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The End of UAA’s Stage Tech Training Pipeline

by Jul 24, 2023Magazine, Media & Arts

Alaska Business


“We’re going dark!”

From center stage, Kristinne Daquis calls out the next item on her checklist, testing the lights before a preview of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. The play is the season’s first full production by the UAA Theater & Dance Department, and it is also the last. Ever.

“The overwhelming message of the piece,” says director Brian Cook, is that “things happen in our lives—we lose our jobs, programs close down—but life continues. We’re resilient people, and we move on. We find a way to recover.” Cook is also the department chair, but he’s moving to Colorado because his job is disappearing.

In 2020, the University of Alaska Board of Regents announced deep cuts to academic programs. UAA lost bachelor’s degrees in sociology, environment and society, hospitality administration, and theater. No new students were admitted after that point, so the class of 2023 is the last to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in theater.

UAA Associate Professor Dan Anteau conducts a training workshop on theatrical lighting at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts’ Atwood Concert Hall.

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That class is one person, Cade Harris. By designing the sound effects and acting in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Harris earns his final credits. He’s been acting since he was 6. “It’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve given my whole life to this passion,” he says.

His stage manager, Daquis, continues her pre-show lighting checklist with one more call: “We are dark.”

A Walking Shadow

The regents’ decision was a consequence of the state fiscal crisis. “It was a bunch of bad news all at once,” says associate professor Dan Anteau. “We learned we were losing the program, and then we fell into a pandemic.”

Once the degree was eliminated, Anteau explains, there was no need for a department. The dance program is also ending upon the retirement of the last instructor. Anteau might end up attached to the music department, but for now he works under the dean’s office.

Cook, with no department to lead, heads to Colorado with no prospects at this time. “The grieving process has been long and constant,” he says. “Every time a group of students graduates, you know that no new ones are coming in to replace them.”

The last senior, Harris, hesitated to continue his studies. “It took a massive toll on my mentality when news of the program first broke out,” he says, but he remained committed.

His castmate in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Robin Bidwell, had no choice. “The year I decided to become an actor was the year it was cut, which was very heartbreaking,” Bidwell says. Instead of starting at UAA last fall as a theater major, Bidwell is getting a two-year associate degree before transferring out of state. Bidwell was able to take Cook’s acting class, building on experience from performing with groups like TBA Theatre.

The artistic director of TBA, Shane Mitchell, protested the UAA program cuts. “Right up until now, I had hoped that there was going to be a letter of reprieve, and it just didn’t happen,” he says. “I find it surprising to have a liberal arts college without a theater department. It doesn’t seem logical.”

Regents had to balance multiple considerations, in addition to feedback from the arts community. “Certainly, we did give input,” says Codie Costello, president of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts (PAC). “No one ever wants to see things like that go away. I don’t envy being in those shoes at all.”

The end of collegiate theater in Anchorage coincides with the end of the Anchorage School District’s premier drama department. Dave Block finally retired after running the West High theater program for almost twenty years. Schools still put on plays, but drama classes are ending. Block notes that the district’s focus on core curriculum around 2015 resulted in many electives being cut.

Theater kids will have to be dramatic on their own time.

The lighting grid above the Atwood Concert Hall, the domain of theater electricians.

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Vaulting Ambition

UAA theater was cursed from the start. The Mainstage Theatre provoked supernatural wrath by choosing Shakespeare’s Macbeth as its inaugural play when the Fine Arts Building opened in 1986.

“I was part of a lighting crew and got injured,” Mitchell recalls. “A safety cable, of all things, touched an exposed socket and sent me to the hospital.” Others on that show suffered freak accidents, too.

“It was a very different landscape in the year that I joined,” says Mitchell. “The theater department had graduated no one, so I got to be there at ground zero when the very first UAA theater diplomas were issued.” His brother Wayne and wife, Erin, are among the alumni.

Anteau came through the program in the ‘90s. He then became an adjunct instructor and a tenure-track professor. “In our heyday, we used to do four full theater shows, two full dance shows, and each semester we would do directing scenes and a small-scale dance. We were doing, like, eleven shows at one point,” Anteau recalls. He laments that UAA was too busy to lend students to other local theater companies.

Graduates, though, found plenty of work. “There was a time when there was no theater company in Anchorage, or even Alaska, that did not have some UAA Theater Department graduate on their staff,” Mitchell says. “There was just such a passion and the vibrancy to keep that talent base here.”

The PAC, IATSE Local 918, and what’s left of the UAA theater program collaborated on a training workshop in February, introducing trainees to the task of focusing stage lights.

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Mitchell retains a theater job as manager of UAA’s Wendy Williamson Auditorium. That stage was where he performed Much Ado About Nothing as his first college show in 1982. He and his brother, as lead technician, are responsible for filling the space with concerts, pageants, lectures, and plays from outside companies, including TBA Theater.

At the other end of campus, with the Mainstage Theatre now devoid of its resident company, Anteau must fill it with other users. “I’m excited about the different ways we can bring people into this building,” Anteau says. Perseverance Theatre Company mounted two shows this past season, and independent producers are interested, as well.

Toil and Trouble

One of Anchorage’s independent companies is Midnight Sun Theatre, where Block is artistic director and sole proprietor. Block himself trained at Alaska Pacific University, but he says he built his own theater major by taking classes at neighboring UAA.

As a student then and as a producer now, UAA was indispensable. Block says, “We were very reliant on that program to provide us with trained professional-grade (or at least seeking to be professional-grade) theater people. And now it’s gone.”

Dean Brady, a freelance lighting designer, is booked for jobs a year in advance. “I just got asked by ATY [Anchorage Theater of Youth] for their February/March show next year, which I had to turn down because I’m already doing two other things during February,” says Brady.

As a full-time dispatcher at GCI, Brady can do stage lighting as a hobby. “I’m at the point now where I’d almost rather have one or two more designers [in town] so I can pick and choose. I sometimes feel like I’m rushed into things,” he says.

The thin supply of technicians is compounded by inordinate demand for their skills. “Anchorage is blessed with having, per capita, one of the highest levels of theatrical groups that I’ve seen,” says Block.

Now the PAC is returning to presenting, too, with its Broadway Alaska series in partnership with The Nederlander Organization. When Hamilton comes to town in August, the local crew to load, assemble, and operate the scenery and equipment could total more than 100 stagehands.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 918, the Anchorage union that dispatches stagehands to the PAC, has about thirty members working regularly.

Griffin Strongheart, vice president of Local 918, hopes to grow the roster. That might involve IATSE unionizing technicians at other concert and event venues, and it definitely involves training more new recruits.

The Patient Must Minister to Himself

Hiring is difficult in every industry, and theater companies have always struggled. But now, Block says, “Things are desperate when it comes to formally trained theater technicians, specifically stage managers, scenic designers, and costumers.”

Block’s response is to teach workshops in stage management through Anchorage Community Theatre. He also set up a storefront studio within walking distance of West High.

At Cyrano’s Theatre Company, artistic director Teresa Pond has been bringing outside designers to support local talent. “I’ve worked actively in my job at Cyrano’s to cultivate designers,” she says. “We’re all finding creative ways to try to see this through.”

IATSE Local 918 has no apprenticeships, and the union’s skill certifications are for the PAC only, not generalized to other venues. “We just don’t have the workforce yet or the training,” Strongheart says, “so we are coming up on a unique opportunity to add training to the IATSE program.”

That opportunity is thanks to the international union’s training trust, flush with pandemic relief money. It would reimburse workers who take a training course through UAA.

But didn’t UAA just end its theater courses?

Kristinne Daquis learns about the optics of lighting instruments during a training workshop at the Atwood Concert Hall.

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“The fact that one of us is retained is a crack, a toe in the door,” says Anteau. The last man standing has spent the winter and spring designing a replacement for the bachelor’s degree. Instead, it would be an occupational endorsement certificate (OEC).

UAA offers more than forty OECs in skills such as bookkeeping, construction, culinary arts, entrepreneurship, graphic design, hospitality, phlebotomy, and welding. They involve three to six classes and can be completed in a semester or two.

“I’ve found some joy in building this new program,” Anteau says.

In addition, theater courses are still active in the catalog, so adjunct instructors could be hired to teach classes such as dance appreciation or introduction to theater. Anteau says another option is directed study, which might enable him to train stage managers.

An open question, though, is what plays those students would manage without the department mounting shows. “You can’t do tech theater without actors,” Anteau says. “There’s a symbiotic relationship that happens between both. The OEC program is going to depend on originating art as opposed to just facilitating art.”

Assuming the OEC is approved, classes could begin in the fall. Unfortunately, that’s too late to muster technicians for Hamilton in August. So Anteau, IATSE, and the PAC have been getting a head start.

The Room Where It Happens

Wearing all black, Daquis dressed as a stagehand when she showed up at the PAC’s Atwood Concert Hall. She’s operated spotlights in the building before, but in February she was there to learn.

Daquis was one of fourteen trainees at a two-day, eight-hour workshop sponsored by the PAC, taught by Anteau, leading to a facility certification by IATSE (provided the trainees return on their own time for a final exam). More than entry-level, the class covered terminology such as Fresnels, ellipsoidals, and 2P&G

“We just don’t have the workforce yet or the training, so we are coming up on a unique opportunity to add training to the IATSE program.”

—Griffin Strongheart, Vice President, IATSE Local 918

The PAC’s production manager, Stephen Crawford, assisted Anteau by clarifying the building’s quirks. Crawford’s first tech job was building sets for South Pacific at Bartlett High after a cute classmate invited him to join the drama club. “So I essentially took over Bartlett High School’s little theater and ran every event in there,” Crawford recalls.

Crawford went to UAF for an electrical engineering major and theater minor, but he didn’t complete a degree. Instead, he found freelance work as a rigger and decorator at concerts. “That’s also why I became a broad-spectrum technician: if there was an opening on the prop crew, I could take it,” he says.

Finding professional talent is hard these days, Crawford says with a sigh. He adds, “That is why I’m really happy to see a bunch of people at classes; for years, we would offer classes, and no one would show up.”

His boss at the PAC, Costello, says she has dreamed of a partnership with the university. “To see us becoming an extended classroom for the university and being able to partner back and forth is exactly what I believe community should be all about,” she says.

At the workshop, Anteau explained the tungsten cycle, a feature of halogen lamps. “If you were taking my class, we’d get all into it,” he told the trainees.

The class is gone, but that hasn’t stopped trainees from learning. Passing lamps around, Anteau told them, “The more you can put your hands on ‘em, push the shutters in and pull ‘em out—that’s why we’re here. We’re gonna be better technicians because of it.”

Robin Bidwell missed a chance to attend UAA as a theater major but still played a role in the program’s final production, Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

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Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

In his office at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, Mitchell wears a TBA Theatre sweatshirt. The nonprofit’s mission is “training better artists toward a better Alaska.”

With college theater gone and high school drama scaled back, TBA is shouldering a greater burden, whether through youth summer camps or on-the-job experience during the company’s production season.

“The thing that endures is our arts and our artists,” Mitchell says. “And if we were wise, we would invest in them because it is how future generations will remember us.”

That investment pays dividends, according to the Anchorage Arts Alliance. The ad-hoc group formed during the COVID-19 lockdown as performing arts companies united for mutual support.

Things are desperate when it comes to formally trained theater technicians, specifically stage managers, scenic designers, and costumers.

—Dave Block, Artistic Director, Midnight Sun Theatre Company

Pond points to research the alliance compiled which found more than 11,000 Alaskans employed in arts and culture, comparable to the mining industry. The sector contributes about $1.3 billion annually, or 2.6 percent of Alaska’s total economy. In Anchorage, arts patrons generate $9.2 million in economic activity for local businesses. Furthermore, the arts foster creativity, a trait that nearly all businesses prize in job applicants.

“It’s not just about whether you train new Hollywood actors someday; that’s a small way of thinking about it. It’s what the arts does throughout all sectors of a community,” Pond says.

Costello agrees. “It’s been really great to see that group [Anchorage Arts Alliance] engaging and bringing a heightened awareness to our industry and the economic impact that we really do have on our community,” she says. “What we do definitely improves quality of life, and there’s a lot of value in the arts in and of itself.”

Facilitating training opportunities is one function of the Anchorage Arts Alliance. The group is also working to revive a local arts council, which many municipalities possess but Anchorage lacks. It may also serve as a voice to advocate for theater as an industry, next time the UA System retools its academic offerings.

Of seasons to come, Mitchell invokes Cicero: “Where there’s life, there’s hope that these few remaining shadows of the theater department can be the embers that are fanned into flame.”

As they say in the theater business, the show must go on.

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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