Central Catholic students use concert stage as a classroomWritten by Colleen Kennedy | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With the exception of Cameron Crowe, few 18-year-olds can say they’ve ever worked closely with fame. Brain Hanley is an exception. A recent graduate of Central Catholic High School, Hanley can attest to what being on the other side of a body guard is like.
“There were girls trying to push me over,” Hanley said referring to a Rascal Flatts concert at The Huntington Center last February. “Fights were going on; security guards were arresting people behind me. And I was just trying to keep the beer off of me because people were spilling it like crazy.”
Hanley, who was working the concert, was standing three feet in front of the country trio assisting the camera crew capturing images which were being projected onto the stage’s oversized video screens.
But Hanley is only one of four former students who have been given the opportunity to work as stagehands for big productions in and around the Toledo area. The four, which includes Meg Schneider, Julie Haupricht and Eric Meyer, were students of the Media Technology course at Central this past school year.
Curriculum for the course includes everything from utilizing wireless microphones to assembling large video displays. Students produce the Irish News Network, Central’s daily news program which streams live directly to the school’s website. The class also runs sound, lighting and video for all school assemblies and theatrical productions, in addition to producing up to 24 videos annually for sports pep rallies.
Mike Heinze, drama director and course instructor, originally came up with the idea which gives his students a sneak peek into the music production industry.
“I knew that there were some major productions coming to town during the second half of the school year,” Heinze said. “I thought it would be great, since these kids are going into this field, to give them a taste of what this industry is like to see if it’s right for them before they go off to college and spend all their time and money to get a degree.”
Of the 12 students in his media tech class, Heinze said only a third were interested in pursuing a career in production. Of that third, only students over 18-years-old were permitted to work the professional concerts.
To accomplish his mission, Heinze worked in conjunction with the IATSE Local 24 Stagehands Union, an international theatrical stage alliance he has been involved with for the last seven years. The age restriction is a union rule.
“When the different venues need a bunch of people, I would get calls [from the union] to come and work,” Heinze said. “I got the idea to do things with the kids this year right before Christmas. I knew some of them were turning 18 so I thought I couldn’t loose anything by pitching the idea to the school.”
Heinze approached the administration about pulling some of the kids from school in January to help set up for a Lady Gaga concert at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The administration agreed.
“It was an amazing experience,” Heinze said. “We were able to use all of our skills we learned in this course to make the professional production happen. And then on day two of the concert we went back and watched the concert so everything that we had put together and built was up and running. Then we took it all down, packed it on trucks, sent it on the road again and came to school the next day.”
When Heinze found out Wicked was stopping in Toledo, he didn’t know if he should push his luck by asking the school for a second opportunity and was delighted when the administration, once again, agreed.
“This is now a theatrical once in a lifetime opportunity instead of a rock-n-roll once in a lifetime opportunity,” Heinze said. “We pulled two 14-hour days and the amount of information they learned and the skill sets they were able to sharpen are just unparalleled.”
Wicked was the first production recent graduate Meg Schneider was able to work on.
“I did what I knew how to do, asked questions and watched,” Schneider said. “I basically soaked it all in. I was an electrician and for Central’s musical I worked as an electrician again so I took the knowledge from that and was able to work a lot quicker.”
Schneider said she believes the experience has been an enormous opportunity but hasn’t been able to convince her parents of the same.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with my school work and I stay safe, they don’t mind that I do it,” Schneider said. “But they don’t think that it’s this great opportunity. I don’t think they understand what we do. They think maybe we connect some wires or get someone coffee or something.”
On set, however, the reactions have been vastly different when any of the professional stagehands realize they’re working alongside teenagers.
“They can’t believe it,” Heinze said. “‘You’re in high school?’ ‘Field trip?’ ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ‘I thought you’ve been doing this for years.’ Sometimes things just shut down for a few minutes while the professional touring crew processes it.”
Though the idea of the field trips is to get experience that can be transferred to school projects, the experience compliments the class by educating students on topics Heinze isn’t able to cover in a small classroom.
“It just takes the boundaries that we operate in here and completely eliminates them,” Heinze said. “When you show up and work on a $30 million concert, you get to work with all that expensive equipment and then you get to see it in full operation.”
Some of that experience can be transferred into school productions Heinze said as he described a “very impressive” video center the class was able to produce for a school assembly that involved multiple camera angles and three-camera live feed.
“We do have some of this technology,” Heinze said. “It’s a little bit smaller but it’s perfect for our school. We’re not doing a concert for 25,000; we’re doing an assembly for 1,500.”
“It means a lot,” Hanley said. “This is a big bridge to help me get as much knowledge as I can before I start doing this stuff in college, professionally and beyond.”
Since Hanley’s ultimate goal is to become a concert production designer, the Lady Gaga concert has been his favorite to work on.
“Her shows, unlike a lot of artists, are a lot more innovative with equipment and technology than any other production out there,” Hanley said.
“We did her concert as she’s at the peak of her career,” Heinze said. “She is doing things that no other pop star has done before. It’s very visually interesting, very intricate, tons of special effects.”
After working on numerous small tasks throughout the construction, Schneider said it’s amazing to see how one individual’s small part works cohesively with all the others to form one show; Hanley agreed.
“The Rascal Flatts show we did was so big,” Hanley said. “I didn’t see what the stage looked like until it was completely done and that pretty much blew my mind. I had to sit back for a few minutes because it’s incredible how much it changed in eight hours.”
Since that first field trip, the group has worked approximately 30 shows collectively including Carrie Underwood, Elton John and Walking with Dinosaurs. And even though the four seniors graduated May 19, several of them have spent some of their first days of summer vacation setting up the May 24 WrestleMania show at The Huntington Center.
Total the students missed three days of school: one for Lady Gaga and two for Wicked. Additional productions were on weekends or after school.
“No one’s doing this in the country,” Heinze said. “We are the only school in the city doing the shadow program where we go out and do the stagehand field trips,” Heinze said. “At Lady Gaga there was a high school field trip there to see what it looks like to set up a rock and roll production. I just looked at [my students] and said, ‘Isn’t it funny that their field trip is coming to watch our field trip?’”
This fall, Schneider will begin working toward a major in visual communication design at Kent State University. Hanley is going to Full Sail University, a technical entertainment college in Orlando; however, he plans to stay in Toledo until January so he can help Heinze get next year’s Media Tech class up and running.
“When we’re gone there aren’t going to be a lot of students to step up and do a lot of the big things that we’re currently doing,” Hanley said.
In addition to Hanley, Heinze has three students who were juniors staying in the class next year. With a major football game scheduled to stream live the first week of school, Heinze said the new class will be diving in head first. And even though the administration has already approved the program to continue into the 2010-2011 school year, Heinze isn’t guaranteeing anything yet.
“If I have any 18-year-olds in the fall that I think have the capacity to do this, we may do something,” Heinze said. “But I don’t want to take people that don’t have enough experience into these environments to work on this professionally if they don’t have the skill set to do that job.”