my work-study job, so you might see if the local postsecondary institution has a theater program or a space that hosts touring companies, and is looking for stage hands.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:23 AM on June 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might also consider working with a high school. Mr Jane teaches high school theatre and was recently looking to fill a tech theatre position. There are very few tech theatre teachers, but he did find a few people (non-teachers) who were interested in taking the co-curricular (after school) stipends he offered.

If you find you like working with the kids, you could go back and get a teaching degree. You could certainly get a theatre ed degree and teach stagecraft, however probably not full time, in which case, you would likely end up teaching other courses for your teaching load. Mr Jane and his colleagues fill their teaching schedules with speech, acting, history, foreign language, etc., so if you do go this route, consider getting certified to teach more than one subject. Or, given your circumstances, you could just teach part time and work on the shool's theatrical productions.
posted by sarajane at 6:57 AM on June 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with Empress Callipygos. Get involved with your local community theatre, or if you live in the parts of New England where Summer Stock and the like goes on, there are professional theatre companies, etc., reach out and see if you can be a volunteer. Because the thing is, very few people dream of becoming a stagehand or running tech. There's much more demand for that than there is for, say, directing.

After doing that, see where the people who aren't volunteers got their training. Are they mostly post-college interns biding their time between NYU and Yale? Did they all get BAs in theatre from the local college or state U?

My first thoughts for the "good" schools where people typically get theatre degrees in the Northeast are places like Emerson and Carnegie-Mellon. But that's for 18 year olds who Go Away To College. Which it sounds like is not what you're doing. Meanwhile any half-decent state U or directional university will have a theatre department (sometimes combined with media, broadcasting, journalism, or communications) which is fully able to teach you the basics of how to design a set, build flats, deal with lighting, work with a cyc, and stuff like that. If there aren't professional theatre companies nearby or they typically hire baby interns to do this stuff for a summer or two before moving on to grad school, it's probably better to take a few stagecraft courses at the local college than to try to get a degree in it, because you're never going to be making a living at this or dealing with the big union houses that Emperor SnooKloze is talking about.

(Also FWIW the unions require you to take an exam for entry, which if you mainly want to be a lower rung tech rather than an art director or scenic designer, is about practical stuff like knotwork and electrical safety. No degree is required, and if anything your real issue getting in would be nepotism and the fact that the theatrical unions don't actually like bringing in new blood. You WILL NOT be admitted to one of these unions as an art director without grad school, probably a quite prestigious one.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:27 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in a related field - production tech for concerts & similar events - in my late 40's, and basically first-generation college-degreed. As in, people our age were about the first to get degrees specifically for entertainment tech. The point being that these degrees haven't been around long enough to become a necessary prerequisite for getting this kind of work - experience and simple willingness to learn count for a lot.

So I'll second EmpressCallipygos and Emperor SnooKloze that looking for actual work with small theater groups and IATSE is a viable starting point.

Some formal education might not hurt, considering how high-tech things have gotten over the last decade, but these days pretty much every college & university has some kind of entertainment production tech program. You should be able to find a bunch of places where you can take some classes part time, which will leave you time to gain on-the-job experience. (Stay away from any for-profit colleges - they won't offer anything you shouldn't be able to find at a real college.)
posted by soundguy99 at 7:50 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was in college I worked in theatre tech at a community college... I never took any classes in it or anything. We had people of all ages working there, including punk kids (me and DFM500, hey man) and grown folks. The grown folk generally had some skills, like carpentry or welding or lighting systems.

I don't know about other community college systems, but here in Southern California all my local schools have big, professional-grade theaters with full-sized fly systems and configurable stages with a basement and orchestra pit and all that... stuff you maybe won't get to work with at a small community theatre. You can take theater tech classes pretty inexpensively and possibly work it into a job, too.

My boss from that job is now a senior tech director at Disneyland, so it worked out pretty well for him.
posted by Huck500 at 8:19 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you looking for a career or just involvement in theatre? The former might be a challenge - there's only so many good, stable jobs and you'll be competing with experienced techs that have been working on touring shows for a decade or more that are looking to get off the road and people in their 20s whose youthful energy and lack of adult commitments will give them more ability to put in tremendous hours. In my experience, the field is very about paying dues by working long and hard to get established. And many of the jobs may end up eating up a lot of your nights and weekends - doing that as a full time career may impact your family life more than you think it will.

Starting with volunteering with community theatre and seeing if your local IATSE allows non-card holders to work through them would be a good first step to both start getting experience and to see whether you want to try for the field as a full time career or just something to do on a part time basis.
posted by Candleman at 8:22 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, what a bunch of awesome answers! You guys are the tops.
So it turns out I do have some industry contacts, several in fact. If experience/intern/volunteering trumps schooling then that's definitely the way I'd like to go.
I'm not looking for a career (even though I used the term career). I do want to be able to love what I do without having to worry about fighting for my next job. It's very very nice to have a wife that is able and willing to let me do this.

This year I worked with a local private HS as tech director for their two shows. The facility is ancient and the equipment is almost as old.It would have been outdated when I was in school. Still, working with students/kids was so much fun and they loved having me there. I'd love to continue doing that for other schools but I want to learn the proper ways to do things so I can teach them rather than just wing it as I go.

Thanks again for all your advice. It all really helps.
posted by Thrillhouse at 10:39 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

A good friend did an undergrad degree in theater, got a job hanging lights for concerts, corporate parties, and the like, and now handles sales for a lighting rental company. It's good money, and he can run lights when he likes a band.
posted by yarntheory at 1:40 PM on June 19, 2016

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