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From bytes to lights: Senior theatre major works magic behind-the-scenes

Senior Drew McDaniels installs a faux-brick wall he constructed for the musical “Cabaret.”

Sophomore year, Drew McDaniels had a decision to make. And it wasn’t an easy one.

He always had an analytical mindset, great at navigating diagnostic challenges. But his artistic side beckoned, making McDaniels pause and think of creative uses for his computer skills. Switching majors, he used his technical talent to illuminate the stage – and his fresh perspective has kept him in demand, both on and off campus, ever since.


“My life is really crazy right now,” McDaniels said. “It’s hard to balance with classes. But it definitely makes college a lot easier when you can sit back and love it.”

McDaniels on set with Georgia College Technical Director Jesse Wade (left).

This month alone, the senior juggled classes, designed and managed lights for a production in Macon and finished his capstone project as the assistant technical director for Georgia College’s production of “Cabaret.” Next, McDaniels will Skype into strategic meetings at the Florida Repertoire Theatre in Fort Myers, where – after taking final exams early and skipping his graduation ceremony – he’ll design lights for the rock musical “Heathers” in May.

“Some people see theatre as not being practical. But it’s hard,” McDaniels said. “I realized I’m already getting paid for this, and I really enjoy doing it, so I’m going to make it work.”

McDaniels in a basket lift, checking lights for “Cabaret.”

As a computer science major freshman year, McDaniels commuted long hours back-and-forth to his hometown Augusta. He fixed problems on the set of “Guys and Dolls” at Greater Augusta Youth Theatre. He also worked as their technical director, lighting designer and set builder for “Oliver.” That’s when McDaniels decided to change majors and put his computer know-how to work in theatre.

Light designing requires a lot of research and pre-planning before shows. There’s a ton of paperwork, and each lighting cue must be plotted into computer codes. McDaniels gets harnessed for safety, when going 15-feet in the air by basket lift to move and focus lights.

The tools he uses are “really cool” – a variety of dimmers, sliders and LED canons that shoot and shape beams of illumination.

It’s a job he loves doing. But it isn’t for the lazy or faint-of-heart.

“I might sound like I have it all together, but don’t be fooled,” McDaniels said. “Seeing what people are doing and seeing the competition – it’s terrifying. Because in this field, there are a lot of people who are really good. At the end of the day, it’s all about diversifying yourself.”

Part of McDaniels’ job as assistant technical director was to
oversee student workers.

He went on to build the kitchen-cabinet background for Georgia College’s production of “Stick Fly” in fall 2016. Dr. Karen Berman, chair and artistic director for theatre and dance, marveled at the set’s precise features.

“I told him it was so realistic that I could live in it!” Berman said. “We’ve never had that level of detail on a set before in my 10 years here. For a junior to have designed a set of that sophistication was amazing.”

Last spring, McDaniels also designed the splashy, concert-like beams of light for Georgia College’s rock-n-roll musical “American Idiot.” Most plays have about 50 lighting cues and a musical up to 300. “American Idiot” had 728. A local theatre manager saw the performance – and that’s how McDaniels got his recent job doing lights for the Macon Civic Club’s show, “Shake It Up,” at the Grand Opera House.

This all led to McDaniels’ current project as assistant technical director for “Cabaret,” working closely with Jesse Wade, the university’s technical director for theatre. The capstone requires broad capabilities like budgeting, creating schedules, time management and communicating ideas to set workers he oversees. Whenever he has free time, McDaniels is in the ‘shop’ on west campus – a small warehouse where scenic plans become constructed reality. Students call it their “fun place.”

For “Cabaret,” McDaniels was told to design a faux-brick rear wall with Masonite. Trick was – two angled doors in the middle had to appear automated and slide open. Purposely, Wade gave McDaniels the task with no oversight. The senior was on his own, independently pondering how to make it work.

“Drew is extremely talented,” Wade said. “He’s been doing a great job doing that extra little bit. I picked this for him, because it forces him to think ahead about issues like friction when the door moves, how to brace the wall around the door so it stands up and how to lay out a brick pattern so it looks real.”

McDaniels even taught himself a drafting program for light designers called “Vectorworks.” Taking the initiative and being at the helm of a large project is good preparation for the future – where McDaniels sees himself designing lights or getting a master’s in technical directing. Both fields, Wade said, are challenging and not for anyone unwilling to work hard.

McDaniels agrees. He’s grateful for the opportunities college opened to him.

“The greatest part about theatre,” he said, “is the collaboration of so many minds working toward a common goal. You have so many diverse viewpoints, and you’re looking at it from many different angles. There’s so many creative minds working together. It’s something really special.”

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