Female student sitting backstage with her back to the camera and stage lights flooding past her

Backstage Pass

From costumes to lighting, students learn craft of theater production

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As a theater major, Dan Frank said he has learned problem-solving skills and improved his communication and leadership styles by being involved in productions like “Wonderful Town” and “The Tempest.”

But audiences at Grand Valley productions aren’t likely to see Frank on stage; he and many other students work backstage performing critical tasks before, during and after the show to ensure theater patrons enjoy their experience.

Students adjust the costume of a performer backstage

It’s “theater magic,” according to Chris Mahlmann, technical director for the Louis Armstrong Theatre.

“There are almost as many, if not more, students involved in the technical side of theater as there are actors on stage,” Mahlmann said.

With tasks like building sets, learning to design lighting and sound for a show, creating and sewing costumes, or serving as stage manager, students who are majoring in theater learn an array of behind-the-scenes jobs.

Kieran Blair hanging a dress on a hanger backstage

A 2017 expansion of the Thomas J. and Marcia J. Haas Center for Performing Arts created more space to create and store costumes.

Cristina Piecuch sewing a garment

Cristina Piecuch sews a costume.

The interdisciplinary approach helps graduates market themselves to theater companies, Mahlmann said.

“I always tell students to get as broad of a theater experience as they can, to learn a bunch of different skills. If someday you’re mopping the floors of a theater and the lead actor and understudy can’t make a performance, tell them you can step in,” he said.

A variety of costumes hanging on a rack
A male student mops the stage

Dan Frank mops the floor of the theater.

Like many stage actors, Frank said his dream would be to work in New York City.

“I always say my long-term goal is to do lighting design for a Broadway show but short term I would like to do work with more local or educational theaters,” he said.

A student works on lighting the stage on a lift

Stage crew jobs are not only for theater geeks. Lyndsie Calhoun is majoring in psychology and behavioral neuroscience and has been a student worker for the theater department since 2016.

“I have learned a lot from the job, ranging from basic carpentry to time management skills. We have specific deadlines to have our set pieces completed and that requires us to plan ahead,” Calhoun said. “There is definitely a sense of accomplishment that accompanies this job; I appreciate what I’ve learned and am proud of the projects I was able to build by myself.”

Jessi McKim works on clamping two pieces of wood together in the woodshop

Set designs will typically arrive six weeks before a show and students play a key role in designing and building props and sets. Here, Jessi McKim works on clamping two pieces of wood together in the woodshop.

A student works in the sound and light booth with a headset on

The Linn Maxwell Black Box Theatre gives students opportunities to plan sound and lighting in a small venue, but equipment is similar to that used in the Louie Armstrong Theatre.

Jessica Mitchel works in the sound and light booth and adjusts her headset

Jessica Mitchel works in the sound and light booth and adjusts her headset.

A student adjusts the costume of another student backstage

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