Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Let's Talk About... Technical Theatre Training for Community Theatres

One of my goals for this blog was to create a forum where we could talk about our programs at Theatre Ontario.  We’re here to serve the needs of Ontario’s theatre artists, and this gives us a way to listen and to have those conversations.

I was thrilled when Karl Wagner of Ottawa offered a comment, unprompted, to a post about our Weekend Retreats.  (As an old post, the comment required moderating which is why I am moving the conversation here.  Discussions are best held in the open, but there are logistical reasons why our oldest posts have moderated comments.)

“I wish there were a weekend retreat for technical theatre (lighting, sound, special effects) for experienced people. There seems to be any number of "Introduction to..." offerings but very few opportunities in Ontario for people who are beyond the novice level to enhance their skills or get together and swap stories outside of the festival.

The only courses I have found are available through LDI (Broadway Master Classes series). There's quite a leap between community theatre and Broadway budgets. The Summer Intensive is great but tends to favour the actor/director rather than the theatre technician.”
For many years, Theatre Ontario has struggled with how to deliver “off stage” theatre training, especially beyond the introductory level.  Our acting and directing courses at our Summer Theatre Intensive are always popular, but when it comes to design, stage management, and administration courses, low enrolment meant we either had to run them at a loss to Theatre Ontario (which is not sustainable in the long term), or to cancel them.

The complaint that we receive when we offer these courses is about the cost.  There are three main reasons for that: Advanced technical theatre training requires highly skilled instructors; They also require well-equipped venues where the artists can play; If we are to fulfill our mandate to serve the full province of Ontario, weekend or week-long courses require some sort of residential component.  All of these reasons make technical theatre courses expensive to deliver.  Are there enough community theatre designers interested in making that kind of personal investment in their skills?

Thanks Karl for initiating this discussion.  Let’s keep it going in the comments.


  1. In a couple of the community theatres I work with (located in small towns), our technical problems are often the result of technical volunteers learning the lights or sound but not staying around long-term. We seem to get younger people (i.e. students) who are interested in learning, but within a couple of years they have then moved on to other communities (to pursue education or career opportunities)and their experience goes with them. There isn't likely a course that can deal with this issue, but there it is.

  2. In Eastern Ontario there is a lively community of dozens of community theatre groups. Lately Ottawa Little Theatre has taken leadership in workshops on sound, lighting, set design and more. Take a look at learning section at the OLT web site:

  3. Thanks everyone. We have the Anonymous option for convenience, but names and geography within your comment help.

  4. Agreed it much harder to keep trained Tech theatre types engaged - it tends to be easier for them to get paid work... Often we end up using folks with no experience that we then train on the equipment... But it is hard to keep them.

    We have a great facility but struggle to keep it running efficiently.

    Almost everyone wants to act or direct...

  5. Hi Brandon,

    I'm sure this is not the whole solution to the program or anything, but I thought your readers might be interested in the completely free SHOP program at Canadian Stage designed for young people aged 14 – 21 interested in learning more about the backstage aspects of theatre. I am facilitating the program this year

    The program explores the craft of design, stage management and production with professional artists. Participants in the program are given opportunities to shadow professionals as they work on Canadian Stage shows.

    The Shop! Program runs from January – May 2011. Tonight our students are participating in a double workshop on production and stage management.

  6. Brandon;
    With "OffStage" we found the same problem. We can offer the introductory workshops free but to do more in depth training we need the teacher, the space and more support. I am trying to put together a set design workshop using "Sketch-up" as the training tool but that is going to have a cost associated with it and I wonder how many will come out of the woodwork to take the course?
    I remember the days when I was learning lighting and we could get support from Theatre Ontario and now thoroughly appreciate how lucky I was.
    Maureen Thornton

  7. Is it feasible to contemplate a conference in Toronto with a variety of breakout sessions and a vendor area, similar to a typical trade show? Any given session might result in pretty cursory coverage given the time constraints, but the real value of most of these events is the opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals and getting exposed to new ideas. This is a link to a fairly inexpensive 1-day conference that models the idea. Clearly it takes a fair bit of effort to pull one of these things together and line up vendors and speakers.

    ... or what about borrowing LDI's model of attending a show then having follow-on presentations and panel discussions with some of the designers? Add in a few speakers from the talent bank and a couple of vendor presentations to fill out the weekend.

  8. Some terrific threads emerging here...

    Michael and OLT: Thanks for providing the information on the training opportunities. Coincidentally, we are prepping a listing for our website of youth training programs (and we hadn't heard from Canadian Stage yet...saves some follow-up!) Bringing training to the communities that need it is an idea that we continue to explore. The problem that arises out of that is that we lose our “economy of scale” for managing the costs. But that doesn’t mean we should rule it out.

    Maureen: Indeed, the Community Theatre Training Program was definitely one of our best programs, not just for the enrichment of amateur artists; but for helping to break down the barriers between professional and community theatre by bringing the two sectors together. (And the benefits of that for a different discussion.) Theatre Ontario has an ad hoc working group that continues to explore ways to rejuvenate the program. Progress has been slow; there isn’t a magic bullet solution. Yet. (I say optimistically.)

    Our first commenter: What’s interesting is that urban and suburban community theatres have a variation of the same “migration problem” that rural and small town community theatres face, because it’s easy for people to “go where the show is.” Which leads me to…

    DLT: That’s always the challenge of community theatre: “putting on a show” is what draws people to the organization. But there are people whom you couldn’t drag on stage, and there are amateur artists out there who find the same fulfillment designing lights (for example.) They’re harder to find, harder for a community theatre to cultivate, and (as was observed) harder to keep. I think there’s a bit of “chicken and egg” problem: to continue the example you need the forum of advanced lighting design training, where you move beyond the fundamentals to really explore the power of lighting to help tell the story, affect the mood, and so on. That’s where you have that deeply personal moment of “this is how I want to connect with the world through art.”

    Karl: Your suggestion does tie several of these threads together: let’s all get together and share ideas. The Theatre Ontario Festival is not a conference, but none of the elements you describe (speakers, break-out sessions, marketplace) are beyond the scope of what those five days could be. It’s an idea worthy of further exploration.

    Please feel free to keep the conversation going. We’ll be connecting with our enewsletter audience next week who are going to have opinions too.

  9. I remember at the SMArts conference last year they were talking about doing a special Community Theatre Stage Management Course in Ontario. I have no idea what came of that, but I know the conversations were being had.

  10. Having toured around ACTCO working with different groups I have found that being a techie is a novelty to most. The groups who do have designers tend to us the same ones until they have burnt out or cannot come up with a connection to the play.
    The question is why is it hard to attract new people to these positions.

    In Kanata at the Theatre Ontario Festival we talked with Chris Worsnop about what attracts people to theatre. We also discussed what groups feel they need. All four areas have different needs.

    Some have more actors then they know what to do with soem have the techs but can't get people on stage. Could there be a forum or break out room, for technical talks created over The Theatre Ontatio Festival?

  11. Hi Lois! That was actually one of our courses they were talking about. Winston Morgan and Janelle Rainville were going to teach it in Orillia over a weekend in May, but we didn't have enough registrations for it, and so it was cancelled.

    Hi Rob! It does sounds like there's some interest in continuing those types of conversations at Festivals. Burn out is something we don't talk enough about in community theatres. As you know, I'm a big advocate of emphasizing the social experience; people give their time for personal fulfillment, but they're also looking for a social outlet. De-mystifying the process is also important. And perhaps most important is creating an environment where new people feel it's okay to fail. High standards are important, but it can also make it very intimidating for new people.