It was opening night. Daniel “DJ” Lesh ’18 went through his checklist for the last time. Turn on the speakers; turn on the sound board- check. Backstage, he had put each of the 23 mics onto the actors himself. If there was any problem with the mics, it would be his fault.
He remembers the months he spent at rehearsal, enduring criticism. After his first mistake in rehearsal, the director yelled, “Why was that mic not on?”
He had to convince himself that he could handle the job. But at times he felt uncertain. It was the second show he had worked on, with 10 times as many mics as he had ever done. And he was managing it on his own. “He’s trying to be hard on you just so you can do better,” he reassured himself.
Everything that he had endured had been for this moment. This night. Fear had set into his mind. He turned on the first mic. After practicing for months, he had it memorized down to the second.
“It’s just another run through,” he told himself. His nerves receded as he focused on the show.
It was the annual middle school musical, set in the Saperstein Theatre. The seats were almost all filled. At the end the crowd erupted into applause. The show was a success, and he was proud that he was able to handle the challenge.
Lesh works the soundboard for school productions. This was three years ago, when he landed his second sound technology job for the middle school’s musical. He was the first seventh grader in the school’s history to get a job working the soundboard for a production.
Now, he works on sound technology for nearly every school production or event requiring it. Upon his arrival at the upper school, he was given his own office. He installed a lock on it himself, and hanged the keys on his belt loop.
He typically starts his day at 7:15, moving equipment or completing any other tasks he planned. He spends two or three periods every day working jobs for after school events or school productions.
Lesh had been drawn to technology from a young age. He built his elementary school’s website in fourth grade. His interest in sound technology took off in fifth grade when he decided to work the sound for his school’s assemblies. He said he was not satisfied with how it had been run before, so he gave the job a shot.
“I have always had that attitude where if I see something done wrong, I try to figure out how I can do it myself,” Lesh said.
By elementary school graduation, he was running everything tech-related at his school. Come middle school, his practice had paid off. The tech director employed him to work on most school productions; an opportunity he said was rare for a seventh grader. These jobs were more challenging than what he was used to. The soundboard was bigger, which meant that there were more keys to learn.
“This was the first time I had no direction, and I just had to figure out what to do,” Lesh said.
For each production, he spends months in rehearsal marking up his script and learning the play. Yet, he said he is always willing to put in the work as long as he enjoys it. He still remembers his second show three years later, and said it was the most fun show he’s worked on.
“I thought I was cool being the only seventh grader to ever work on a show like that before,” Lesh said.
According to Lesh, it’s the kick of overcoming a new challenge that drives him to love sound tech. With each new show, there is a new set of obstacles for Lesh to overcome.
When he sees a script, his first step is to design a soundscape that makes the sound feel genuine to the audience. He chooses speakers in specific locations to make the sound come from the area on stage that the actor is speaking.
“He adds his own touch to his work by riding up the volume at the end of a line to catch that last syllable. It puts more emphasis and flare on the actors’ words,” said Jonathan Damico ’18, who works on lighting alongside Lesh.
Before a show, he meets with the director every day for a month to review new sound designs he finds. Each car alarm, door slam, phone ring has hours of research behind it.
For a show he worked on last year, he needed a bottle crash sound. To Lesh, the sounds he found online sounded fake. Instead of using a sound he wasn’t satisfied with, he set up a microphone in his backyard. Four broken glass bottles later, he had his own sound effect that he used in the show.
“I actually got the real sound of a bottle crashing, and I thought it sounded good” Lesh said.
At the end of a show, the actors point to the tech booth, and from behind the dark windows he can hear the applause. That applause is meant for the crew. But he said that the audience usually assumes that they are clapping for the actors again since they can’t see the crew.
“I think you just have to accept it as a stage person. It’s funny, in Jazz band it was the same metaphor that my combo coach gave me,” said Lesh. “We were working on just the rhythm section with this guy working on a song because all the horns were with a different person. And he goes, ‘you just need to realize that you put in the most work. It’s you [who] make the soloists sound great; you make the horns sound great. If it was just the horns playing, they could play the line perfectly. It wouldn’t sound as good unless there’s a rhythm section there too. But they get all the applause for taking the solos and everything. I think it’s just [that you] learn to deal with it and don’t think too much of it.”
Lesh said that he isn’t too worried about the future. He said that he is thinking about applying to Carnegie Mellon, which is said to have the best theatre program in the country, then working on Broadway. But he said that he likes doing theatre now, so he is going to see where that takes him before planning ahead.
Right now, he is working on two projects to help improve the school’s theater. He said that his main goal is improving as a sound technician.
“There are so many people in tech, so many stage hands in the world, you just need to find something that makes you different. You need to get good at what you’re doing, but then find something that makes you creatively different,” Lesh said.
He said that he hasn’t found his personal touch yet, but he still has two more years of high school, and possibly an entire career ahead of him to find something that makes his work unique.