Degrees of Production

by Chris Lose
in LD at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

Will a theater degree help you to avoid a hard knocks life?

As a proud recipient of a bachelor of fine arts in theater from University of Nevada Las Vegas, I often ask myself if all of the time, money and effort spent obtaining that piece of paper was worth the hardship. Has my ability to differentiate Half C.T. Blue from 708 Cool Lavender ever been a deciding factor in my employment? My education is listed on my résumé, but has an employer or client ever thought to confirm my accreditations?

For a long time, I knew the answer was clearly, NO. Not one single person had ever asked to see my degree, even though I carried a wallet sized laminate of my BFA in the back sleeve of my day planner. My knowledge of 6x9 ellipsoidal reflector spotlights did not impress a single person at Vari*Lite. However, Todd Mertzel, the general manager of VLPS in 2002 and my boss at the time, allowed me a rather flexible spot in the shop as a moving light technician for three years until I graduated from UNLV. He refused to put me on a road gig until I had a degree. It didn’t matter what field the degree was in, but I had to be able to prove that I could finish something I started. Those years in the shop were far more important than the actual credits I earned at university. Or were they?

I hear mixed reviews about the pros and cons of having a degree in our field from both sides of the fence. Some of the best in the business are valedictorians (cough) and high school flunkies alike. After some extensive but completely non-collegiate Facebook research, I have put together a bell curve of the degrees of production.

F Level = Jackasses and Douchebags

This level is reserved for the technicians who have zero regard for our craft. They show no initiative to achieve any higher than carpet layer. They have done no research into their field nor do they plan to do so. Their work ethic is that of a cheese log and would rather hide in the broom closet than attempt to run a FOH snake the proper direction. These are the guys that will leave their semi-functional C-wrench in their Chrysler Dynasty and then take 45 minutes to retrieve it 25 minutes into load in. This is the crew that is responsible for ninety percent of the pictures that we see on the Dodgy Technicians Facebook page.

D Level = Incompetent, Lazy and yet Cocky

These are the guys that only last a short while in our business. They could have lit a few church festivals or bar bands and then immediately think that they know everything. They could be fresh out of high school and can’t figure out why they aren’t running lights at Madison Square Garden a week later. Their cockiness far exceeds their competence. They have been to every festival that comes through their small town only to criticize the production and think; “I would have done that, like way better.” A common phrase that will identify these guys is “Nobody is hiring guys like me” or “There’s no work in this town.”

C Level = Strong Work Ethic

“The only thing that is necessary to excel in production is work ethic.” —Jordan Hoss, lighting designer for Reverend Horton Heat

Work ethic is the most important thing to making it in this business. The C Level crew is the first example of someone who will be able to tough it out for several years. These are the people who did high school theatre and really enjoyed it. They took that knowledge and expanded on it by volunteering at a summer rep theater. They ran spotlight for several summers and then decided to try their hand at stage manager. They probably have a second job as a fry cook or a lawyer. It’s hard to tell because they never discuss their other job. They like doing entertainment because it fills their soul and they want to discourse about their creativity whenever they are able. They might have even started an internship at a stagehand union, watched a few YouTube programming tutorials and possibly took some Junior College courses. This is a very respectable place to be in our world. Their strong work ethic will never let them quit and they will do great things because of that.

B Level = Strong Work Ethic and a Good Attitude

“Hard work and great attitude get you a long ways. Partying with the right people get you even further faster!!” —Thommy Hall, southeast region sales manager at Robe

To attain B level status, people need to have done all of the things that C level has done except they need to have attained a higher rank thanks to their work ethic and winning attitude. They have surpassed all of their peers at the Junior College and made it clear that they want to work exclusively in the entertainment biz. They have completed their internship at the stagehand union or graduated from a certain program in Florida. Maybe they took some university courses but it’s not necessary at this level. Their work ethic brought them to this level and everybody knows it. Their attitude will propel them above their co-workers because it makes them memorable. They are great to work with and their peers ask for them by name. They are likable leaders who enjoy their jobs and want to continue for years to come.

A Level = Strong Work Ethic, Good Attitude and Experience

“Most people in tech positions are given respect based on years they have worked and whom they have toured with.”—Gianna Malerba, freelance lighting technician

The A-list crew has done everything that the C and B level crew has done but they have been doing it for more years than they need to put on a résumé. They are talented, educated, hard working and most importantly, experienced. This crew is at the top of their game and getting paid comfortably. They have several major world events on their CV and the stories to prove it. Their contact list is longer than Jack White’s rider and they rarely have to call upon them to get work. They own companies, design for major rock bands, projection map 200 projectors and/or manage crews of hundreds. A university degree has never been an issue in their hiring process, nor does it come up when they are hiring people. Their experience more than speaks for itself.

A+ level = All That and a Little Comfort

“There are many who have done it successfully without school and, when you stay in this business long enough, there typically is no ‘afterlife.’ There are just lots of great stories and years to look back on.” —Steve Irwin, of 8 North Live, LightingTrainer.com and The Show Training Network

The only thing that separates the A crew from the A+ crew is a university degree. Not because it makes them any better at their job but because it provides them with a security blanket. People can continue to work at the A level for many years, but eventually their feet and back wear down from being in the trenches. They need a way out. This is where that piece of paper becomes an asset. Ex-roadies who have been beaten down by years of sleeping on a bus and busting their knuckles on wing nuts will tire down eventually. Having a degree affords them the ability to get off the bus and take a job more to their liking. They can take that manufacturer sales job because they have a degree in business. They can take that university professor position because they have a degree in education. They can take that trade magazine editor position because that’s what they went to school for.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that all college graduates are at the A+ level. They aren’t. I am saying that in order to receive an A+ you need to have gone to school to get it.

A degree is not necessary to make it to the top of our unique field but it sure is nice to have. Useful? Yes. Necessary? No. I like to think of it like this: A degree is not the icing on the cake; it’s not even the candles. The cake is the work ethic that you bring into the biz. The icing is the experience that you gain while in the biz. The candles are the attitude that you exude while gaining that experience. Motivation is the flame that lights the candles. A university degree is the second little spark that comes back a few seconds after you blow out the trick candles that makes everyone laugh at you while you try to blow it out again.

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