Making Magical Partners

Miami Light Project’s Technical Fellowship Program builds a New Generation of Theater Workers for Miami

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By Jordan Levin

May 28, 2021

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As a kid, Eventz Paul would rather take his toys apart to see how they worked than play with them – a fascination he now turns to bringing artists’ visions alive as the technical director at Miami Light Project. Trish Gutierrez was lost post-college when she discovered the joy and challenge of illuminating a theater, which she’s brought to her job as assistant production manager at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Luisa Suarez studied acting and theater at FIU, but has found satisfaction in producing shows herself.

They’re all graduates of Miami LightProject’s Technical Fellowship Program (TFP), which since 2012 has been training people in the unseen but essential roles that enable artists to make magic onstage – operating and designing lighting, audio, video and more. TFP graduates have become embedded in Miami’s performing arts infrastructure, working with the Colony Theater, Miami New Drama, the Adrienne Arsht Center, the SMDCAC, Nu Deco Ensemble, the New World Symphony, Miami Theater Center, GableStage, the Fillmore Miami Beach, YoungArts, Juggerknot Theatre Company, Live Arts Miami, and more.

But the TFP, which wound up its 2021 classes in May, does more than teach skills and launch careers. Originally inspired by Miami Light Project’s practical need for more tech personnel, the program has become a counterpart of MLP’s mission to foster local artists. TFP fellows can use The Light Box as a playground and a home – a place to experiment, learn new techniques and equipment, produce their own shows, and connect with artists. On a deeper level, the program fosters a sense that the people who make Miami’s theaters work are an integral part of the creative community.

“We treat them like artists in residency,” says Kristina Villaverde, who directs the TFP. “We give them that experience at The Light Box to handle their growth the same way we do for dancers and musicians. It made them feel they had a home base. It broadened our community and brought both sides together.”

Kristina, who began leading the TFP program soon after joining Miami Light Project as technical director in 2014, instantly “loved the idea.” A Miami native who had been technical director at the Olympia Theater and head electrician at the Colony, she had seen the number of technical personnel in the non-profit world shrink. “Miami’s art scene has grown a lot in the last eight years, but we weren’t growing as many technicians,” she says.

TFP has been Kristina’s baby, and she’s as proud of the program as any mother is of her child. The program is free. Fellows start with 40 hours of classes, which she focuses on basic lighting, audio, electric, video, and other skills; continue with 40 hours of training by shadowing production staff at MLP events; followed by paid work, at $10 to $20 an hour, on MLP shows. The program has graduated 25 skilled technicians. In the 2021-22 season, TFP will expand to include the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, teaching stagecraft and rigging in a proscenium theater.

In a field where you learn by doing, Kristina avoids the sink-or-swim approach she endured – like when she found herself behind a light board without a clue of how to run it. But she keeps the craft’s tradition of mentorship, bringing in seasoned local techs, often her own mentors, to teach – connections which help fellows get work as they graduate. She uses her longtime membership in I.A.T.S.E. Local 500, the South Florida chapter of the stage technicians union which fields work in everything from pop concerts to conventions; and her extensive network to get work for her fellows – a one-woman personnel agency.

“Being able to help with that job placement was the most gratifying,” says Kristina. “To help them kick off their career with Miami New Drama and Juggerknot working with the same sound company that taught them – it gives you all those warm theater mom feelings.”

Pay for theater technicians starts at $10 to $15 an hour, rising to $18 to $25 for mid-level technicians and $25 to $35 an hour for the most skilled and experienced. Kristina adapts the program to fit needs and changes in the field. She’s added finance skills, teaching students about grants, taxes, invoicing, and dealing with clients. For the 2020 and 2021 fellowship classes, taught on Zoom because of the pandemic, she dropped box office management and added cinema lighting and editing, skills that were more in demand as live shows were replaced by virtual ones. Then she hired several fellows to work with her on sophisticated live-streamed Nu Deco concerts this past season. “Our industry is changing,” she says. “We have to pivot and adapt.”

The TFP has welcomed everyone from aspiring techies to arts administration staffers wanting to understand production to dance and theater students who want to produce their own shows or learn what’s happening behind the scenes. Many are women, who have traditionally been rare working backstage – a particular source of pride for Kristina. MLP also works with community non-profits like Empowered Youth, which serves at-risk youth and young adults, mostly young men, to bring them into TFP.

Eventz Paul, who has become a familiar and beloved figure at The Light Box, was part of the inaugural 2012 program. (As was Terrence Brunn, now MLP’s communications manager as well as program coordinator for Miami Theater Center.) Eventz was freelancing for M Ensemble, Miami’s pioneering Black theater troupe (and a tenant at The Light Box at the time) when the TFP was launched.  “I thought hey, I’m always looking to improve my skills, and this has everything I’m looking for,” he says.

From taking apart toy cars, Eventz, who studied entertainment technology at William H. Turner high school and earned a degree in business management at FIU, had grown into the kind of perpetually curious person who spends his free time streaming YouTube how-to videos and was always asking people he encountered on theater jobs questions like ‘what’s your favorite video editing software?’  ‘Is this lighting board better than that one?’ The Technical Fellowship Program encouraged his urge to learn and let him turn The Light Box into an ongoing learning lab.

“Everything was there for me to play with or test the questions I had,” Eventz says. “The space was open to me. [The teachers] were still available to help us out after the workshop – it wasn’t like they taught the classes and that was it.”

He keeps learning even now that he’s MLP’s technical director and an in-demand freelancer for other organizations. That continual skill-building benefits Eventz, Miami Light Project, the other groups he works for – and, ultimately, the pool of knowledge in Miami. Kristina continues to push him. “I give him tasks and ask ‘do you know how to do this?’,” she says. “If he says ‘no,’ I say, ‘well, figure it out’.” Eventz encounters an issue at another gig, he’ll come figure out the answer at The Light Box. “This is where I come back to retrain myself,” he says. “I come back, do my research, and test it out. Or if I go to a show and see something really cool, I come back and try to recreate the same concept.”

Now he’s a TFP instructor whom graduates call with questions. “Whatever they want to focus on we go over and I teach them,” he says. “I’m the one who’s using the equipment all the time. I know where everything is. I’m the go-to person.”

His sense of empowerment extends to his passion for bringing artists’ visions alive. “There’s a joy in knowing I’m gonna help you achieve your goal with your project,” says Eventz.

Meanwhile Kristina, who, though she will continue to direct MLP’s Technical Fellowship Program, has become director of operations and productions for Nu Deco Ensemble, knows The Light Box is in good hands.

The TFP rewards people like Eventz, fostering the qualities they’ll need to succeed: curiosity, ingenuity, versatility, self-reliance, a strong work ethic, and a willingness to constantly learn and adapt.

Other successful graduates include Ana Maria Morales, who’s designed lighting for Juggerknot Theater’s Miami Motel Stories and worked with Miami New Drama, the Little Haiti Cultural Center, and elsewhere; Quiana Major, an FIU music tech graduate who’s worked with MLP, the SMDCAC, and local artists; and William Frazier, a digital artist and designer.

Trish Gutierrez, who was bouncing around between retail and theme park jobs after finishing a two-year program in computer animation at Orlando area Full Sail University, knew nothing about working in theater when she saw the TFP program in 2015. “I had no experience, no knowledge, no concept of it being a job,” she says. Trish says she was the only Fellow who continued after classes ended, fascinated by the complexities as soon as she worked on her first Light Box event, a Nu Deco concert. “I really enjoy learning things I don’t understand,” she says. “I want to know how things work. I fixated on lighting – to me it seemed like the most difficult, and I like a challenge.” Now she’s taught the TFP lighting class for three years in a row.

When the union sent her to work Beyonce’s 2016 concert at Marlins Park, the only woman on the crew, the star’s stage manager requested her for the show. “I stood out,” Trish says. “I was the only chick there. When I work I get fixated, so he was like ‘put her on the show’.”

Those qualities enabled her to go from freelancing at the SMDCAC to a prized full-time job as assistant production manager. Trish takes great satisfaction in her work behind the scenes. “Putting a show together and having it run smoothly is an awesome achievement,” she says. “It’s not just tech. You’re an artist creating something for people to enjoy.”

For Luisa Suarez, a Miami native and FIU theater graduate who did her fellowship from 2018-2019, the program has not only enabled her to be part of the crew at Nu Deco and Miami New Drama’s award-winning Seven Deadly Sins, but to expand her theater ambitions into production. She started the Miami Merge series at The Light Box in the fall of 2019 to showcase local theater and dance artists, many fellow FIU graduates.

“I wanted to be a better creative and do personal projects,” Luisa says. “The TFP program has made me think critically, problem solve, and think more creatively in terms of producing.”

Beyond fostering skills and careers, Kristina is inspired to build pride in how working behind the scenes brings an artist’s vision to life. “It’s fun to share our magic,” she says. “Because performing is magic.”

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ABOUT JORDAN LEVIN

A writer and journalist since the early 90’s, Jordan Levin was an influential voice on arts and pop culture at the Miami Herald for over two decades, as both freelancer and staff writer. During her time at the Herald, she wrote and produced numerous radio pieces for WLRN, two of which aired nationally on NPR. As a freelancer, she has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, American Theatre Magazine, Dance Magazine, and many other South Florida and national publications. Since leaving the Herald in 2017, she has worked in content marketing and community engagement for Miami cultural organizations including Miami New Drama and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where she hosts a series of dance talks. She has taught feature writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Communications.

Before becoming a journalist, Jordan worked as a presenter and administrator for Miami’s Tigertail Productions and Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs. Previously, she was a dancer/performer in New York’s downtown scene, performing with artists such as Tim Miller and Yoshiko Chuma at venues such as the BAM Next Wave Festival, Performance Space New York and The Kitchen. She is working on a cultural memoir of the East Village in the early 80’s.