In the Spotlight

Talking Tech with Alan Symonds, Harvard’s Man-About-Theater
by Hana R. Alberts ’06

Just days after Alan Symonds ’69-’76 stepped onto campus as a freshman at Harvard, he was enlisted to run the light board for a show on the Loeb Drama Center Mainstage. “It was kind of continuous from there,” Symonds says of his lifelong involvement with the theater.
     Since his Harvard debut, Symonds has established himself as a master of lighting, sound, scenery, and other elements of theater production in Cambridge and beyond. From lighting the original Woodstock festival and Boston Ballet productions, to designing lights at the New England Aquarium that encouraged penguins to mate, Symonds has been involved with virtually every kind of technical work.
     But he always comes back to Harvard, where he was part-time staff at Agassiz Theatre in his sophomore year. In the early 1990s he became Technical Director for College Theatre Programs, for which he oversees production and theater safety for student shows in Agassiz Theatre, as well as other performance spaces.
     Because of his undergraduate experience and his subsequent production endeavors at Harvard, Symonds has a unique perspective on student theater. He says that although space, arts faculty, and student interests have changed over the years, the theater community at Harvard remains vibrant.
     When Symonds was an undergraduate, the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) hadn’t yet entered the picture, and the Loeb Drama Center—the A.R.T.’s home since 1981—was entirely student-run, with continuous shows on the theater’s Mainstage all year round. He started out as a light board operator at the Loeb, and as he familiarized himself with the space, he worked his way up the ranks to lighting design and technical direction. And although the A.R.T. provides plenty of guidance—advising students on undergraduate Mainstage and Loeb Experimental Theatre productions, presenting workshops with important theater innovators, and giving students a chance to observe guest directors in action—Symonds is concerned that the shortage of technical staff and training has left directors and producers searching desperately for crews with know-how and experience.
     Also, Symonds says learning in the theater isn’t as directly related to learning in the classroom as it should be. He recalls that his favorite class at Harvard was an equivalent to a Literature and Arts B Core course, then called Humanities 105r, “Producing Shakespeare on the Mainstage.” “What was brilliant about the course was that [the faculty] saw it as an opportunity to teach the literature and also to get everyone into drama,” he says. Although the end result of the class was a Shakespeare production, the lessons learned in the class extended far beyond the theater. “That’s what the Core is about, what a Harvard education is supposed to be about,” he adds. “It helps you to be innovative and creative in any profession. Theater is enormously enabling. I always find myself using things I learned in theater.”
     Symonds wonders how many Harvard students, although they’re heavily involved in theater, might consider professions outside the arts. However, he’s quick to point out that theater skills prove useful for those in all professions. “You can learn scheduling, organization, and making things work without a lot of money,” he observes. “There are a lot of things useful in the real world if you’re going into banking or the ministry or other careers.”
     In the future Symonds would like to see more teaching. “Teaching experiences like Humanities 105r and what is being reexamined as the Core are every bit as vital as all of the specific classes we have in dramatic art, because Core courses can touch a lot more people,” he states. “There are a lot of things we could be teaching. We don’t have a balance between teaching and lots of ways to take advantage of the theater.” He says ideally Harvard would incorporate theater into classes with the intent of applying knowledge to the world at large. “I would love the opportunity to teach my subject, lighting,” he says, “to those interested in the art of lighting and its technology.”
     Symonds is also excited about new spaces for theater. The renovated Hasty Pudding building (see sidebar, above) will provide a fully equipped theater for general student use, he notes, and adds that Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross is working to provide additional storage opportunities for sets and other technical needs off-campus. “Between Dean Gross and [Acting Associate Dean] Judith Kidd, I’m encouraged by the level of understanding and support for the arts and theater in general,” he claims.
     And while he juggles his responsibilities at Harvard with passion and verve, he adds a dose of his trademark humor. Recalling his visit to the aquarium to see the penguins his lighting creation spawned, Symonds comments, “Baby penguins are really cute. They’re like an Orangina bottle with flippers.”

Hana R. Alberts ‘06 is a History and Science concentrator who lives in Mather House.