TECH CREW members sometimes joke that if their work is noticed, it means something has gone terribly wrong. Indeed, if they’re doing their jobs right, theatre technicians can be easy to miss. They wear black and work in shadows, communicating through headsets in quiet, cryptic cues — all to ensure that performers and audience members alike stay lost in the story unfolding onstage.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t love demonstrating their skills.

“Tech Challenge gives technicians the chance to shine and show off their talents,” said Chase Dunn, a senior at Alma High School and member of Thespian Troupe 6338. And because Tech Challenge is adjudicated by university representatives, Dunn said the event “gives us the opportunity to be seen by colleges and possible future employers.”

Steven Sellers, the amiable and (extremely) fast-talking technical director of Alma Performing Arts Center in Arkansas, has co-coordinated the Thespian Tech Challenge, both at the Arkansas Thespian Festival and the International Thespian Festival, since 2008. His fellow coordinator is Beau Pumphrey, the longtime volunteer production manager and technical director for Thespian Troupe 2620 at Southside Senior High School, while Daniel Stahl of Russellville High School’s Troupe 7260 provides oversight.

Tech Challenge, at both chapter and international levels, is a daylong competition showcasing the accuracy, speed, ingenuity, and teamwork of Thespian technical theatre talent. At ITF, the first 30 teams (of up to seven members each) compete in five challenges representing different aspects of tech theatre, including hanging and focusing a light, knot tying, backdrop folding, threading a sewing machine, and — new to ITF in 2020 — prop shifting.

With Sellers and his lifelong rival/friend Pumphrey at the helm, Arkansas Thespians have dominated ITF Tech Challenge for more than a decade.

“For the last 11 years, an Arkansas team has won the national event,” Sellers verified. “I don’t remember who won it 12 years ago because that was before I was employed by Alma. For my first four years, Alma won. Then we got second place to Southside for two years. Then we got third place when Jonesboro [High School, home of Troupe 1338] won [Southside placed second]. The last four years have been us.”

Dramatics connected with Arkansas Thespians to uncover and expose their secrets. Turns out, they’re happy to share them. In fact, according to Pumphrey, Arkansas contestants hereby challenge fellow Thespian technicians across the U.S. and around the world to join them in upping their game because they’re hungry to test their skills at ITF 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. “We want the competition. We always want to be sharp, on our toes.”

It’s also because, well, they’ve been trained to be nice like that.

“A highly skilled technician is fine, but if he’s terrible to everyone else as a person then that is one thing I can’t have,” said Sellers. “A lot of this is skill, but when I build my Tech Challenge team, a lot of it is how you are as a person.

Arkansas teams have dominated the ITF Tech Challenge for a decade. Here, the Pacmules compete in the 2014 event.
Arkansas teams have dominated the ITF Tech Challenge for a decade. Here, the Pacmules compete in the 2014 lighting focus event. Photo by Jim Talkington.

THE PACMULE STANDARD

So, what’s their secret? How do Arkansas Thespians win each year?

“We take it seriously,” said Sellers, “and that is the only explanation.” One thing he means by that is they practice. “We practice and we practice and we practice. We also pick a name that becomes our mascot, and we own that name, and that is our brand.”

Sellers’ Tech Challenge team is the Pacmules — that’s P-A-C for (Alma) Performing Arts Center. Meanwhile, Pumphrey’s Southside mascot is the Maverick, which evolved into the Tech Challenge team name Mavtech. Although Pumphrey recently took over as theatre director at nearby Northside High School, he plans to continue coaching Southside Mavtechs in Tech Challenge for at least a couple of years while developing the technical program at Northside.

Both Pacmules and Mavtechs stay visible through branded merch including hats, shirts, and hoodies — and, like top athletes, they want their names to mean something.

“I tell my stagecraft kids, ‘Whenever you’re a Pacmule, when you wear that shirt, that means you are one of my elite technicians, and with that comes some privileges,’” Sellers said. Pacmules are picked first to work backstage on school shows and musicals, and they’re picked first to crew professional road shows that come through the Alma Performing Arts Center, such as the national Broadway tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which performed there in October 2019.

“Sometimes, younger ones see the shirts, and they’re like, ‘How do I get one of those?’ I respond, ‘You don’t get one of these shirts; you earn one,’” said Sellers. “I tell them at the beginning of the semester, ‘You guys are auditioning for me every day. Every day I’m observing you as a person and a student. I want to know how you’re doing in other classes and how you’re treating other people, and I want to know that, in the technical capacity, you’re doing exactly what I say to do when I say to do it, and doing it right … most of the time. If you can do those things, then you’re my favorite people to work with. Then you can become a Pacmule.”

For the Mavtechs, you know you’re “in” when you’ve earned a nickname from Pumphrey. “Once you’re involved for a while, through some organic situation, you get a nickname — like Sticks, or Light’s Out. That’s sort of the unofficial initiation moment. We round everyone up and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to introduce you to Hugsy!’ — or whatever the name is. After that, you get your Mavtech T-shirt, and that’s the name that goes on your shirt.”

There are rules surrounding this garment, which Pumphrey deems a uniform. “They don’t get to wear it willy-nilly. If you’re working on a show or doing a Tech Challenge, that’s when you wear your shirt,” said Pumphrey, adding that only Mavtech graduates may wear them whenever they want. “I get pictures all the time from alumni wearing their Mavtech shirts.”

TRAINING IS LIFE

For Sellers, the training never stops, and he often starts grooming technicians for the Pacmules team or backstage leadership roles before they even express interest. “Last year, I gave an eighth grader the task of calling spot cues. She got the script with everything written down to do warning, standby, and spots one and two over the headset,” he said. “She didn’t know I was training her to be a stage manager and call shows later. That way she could understand how to do it without the pressure of saying, ‘You’re an assistant stage manager because you’re calling spot cues.’”

Sellers similarly orients his Alma High School stagecraft course toward Tech Challenge skills. “I start every class the same way. I say, ‘This is a light. This is how we hang the light and focus the light. Now you try it. Now do it again.’ Then: ‘Here’s how to tie this knot. And this one. Now do it again. Now do it in this sequence. Now: Who’s the fastest?’”

Years ago, Dramatics interviewed Alma alum Jose Armando Tellez, who set the knot-tying speed record at the 2012 ITF, then broke his own record in 2015. (Sellers verified that Tellez’s 2015 record — 8.09 seconds — has since been broken. However, he and Pumphrey stopped keeping exact records due to changes in event rules and specific challenge guidelines.) Tellez was undefeated in knot tying at the ITF Tech Challenge all three years he attended. In 2015, he told Dramatics, “When I auditioned for the Tech Team, the person who was teaching knots was doing it really fast, and it looked really cool. I thought, ‘He looks like a ninja. I want to do that.’”

Dunn remembers being the “freshie” on the Pacmule team as a sophomore, after serving as assistant stage manager that year. “Pacmules are hand-selected, and we quickly form a tight friendship where we hold each other up,” said Dunn, who has competed with the Pacmule team in two Arkansas Thespian Festivals and two International Thespian Festivals. “Not only do we dominate Tech Challenge, but we also do everything in our power to keep a level head backstage to ensure a smooth show and teamwork among the crew, actors, and other technicians.”

Part of the friendly competition between Sellers and Pumphrey dates to when they attended Arkansas Tech University together. “Steven and I met in a PE volleyball class at Arkansas Tech. There were like 60 girls in this class and three guys — Steven, me, and some other guy — all sort of vying for attention, and we took it very seriously,” Pumphrey recalled.

For both directors, taking competition seriously only enhances the fun. “It doesn’t mutate into some toxic, competitive environment,” said Pumphrey. “You’re competing in your technical events in an atmosphere similar to a junior high dance. There’s music, you’re having fun, running around, showcasing something that brings you joy and that is a skill set not everyone has. We never let the competitive aspect of this overshadow what really matters, which is being quality technicians. We never do it in a way that diminishes anyone else. You are not beating anybody else. You are being the best you can be.”

Pumphrey said that this spirit of fun-taken-seriously extends to the judges. “We make it clear to kids that Tech Challenge adjudicators at ITF are professionals in your field. They’re going to see you in these events, and they’re going to want you to swing by their table. This might create a dialogue and — bam! — you’re moving on to the next stage in your career,” said Pumphrey. “But don’t forget that these professors are there having fun too, and they’re dorky technicians too. Just talk to them. Introduce yourself.”

The 2017 Alma High School Tech Challenge team proudly displays their branded shirts, hats, and team flag.
The 2017 Alma High School Tech Challenge team proudly displays their branded shirts, hats, and team flag. Photo by Corey Rourke.

PEER-TO-PEER EDUCATION

Sellers realizes that Alma High School is very well supported and not every school has the time or resources to devote to serious Tech Challenge training. Sometimes this means Thespians get thrown into the ITF event with no training at all. Sellers said that’s OK. In 2019, Meegan Gliner, director of Troupe 6647, signed her students up for ITF Tech Challenge after they won EdTA’s Send a Troupe to Festival Grant.

“They came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve never been to this thing before, and we have no idea what we’re doing. Can you show us how to tie ropes?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ Because that’s what we’re for,” said Sellers. “We’re trying to educate as well. So, if you’re a student, and you don’t know how to do these events, that’s fine. My students will be there, showing people how.”

As Pumphrey put it, “Competition can never overshadow collaboration. Winning is never so important that you hinder someone learning another skill. When we see new people at Tech Challenge who don’t know what to do, I tell my students to be a guiding force. Maybe next year, they come back with a hunger and give us a challenge. Either way, they’re learning something and having fun.”

Although Pacmules and Mavtechs work hard to uphold the legacy of both their troupes and Arkansas Thespians as national tech team challengers par excellence, Dunn said the most important lesson he’s learned through his Pacmule involvement is simply “the importance of working as a team to achieve goals and the importance of having a team that can get work done.”

Students attending ITF who have never participated in Tech Challenge and aren’t ready to jump in can also watch the event. For more information, visit the International Thespian Festival website.

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