International students participate in nonprofit Stagecraft Institute program
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
by Sonya Padgett, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Theater is a luxury in a Third World country.

Most everything is, really, when you're dealing with hunger and poverty every day.

But Agnes Nakakawa, a 32-year-old mother and sound designer from Uganda, believes there is a way, through theater, to help her people. Exactly how, she doesn't know.

In June, she came to Las Vegas hoping to gain inspiration and information, two things she can immediately share with her people.

"I'm thinking when I put everything together, I can help communicate and enrich people's lives and help them with their problems," says Nakakawa, who plans to combine her theater background with a social work degree when she returns to Uganda.

Nakakawa was one of 25 students from around the world enrolled in a local theater program this summer that teaches every aspect of backstage theater, including lighting, sound, rigging and stage design.

The program, offered through the local nonprofit Stagecraft Institute, is an intensive eight-week course designed to give students practical experience they might never get in a traditional classroom setting, says co-founder and interim director, Jane Childs.

Theater professionals and budding theater students are exposed to real-life examples on the Strip, through backstage visits to shows including Cirque du Soleil productions, "Jubilee!" and local businesses that produce theatrical equipment.

Childs founded Stagecraft Institute with her husband, Don, six years ago. He died in December, leaving Jane and their daughter to run the program.

A longtime college theater professor and stage designer, Don Childs had envisioned a teaching environment sans red tape, a place where students would learn what they really needed to work in the industry, Jane Childs says. In the first year, they lost $95,000. Successive years have seen that figure shrink but it's still in the red, Childs says.

It is a unique school, if you can call it that. Stagecraft has no physical building; Don and Jane depended on a lifetime of professional connections and friendships to find teachers. They bus students to a variety of sites, such as Silver State Wire Rope and Rigging, Flying by Foy and other local businesses where instruction is provided.

Each week is devoted to a topic, sometimes two, and students spend hours in the classroom, learning from leaders in the industry. Sales representatives from lighting companies, former Cirque du Soleil technicians, rigging experts and others donate their time to teach these students. They are engaging in a widespread industry practice of what they call "paying it forward."

Ultimately, their time and effort is an investment in the future of theater. Those who represent a company, such as Flying by Foy or Silver State Wire Rope and Rigging are forging relationships with future workers in the industry they serve. Now, they are teaching students how to use their product. In five or 10 years, they might be selling the same product to that same student, this time while he is employed by a theater company.

"I think the bigger, global view is this industry is a very collaborative, family-feeling industry. We all get together, collaborate and ensure the show goes on," says Leonard Miller, national sales manager for Strand Lighting division of Philips Entertainment.

He planned lighting week, recruiting representatives from competitors to come to Las Vegas and talk about lights. Miller, a former student of Don Childs, flew in from Texas for the week.

Both Don and Jane Childs have been a major influence on his career, Miller says. Teaching a class at Stagecraft is one way to show his appreciation for their influence on his life.

"It's a combination of who Don and Jane are as people, that's a really big part of it," says Miller, who attended Concordia University in Montreal. "There probably are not a lot of people who are built the way they are in terms of what they've given to students. There are a lot of people who feel obligated to participate because of the importance of what they're trying to do."

Tuition for the eight-week program, including housing, transportation and two meals a day, costs $9,000. About 95 percent of students enrolled are receiving scholarships, Jane Childs says.

Despite the price, a spot in the program is highly prized by theater students.

"When you break it down, it gives you exposure to something that a college program couldn't," says Nathan Stanaland, company manager. Originally, he was introduced to Stagecraft after winning a design contest through his theater program at Sam Houston University. Now, he donates his time to help run the program, picking up knowledge that he uses in his freelance stage design career. "But it's more than that. It's making these connections, meeting people who have designed the shows, getting an insider point of view."

Nakakawa first heard of Stagecraft a couple of years ago when she was involved in an arts program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. She spent a week in Las Vegas then, learning about local theater through Stagecraft. She was so impressed with the class that she began to work with Jane Childs on how she could return for the full program. Most of her expenses were covered by Stagecraft and Nakakawa's employer. She must pay half her tuition.

Although much of the technical part of theater is universal, there are some concepts that Nakakawa doesn't have much experience with, even though she works at the Uganda National Cultural Centre, a theater sponsored by the Ugandan government.

During the stage-rigging course in the second week, safety was a major topic. The class learned how to wear a harness while "flying" each other around a stage. They also learned how to wear a harness while working backstage, crawling around the rafters of a theater. The job of a backstage technician often requires a person to climb ladders and work far off the ground. In the United States, laws dictate the rules to follow, such as how much weight an anchor must support and when a worker must wear safety devices.

Uganda has no such rules, yet. The Ugandan way, Nakakawa says, is the hard way.

"This in my theater, we do not apply," Nakakawa says. "Safety is not something to talk about. Basically, safety in Africa and in my country is not a priority. I think because it is expensive, you cannot think about safety. So, Africans do things the hard way. Don't think about tomorrow. If someone falls, it is OK, it is God's plan. Not so much we can do about it."

She wants to change that. When she returns to Uganda, Nakakawa will teach several workshops in which she will share with the public the knowledge she learned during her trip.

"I depend on my academics to work. That's the only way I can give back to my people. I need to study," she says. "I can't wait to go home and impart the skills to the people who are there. For me education is worth it. When you get skills, it is forever. There is not anything more precious than study."

To see the full article online at the Las Vegas Review-Journal website, click here.

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