SR: Hello Stephen! You're new at Swarthmore as of last year. Where are you coming from?
SW: Before this, I was in grad school at Temple, getting my MFA in Theater Design. And before that, I had pretty much the same job as I do now at Eastern University in Villanova, PA.
SR: What inspired your decision to go to grad school?
SW: Well, my undergraduate degree is in Theater Production- tech theater in general. After that, I found my way into making props and scenery, and that led to jobs building exhibits for museums and trade shows. So long story short, I spent enough time building other people's designs that I began wanting to design on my own. I started applying for and getting design jobs around Philadelphia. When I got the job at Eastern, they wanted me to teach a class on Stagecraft, and I found that I really enjoyed both of those things, designing and teaching, as well as building. And eventually, I just hit the point where I wanted to move forward with the things I enjoyed the most.
SR: How do you approach designing for theater? Is there a style that you gravitate towards?
SW: I would say it depends on the show. I do find that I always end up with some kind of metaphor- the whole set is a metaphor for some idea in the show. For example, the first show I designed at Temple was an opera, “The Elixir of Love”. The director came in with research images of piles of furniture, lots of antique furniture piled up. And being that I got my start in theater doing props and scenery, I thought, why not completely fill the set with vintage furniture and props? It was very familiar to me because I had spent so much time in prop shops and antique shops. And as I got more into it, the metaphor that I found was, a romantic heart just collects junk, because they can't get rid of anything. They just hold on to things, and it's all very well-loved piles of junk. Well worn, well-loved, that was the metaphor.
SR: Are you from this area originally?
SW: Originally I’m from a town called Sharon Hill, like a half an hour towards Philly from here. It wasn't necessarily my intent to stay in the area- it's just that when I went into this field, I was kind of spoiled for options. There's a huge theater community and industry in Philly, and then when I got into building stuff for museums, there are scenic shops all over between here and New York. This is kind of where that industry is located. I've gotten to do a ton of different kinds of jobs using my theater skill set. I even looked at doing cruise ships for a hot minute. That didn't pan out.
SR: There's still time. But you live in the Swarthmore area now, right?
SW: Yeah, actually I live a mile away from campus, which is super convenient. My wife and I moved here about four or five years ago, because the school district is just way better than where we were living before. We have three kids, so that’s a major factor for us.
And then when I graduated Temple, I started sending emails out to places, and this was one of them. I was just like, hey, this is my skill set- let me know if you have any need for my skills. And apparently, Scott, my predecessor, had just given notice.
SR: You’re the Production Manager and Technical Director at Swarthmore- can you talk a little about what that means?
SW: Sure. In general, a Production Manager’s job is about budgeting and scheduling, making sure each project has what it needs. In a smaller theater or a school, it often makes sense for schools or smaller theaters for the Technical Director and the Production Manager to be the same person, just because I'm the one spending most of the money anyway.
SR: And then in your role as Technical Director, do you build all the shows that we produce here?
SW: Yeah. I have help- there’s Kat Larson, our Production Assistant, who does great work. (Editors note: since this interview, Kat has moved on to take another job. Best of luck, Kat!) And then we've got student tech workers coming in as well, which is a huge help. It’s a job they can apply for and get paid for their hours. Something we’re working on is creating regular hours for our student workers. It’s always difficult for theater, because we need help during the week of the show for like 40 or 50 hours a week, and then after the show closes, all of a sudden it's slow. So what I've come up with is, there are set times during the week that are open shop hours. If you're available, stop in; I'm not requiring you to, but it's always helpful to have more hands. And then when there's something like a strike, or production, when we need someone to run a board, then I schedule those. That's been working well.
There’s definitely an opportunity for the students to learn a lot about tech theater if they apply for that job and stick around. What they learn will depend on the show- like, you know, The Physicists was a great opportunity to learn paint techniques, because that was a very paint-heavy show. The Wolves was a bit more rigging. So the work definitely varies.
SR: Let’s talk about the new class you're teaching in the Spring Semester next year, Introduction to Stagecraft.
SW: Yeah, it’s new to Swarthmore. I've taught different versions of it in other places. It’s just a general theater tech class- a basic overview of working in a scenic shop, so we’ll talk about how to work with materials like wood, plastic, and metal. We’ll talk about shop safety- in fact, we’ll start with safety. We’ll do building techniques, best practices, and a little bit of rigging. Then in the second part of class, we get into drafting; how to make ground plans, how to draw things to scale, and even a bit of computer drafting. There will be an introduction to electrics, meaning sound and lighting- more of the How To than the design side of it. Then when people take Lighting Design or Scene Design, they’ll already have a basic understanding of the tools and can focus more on design ideas.
My wife is an English teacher, and she always uses this phrase, “There's a switch between learning to read and reading to learn”. And what I'm hoping students can do in this class is learn to read, not read to learn. Once you know how to read, or in this case, how to use the basic tools of the trade, you can find out everything else you need to know.
SR: How hands-on will the class be?
SW: Very. I’d like to make sure students get a chance to actually try all these things. The class model has a lab component, so that time will be dedicated to just the hands-on stuff.
SR: For you as a teacher, what makes a successful class? What would you like to impart to your students more than anything else?
SW: Confidence. That's what I've found the most rewarding. I also teach Drafting and Design at Temple. So in the Fall semester, we focus on hand media, charcoal, colored pencils, and working by hand. And in the Spring we get into digital stuff. And in either case, you see this moment when all of a sudden, they're not afraid of it anymore. The biggest value I try to instill in the students is to not feel bad about what you don’t know. You’ve got to start somewhere. One of the things I love doing in class is just literally teaching them how to push like, three buttons on a light board and make a simple light cue. Then I'm like, congratulations- you’re doing lighting design. From here on out, it's just a matter of scale.
SR: What brings you to this work? Why is it important?
SW: If you look at a painting or a piece of music and it makes you feel something, that’s the first step. If you take it a step further and think, what was the artist feeling when they made this, that’s empathy. Theater, more than any other art form, dials our capacity for empathy up to 11. You're looking at a real person going through it on stage, and you can't help but feel for them. Watching and making theater stretches that empathy muscle, which is something we all need more of, especially given the last few years. I think it's important. And it means something to me to be a part of this art form that creates those very real feelings. Yes, I'm swinging a hammer. But it's ultimately serving a greater ideal.
You know, I mentioned I got into museums and trade shows. And it was good. But after a while, I was just kind of making boxes all day. And I wasn't able to articulate it at the time, but it didn’t feel right. And then after grad school, like, I had a few more corporate opportunities. But, you know, there wasn't much soul in them. And I realized what was missing.
SR: So it matters who you’re swinging the hammer for.
SW: Yeah. Absolutely it does.