By: Sophie Smekens
The Hartt School will be adding two new degree programs in the fall, Technical Theatre and Stage Management. I sat down with the acting chair of these programs, David Bell, to learn more about their offerings and how they plan to work with the University as a whole.
Bell, who has years of experience in backstage support, both professionally and academically, developed the programs in coordination with Debbie Markowitz, the Hartt School’s production stage manager.
“At the end of the day the goal is to train lighting technicians, sound technicians, wardrobe and costume staffing, scenery construction–to actually participate in the creation of backstage support. We have a professional staff that are prepared to teach. We have all the resources from professional shops to create the educational environment.”
Though there is only one student planning to major in stage management in the fall of 2021 and no students majoring in technical theatre, Bell has high hopes for the future of these programs. He attributes this slow start in enrollment to the recruitment timeline. Bell and Markowitz hit the ground running two years ago, but getting curriculum approval from the University and the National Association of Schools of Theatre took up most of that time. Bell says he is “optimistic about the next year as we look to expand our recruiting to local high schools to try and find those students who are looking for an opportunity to perform backstage in the theatre.”
With the addition of these BFA programs, there are also more theatre classes that can be taken by general university students. An interview would be required to qualify for the course, but Bell plans to include non-Hartt students in backstage production work and classes focused on theatre elements like stagecraft and costuming. Bell foresees future collaboration with the Hartford Art School in this way, both by students participating in theatre courses and Hartford Art School professors teaching the technical theatre and stage management students skills like drawing and sketching.
Orin Wolf, a Hartt alum who recently produced the Tony Award winning Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” has been an important collaborator with Bell and Markowitz, working to create professional opportunities for students and give them a path to employment post-graduation. “Whether they chose to go on to a Master’s program or they chose to go into the world and work directly, they’ll be prepared,” Bell says. “They’ll have had multiple production experiences in every facet of theatrical production and specialized in the one of their interest.”
A large part of the backstage experience for these students will be working as technical support on Hartt’s music, dance, and theatre productions throughout the year. One of the theatre spaces at the Handel Performing Arts Center, the McCray Theater, is being adjusted to serve as a lab space for future technical and performance students. Though this decision was made as a result of necessary “reshuffling” in staffing due to financial restrictions post-COVID, Bell is excited about the future of the McCray Theatre. “The long term goal is to create a lab space that the technical theatre students and stage management students and the performance students can all use as a lab space and support their own productions.”
But it seems some of the performance students don’t share in this excitement. Before the pandemic, the McCray Theater was home to Theatre and Dance Department productions with professional technical support. In making this pivot to a more student-run space, some students fear that until more technical theatre and stage management students are enrolled, creative use of lighting, sound, and other technical elements might be more difficult to employ. According to Bell, the space would be set up so that “the production support doesn’t have to be changed,” with a “repertory light plot that has four or five cues in it.”
In his 27 years at the Hartt School, Bell has seen the school grow from producing four shows a year to nearly 35 productions a year. “Now we’re having to step back a little bit, but what we’re trying to do is not reduce the creativity in any of the venues, but try to more appropriately balance them as we regain our footing.”