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CTE Technical Guest Artists Teach Life Skills

Far in the upper reaches of Caldwell Theater is a room you’ve probably never seen. It’s filled with computer stations, desks and clutters of paper. At five o’clock on this Wednesday afternoon there’s a pleasant buzz of productive activity as a half dozen students work on the computers and bounce ideas around. This is the hub of CTE’s technical operation. It’s where sets and costumes are designed, sound and lighting plans devised, and props researched and sourced.

At the center table, two students sit with a young man in his twenties. The table is covered with sketches and photographs of wooden platforms and towers. On the computer, 3-D images revolve at the click of a mouse.   The students are Cameron Creath and Abby Bordin, the Set Designer and Technical Director for CTE’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The young man is Alejandro Acosta, a professional technical director. What’s happening among the three of them may not seem like a big deal to the casual observer, but it’s the crux of what makes CTE unique among all high school drama programs in the country.

CTE is a fully realized theater company. It’s modeled on regional theater, and its students are expected not just to act in and direct its shows but to participate in every aspect of theater production. That includes sound, set, lighting and costume design, text analysis, production meetings, marketing, box office and set construction.   Kids who’ve never used a needle will make costumes. Kids who’ve never used a saw will build sets.

This gives CTE students an education unlike any other. “We say if you can run a theater, you can do anything,” teacher Ben Cleaveland says. “These creative, collaborative activities change the way students think. They develop disciplined minds and great self-awareness. Our seniors leave not just with marketable skills, but with the ability to manage high stakes public projects with confidence.”

Sarah Schwartz, a 2010 Tam graduate, is proof. She went to UC-San Diego to study Environmental Systems, but she was able to parlay her lighting design skills into a theater job to help pay the bills. Then, in her science classes, more subtle lessons emerged: “In CTE, I learned how to take calculated risks, which helped me to expand my boundaries. Without a doubt, this has made me a better scientist.”

Most CTE grads, like Sarah, don’t pursue theater careers. But for those who do, their CTE technical training makes it easy. There are always more actors than there are parts, but there are never enough trained people to fill theater tech jobs. Today, CTE grads work in technical design at Sony, Pixar, Columbia and Lucasfilm, as well as at many national and regional theaters.

So, yes, it’s a great model. But there are only three teachers in the Drama department, and 490 students. Freshmen and sophomores do some technical work, but juniors and seniors are thrown in headlong. Each assumes a major technical position for one show, directs two one-acts, and works crew for several other productions. The only way the system can work is with the help of “guest artists”: people like Alejandro, sound designer Teddy Hulsker, and costume designer Sarah Roland, who guide students and run small workshops.

Cameron, busily designing Juliet’s tower, sums it up this way: “The education we get from these professionals goes well beyond a stage. It’s work ethic, personal motivation, communication and organization. [Drama teachers] Ben, Heather and Susan are fantastic, but there’s only three of them. None of this would be possible on this scale without people like Alejandro.”

CTE is largely funded through its own box office and fundraising. But for the past several years, it has received a Major Grant from the Foundation to pay for its technical guest artists. The Foundation is proud to support this innovative program, and the vision of Ben Cleaveland’s Drama department.