Meet the Staff: Ian Sweeney, Carpenter
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle and was an athlete and actor in high school. After graduating, I went to Pacific Lutheran University with a plan to study Computer Science/Software Engineering (Seattle being the birthplace of Microsoft and Amazon, it seemed like a great idea).
What initially sparked your interest in a career in theatre, particularly working behind-the-scenes as a carpenter?
My first week on campus in college, I auditioned for the fall show, A Man for all Seasons. As a freshman from outside the theatre department, I figured nothing would come of it; but the director cast me in a small role. He also put me in charge of the pin rail (flying in and out scenery on ropes and battens) when I wasn’t on stage. The rest of the semester was spent in the rehearsal halls, scene shop (at $6.75 an hour – the first paid job of my career), and at the theatre – to the detriment of my studies. It was obvious: computers were fun at home but a boring career prospect.
Six months later, I landed a position with a new professional theatre in my hometown. I helped build the space (everything from installing the lighting grid to glazing the window to the box-office) and the shows (10 per season between mainstage and children’s productions), and performed onstage in dozens of productions during my seven years there. It was amazing, and I still think of that place and those people as my artistic home. But it was very small, and we raided dumpsters for building materials. Trying to make a career in theatre needed more financial support than a monthly stipend and supportive parents. So I moved to New York, which is where I learned that I didn’t need to act. Building, though, is my passion. I need to do that.
Can you take us through a typical (or not-so-typical) set-building process?
Once a season is planned and directors are chosen, the design team for each show is assembled. The Scenic Designer sends a design package to Aaron Bleck, our Technical Director. Once planning and budget are approved, Aaron and our Assistant Technical Director, Mike Beschta, use those design plates to draft every physical element of the set: how it relates to the architecture of the theatre, as well as all other physical objects that will be onstage (lights, speakers, etc.).
Once that step is complete, every element of the set is then broken into smaller, discrete objects, and then drawings (called build plates) are printed for use by the carpenters in the shop. The build plates hold all of the information we, as carpenters and welders, need to fabricate the scenery: everything from overall dimensions, to material types, to specific call-outs for hardware used to connect to neighboring pieces of scenery.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
Time management. We typically only have three to four weeks to build a show. In a perfect world, everything I build would be accurate to the thousandth of an inch. But that isn’t theatre. There just aren’t the resources or time to work to that precision. Every project has a series of trade-offs: escape stairs in the traproom – sturdy but dirty; main wall at the proscenium line – one side has to be pretty; a showpiece curved railing five feet from the front row – time to break out the micrometer. Ultimately, it all boils down to this: Where can I best spend my time?
Can you tell us about the set construction for Heartbreak House?
It’s an interesting set. There isn’t much automated scenery. The level of mechanical complexity as seen in shows like Anastasia and Rear Window isn’t present. But, the set for Heartbreak House evokes the swoops and lines of a tall ship, meaning that many of the units require compound curves and angles – tough to build on a time crunch. Additionally, because budgets in theatre don’t allow for true hardwood construction, this show has needed more applied veneer than any I’ve ever worked on.
What is the most memorable set you’ve worked on and what made it a stand-out?
That would be Private Lives. I love order and geometry and, consequently, Art Deco. (Set Designer) Alexander Dodge did an amazing job with the design for that show. Building the bent-steel deco-style staircase opened up a whole new skill set for me. Every bent-steel project I’ve done since then (the train car and the café awnings in Anastasia, the monkey bars in Cloud 9) was built using skills and techniques I learned on those stairs.
What types of projects do you most enjoy working on?
I love using jigs! Jigs are my jam! A jig is any fixture, device or measurement process that allows repeatable, accurate work. There is nothing that makes my heart sing more like a repeatable, accurate result. Many of my favorite projects at Hartford Stage don’t even see opening night. They are jigs that make our shop tools more efficient and accurate to use. A well-made shop jig could see years of use, spanning dozens of productions, and will probably last longer than any piece of scenery I build.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job?
We run on a strict schedule in the scene shop. Every morning starts at 8 with homeroom, where we discuss important issues of the day such as: what we heard on NPR during our drives in, expected deliveries of materials/dumpster pickups, and most importantly – how the previous night’s HSC Dungeons & Dragons session went. My co-workers are my friends. This is an awesome group to work and commiserate with. Nobody is getting rich in technical theatre; this isn’t a field you choose if remuneration is your chief concern. The group of people who work in the scene shop at Hartford Stage is the major selling point of working here.
Do you have other talents or passions outside of working in theatre?
I’m actually a really good juggler. Not just 3-ball cascade – 4 and 5 ball and lots of tricks. Also, I play a mean mediocre bass guitar.
What is your personal motto in life?
“Iteration leads to ideation” i.e. “Anything worth doing right is worth doing wrong four or five times” aka “Fake it ’til you make it.”