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'The show can't go on': A behind-the-scenes look at student theater tech

Behind the glamour of glittering stage lights, intricate set pieces and finely woven costumes, are a number of creators, fundamental in bringing theater productions to life.

Actors and directors are in charge of the presentation of a show, while producers organize and structure the production process. But without theater tech developing light, sound, costumes and props, there would be no final product to present or produce. 

Illuminating the stage

Parker Jenkins, a junior majoring in dramatic art and psychology, is the lighting designer for Company Carolina's production of "Sweet Charity" and Kenan Theatre Company's one-act show, "This was Fun." 

Jenkins started as an actor at UNC. However, during his time as a lighting assistant with PlayMakers Repertory Company, he said he was exposed to the beautiful world of light design. 

"I hung the lights for their shows," Jenkins said. "I worked with the light pods. I was the board of operations for a lot of our tech rehearsals. So I worked really closely with lighting instruments and different types of lighting."

Blending his love of lighting with psychology, Jenkins said light has the power to change an audience member's thematic and tonal perceptions of a show. 

"The small details, like warm colors and cool colors, adding gobos or color gels to make different shapes with the lighting, dramatic shifts versus gradual changes — all of those techniques change the way an audience perceives what's happening," Jenkins said. "Even simple things like having a really dramatic shift in lighting shows something urgent versus a gradual change which is slow and more peaceful."

Fellow light designer and UNC senior Kezia Holder-Cozart said light design becomes even more pivotal to theme and tone in conjunction with sound and the creative intuition of actors. 

"When I did lighting design last year, I was really good at lighting, and our sound designer was great at sound," Holder-Cozart said. "And together with both of our ideas — taking into consideration the rhythms and the beats in his sounds — really helped push and drive my creativity in terms of how I wanted the lights to impact the show and also mesh with the sound."

As an actor, before her involvement in tech, Holder-Cozart said she didn't think lighting technicians did much. 

"But, being an actual lighting designer and working alongside sound designers and set designers, you kind of see that without each and every one of those aspects the show can't go on," she said. 

Setting the scene

This fall semester Jenkins is also the scenic designer for the UNC Pauper Players' production of “Gypsy.”

Jenkins said the limited resources and budget provided by Pauper Players' production forces him to come up with numerous creative methods of prop repurposing.

"I've repurposed a lot of trunks or crates," Jenkins said. "I'm taking old lights to set the mood, to set the scene. I'm trying to construct sets from materials that aren't very expensive." 

Jenkins said scenic work, as well as light, sound and costuming, takes patience and flexibility. 

"You have to be fast and think on your feet to be able to compensate for issues that you run into as a student designer," he said.

Making Costumes

Nitara Kittles, a sophomore majoring in studio art, is the in-house costume designer for Company Carolina. 

"My job as in-house costumer is to either costume every show myself or find someone to costume if the directors or producers can't find one," Kittles said.

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Kittles said her ultimate goal as a costume designer is to help the actors get into their characters. 

"It's good to develop with directors and actors to see what clothing a character would wear," she said.

Kittles said communication between designers, actors and directors is critical.

"Even if you're the only costume designer, you're still working in this big group and it's so important to be OK with collaborating and letting go of some of your ideas," she said. "Maybe people think that if you're backstage, you don't have to have amazing social skills or anything because you're in the shadows, but you definitely do. You have to be able to communicate with the actors and everyone else. Your ideas aren't going to come through if you can't explain them."

The final product

Jenkins, Holder-Cozart and Kittles agree that each aspect of production is pivotal to the final product. But, these three creatives find their roles as theater techs and designers to be under-appreciated.

"I think people just expect these things to happen, and they don't really think about the fact that actual people have to do those jobs," Holder-Cozart said.

Jenkins said whether an individual is a backstage worker, technician or designer they put in just as many hours as an actor — sometimes extra hours outside of rehearsal. Theater technicians hope for recognition of their efforts, Jenkins said. 

"I think as a whole there's a lack of respect for designers and technicians," Jenkins said. "Not because they don't respect the work they're doing but because people don't really realize the amount of work it takes to get to the final product that you see on show weekend."

arts@dailytarheel.com