Photo by Carey Crockett
By Scott MacClelland
THE LEAST GLAMOROUS of theater jobs, Technical Director, is also the most crucial. The TD never gets to take a bow with the actors and director. In musicals, the conductor, the musicians and the choreographer all get their moment in the spotlight. Patrons have to pore over the program booklet to find out who provided the technical direction.
After 41 years as an instructor at MPC and the Theatre Company’s TD, Dan Beck—BekTek to his colleagues—has finally called it quits. “I came into theater accidentally,” he says. “I was planning to become a civil engineer.” He explains that he came to an audition for the first play put on at MPC, in 1970, West Side Story. “I didn’t know I was auditioning. I had no acting experience, but they threw me into it. I’ve been here ever since.” After the Vietnam war, he joined a friend to hang out with the theater crowd. “It’s where the girls were.”
Beck, Lance Jacobson and the late John Rousseau all became local theater tech men at around the same time. As a student at MPC, Beck remembers working with crews and directors, especially Morgan Stock, then in charge of MPC’s Dramatic Arts program. “Ruth Allen taught technical classes,” he says. “She was more a fine art painter but had a very strong background in technical theater. She gave the three of us our start.” For many years Jacobson worked for Sunset Center and, until his untimely death, Rousseau at Pacific Repertory Theatre, of which he was a co-founder.
Beck has worked with all the MPC theater heads since the early days of Morgan Stock, including Peter DeBono and Gary Bolen. Some of his favorite memories center on Jim Dunn, visiting from the College of Marin, and actor/director Ross Durfee.
Beck grew up in Monterey, the son of a career navy man. He attended San Carlos Elementary and the long-ago-closed Junipero Memorial High School that stood opposite the historic San Carlos Cathedral on Church Street. Following his discharge from the army and stumbling into theater at MPC he enrolled there then transferred to San Francisco State, graduating in 1974 with a double degree in Theater and Industrial Arts education. In 1975, Morgan Stock offered Beck a job at MPC, which is only now ending. As a member of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, Beck attended several of their annual conferences and recruited skilled TDs to come to MPC to work on their summer program.
Beck explains that a theater TD and college instructor in Dramatic Arts needs to have a working knowledge of hydraulic drives, pumps, motors, switches, counterweights, optics, lighting, electrical components and electrical loads. Add framing, finishing surfaces, furniture building, metalwork, welding, fabrication, and making shapes to meet what the designer requires. “I once designed a set for Guys and Dolls, and I wanted to learn about neon signs,” he says. “I had to do a lot of vintage research on architectural styles of the period. Then I went around the Bay Area to get bids for the signs, which meant I had to learn about their transformers and the different gases they used.” He admits that he is not up to 21st century digital technology, but adds “You can’t do this work if you don’t have a passion for it.”
During the 1980s Beck and Dramatic Arts professor Peter DeBono built up the theater program at MPC, “dealing” with the campus administration and working with off-campus groups to develop the independent MPC Theatre Company, which was formed in the mid-‘90s. Beck calls “dispiriting” the college’s recent decision to slash the budget for its Dramatic Arts program. “I can’t slay that dragon anymore,” he says. “The program needs someone with youth and vigor and a different perspective. But the two-thirds of my life here has been great.” He’s also proud that many of his theater arts students have gone on to big careers, at Disney, Pixar and others, and “the really outsized projects we’ve done in this little theater. When it all clicks it’s really something.”
What he won’t miss is the pressure of constant theater deadlines. “Theater directors are always making insane demands on us,” says his set-designer and scenic artist colleague Carey Crockett. Beck says, “Everything is ‘right away.’ I’ve been so swamped with extra-urgent deadlines that I’ve sometimes forgotten to turn in my pay card.” In retirement, “I have a ton of projects,” Beck says, including making Shaker furniture which he learned at SF State. “If it’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing,” is his motto.
Beck’s retirement has inspired favorite memories from many of his students, including ‘Beckisms:’ Paint it black and call it pretty, The art goes on top; until then it’s engineering, Cheap, fast, or quality: pick two, Sounds like an acting/directing/lighting problem, Bang it to fit; paint it to match!