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The Mass Media

Technical Director Mike Katz elected to board of national theater association

Honestly, I was expecting to find students who were not quite as bright. Working at MIT, that’s what I came to expect. I was wrong. The students here have every bit of the capacity as MIT students — they really do measure up.

“Honestly, I was expecting to find students who were not quite as bright. Working at MIT, that’s what I came to expect. I was wrong. The students here have every bit of the capacity as MIT students — they really do measure up.”

Mike Katz is the new theater technical director at the University of Massachusetts Boston and was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). He has been a member since his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University in 1977. USITT is a 4,000-member national association for performing arts and entertainment professionals governed by an 18-member board and 11 officers.

How did you get started in theater?

Believe it or not, I started when I was around 6 or 7. I was in a summer camp, and we had an incredible dance instructor [who had danced with Isadora Duncan] and was an incredibly progressive, amazing woman.

I was somewhat of a rambunctious child, so there were times when I didn’t have the patience to do what I was supposed to do. So when I started making her really crazy, her husband (who was a painter and did all the sets and lighting) would grab me by the neck and say, “Hey Michael I need you to help me!” So I started working with him.

In all the years I went to camp I would work with him, and eventually I was the one who was allowed to use the system when groups were doing productions. And I kept on doing it.
So it was mostly backstage?

Always backstage. I have performed, I can perform. As a teacher, acting is part of the job. But being somebody else for eight hours a day is something I can’t do.

I have the highest regards for actors. But I don’t especially enjoy working in TV and film — as a tech director, TV and film is less about that amazing interaction of a live performer and an audience, which to me is the greatest part.

I don’t do the acting, but I love being part of the whole process.

Anyway, I continued doing this all the way through junior high school and into high school (Bronx High School of Science). I did theater all three years I was there — that’s what I was doing all along. But I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do when I went to college, for my career.

I was amazingly lucky to have an incredible set of parents. My mother looked at me at some point and said [as I was trying to figure out career plans], “Michael, there’s no reason an evocation can’t be a vocation. If you want to do theater, do it.” So I got really lucky.

What does the job of a technical director entail?

The simplest answer is, I take a piece of paper and turn it into theatrical reality. I’m not a designer — I have done lots of design over the years, but I don’t enjoy it.

What I enjoy is taking that piece of paper, the drawings that the designer gives me, and engineering it, doing the technical design, turning it into as I said, that theatrical reality: something that does what it needs to do for the run of the show, that either gets broken into component parts or broken up and thrown into the dumpster because we don’t have room to store it all — and I love that part of it also.

Theater starts and stops, it’s a finite process.

What brought you to UMass Boston from MIT?

After thirteen years, there was a shakeup at MIT. Why it happened and how it happened I won’t get into, but suffice it to say that no one who was there four years ago is still there in the tech and design area.

I disagree with all that happening, but it happened.

When I let the theater community know that I was out, almost immediately I got an email from Anthony Phelps [of the UMass Boston Theater Department] saying, “I’m talking to the administration; we’ll create something for you.”

Because at that point, he’d been doing everything. UMass didn’t have a theater director and they weren’t planning on bringing in a theater director until they got the new building.

I must say I’m very glad they did it beforehand for my sake, but also because I was able to catch a lot of things that will make the new building better. So I’m very happy to be here for all kinds of reasons.

I was considering retiring, but I wasn’t really ready to. I still really love what I do and I still love working with students.

What are some of the differences between MIT and UMass Boston and what have been some challenges of being the technical director at UMass Boston?

Honestly, I was expecting to find students who were not quite as bright. Working at MIT, that’s what I came to expect. I was wrong. The students here have every bit of the capacity as MIT students — they really do measure up. That’s not the issue.

One of the differences is, and a challenge for me is … I’m a wonk. I want to know why something works. And I find that I’m running up against some students who just want to know what they have to know to pass the course.

That makes me crazy! Passing the course is not what it’s about for me. Finding out how and why something work is what’s exciting to me.

So that’s what I try to teach and that’s what I try to move forward towards. And I think it’s something that students here can learn, and I feel like I’m making some headway, but it is a frustration, because I know how excited I get with things, and I want them to get excited as well.

What exactly is the United States Institute for Technical Theater (USITT)?

The USITT is a volunteer organization run by and for theater technicians, designers, managers, stage managers, architects — all the people that work in a theater except for directors and actors.

We basically are a self-help organization. We work with each other, we are a community for each other, both online and at the conference, which is a major production somewhere in the country every year (It was in Boston in ‘91).

I’ve been going to the conference on and off for the past 15 years, since I was in college.

So it turns out I was elected just as I was being released from MIT, which was kind of amazing, because I was being elected by my peers as a leader among them, which is kind of nice to happen at the same time as getting hired here.

What does the job of a board director entail?

Well, I’m a director-at-large, which means that there are about 16 of us. You’re nominated by regions and the board tries to have both a regional mix and knowledge mix so that you have the full mix of what USITT represents.

We’re responsible for the financial direction of the organization, making sure it’s well run, hiring the executive director, who then hires the staff, and making the final decision on where the conference is going to be.

Do you have any advice for students interested in theater production and/or theater technology?

You need to do it. Do it a lot. Work for us, work for other people. One of the great things about being in Boston is that there’s a lot of great theater.

And don’t just work on theater, go to see theater. There are so many ways to see theater on the cheap.

The other part is to actually learn to take the classes. We’re very willing to create special classes or let people design their own curriculum, and we’re supporting them and working with them.
Are there any upcoming shows at UMass Boston that you’d like to mention?

Yeah, we’ve got two! We do at least one a semester, sometimes more. This semester we’re doing “Urinetown,” which should be a lot of fun  we’re starting to build it as we speak.

Next semester we’re doing a Shakespeare, and at the end of the spring semester we also do the dance concert. So we have a pretty full year. We’re still a small program, and we’re making great strides.

Anything else?
I’m just very lucky. I found what I wanted to do very early on and I continue to do it and have fun. And I’ve always said, the only way you should go into theater is if there’s something in you that says, “I have to do this.”
There was something in me, and I certainly wouldn’t push anyone, including my own students, to do it unless this is the thing that makes them happy. If it is the thing that makes them happy, then this is a great life!