Brendan is a theatre Swiss-Army knife. Known primarily for his work as a professional theatre technician, Brendan is also an accomplished actor, director, playwright, designer, production manager, stage manager, academic, and post-secondary instructor.
Most people don’t know this, because Brendan’s a terrible publicist. He’s worked extensively for The Citadel Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Workshop West Theatre, L’Unitheatre, ATCO Energy Theatre, and has taught Stage Carpentry, Scenic Carpentry, and Installation Art courses at the University of Alberta. Currently, he works as a house technician for the Horizon Stage in Spruce Grove.
Brendan started with Rapid Fire as a regular Theatresports player in the early 90’s. He drifted away from the company when he was drawn over to the dark side to hone his skills as a theatre technician. In 2012 he returned to RFT more powerful than ever before, with the awesome powers of the Zeidler Control Booth at his command. He particularly enjoys calling down lightning.
Brendan holds a BA in Drama and a BFA in Technical Theatre, both from the University of Alberta, where he is currently writing his Master’s thesis on the nature of transformation in the works of Robert Lepage. He looks forward to being a jack-of-all-trades, and master of one.
TV Shows: Futurama, Better Call Saul, Last Week Tonight, Firefly, Archer,
Movies: What We Do In the Shadows, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Fifth Element, Spinal Tap, Apollo 13, The Great Escape, Sneakers, The Incredibles, Catch Me If You Can
Actors: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Steve Martin, Sigourney Weaver
Video Games: Fallout: New Vegas, X-com: Enemy Unknown, Lego Marvel Superheroes, Shadowrun Returns, Ogre Battle
Authors: C.S. Forester, Neil Stephenson, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Robert M. Pirsig,
Music: Paul Simon’s Graceland, Ariane Moffatt’s Songs from Trauma, The Wailin’ Jennys’ Firecracker, Weezer’s Blue Album, Peter Gabriel’s Us, Jonny Cash’s American IV, U2’s Joshua Tree, King MuSkafa Live
Websites: Cracked.com when it features articles about science, history, or real people. Smarter Every Day’s channel on YouTube. Alan Cross’ The Ongoing History of New Music. NPR.org for podcasts of This American Life, and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
Food: I have a legendary recipe for Bison Spaghetti Sauce.
Words to live by:
“Just because it was right for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Find your own way. ”
“I’d rather be the second best at everything, than the best at just one thing.”
It’s very much like jamming with a jazz band; you need to be ready to go in whatever direction the other players start going in.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND IN THEATRE?
I’m a theatre Swiss-army knife. I’ve got a BA in Drama and a BFA in Technical Theatre both from the University of Alberta. I’m currently finishing my Master’s Thesis on Transformation in Robert Lepage’s production of The Rake’s Progress. I started out as an actor, and had been in about 30 plays by the time I finished my first degree. I was an avid Theatresports player in the early 90’s. I spent about five years as technical director and production manager for Northern Light Theatre. As a freelancer, I’ve worked across the country as a stage manager, head carpenter, prop master, set designer, lighting designer, and sound designer for a variety of small companies. In my spare time I’ve directed about five shows over the years, mostly through NextFest and the Fringe. I’ve written a couple of scripts, the most recent of which was a puppet adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac that went to the Winnipeg Fringe.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE A CAREER IN THEATRE AS A TECH?
I’ve always been mechanically inclined. When I was getting my BA, we had very few resources available from the department; you really had to fend for yourself in terms of technical elements. I got a lot of practice figuring out how to scrounge up a set, or light a show, or tracking down the right person to ask for advice. When I got out of school, I tried to balance a joe-job with doing theatre, and found it really frustrating. I realized that needed to find steady work in the theatre, and people kept calling me in to help with their technical projects. So at the end of that year, I applied and was accepted to the Tech Program at the U of A.
WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS A TECH?
There are three main responsibilities a technician has. The first is to the venue. The Technician is responsible for the safe operation of the theatre space. We maintain the theatre, clean and fix the equipment, change light bulbs, sweep and mop the floors. We do it ourselves so that we know it’s been done right. Almost every piece of equipment in a theatre has specific needs, and it’s our job to see those needs are met so that the equipment functions properly for as long as possible.
Our second responsibility is to the public. We’re the ones who have to ensure the space is safe. We keep an eye out for hazards that may be built into a production (like open flame or fireworks onstage) and make sure that each show conforms to safety regulations, and that safety measures are in place in the event of a mishap. If there’s an emergency, we’re the ones who institute evacuation procedures, and check to make sure no one is left behind.
Our third responsibility is to the artist. The technician is the interface between the artist and the theatre. It’s my job to make the equipment in a space do what the artist needs. Sometimes the artist asks for something the equipment can’t do, or sometimes they ask for something that I know will create problems for their show. In those cases, I ask them to tell me what effect they are trying to achieve on the audience and let me worry about the specifics of how to make it happen.
HOW YOU GET INVOLVED WITH RFT?
I started going to Theatresports at the Varscona Theatre when I was in high school. After about a year of watching, I signed up for their workshops. It wasn’t long before I was a regular player in the first half. Once I started university, my schedule quickly filled up, and Theatresports fell to the wayside. In 2005, I was hired to tech for Dana Andersen and Jeff Haslam. It was around Christmas, and they had decided to throw together an improv show called Everybody’s Best Friend to fill a week when there was nothing onstage at the Varscona. It was a great for me, I had the week to play around with some veteran improvisers and learn the ins and outs of tech for improv. Chris Craddock was AD for RFT at the time, and we’d known each other for years from working on a show together at the U of A. When he found out I was teching for Dana and Jeff, he asked if I’d like to try running a few Theatresports shows. I’ve been doing them off and on ever since.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO TECH AN IMPROV SHOW VERSUS A TRADITIONAL PLAY?
With a traditional play there’s a period dedicated to technical rehearsal called “tech week.” During this time, all the different designers confer with the director, stage manager, and technicians to figure out exactly what technical element is going to happen when, how loud or bright it will be, and how it will transition into the next moment. Tech week is the culmination of weeks of work for dozens of people.
Teching for improv, an improviser says “it was a dark and stormy night…” and you have seconds to create that atmosphere using the limited selection of lights and sound available to you. An improv tech not only has to be listening to the improviser, they have to guess where the scene is going, so they can have an effect ready the moment it’s asked for. If an improviser sets up a scene on a battlefield, and shoots a gun, I’m already figuring out how to simulate a grenade or a bomb using the lights, so that when he suddenly asks for it, it’s right there. My job is to create the environment the improviser is playing in, and when that environment responds to the player, it’s tremendously satisfying to the audience.
When lighting for the stage, less is more. White light is full spectrum, and overpowers any colour on stage. The less white light I have on the stage, the more room I have to fill the space with colour and atmosphere. That’s why the first lighting offer I make for a new scene is a narrow spotlight, or a downstage centre area light; it gives the actor a place to start and it leaves me room to build a look based on the offers they make. Basically, I start them in a very tight frame of white light, and expand the scene to fit the needs of the improvisers. It also helps that the less is lit up on stage, the easier it becomes for the audience to imagine the surroundings. I have to strike a balance between keeping the actor lit, maintaining the atmosphere of the scene, and leaving room for the scene to grow or change. I also play a big part in shifting focus, by making a specific person or scene the brightest thing on stage, and I have to make snap decisions as to when a scene ends. Calling a scene down too early or too late can completely ruin the moment for both the improvisers and the audience, so you’ve got to pay attention from moment to moment, track the overall arc of the scene, and look for a satisfying note to go out on.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TECHING SHORT FORM VS. LONG FORM IMPROV AND VICE VERSA?
Short form is the more challenging of the two, because you’re constantly reacting. It’s fast-paced, and there’s very little continuity from scene to scene, or possibly even from moment to moment. It’s very much like jamming with a jazz band; you need to be ready to go in whatever direction the other players start going in. If they start riffing on something, I have to decide if I can enhance it to make it more powerful for the audience or step back and give the player the space to do their thing.
Long form is generally more straightforward, as the improvisers tend to be more experienced and lighting changes are less frequent. In these cases my job is to use light to help reinforce a change in scene or a transition. I enjoy teching long form because of the more complex storylines, and that I get to make stronger stylistic choices to tie scenes together. With short form, my first job is to tell the audience where to look, in long form, there is more of a focus on creating an aesthetic onstage that supports the style of the troupe.
In both cases, my job is to help steer focus, create atmosphere, and occasionally provide obstacles for the improvisers to overcome. That can be the toughest part, because you’re making an offer by giving the improviser a problem to solve or a situation to react to. Jamie Cavanagh did a scene that started with him in a photo booth, and I reinforced the scene by providing camera flashes. The first two flashes happened in pretty short order, but I held off on the third one. Jamie sat posed for several seconds, anticipating the third flash just long enough for it to become awkward. The moment he changed positions to try and see why the imaginary photo booth wasn’t working, I hit him with the third flash. It was a pretty simple gag, but it gave Jamie something to react to in the scene, and the audience loved it. Most of the time, I’ll follow the action onstage, but occasionally, I’ll use light to lead the improvisers around, and the results are almost always unexpected and worthwhile.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT TECHING A THEATRE PERFORMANCE?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. As a tech, the most memorable moments are the ones where things have gone wrong, and they aren’t necessarily the ones that happen when an audience is around. I did a setup for a gala in Fort McMurray, where half our setup crew came down with the flu, and we had to work four, 16 hour days to pull the show together. I’ve had a band show up three hours late to a sound check because they insisted on seeing West Edmonton Mall as soon as they got into town. I’ve been on shows where the lighting board crashed and the whole theatre blacked out (we switched on the work lights for the three minutes it took for the board to reboot). I’ve had shows where I had to commando crawl on my stomach through artificial fog to retrieve a costume piece to get it offstage for the next number.
As for things that went off without a hitch, I’ve operated a manual mechanical bull, flown people from fly lines, dropped and raised people through trap doors, and once drove a 12’ dinosaur skeleton from Drumheller to Edmonton in the back of my pickup truck.
As for some of my favorite moments, I always enjoy it when RFT does an improvised musical number. They commit wholeheartedly, and I get a chance to put the lighting rig through its paces.
WHAT DO YOU DO OUTSIDE OF RFT?
I work as a House Technician for the Horizon Stage in Spruce Grove. We host a lot of community theatre productions, and all kinds of fantastic touring acts. Check us out at Horizonstage.com. I design and build sets for ATCO Energy Theatre. They tour to schools around the province, performing musicals with superheroes that teach electricity and natural gas safety. I’ve been working with them since 2007, and they’ve performed for more than 100,000 kids since the program started. I also do a fair bit of carpentry. I worked with Jason Carter in 2014 to build an installation for the AGA Children’s Gallery, called The World of Boo, which just came down this past summer. The installation was based on the series of books he wrote with Bridget Ryan, and was intended to be a storybook that you could walk into.
I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I enjoy board games, and tabletop gaming. I read a lot, mostly fiction with a humorous twist. What else… I make chainmail jewelry that emulates Celtic knotwork. It’s something I started doing after building a full chainmail shirt for a costume class in university. I work out three times a week, a combination of strength training and cardio. I injured my back pretty severely about three years ago, and I’ve been working with a trainer ever since. Regular exercise has made a huge difference in my mobility and my outlook on life.
DESCRIBE WORKING FOR RAPID FIRE IN A SINGLE SENTENCE:
It’s a combination of working with people who love to laugh, being part of a creative community that’s trained themselves to say “yes” whenever they can, and a group that’s always pushing the limits to make the next scene even better. The pressure can be high, but it’s no match for the support.