Following the theme of last week’s faculty spotlight, The Anchor had the privilege of talking with Stephen Krebs, the Technical Director for the Theatre Department. He is in charge of building sets, taking designs and making them a reality. He also teaches the skills he has acquired to students in a class called Scenic Design.
What is your earliest memory of being involved in theatre?
The way I describe it isn’t really memory; it would be that it is my whole life. My first theatre experience was when I was only a few months old and I played baby Jesus, and it is a really hard place to go from there after playing the son of God, to see what are the roles you are going to take and what other things you are going to do. Even when I tried to work my way out of it and into other things it just kept drawing me back.
I was probably nine or 10 when I actually started assisting with building things and getting to actually be painting the sets, building the sets, and all of that [was] for the community theatre that my parents were involved in. Then, when I went to college, I never thought of it as a career. But as we learn while in college, we might go with a certain plan, but that changes after a semester or two or several years. I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in engineering and then going to get my master’s degree in theatre.
What did you like to do in college?
I did a lot of different things in college. My freshman year I was actually on the cheerleading team, so I was a cheerleader, and I was also in the United States Coast Guard, so I was having to do my, like, one weekend a month, two weeks a year thing.
I ended up working for extra credit for a class for the Theatre Department, and when that class was over, I had so many extra credit hours they offered to start paying me to continue to hang around and work on things for the Theatre Department. So I stopped doing cheerleading so I had more time to work. I was working about twenty hours a week, sometimes up to forty hours for the Theatre Department while I was still getting my engineering degree, which is really what locked me into thinking that [theatre] is going to be my career.
Between graduating and now, there has been a good amount of time. What were some jobs you had?
You have to get out there and do the real-world stuff before you can come back and teach people how to do things and have a leadership position in any theatre. So after grad school, I was involved with a flying effects company, so like if a school wanted to do Peter Pan they would hire us—there are only about four or five companies that do these effects. I worked there for a few years. The theatre industry is known for burnouts, and that shop definitely had a lot of burnout issues, so I left and worked on cruise ships. I was the rigging and automation technician for cruise ships for a little while. I then chose to leave cruise ships and worked as the assistant technical director for a theatre that was owned by the College of Charleston but wasn’t part of the Theatre Department, similar to how Hope has the Knickerbocker Theater. I left that job and ended up working for the production company Dark Star in Hinesburg, Vermont. So I got offered a position back in Charleston at a theatre that they had completely re-done, and I spent several years there. Again, back to the burnout thing, it was like feast or famine: I would work 90 hours one week and then 30 hours another week, and it was wearing on me, so I started looking at positions that had a more normal schedule.
Was higher education in mind when you thought about your next steps?
I was looking at a lot of different places, and higher ed is one of the ones where you can sometimes end up with a more normal schedule—not always. A good example is that I interviewed at Harvard for a position. Not the same position as here, but they said that I would only be working for the shows and would have nothing to do with classes. Some weeks you will be working a lot, like 90 hours, and then as soon as the show is over they would lay you off for three to five weeks until the next show, and then you have to go on unemployment or get another job somewhere else. I was trying to get away from that feast or famine workflow. So it’s not always the case, but Hope is very wonderful, and when I came and interviewed, they talked about how they wanted to run things and be a part of a change for the betterment of the industry and to stop burning out.
Was teaching and being a part of classes a priority for you in your career journey or did it just fall into place?
That just kind of happened. I had it in the back of my mind that I would eventually end up in higher ed. I think I am here a few years earlier than I had thought. I figured that when I would be too burned out to do the work that I am doing because that is very easy to do [in the industry], and that maybe I’ll go into higher ed and become a professor or something like that. So it just worked out with when and where I ended up.
How long have you been here at Hope? And what is making you stay?
This is my third year at Hope. I really enjoy western Michigan. I think it is really beautiful here. We are right by the lake and I have plans to get a boat in the spring. I like to go hiking, and because of my more normal work schedule, I could get a puppy, so I can take him on hikes and stuff. At Hope, what is keeping me here and working here is just such a good theatre faculty; they are very conscious of making sure I don’t get burnt out and fixing problems. There is such a caring community here—I feel more like I am cared about by everybody than anywhere else.
What do you hope to show students beyond the things in a course description?
I think one of the things that I am passionate about is not just the building part of it, but industry safety. In the theatre industry we joke about the phrase “safety third,” but I have experienced some very horrific accidents in my career. Thankfully none of them were accidents that personally injured me, but I have known people whose careers have been destroyed and people who have died [from accidents], which is very upsetting. So I am really passionate about safety—just trying to instill people to consciously make smart, safer choices, which isn’t just about following the rules. We also need to take safety individually and embody it and think about it, and everyone has the right to stop something they feel is unsafe.
What is something that students and people who know you would find surprising about you?
To me, none of it is surprising, because it is my whole life. It might be surprising to people that I am quite the outdoor enthusiast—I grew up hunting, fishing and camping and stuff, and I still love to do that, which isn’t necessarily something that people relate back to the arts.