Summer companies get a helping hand from eager interns

| Saturday, July 21, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

On a recent Monday morning, the sun was shining brightly and people were lazing on the Schenley Plaza lawn.

Patrick Dudiak was not among them.

Instead, he spent that lovely summer morning hanging lights in the windowless confines of the Henry Heyman Theatre on the lower level of the Stephen Foster Memorial.

Dudiak, 18, a Bethel Park resident and incoming sophomore at Elon University in North Carolina, is a lighting intern at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and was doing what he loves.

“It has been incredible,” Dudiak says. “It has definitely enhanced my passion for lighting. By working here, I know this is what I want to do.”

Dudiak is not alone.

At summer theaters around the region and across the country, high-school and college students are gaining experience backstage and onstage as interns and apprentices while working with and learning from seasoned professionals in a variety of administrative and artistic capacities.

Apprenticing and interning has been a theater tradition at least as far back Shakespeare's days at the Globe.

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and “Rent” composer and playwright Jonathan Larson are among the list of prominent theater artists who got their start as summer-theater apprentices.

Many apprentices spend their days in traditional tasks — hanging lights, painting sets, sewing buttons on costumes, washing wigs and performing in children's theater shows.

“We try to give the interns a pretty well-rounded experience,” says Katheleen Caliendo, executive director at South Park Theatre in Bethel Park. “It's not only what they can do for us but what they can learn.”

Some lessons are as basic as not to wear flip flops when building scenery or how to create a list of props for a show.

For South Park Theatre apprentice Sarah Nadler, 19, a sophomore voice major at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio who lives in Upper St. Clair, it was how to project her voice so she could be heard without a microphone.

Greensburg resident Olivia Lantz, 20, an incoming junior acting major at Arcadia University near Philadelphia, is using her apprenticeship at Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont to expand her backstage knowledge.

“I really wanted to get some other theater experience under my belt, I do a lot of acting, and I love to learn about all the facets of the business so I could gain as many skills as possible,” she says.

As an apprentice, she's been building and painting sets, learning how to use a screw gun and developing muscles by lugging flats and furniture to and from the stage.

McKees Rocks resident Liz Strait, 20, a graduate of home-schooling, is spending her summer washing wigs and cleaning beards and mustaches for productions at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

She's hoping her cosmetology license plus the experience she gains this summer will help further her career: “I've always wanted to go to Hollywood and do makeup there,” she says.

Other interns and apprentices have 21st-century responsibilities that would have mystified Shakespeare, such as videography, data-mining and social-networking.

“They are so savvy with social media and networking,” Kiesha Lalama, education director at the CLO Academy says. “They bring new, smart ideas of how to reach into the community. … We grow and get better because of the ideas, as well.”

Since late May, Alexis Jabour, 20, an incoming senior at Duquesne University, has worked as the video-direction intern at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, creating two-to-three minute promotional and archival videos. Some are serious — documenting visits by Gene Kelly's widow, Patricia, to area schools before the annual Gene Kelly Awards show. Others are funny — “Pittsburgh Sings ‘Annie',” took Jabour out onto the Downtown streets to record passersby singing a few bars of “Tomorrow” to promote the musical.

What makes Jabour's apprenticeship more challenging than most is that she's often the one with the answers. “There is no one here who is trained to film or edit,” Jabour says. Staff members assign topics for Jabour to film and assist with suggestions and requests during the editing.

But it's up to Jabour to figure out how to transfer a video from her Apple computer to someone's PC or how to color correct footage that's off-balance.

“The autonomy did surprise me. Everybody here is so busy. I have to figure it out without taking up everybody's time,” Jabour says.

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has tapped intern Rebecca Fink's knowledge of social media such as Facebook, Pinterest and email to help get information about the theater company to a wider audience.

In return, Fink, 23, a Shadyside resident who's going into her second year in the Carnegie Mellon University Master of Arts Management Program, is learning from the theater's development director Gale McGloin how to approach potential donors or patrons and do solicitations, something she has avoided in the past.

“I've been thrown into contacting people about their interest in (the company's) Ireland trip,” Fink says. She's learning how to listen and answer their questions rather than tell them what she thinks they might want to hear. “In class, we are more concerned about the language of the sentence. I realized I should stop being concerned about that and be more concerned about what they wanted to know,” Fink says.

Working with interns and apprentices requires some extra effort.

“They require supervision and structuring. You have to put time into it,” McGloin says. “Sometimes, it's surprising what they don't know.”

Recently, a group of interns sent out to solicit items for an fundraising auction turned in a list of donors and the goods or services they had agreed to donate. But they hadn't bothered to write down names of those who said no — information that would have been helpful to know for future solicitations.

“It's all a learning curve,” McGloin says.

It does take time to teach, says Lorraine Mszanski, managing director at South Park Theatre. But, it's time well spent: “If I put two hours into teaching an intern I don't have to spend eight hours doing it by myself.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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