By Jessica Barzilay
During the Playwrights Festival in 2009, Performing Arts Department Head Rees Pugh spied one of his chief student tech assistants Jacob Swanson ’11 sprawled on the floor of Rugby’s lobby, deconstructing a computer in order to install a new video card. As Pugh describes it, this would not have seemed at all out of the ordinary, had Swanson not been reprogramming the computer in the tiny window of time between the matinee and evening performances.
“Unbeknownst to me, until this point, he had been using his own computer to run the show and now needed it to do his homework,” Pugh said.
Whether singlehandedly rebuilding a show’s effects between performances or crafting and executing its sound design, Swanson has played a vital role in school productions over the past three years without ever setting foot on stage.
Currently enrolled in Technical Theater I/II, Swanson has worked on nearly every Rugby show during his time at the Upper School. He typically handles the sound in a show, acting as sound designer and sound engineer for this fall’s “Pippin” and last weekend’s “The Servant of Two Masters.”
“It’s the sound designer’s job to understand what a performance should sound like, and then figure out how to make it sound that way,” he said. “While I’m learning the ‘why’ part from experience, the ‘how’ part I have learned from great mentors and a huge interest in electronics.”
A sound engineer is also responsible for determining the “when” and “where” aspects of sound.
“Figuring out these two parts is what makes live theater so great. Just like an actor up on stage reciting lines, as a sound engineer I have to make decisions on a live basis,” Swanson said.
The “Servant” presented its own unique set of challenges, since the play was done in the round, with audience members both on the stage and around a thrust in the center of the house. According to Swanson, this arrangement provokes several technical obstacles “that must be overcome using non-traditional methods and equipment.”
Proficient in many different computer programs, Swanson makes use of the same editing software for a show as he would for a movie.
Although he originally began working backstage as a way of fulfilling his performing arts requirement without having to go on stage himself, the combination of his love for electronics and his experiences behind the scenes led him to continue beyond all requirements.
“Tech theater is a really cool opportunity to help tell a story through the sights and sounds of a performance,” Swanson said.
Pugh has watched Swanson mature through the years from an eager sophomore to a wonderful mentor for underclassmen, he said.
“Beyond the technical know-how, it has been my greatest pleasure to watch him grow as an artist. By that I mean the way he has developed a ‘feel’ for serving not just the needs of the sound department, but the show in its entirety,” Pugh said.
Additional tech for “Servant” included Ben Vigman ’13, as light operator, Griffy Simon ’11 as lighting designer, Theo Davis ’13 as stage manager and Grace Chang ’13 and Kenneth Kim ’13 as sound assistants.
“With around a hundred sound effect cues, body mics for every actor and a two person orchestra, this is the most advanced spring play sound-wise that I can think of,” Swanson said.
Designers are involved two to three months in advance of the production, but the majority of the system work, like running cables and hanging speakers, takes place about three weeks before opening.
Swanson understands that a show is never truly finished until the audience is seated. He brings dedication and high standards to the team, Pugh said.
“He works very hard to serve the show. From my perspective this is the most valuable trait in the theater,” he said.
Despite his self-characterized stage fright, Swanson has become a fixture in the performing arts department. He wishes to continue working in tech and backstage this summer and throughout college.
“The Performing Arts Department at Harvard-Westlake is really second to none,” Swanson said. “It gives so many people so many opportunities to be involved and be part of this incredible story telling experience.”