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Theatrical Snobbery’s Impact on Aspiring Technically-Minded Live Entertainment Students

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Theatrical Snobbery’s Impact on Aspiring Technically-Minded Live Entertainment Students

I’m John Huntington, Professor of Entertainment Technology, sound engineer, and author of the book Show Networks and Control Systems. This site covers entertainment technology, severe weather, photography, and anything else that I find interesting.

Snob: a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people (Google)

As a fan, I am passionate and opinionated about the kinds of art that I like, and live shows without a fourth wall (as I wrote recently) are my favorite form of all. But I try hard not to look down on other art or performance that doesn’t connect with me; if someone likes it, and the artist is connecting with an audience, that’s great. I firmly believe, as the great Penn & Teller put it, there is only one “show business”, and that incorporates everything from the side show performer at the state fair to the opera star; from the Broadway actor to the singer toiling in the rock club; from the ballet performer to the birthday party magician; and from the orchestra musician to the acrobatic “showtime” kid about to kick you in the face on the subway.

And working backstage professionally in the live entertainment technology industry for a few decades now, I feel the same way about my work. To me, a wrestling show, concert, superhero stunt show, corporate event, or an ice show are all part of the same show business as a Shakespeare play: they all use live performance to tell a story. Some stories are told purely for the purposes of art; some are for commerce, some are to get some message across, and many are something in between. And for technically-minded people like myself, theatrical, non-theatre shows are often the most interesting and challenging.

However, while a few schools (like mine, City Tech) have developed to address the backstage needs of the broader live performance market, the majority of the training and educational infrastructure for live entertainment (in the US, anyway) is centered on traditional theatre and is actor focused, and sometimes exploits the “techies” (a term I always took as a derisive insult). A theatre conservatory can be a very effective training ground for actors, and in a pure numbers game, you could make an argument that there are many more actors in these programs than those interested in working backstage, and so the actors’ needs come first (even though only a tiny percentage of actors will succeed professionally). When I went to theatre school in the 80’s (BFA and MFA), this situation was justified; concert touring had only started getting big in the previous decade or so; the world of large, spectacular corporate and special events was just getting started; and Cirque du Soleil was still a small local troupe in Quebec. But in the 21st century, where “legitimate” theatre is only a small part of the overall live entertainment market, it’s a very different world.


I think some of the rejection of non-theatre theatrical forms in theatre schools is based on tradition and inertia, but it seems to me that also at the core—for some—is plain, old-fashioned snobbery. Of course, anyone is welcome to be as snobby as they like in their personal art preferences, but, if they carry that attitude into career advice—actively advising young people away from areas in which they could be fulfilled, have an interesting, challenging career and make a living—they are doing their advisees a disservice.

And I have argued for decades now that not offering adequate technical opportunities and support shortchanges not only the technically-minded students but the overall creative process. As I wrote in an award-winning article in 2002, “Whatever you may think of the cultural impact of these new forms of entertainment, the audience is voting with its dollars, and the language of live-performance storytelling is now evolving fastest outside the theatre world.” This seems even more true to me today.

I’m updating that 2002 article now as part of my sabbatical, and I was wondering if my idea of snobbery was a long-dead straw man from my decades-ago college and grad school experiences. So I did a bit of poking around, asked some questions on the Control Booth forum and on Facebook, and got an earful. Sadly, it seems that snobbery against “spectacle” or “entertainment” is still alive and well.

One friend from college who makes his living in the events world reported that he still experiences, “daily derision, all the time. Many theatrical lighting designers use the same shops, and when we run into each other, I hear it. ‘Oh? Working on a show for Dell Computer? How boring’.” Another Facebook friend reported that in a recent staff meeting at a school they were talking about the Entertainment Industry and a professor interjected to say “It’s not entertainment, it’s theatre!” A grad school classmate reported, “I was asked by an old college friend/classmate if I thought I’d wasted my education by working as a Local One stagehand. He’s a TD at a top tech theater program. I just asked him how much he makes per year.”

A poster on the Control Booth forum reported that the snobbery “is not just against spectacle, it’s a general contempt for that which falls outside of the traditional art form of production design for theater. When I told my academic adviser in my BFA program that I wanted to get into systems design and theater consulting, he encouraged me to drop out and find a community tech school somewhere to study at. I had to switch to a different adviser who was more interested in related fields like design and installation.”  This person went onto a career working in entertainment as a consulting engineer, and said that “I’m sure in the eyes of my first professor, I may have a healthy career, a reliable paycheck, and a 401k, but I didn’t slave for my art and sacrifice like he did using the barest set of tools available and therefore my work is a disappointment to him in comparison to other graduates… It’s the fundamental difference between “theatre with an -re” and “theater.”

Another poster on the forum reported, “I argued this point once in my BFA program. I wanted to go work at the roadhouse on campus not attached to the theatre dept for a bus and truck that was coming in. Load in was during the day and I’d miss some shop time or something. I was told ‘you don’t need to learn how to do that, our goal is to teach you so you don’t have to do that kinda thing’. When I pointed out that our program had produced 10+ full time working technicians and zero full designers in the last five years I was told that was no reflection on the program. Jump forward two years I skipped out on a day of class unapproved to go do an in/show/out for 20+ truck arena show. For those hours I missed the dept. TD decided to fail me for shop that semester… once again citing ‘you don’t need to learn that stuff. Now I run a two venue roadhouse producing 200-250 events a year full time, with state benefits, and easily make twice what the professors at my college make…. plus have more design work then I can handle on the side. We all can’t be designers. Many ‘professional’ designers I know also have a teaching gig in order to make ends meet. A lot of my friends who did go grab their MFA are already back teaching…. some never even ventured out into the real world. It’s one of the reasons that the way ‘college theatre’ is produced happens.”

And this has been going on for a while. One graduate from my school, who left a conservatory program to attend our program and has been working successfully in our field as a Local 1 stagehand for some years, reported that the university he left, “would talk down about becoming a stagehand from the first informational session you attended at the school, like stagehands were lesser people. Meanwhile, few of my classmates from there are actually working in the design/SM/PM/TD roles that the program insisted they were training for. A good percentage are completely out of the business. Another sizable percentage are doing stagehand work, many as Local One members. The percentage that is actually doing design/SM/PM/TD work seems smaller than the percentage doing stagehand work, and the percentage doing it at the highest levels (ie Broadway) is a fraction of that. To this day, I am convinced that my decision to do concert touring the summer after my freshman year was the reason I was pushed out of that program. I’d had a glowing review to end the spring semester, only to receive a letter in the middle of the summer that I was being placed on ‘warning’ for some BS reason or other. From there, it was a slippery slope where I constantly felt set up to fail. That same program later would attempt to kick out a student before their senior year because they had declared an interest in becoming a lighting director instead of a lighting designer. They were only allowed to stay after the head of the lighting program came to their defense, and that was only because that particular professor did most of their professional work as a lighting director. The rest of the faculty was ready to show that student the door because they no longer fit their mold.”  

In my own school a few years ago we had a (fortunately now retired) theatre PhD from another department take one of our best students aside and tell her that she was wasting her talents, and should find another area of study because she was heading to a life of “setting up lights in parking lots” (the student went onto be a successful member of Local 1). And just yesterday, one of my current students told me about her high school drama teacher deriding her desire to work on live shows for Disney, since that wasn’t “art”.

Advice for Snobs Giving Advice

Of course, if someone you are giving advice to loves the theatre with an unending passion, wants to/needs to/has to be a theatre artist, and understands the challenges ahead, then by all means encourage them. But if you’re a theatre snob, then please open your mind at least to the professional opportunities available for technically-minded students, and don’t discourage those who want to follow that path. And maybe you should consider broadening your horizons. Go see one of these shows you think are trash—you just might find some interesting, beautiful art that belies your expectations.

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