Wilde Lake's man behind the curtain

Kerry Brandon juggles demands of students, professionals

June 22, 2008|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,Special to The Sun

The first time he walked onto the stage of his high school in Baltimore, Kerry Brandon didn't realize he was about to find his vocation.

He was hanging out with friends who were rehearsing for a musical.

"I made the mistake of walking onto the stage at just the right moment - the director needed somebody," Brandon said.

It was a small part. Brandon, a high school senior at the time, was on stage for less than a minute. But it was enough to catch the theater bug.

Today, Brandon is technical director of Wilde Lake High School and the school's Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts. A technical director is responsible for production aspects of a performance such as sound, lighting, props, sets and equipment, and Brandon is the only full-time technical director in the county public school system.

Brandon must balance his duties running a high school auditorium with his job assisting the professional groups that perform at the theater. Several events are scheduled at the theater this week as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, including a performance by the Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. at 3 p.m. today. As the in-house technical director, Brandon helps performing groups use the space and equipment. He is assisted by a troupe of recent Wilde Lake graduates and current students.

Initially, Brandon studied sociology in college but he ended up earning an undergraduate degree in theater at Towson University and became interested in technical theater, he said.

Brandon has been Wilde Lake's technical director since October 2006. Although he is not considered a teacher, Brandon works with students in the school's stagecraft class.

In his job, Brandon advises high school students starting out in theater and works with seasoned professionals.

"You have to walk them through," he said of working with students. "They have to try to figure out how to convey with lights what they're feeling when they see the piece [being performed]. Design is as much a function of trying to convey something as it is knowing the equipment."

Zach Brown is a recent Wilde Lake graduate who has been working with Brandon for three years. The 18-year-old said Brandon puts students right into the action for school shows.

"He tries to do the minimal amount so we learn," he said.

Shifting gears between student and professional is the biggest challenge, Brandon said. An evening performance by a professional group often is followed by a busy schedule of activities in the theater the next day. The space is used by many groups on a given day, from dance and music classes to teams and clubs holding awards ceremonies.

"I have to do everything I can to make it available for students to use during the day," he said.

Adam Eldridge, assistant principal at Wilde Lake, said Brandon "does an exceptional job of that crossover" between professional groups and students.

Brandon continually shifts between teaching and stepping back to let professional crews take over. This week, the Columbia Festival of the Arts has its own production crew in the theater. Brandon is on hand to answer questions and to trouble-shoot if something goes wrong.

Dale Rodefer, technical director for the festival, said the Rouse Theater is not like the rest of the high school theaters.

"It really is closer to a professional theater," he said.

When the new Wilde Lake High was built in the mid-1990s, the Rouse Co. and the county school system together built a professional-grade community theater that would double as the school's auditorium. The 747-seat Rouse Theater opened with the new school in 1996.

Rodefer said Brandon "cares a lot about the space. ... He's very hands-on. He's very meticulous" about keeping the theater clean and organized.

"It's a showcase for the county," Eldridge said. "Young people in the fine arts department, they have an opportunity to be involved behind the scenes."

Brandon said that he has seen a growth in the technical theater program since he began working at Wilde Lake.

"Every production I've gone through, the students have taken on more and more of the design and construction and setup on the show," he said.

Each year, Brandon hires a group of about eight student interns to be his summer crew. The teens work on maintenance projects and act as stage crew for some performances.

Summer crew member Grace Koplow began working with Brandon in the school's stagecraft class. The 16-year-old rising senior said she is considering a career in technical theater, and working with Brandon has been valuable.

"He will stay long hours to make sure everything's perfect from the smaller shows - the choir shows - to the big galas," she said.

Working behind the scenes of a professional performance presents a great opportunity.

"We're there to be able to learn and see," she said.

After the festival, the summer crew will refinish the floor of the stage. Because the theater gets so much use during the school year, Brandon said the interns must do "a year's worth of maintenance in four weeks."

"It still is a high school auditorium," he said. "It's sometimes hard to remember that, when we have 200 some odd days booked a year."

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