The hands pulling the strings in last week's production of "The Nutcracker" belonged to 15- and 16-year-olds. In a small booth behind the audience, separated from the action by a glass window, Steamboat Springs High School students Renny Harner, Drew Ganyer and Lyndsey Koehler controlled the lights, the sound and the mood of the performance.
For years, the hands at the helm have belonged to Stephanie Reineke and protege Carter Dunham, but this fall Dunham left for college and Reineke announced she would be taking a break from lighting design and technical direction in order to work on her own projects.
"Between Stephanie stepping out and Carter leaving, there is room for a new, younger crew," Ganyer said.
Since September, the vacuum created by their absence is being filled slowly by a new generation of high school students interested in the technical aspects of theater.
"The kind of kids that get involved in tech are the kids that like to do things hands on," said SSHS drama teacher Stuart Handloff. "They are usually good with computers and like to learn stuff that's really relevant."
Theater techs are a unique breed. They have strong science and math backgrounds but also have the ability to be visually creative.
This is the first year that Steamboat Springs High School has offered a "technical theater" class. Since becoming the school's drama teacher five years ago, Handloff has pushed for the addition of a class that focused on stage management, set design, lighting and costume design, and sound engineering.
"Until this year, there was usually one person a year that showed interest. Now, I have 19 students involved because there is a class with grades and credit," Handloff said. "And, honestly, techs have a better chance than actors to get a job in the real world."
When SSHS stages a production of "Children of a Lesser God" next spring, Handloff plans to turn all technical work over to the students.
But the new techs have big shoes to fill. Carter Dunham was a natural at the light board and, Handloff is sure, will pursue theater management professionally after he graduates from college. Before Dunham, there was Joe Chapman, who graduated from SSHS in 1999 and also is pursuing a career in technical theater.
"They were both exceptional kids and very mature," Handloff said.
Despite the fact that Dunham raised the bar of expectation, Handloff sees potential among the new crop of students.
Handloff partnered with sophomore Drew Ganyer to light "The Sound of Music," staged in November.
"We did the design and queue work together so he could learn the operational and technical aspect," Handloff said. "By the end, he was starting to have his own ideas.
"For a kid who hasn't had that much experience, he has a lot of potential."
Ganyer's is good with computers, Handloff said. "He programmed the queues faster than I could ever do it."
Ganyer knew Carter Dunham through the Boy Scouts and it was Dunham who originally introduced him to tech.
"I just kind of started showing up," Ganyer said. "Then they kept asking me back."
Reineke has worked with Ganyer since his freshman year, she said.
"I love Drew. I always get the feeling he's one of those quiet, capable guys," she said. "He's always on the look out to learn things, but he's quiet about it."
Ganyer started out by working the spotlight and worked his way into lighting design. He enrolled in the technical theater class, but said, "this is something that you learn more from experience."
Junior Renny Harner was given the position of technical director for "The Nutcracker" and was put in charge of making sure a crew of six students knew its job. It was a turning point for Harner, Handloff said.
For years, Handloff saw potential in Harner but had a hard time getting him motivated. Being given responsibility for an entire show may have been daunting but gave Harner the push he needed.
Harner started learning tech when he was in eighth grade and his mother, dancer Lisa Harner, approached Reineke.
"She told me that her son was interested in (tech) and asked me if I would teach him some stuff," Reineke said. "Since then, he's worked on almost every performance that I've worked on."
Harner said he was surprised how many people comment on the technical side after the performance.
"People notice it, even if they don't know they are noticing it," he said.
As a teacher, it is exciting for Handloff to see 15- and 16-year-olds develop their talents, but he admits that he is much harder on his tech crew than his actors while preparing for a show. Handloff's own theater background is on the tech side.
"Things should seem to happen like magic," he said. "There can be no mistakes. Yes, I'm absolutely harder on these kids. With tech stuff, mistakes are a lot more obvious than if an actor misses a line."
Audience members rarely notice the technical side of a production unless there is a mistake, which is why Handloff goes by the "Do no harm" philosophy.
"If it fails," he said, "it's worthless.
"Good lighting design should help support the story. It should not be the story," he said. It should allow the audience to see shapes, faces and bodies on stage, and if "it's supposed to be a dark and stormy night, it better be a dark and stormy night."
For anyone who watched "The Nutcracker," they can appreciate what the students accomplished.
"I think Drew and Renny are both really capable," Reineke said. "Since Carter left, there has been a huge learning curve at the high school, but they are stepping up to the plate.
"And since (Drew is a sophomore and Renny is a junior), they are going to be a resource at the high school for a couple of years.)"
-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210
or e-mail email@example.com