With a RIC Technical Theatre Degree, the Possibilities are Endless

Stage lights beaming down on stage

From regional theatre, to corporate gigs, from concert tours to Disney World, there’s so many ways you can apply a technical theatre degree.

Sign that says Backstage Entrance

Theatre technicians are the great under-sung heroes of the entertainment industry. They design and build scenery, lighting, rigging, props, audio, special effects and costumes. Without them, actors would be in street clothes performing on a dark, empty stage.

For more than 20 years, Professor Alan Pickart has been teaching set and lighting design in RIC’s technical theatre program. He also doubles as technical director for all of RIC’s Mainstage productions.

He’s got a 60s vibe about him, and it’s not just his shoulder-length hair. Pickart is just chill. His office is like a meditation room, with a continuous track of ambient music, followed by white noise, playing in the background. The professor loves his job and he loves his students, whom he affectionately refers to as “the kids.”

Professor Alan Pickart

Technical theatre, he explains, is essentially all the technical and design elements that go into creating a theatrical production. 

His “kids” start out as stagehands in their freshman and sophomore year, working alongside the more experienced juniors and seniors who have now become legitimate technicians.

“It’s a mentoring kind of deal,” Pickart explains. “The goal is to have the upperclassmen mentor the lowerclassmen.”

In the industry, technicians are experts at constructing sets, sound, lighting, props and wardrobe. Their jobs demand a broad range of skills that easily transfer into other industries. Stagehands function as their support staff. Typical tasks include loading and unloading trucks, setting up and dismantling equipment and setting up stage elements.

Alan works at lighting board
Pickart designs lighting using lighting board
Alan works on rigging
Here he rigs curtains 15 feet off the ground

Then there’s the third, more specialized role – that of the designer who designs sets, sound, lighting and wardrobe. “In the industry, there’s a clear division between labor and creativity,” Pickart says. Designers explain their particular vision to the technicians who have to figure out how to make it happen.

“I’m happiest when I’m designing a show,” Pickart says. “The word ‘design’ can scare some people. I prefer to use the word ‘problem solving.’ A good designer is creative and good at problem solving.” 


Alan looks out on stage

Some designers, he says, function like engineers. One of his former students, Cameron Whitehorne ’02, is head of production engineering at the Met. (See “The Wizard Behind the Curtain.”) His job involves working with the set designer and director to create automated electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems that can make set pieces move, scenery fly, stages rotate, etc.

In one production, the stage was transformed into an underwater world, where actors are literally swimming (or appear to be swimming) in mid-air. Whitehorne was the mastermind behind this feat of engineering:


“He’s a gut-level engineer,” says Pickart. “At RIC, I play the same role – on a lesser level to be sure. We aren’t qualified structural engineers but what we do is engineering. We’re not building bridges; we’re building weird, theatre stuff. If you’re bent that way – if you enjoy figuring out how to do things like that, technical theatre may be your niche.”

According to Pickart, technical theatre is a highly lucrative field to get into. It’s all about having a skillset that translates into the latest technology.

Whitehorne’s skill is automation engineering, which he was introduced to in his senior year at RIC while working for the Trinity Repertory Company. That interest was encouraged by the former technical theatre director who allowed him to use automation for many RIC productions.

Another alum Chris Griffin ’21 took his skill at video mapping, which he learned as a technical theatre major, and is building a profitable freelance career out of it. Today he’s in high demand as a video and lighting technician. Griffin has toured with pop musicians, traveled the world with comedian Gabriel Iglesias and is currently on tour with singer/guitarist John Mayer. 

Chris and Alan sit next to each other backstage
When he’s not working, Chris Griffin ’21 (right) returns to mentor other RIC students and to help out with RIC productions.

Most likely you’re not going to graduate and immediately go to work for the Metropolitan Opera as a permanent employee. Full-time work is a rarity in the world of theatre, with most job opportunities coming in the form of freelance work on a single production. Yet the range of work is quite broad, says Pickart. From regional theatre to corporate gigs, from concert tours to Disney World, technicians are needed in all areas of the entertainment industry.

“There are production companies in the local area desperate to pay technicians,” he says. “These jobs are starting at $26 an hour and going up to $45 an hour. A lighting programmer can make even more than that.” 

Pickart himself has a side hustle. He owns a small production company, RTW Associates LLC, that designs and produces entertainment events. One of his clients is Cox Communications.

He urges all RIC students, even those who are nonmajors, to stop by his office to find out more about the major or to learn more about how they can get involved backstage on a production.

“Come talk to us and see what we’re up to,” he says. “You don’t have to be a technical theatre major to work with us. If you’re a full-time RIC student, you can work for credit or you can work and get paid by the Nazarian Center or you can volunteer without committing to anything. And by the way, we play hacky sack at the end of the day.”

Contact Professor Alan Pickart at apickart@ric.edu.

To learn more about RIC’s B.A. in theatre with a concentration in design/technical, visit the Theatre Program website.