The show must go on, and it needs trained workers

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STUDENTS PREPARE TO PAINT sets under the direction of scenic painter Ryan Marshall, a United Scenic Artists Local 829 member. – Labor Tribune photo

Stagehands Local 6, United Scenic Artists Local 829 team with Muny to give area students real experience preparing for a show

By TIM ROWDEN
Editor

Area high school students interested in working in the theater and entertainment industry are getting a chance to work one-on-one with the professional, thanks to a new Technical Theater Training (T3) initiative put on by The Muny in collaboration with IATSE (Stagehands) Local 6 and United Scenic Artists (USA) Local 829.

The idea is to expand the network of craftsmen, artisans and theater professionals who work locally and nationally in the entertainment industry by providing training and mentorship to high school students in the industry of technical theater, helping to create a clear path for success in these fields after high school.

“Arts programs are the first things cut in high schools,” said Joe Rudd, business manager of Stagehands Local 6. “Most high schools either have diminished arts programs or none at all. It’s unfortunate because there are so many avenues you can go down in this field. If they come out here and they say, ‘This is what I really want to do,’ we’ve just changed a life.”

BEHIND THE SCENES: It takes careful work to make a scene come alive for the theater. Here students learn the proper technique for spreading canvas on a piece of scenery. – Labor Tribune photo

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

Crew members with Local 6 and Local 829 are donating their time to work with the students.

Students in the new program will work to build and paint a set for a local professional theater company – in this case, New Jewish Theater. The scenery is designed by the theater company and built and painted by the students in collaboration with union stagehands and technicians, helping the students to develop mentors in the union as well as establish relationships with local theater companies who can then hire them for future productions.

“Most of them have some experience doing theater in schools, but the schools don’t always have great technical programs,” Muny Production Manager Tracy Utzmyers said. “We’re hoping to build some relationship with some of the schools and bridge the training and access gap between the students who attend high schools with little or no technical theater equipment or support and students who have access to professional level lighting and sound equipment at their schools.

“The unions have been so generous with their time, and we have some great sponsors,” Utzmyers said.

“By the time the students in this program graduate from high school they will be prepared to answer Stagehand Union work calls, present their portfolio to United Scenic Artists or compete with students who come from schools with more resources for admission to top technical theater college programs.

“It’s really important to the Muny that our labor force come from St. Louis,” Utzmyers said. “It’s also important that this program allows us to recruit from all over the city. The kids have been really hands-on in the process and I think it’s a compliment to the crew that they’ve been willing to step back and teach.”

ELISE CONLEY, a junior at Central Visual Performing Arts, is interested in acting but says learning about set design is opening new options for her. – Labor Tribune photo

‘THEATER IS MY LIFE’

For Elsie Conley, 17, a junior at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA), a magnet in St. Louis, the program is offering a wider range of opportunity to follow her dreams of acting and working in the theater.

She and fellow CVPA junior Donisha Robinson, 16, spent a recent morning painting sets.

Conley wants to act but also wants to keep her options open.

“If I get on Broadway or something, they have traveling shows. I’d always have something,” Conley said. “I think that’s what I want to go to college for. I don’t know anything else I could do because theater is my life. It’s all I do.”

Robinson said she learned about the program from her drama teacher. She said the experience has given her something to think about in terms of a career.

“Usually, I just work tech at school,” Robinson said. “I never thought about it, but I’d consider it. It’s fun. I like it.”

FOCUSING ON A CAREER

Ryan Marshall, a scenic painter at the Muny, said the students are getting a head start many in the field don’t have.

“Just by being here, they are focusing their attention on a career path,” Marshall said. “It’s good to choose your career, or your career chooses you. You’re focusing your life in a direction.

“It’s interesting having the girls out here helping paint. They’re really go-getters. When I was their age, I was nothing like they are. They’re really into it.”

TABIYON KING, a junior at Normandy High School said the T3 program has given him the idea of supplementing his acting aspirations with a career in set design. – Labor Tribune photo

OPTIONS

Tabiyon King, 17, a junior at Normandy High School, was getting experience building sets.

“I’ve done plays and stuff at school, but I never worked in an area like this,” King said. “I’m learning a lot.”

King said he’d like to act, but is also considering set design. “I could do a little of both,” he said.

A FUN PLACE TO BE

Viances Hutcherson, 17, a junior at Soldan International Studies High School, is interested in theater and photography. A teacher recommended he apply for the T3 program.

Hutcherson has done some carpentry at home as a hobby, but said the program has taught him things he didn’t know.

“It’s helping me be more professional,” he said. “Instead of just knowing what something is and what it’s used for, I know what it’s called. It’s pretty interesting. Theater is a fun place to be. It’s creative and you can use your imagination more. It’s pretty hands-on.”

‘I WOULDN’T  CHANGE IT FOR ANYTHING’

James Spies, a master electrician at the Muny, started working there when he was the same age as the students. At 15 he was working cleanup. At 16 he was in concessions. By the time he was 18, he was working as a stagehand. He was impressed with the students.

“They pick it up quick,” he said. “They’re doing really well.”

If they choose to pursue it, Spies said the students can make a good career in the entertainment industry “and be comfortable and be happy. That’s important,” he said.

“There’s never been a day that I’ve been like ‘I’ve got to go to work.’ The people I work with and what we do, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

TO LEARN MORE

To learn more about the T3 program visit the Muny's website.

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