Published August 2022
I have always loved the story of the Lorax, his famous quote being “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” As a Scenic Designer, Technical Directors (TDs) are some of my favorite people, so I write this article because the TDs are so busy! I’m interested in exploring different sustainability topics within theatre, and the stress that TDs carry hasn’t been and isn’t sustainable. As a Scenic Designer I work closely with TDs. I also worked in Human Resources for 7 years in theaters, so I have personally seen the impact of burnout on TDs from multiple angles in the industry. As a designer, it is uncomfortable to come into a theatre where you can tell the TD is overworked and burned out. So why does this keep happening? I said it in a previous article, but as an artform that celebrates the human condition, why is theatre so notorious for taking advantage of people and causing burnout? According to Production On Deck, a consulting company that seeks to expand the traditional idea of the talent pipeline and increase pathways for marginalized communities to access jobs in theatrical production, approximately 30% of technical theater professionals are leaving or are contemplating leaving the industry. You can read their full research survey here. Many theaters are struggling with staffing at multiple levels within an organization.
While 30% is a noticeable national number on its own, I wanted to dig deeper into the nuances around Technical Direction. Why am I so curious about TDs? Gaea Dill-D’AScoli summed up why TDs frequently experience burnout, “We put so much pressure on TDs to be the first step in the process. If that step goes badly, everything is going to cascade.’’ John Houtler McCoy describes these cascading effects, saying, “Details get missed or overlooked, safety can be compromised, artistic quality suffers, costs increase, other staff gets overburdened causing their duties to be compromised. The TD is a linchpin in the production department. With a strong one, the wheel will keep turning as designed. Without one, the wheel won’t necessarily fall off, but is that risk really worth taking? What happens when someone isn’t there to keep the wheel spinning?’’
I chatted with a few local and regional TDs of varying sized organizations and asked them a few questions around stress and burnout with TDs.
Cory Skold – Lyric Arts
Gaea Dill-D’AScoli – Freelance TD
John Houtler McCoy – Milwaukee Rep
Madeline Achen – Theatre in the Round
Trevor Muller-Hegel – Retired Freelance TD
What contributes to TD stress and/or burnout?
Cory: I’m also fortunate to have the trust of my organization and I know that if I say something will be impossible to achieve in the shop we’ll find a different solution. I would say more stress stems from combining that work load with the added need to ensure communication between departments, be the first point of contact for designers we contract, and try and staff and plan for upcoming productions.
Gaea: A constant, crushing pressure that if you say no or are late on delivering something you are letting down everyone on the project. As the TD, you have to get your work done on time so that any other department can get their pieces in place. Any delay or hiccup on your end ripples through the whole production and screws over your colleagues. Better to just work all night rather than pass that burden down the line.
John: Long hours, bad pay when compared to the number of hours worked, inadequate time off that balances the time worked, the ever-increasing complexity of shows/spectacle, tight timelines because of designers getting more time, but the opening date doesn’t change. Not taking adequate time off for sickness or injury due to job responsibilities. Supply chain demands and skyrocketing material prices. Inadequate pay to attract and retain skilled employees. Poor benefits, especially health insurance.
Madeline: While freelancing, physical exertion, getting from job to job, long hours
Trevor: The most difficult thing for me was to pay for my own shop space and tools on top of living expenses which increased the need for gigs, but most of the gigs happened during the same timeframe, often requiring me to show up for meetings when I didn’t have time to finish the builds.
A TD can be a single person shop, or they can supervise a staff of people. How does the staffing structure of the Technical Direction Department contribute or lessen your stress and/or burnout?
Cory: I’m fortunate to have someone in the same position as me within the organization, which is not something I’ve really seen anywhere else working in the field. I’ve seen plenty of theatres with Assistant Technical Directors (ATD) and Production Managers (PM), but none that split the job evenly between two people. Not to say that other organizations don’t do it that way, just I haven’t worked with any others who do. My co TD/PM and I split our season evenly each taking on “lead” for alternating shows. This is helpful in a lot of ways, it ensures we’re not going from tech straight into crunch for another show, we always have someone to bounce an idea off of or proofread something we’re going to send or draft, and for larger scale things like season planning and hiring we can both be in the same room taking care of things in tandem and leapfrogging tasks that would take one person longer to accomplish.
Gaea: A good shop team is a thing of wonders. As a TD, if you have someone you can rely on to build without constant direction, everything goes more smoothly. Even when you are scratching your head over a weird technical problem, the set is still being created. That is huge. Having clear role distinctions between Production Manager (PM) and TD is also useful. I guess, clear roles or a tight working relationship. There can be a lot of crossover in duties between the two roles. Knowing that a problem is Yours or Not Yours is very helpful in managing stress.
John: When the system of a TD hierarchy works, it can greatly lessen the burden on everyone. TDs can actually rest and relax when leaving a production in a capable employee’s hands. But when that employee doesn’t perform to the level in which they’re expected or capable, then the system quickly crumbles.
Trevor: As a freelance TD, I couldn’t afford to bring on carpenters, so the planning, build, load-in, etc… all fell on me. Thankfully the designer would paint in most of these situations. If I had time, I would analyze the design and work with the designer to keep within a time and monetary budget, but that was only when I had the time to spare. Ultimately it was when I was provided a shop space that I was more effective/efficient. Especially if I had some form of assistance with the build/load-in.
Cory’s answer stood out to me as different with the two TD structure at Lyric Arts. When inquiring how Artistic Director at Lyric Arts Laura Tahja Johnson decided to move to a two TD structure, she gave the following statement:
With a production schedule as heavy as ours is, having two rotating TDs provides a division of physical and mental labor that we expect will help eliminate some of the stress inherent in the position and, hopefully, save them from “TD burnout” by lightening the load for each of them
It has been fantastic to double the highly skilled labor in our scene shop. This structure has also provided Beth and Cory with a teammate in what can be a solitary and lonely role. My hope was that having a partner to lighten the load would make the work more enjoyable for both of them
Having two TDs with complementary skills has expanded Lyric Arts’ capacity for creative problem-solving. This has helped Lyric Arts deliver more effective communication to directors and designers, increase scenic build efficiency, keep productions from going over budget, and, hopefully, created greater job satisfaction for two talented TDs.
This is only one example of systemic changes that helped alleviate the pressures of production schedules. Systematic changes are the hardest but have the biggest impact towards sustainable change. I asked the TDs their thoughts on what types of systemic change would help, and they expanded on a few more ideas.
What systemic changes need to happen to break the cycle of stress/burnout for TDs?
Cory: Conversations about how much time is expected for a given task and what it really takes are super important. I think ensuring that directors and producers and anyone really has an understanding of what they’re asking as well as the time and resources it takes to accomplish are big. Scope creep is a major problem in our industry so what may seem like a simple ask and a short time commitment can easily turn into a whole day or more of work and it can be hard in the moment to say “no I’m done, this isn’t the amount of time or energy we agreed this would be”
I also think education on burnout and that side of the job are extremely important I think there’s this kind of attitude that as long as you’re working in your field you’ve succeeded, but if it’s not sustainable and you’re not happy then what’s the point?
Gaea: Budgeting can’t be “write your budget, then increase it by 10-50% because you know it will get cut anyway”. Budgets need to be realistic and the folks allocating money need to take into consideration the expertise of their people. This is true of all department heads. We know what we need. Let us ask for it honestly and not have that constantly be cut/questioned. TD jobs need to clearly defined within a company. Different companies have different ideas of what a TD does, which is fine. But everyone within that organization needs to be clear what the role is.
John: Longer Design process to allow for a design to ‘fail’ the budget. So much energy gets expended into a design that just isn’t tenable. So instead of scrapping it, the TD and team exert an abnormal amount of energy to get it to be cost-effective, rather than scrap it and start over. This also allows for longer tech design and engineering. A build generally goes better when the entire project can be presented at once, rather than staying just a day ahead of the shop.
Madeline: I think establishing boundaries and expectations around how and when it is appropriate to contact people is really crucial. Just because you have my phone number, does not mean you should use it during off hours for non-emergencies.
Trevor: I often discussed using stock sizes so we could at least save some time, but often these components would still be tossed since few smaller companies have access to storage. In addition, most designers protest using stock sizes because it limits creative/unique shapes on stage.
These are just a few suggestions, and I know that the TDs I talked with have so many more ideas. If TDs felt heard and saw their suggestions being implemented, it would increase the likelihood of them staying in the industry. Even in the course of writing this article we lost another great TD in the fIeld. John Houtler McCoy left Milwaukee Rep and the industry because he was not confident in seeing the changes that needed to happen to make his job as a TD more sustainable. Taking advantage of passionate individuals isn’t a way to run a business. Theatres should strive to develop a business model that supports TDs, so they feel heard and can take pride in the influence their opinions have within an organization. Chances are, you know a TD, and you should ask them about the themes in this article, burnout, job responsibilities, and ideas for improvement.