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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A Short Course in Hanging

Thirty feet above the floor, four students are crawling about, wrenches in their hands, having the time of their lives. It’s light hang, a weekend set aside for the Drama Workshop in which all of the lighting instruments are set in place. It’s pretty intricate work: most lights weigh about twenty pounds and so have to be attached securely in place. Sloppy or quick work might have fatal consequences. Attention must be paid to detail.

Sixty students over two days, each contributing a minimum of three hours (but many working the entire weekend), also makes the Drama Workshop’s light hang one of the most intensive work efforts on campus. And this happens twice a year, every year – more if there are any student-directed plays – at no expense to the university. At a time when questions are being raised over the $75 million Student Center and proposed $200 million dormitories, it makes you wonder if the Powers That Be are paying attention to the right things on campus.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve spoken with the assistant directors on the three plays being presented as this fall’s Drama Workshop, the centerpiece of the UMB Division of Theater Arts and Communication. Kate Kelly, Cailin O’Connor and Henry Santiago bring a wealth of experience with them, wealth that is shared with the student actors they direct. This week – the final week before the plays open – we look at the students involved in the technical aspect of theatre.

“What type of light was that?” “On L? or on M?” “Is that it for that pipe?” Bombarded with questions, Assistant Master Electrician Helena Prezio pays attention and answers each in turn. McCormack Theater is designed to allow shows to be mounted quickly and efficiently, but between the ladders, scaffolding, and the hydraulic lift – and the range of experience that the students possess – someone needs to keep the work process focused. A lighting design student herself, Helena fields questions from all four corners of the stage with ease.

The work that she does – in fact, all of the work on light hang weekend – only serves to realize the plan developed by the Lighting Designer, Michael Franzese. Mike has worked as master electrician or lighting designer for a number of UMB shows, including the Spring workshop production, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and the student production of “Fortinbras.”

There are no disco balls or fog machines in this workshop, but, with three separate plays being shown in series, a crafty eye is still required. Mike’s the kind who pays attention: he’s sat in on a number of rehearsals to get a feel for each play. After receiving a ground plan from director Ron Nash, he developed the 60-instrument lighting plan.

One of Mike’s many innovations: He color-coded the lighting plot, making it clear which light would work for which show, and which would be serving double-duty.

That sort of interaction – one person developing a plan, another group of students actualizing it, all contributing ideas and information – is critical to the function of theatre. More than any other art form, theatre is collaborative. Poets may share a podium, artists a gallery wall, but neither needs to acknowledge the other. In theatre, artists must work in cooperation with each other to achieve a mutual goal. In the case of university theatre, valuable experience is gained along the way, a good time is had by all, and a fabulous show is put on.

Theatre is also the art of transformation. Actors step into the shoes of characters nothing like themselves. Plywood, two-by-fours, and a bit of paint become an apartment, a kitchen, a jail cell. The result obscures the meager origins of some of the equipment: many of the lights the students are hanging are older than the students themselves.

The Division of Theatre Arts and Communication works under a tight budget, less than many student organizations. Pennies are stretched; students work unpaid and professors work overtime. Where most universities offer four or even six full productions a year, UMB gets by with two – because of its budget. A larger budget might mean more shows, or an opportunity to repair the many defective instruments in inventory.

A larger budget might also translate into higher quality construction materials, but what’s present is made to work. A groundplan depicts the positioning of walls and doorways, the height of platforms, and the placement of chairs. Assistant Technical Director Doug Hallenbrook oversees a workforce of some twenty students to build the set according the groundplan. Every screw and nail, every drop of paint, is under his control – because he pays attention to the details.

Director Ron Nash, chair of the theatre program, wears many hats: director, designer, and producer of the fall production. In addition, he also conducts a regular load of courses. In years previous, he’s had more help: a second professor would act as technical director, and there were more faculty members to spread the courseload over.

This year the students have been exceptional, and so all of the details are being cared for. Students, however, have a tendency to graduate. Professors retire. After this year, many in key positions – students and professors alike – may be leaving. It’s difficult to fix future problems when there are enough present ones to worry about.

But at least the present problems are being addressed. For a brief period of time, when the audience enters, when actors go onstage, when the lights go up, McCormack Theater will become another world. For a little while – because of the hard work students have contributed – McCormack Theater will be beautiful.

Unlike the Student Center or proposed dormitories, there will be no dedication ceremony, no bronze plaques – not even a promise of continued work in the future. Unlike the gala ballroom planned for the Student Center, the McCormack Theater is not reserved exclusively for functions; it sees double use as classroom and lecture hall. McCormack Theater services the theater, dance, and music communities at UMass Boston.

But then, theatre is also the art of reaching out. Production Stage Manager Kate Perkins paid attention to the nature of the plays: two of them invoke the Holocaust, an event older even than the lighting instruments. So Kate reached out and invited a Holocaust survivor, Max Michaelson, to speak to the cast of both plays. Later the actors will translate his experience – and their own – and reach out to the audience.

Like the construction workers building the new Student Center, these are names that will not be celebrated, will not be recalled -here at the university. But many are making their mark in “the real world.” Mike Franzese, for example, lit a show this summer at the Threshold Theater with fellow students Danielle Brennan and Kate Kelly. Recent UMB grad Dan Minkle appeared in “King Lear” at Ubiquity Stage last month; Derek Gaspar and Luana Giesta, who graduated at the same time as Dan, are making the break in Chicago.

UMB theatre alums have been accepted at the most exclusive graduate schools and worked at some of the magnificent theaters. They’ve worked hard, and it’s the illusion of theatre that obscures their meager origins. With a larger budget – with a little more attention from the administration – McCormack Theater might be magnificent too.