!nsp!re – 2013 Cal State Thespian Festival

Over the weekend of March 22-24, I had the pleasure of being involved in my fourth year of the California State Thespian Festival. This annual event, held for the last two years on the campus of Upland High School in Upland, CA, gathers high-school thespians from around the state for a weekend jam-packed with activities.

For student performers, there are Individual Events in a number of categories (monologue, duet acting scene, etc) as well as workshops taught by pros working in the business, allowing students an opportunity to hone their craft and get some insight to working in entertainment as a career. There are three All-Festival shows, where exemplary scenes from thespian troops around around the state are performed (dance, scenes, musicals, etc). And then there is the All-State show, where students work on a two-act presentation, under the mentorship of seasoned directors and choreographers; building a show in 2 days (from audition to rehearsal to tech to show), then performing it.

For student technicians, there are Individual Events in design, where techs can present their portfolios. Tech Challenge is a competition event where technicians try to best each others time in various competitions based on common practices in props, sound, costumes, and lighting. Student technicians run most of the three All-Festival performances. Interviews are conducted also for tech positions on the All-State show, which is completely run by student techs. This year there were a total of 9 students selected for the lighting crew (out of 38 interviewees): a student designer for each act and separate student followspot operators for the all-state acts and festival performances. These students go to rehearsals, meet with the directors and their student stage managers, and then run their shows. The design students each have a few hours after the rehearsal to design their act, utilizing a very well-equipped rig at the Highlander Auditorium. They each then sit with a programmer for 1.5 hours to get their show programmed. The following morning, the cast and crew get an hour and 15 minutes to tech and run their act. It is a challenging weekend, and is intended to give tech students a taste of what pulling off a real event is like, in an environment that is forgiving of their potential mistakes.

The tech students also attend workshops. Over the past few months I’ve been developing two new workshops and presented them both on Saturday. As each of these workshops is only 1.5 hours long, so the time to truly teach anything in depth doesn’t really exist. For the past few years, I’ve chosen instead to provide overviews for certain aspects of lighting, ask and answer questions, and inspire students to learn more after they return to school.

The first, “Introduction to Lighting Design”, is not exactly what you’d expect from the title (so I’m considering a new title the next time I do this one). This, however, is not an introduction to the nuts and bolts. We don’t cover how to draft a plot, for example. It’s more about the life of a lighting designer and what to expect from a design career, as well as all the places that you can work with an education in lighting design; hoping to get students to see outside the four walls of theatre.

The second is called “Everything Is Designed – Creativity and Collaboration in Entertainment Design”. Taking off from a recently published study about the important skills that art students learn and a recent survey of global CEO’s detailing the qualities they’re seeking most, this workshop discusses how to stoke your creative side. It then touches on the importance of collaboration and offers tips on how to be a good collaborator. It finishes up by providing an overview of all the areas of employment that are open to creatives who have a background in any aspect of entertainment design.

You never really know how new workshops are going to flow until you do them a few times so I’m making some tweaks but overall, I’m really happy with the base ideas and the students seemed to take away more knowledge and inspiration, which is the point after all!

This year, we also resurrected a tech talkback, where future techs and designers can ask questions of an assembled panel of industry veterans. We got a lot of great questions from future theater practicioners.

I saw lots of little light bulbs turning on this past weekend as students learned, made connections, and discovered new things about themselves and their art. Already looking forward to next year!