News Column

Focus On: Academy of Fine Arts Technical Director Jeff Wagoner

June 12, 2013


June 12--Why you should know him: Jeff's been the technical director at The Academy of Fine Arts since it opened the Warehouse Theatre in late 2004. He oversees a variety of productions, from performances by the Russian clown ensemble Aga-boom and artists like country music icon Marty Stewart to plays, including the recent "Legally Blonde, the Musical."


The 33-year-old E.C. Glass grad studied technical theater at Marshall University in West Virginia and, later, show production and touring at Full Sail University, a school outside of Orlando that trains students for careers in film, music and entertainment.

He got his feet wet learning the ins and outs of what happens behind the scenes while at Glass, where a steady diet of annual productions taught him that being the guy behind the guy was more his cup of tea.

"I decided that I didn't want to be onstage singing," he says. "I learned a lot there. They do some pretty cool stuff."

After he landed a job at Kings Dominion and worked in the entertainment department for four years, he enrolled in Full Sail and began sharpening his lighting and sound engineering skills at the university's 191-acre spread of studios and production facilities.

"Then, right around the time I was graduating, I'd heard the Academy was looking to hire somebody," he says. "So I moved back and started a couple days later."

You've been interested in production for a while. What's the draw?

"It's hard to really say. In some shows, you get a lot of freedom to be creative and, then in other shows, you're just trying to be a complement. But a lot of it is just getting to work with the people you meet or run into. It's just their creativeness and, especially in working at a place like this, it's a lot of collaborating."

So you thrive on the team-oriented atmosphere, where everyone's working to make it all come together?

"Yeah. With a show like 'Legally Blonde,' there's a cast of 40 people who've been working for six weeks, and a production team of eight or so people who've been working prior to that on just the concepts of the show. And my priority is to put out as good of a product as we can, but to really compliment the talent who is on the stage. I'm always shooting for ... I mean, you always want the flawless show. But in live entertainment, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't."

It can be a little unpredictable, huh?

"A show like that has a lot of layers: the lights, a cast who's mic'd up and a live orchestra. And then there was a ton of scenery that had to move fast. So there were a lot of challenges. Leading up to a production, especially one like 'Legally Blonde,' there's a group of people who are all working together with just different jobs and on different aspects. With 'Legally Blonde,' you've got the director, the stage manager, the producer, myself, the set designer, the costume designer and the music director. And you're all just trying to make sure you're on the same page with the overall look and feel of the show."

Speaking of look, where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

"I don't design a lot of the sets. I just put them together. Set design was never something I was hugely strong at. But I can build them, and I'll make it come to fruition. But even as a light designer, I'm not gonna grab what I want from a film like 'Legally Blonde.' Having known about it, I didn't even bother watching the movie before the show.

"For other plays, like we did 'Hello, Dolly!' last spring, I'm not as familiar with that. So I did rent the movie and watched it, just so I could know what people were talking about and who the characters were before I read through the script. But a lot of the time with my light designs, I go off of what the set designer gives me, helping to choose what the colors are going to be. Then I can make certain things pop and help add some dimension."

Who first taught you a few lighting tricks back in the day?

"Through high school, I had the chance to work with Virginia School of the Arts. The lighting designer, at the time, I think was Susan Summers. She was a professional lighting designer out of New York. So even in high school, when you start working with a woman who's of pro caliber, you kind of either step up or somebody else will. And I got along with her really well. I lost contact with her, but ... I just learned a lot by watching and working along side of her."

As far as building sets, how did you get interested in that side of production?

"I just kind of like getting my hands dirty. It's just another aspect of the whole industry. I consider myself a fairly decent sound engineer, a decent light designer and then an OK carpenter. But I like being the jack of all, master of none [laughs]. One of my goals is always, I'd rather ... if you notice me, I'm probably doing something wrong."

How so?

"Well, there were parts of 'Legally Blonde' where I know it was noisy backstage. I mean, there's no way you don't know that there's not a crew and there's this 36-by-13-foot tall wall that rolls away in five seconds. You know there are people there then [laughs]. It's such an intimate space. A lot of it has to do with the proximity of the stage to the audience. And there are other shows where you just incorporate your crew as part of the action. That can happen, but I still try to hide them as best I can."

You've worked for the Academy almost nine years now. What shows do you remember most and why?

"There have been several. I can remember the more recent ones better [laughs]. I've always been trying to come up with what my top 10 list would be. 'Legally Blonde' was a lot of fun. It was a huge challenge, but a lot of fun. '42nd Street,' once again, had pretty elaborate, large moving set pieces. And 'Chicago' was another one I really enjoyed doing. I've enjoyed them all to some extent. Everything I've done here, there's been some aspect of it that I've enjoyed.

"Just talking to Marty Stewart's road guys about the stories of his mandolin. That's a museum piece. It has everybody's signatures on it. I mean, Johnny Cash's signature [is] on it and Doc Watson. The man's got a museum piece mandolin. He needs to stop touring with it. So to get to see it and have the opportunity to touch it, that's what I remember from that show. Those are the little highlights."


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