Anyone who has taken DRAM 103: Introduction to Stagecraft would likely agree that they have fallen in love with the behind-the- scenes artistry of theater. This is largely owing to the enthusiasm and energy of the course’s instructor—Technical Director of the Drama Department Paul O’Connor, who has shared some of his fascinating stories at Vassar via an emailed statement.
The Miscellany News: How long have you been working at Vassar, and what drew you to stay?
Paul O’Connor: This will be my 19th year; I started in 2000 because I knew the math would be easy.
The first day that I walked onto stage to meet with students, they were working on the counterweight rigging system. Someone had mistakenly removed weight from the wrong line and scenery began to fly uncontrolled onto a stage full of people. I impulsively grabbed the line to keep the set from crashing, I was lifted up the wall but managed to get control before anyone got hurt. I could not have planned a better way to meet new students and establish myself as a worthy hire. So my advice to anyone who lands their dream job is to manufacture a scenario where you can be a hero on the first day.
The Misc: The Vogelstein Center is home to many Drama and Film Studies professors and students. Which part of the building do you like the most?
O’Connor: I love the scene shop the most. This is where I can most likely be found. It has terrific natural light, and to me is an inspiring place to create. I like to keep a tidy shop and maintain tools so that students and I can work through projects elegantly and safely… Plus it has these great loading doors that open up to let [in] even more light, fresh air and the occasional duck from Sunset Lake.
The Misc: What do you need to consider when you design props and sets? Do you have a personal favorite prop that you designed/made?
O’Connor: If I am designing props or scenery I try to not only consider the needs of the production, but also what will break down into good learning opportunities and exciting stage- craft projects for students.
Some of my favorite props from the past are hanging from the ceiling of the scene shop… and occasionally end up on my porch at Halloween.
The Misc: What have been some of the recent productions that you worked on?
O’Connor: I recently designed the set for “Crimes of the Heart,” and also the elephant that is currently in the lobby of the Martel Theater.
The Misc: Could you share a fond memory working with the students?
O’Connor: My favorite part of my job is work- ing with students. Some of my students are Drama majors, some are in my stagecraft class and some are part of my student employment team. I have many fond memories, but this one jumps to mind… one night, my work-study students and I built a very large piece of scenery that had to be stored in the scene shop and rolled on stage in between acts. At the last second there was a question about whether the math was right and if it would actually fit through the door.
When the time came, the piece glided smooth- ly through and onto stage. My team all screamed in joy, jumped and high-fived all around. To see everyone so invested in the success of a project and to see the joy of successful collaboration is an amazing thing in any line of work.
The Misc: Does your job make you look at drama productions from a different angle?
O’Connor: Yes, I can’t see a play or film without trying to figure out how everything was done. And I always want to see backstage. I love the complete illusion from the front, and the practical and structural elements hidden from view.
The Misc: What do you enjoy doing the most outside of the classroom?
O’Connor: I love working on my home in Ulster County. I built my dream woodshop in the backyard and I am constantly working on projects in and around the house. Every year I bring the Drama Department work-study students over for a giant kickball game and barbecue. I also love playing competitive badminton and organize weekly badminton games on campus.
The Misc: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in theater?
O’Connor: I think it is important to know that the skills you can learn from studying theater can help you no matter what you end up doing with your life.
Learning to collaborate effectively, be a problem solver, think on your feet, doing the best you can with what you have, remain calm in the face of setbacks and change, allow ideas to evolve, use precise language and articulate clearly… these are just some of the skills that are part of everyday life in the theater.
So my advice if you are interested is to take a class or get involved with a production! And pay attention to how the skills involved cross over into many aspects of your life and work.