June 2009 - August 2009: Issue 31

People: Careers in Arts Education

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Daniel Risner: Assistant Technical Director

Interviewed by Paul Kahn

photo of Daniel Risner: Assistant Technical Director
Kahn:
Can you tell me what you’re doing now?
Daniel:

I'm the Assistant Technical Director at Theatre J in Washington, DC. I’m running the sound board for the current show, The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall. It’s a comedy, a musical version of the movie Annie Hall.

Kahn:
What typically does an Assistant Technical Director do? What is the range of activities?
Daniel:

Everything from hanging lights to trouble-shooting, consulting with decisions about sound and lights, what can be done and what can’t be done, organizing and running special events and even being the stage manager when you need to be. Anything that relates to the show that is tech-based I'm involved in.

Kahn:
How did you get your job?
Daniel:

I was in an internship program. Very quickly it turned out that I wasn’t going to be in the office, because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So, I started to work on the shows. I caught on pretty quickly, and they gave me on-the-job training. I was put to work, and from day one I’ve been working on shows. 

Kahn:
Who sponsored the internship program?
Daniel:

It’s called the Washington Internship Program. They gave me a list of theaters, and I called around and saw what places were offering. This was really the only place that was going to offer me anything that wasn’t administrative. I didn’t want to work in an office, so I went with them. 

Kahn:
Was there a lot of competition for the internship?
Daniel:

It was created for me. Originally it was supposed to be administrative, but that didn’t really work. So, they decided to create something that was more in keeping with what I do, which is being around people and helping out with projects. But there is always competition with internships, especially in the arts.

Kahn:
Who do you work under?
Daniel:

I work under a Production Manager, a Managing Director and the Director for each show, and I work normally either on sound or lights.

Kahn:
What prepared you to work in this field?
Daniel:

I graduated from Leeds University last year with a performing arts degree. I am British. I’ve been in the U.S. since September. I’m very new, but I work very hard.

Kahn:
Did you specialize in anything particular?
Daniel:

Popular music.. 

Kahn:
So, doing the work you’re doing now is somewhat of a departure.
Daniel:

It’s behind the scenes. I like being part of the process.

Kahn:
What are the requirements for what you’re doing now in tech work? How does someone qualify for that kind of position?
Daniel:

You’ve got to be a very good trouble-shooter. You have to know what to do when things go wrong and not panic. You have to be very good with people. You have to work your ass off. And you have to have a good ear if you’re running sound and a good eye if you’re running lights and know your job.

Kahn:
How did you learn your job?
Daniel:

I was very lucky. I’m a very good trouble-shooter and I have a good ear and I work hard and I don’t buy into any bullshit. I work my ass off. I was very lucky that the stuff I didn’t know I either figured it out or someone was kind enough to teach me.

Kahn:
So you did a lot of on-the-job training.
Daniel:

Yes. It’s all been on-the-job training.

Kahn:
Do you think that learning on-the-job has been more important than your academic background?
Daniel:

One hundred percent. At the University I learned that I could do a paper in a night and still do well. I learned that I was a good performer, but already knew that.

Kahn:
Can you tell me a little about your disability?
Daniel:

I have cerebral palsy. It affects my right arm and leg predominantly, so I wear a leg brace and I don’t really use my right arm. I’m very strong on my left side. I work out extremely hard to be extremely strong on my left side.

Kahn:
Do you think your disability has had any impact on your career?
Daniel:

I think it’s had a positive impact. I think people are beginning to see that it really doesn’t make a difference if you have a disability or not. You may hate me for saying this, but I’ve met a lot of disabled people who are looking for sympathy and think they deserve a job because they’re disabled. I have never been like that. I believe that, if you can do the job well and you work hard, there is no reason why you can’t do it. If you buy into your own bullshit about what you can’t do but think you still deserve the job because there has to be someone disabled there somewhere, then you won’t do a good job. I would ride you just as hard whether you’re disabled or not. God has given you what you’ve got. And the minute you start blaming everyone else for what you can’t do you forget what you can do. I’ve met so many people who think they deserve something from the world. The minute you think about, “Oh, I’m the guy with the disability,” you’re F___ed. You’re absolutely f___ed. People can see right through that. “People create and break their own limitations.” That’s my favorite quote. I made it up several years ago. I truly believe everyone has limitations, disabled or not, but it’s how you deal with them and how you break them. I do not doubt that there are things in life that are hard to do, but it’s the things that are hard to do that create the person.

Kahn:
Do you think that attitude of deserving is prevalent in both England and the U.S.?  
Daniel:

I find it in both places. When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to these cerebral palsy clinics where I’d meet all the other kids who had cerebral palsy. I absolutely hated it because they couldn’t do what I could do. I never considered myself disabled. None of my friends had disabilities, and all my friends treat me exactly the same way. They push me around, we fight, we play sports and they yell at me the same way. I would accept nothing less. When I play tennis, I don’t expect to lose to anyone. I don’t care if they’re disabled or not.

Kahn:
Is there anything you don't like about teaching?
Daniel:

We're often asked to juggle so many balls at the same time that it's sometimes difficult to do all the things you need to do.  Teaching is only 40 percent of my assignment.  I have service to the University, administrative work, and my research.  At all times you have to pay attention to all three of those areas, and it can be hard to get any one thing done or to give the time that you want to give them.  But a benefit is that your schedule is often very flexible.  A complicating factor is that I have two children, and when they came into the mix it made it difficult try to do what I need to do as a parent, pay attention to my job and deal with disability issues all at the same time.  It's a continuous challenge.  This profession is not known to be as accommodating to parenthood as it could be.

Kahn:
Sounds like you have quite a competitive personality.
Daniel:

I hate to lose.

Kahn:
Has that been an important factor in your success?
Daniel:

I think you have to be naturally arrogant and convince yourself you are better than you actually are. Then other people will start believing it, too. I hate losing to anyone! And when I play tennis especially, I play passionately. If you want to beat me, you’ve got to have more heart than I do. And to have more heart than I do, you have to be willing to die on the court. And some people have beaten me. But they’re going to lose seven or eight pounds doing it. I never go down easy.

Kahn:
Do you disclose your disability when you’re applying for a job?
Daniel:

It depends. It doesn’t say anything about me. If I get an interview, then it’s pretty obvious. But by that point I’ve charmed them and I’ve schmoozed them and I know exactly how I’m doing. If it’s a job I can’t do, like a job that’s going require me to work all day on a rope, then I won’t apply for it. A lot of people can do those things better than me. Any job that I feel I can do, I will tell them about my disability when they need to know.

Kahn:
Are there any accommodations that you need in order to do your job?
Daniel:

When it comes to hanging lights, they’re very expensive. God forbid something happens and I trip. Forget about how expensive it is to fix me -- the lights are much more expensive. So, I have help doing that the same as anyone else would. Apart from that, no. There are things in life that are harder to do. But I use the word “harder” because they’re not impossible. You have to figure out ways to do them. I can serve the ball 103 miles an hour. And I’m a lefty. A left-handed server is pretty impossible to return. I make sure I’m strong.

Kahn:
How did you get interested in a career in performing arts?
Daniel:

I’m a natural attention-seeker. I can’t help it. I like being on the stage. I’ve always written songs, and I enjoy performing them. Even as a kid, I was never really shy onstage. It was in my blood. But coming out here, I want to try my hand at being behind-the-scenes. I like having an input in what goes on the stage and not just being a puppet.

Kahn:
When you were looking into a career in theatre, were there any particular people who gave you a leg up?
Daniel:

When I was a kid about seven years old my mother arranged through the Make A Wish Foundation for me to get to meet Jason Donovan, who was in the lead role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat at the time. It was one of my favorite shows. I’ve seen it seven or eight times. I loved it! He said to me, “This is a business, and the minute you start accepting a leg up you get lazy. You should work hard, and it will happen.” And I’ve always worked hard. In this industry you need to have the right break, but I don’t agree that you need to be given a hand-out just because you have a disability.

Kahn:
Was there anybody who inspired you?
Daniel:

I have a couple of heroes. Andre Agassi, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, won three of out of the four majors and then dropped out at 218th in the world. And then he got back to number one. To do that is so unbelievable. And he played tennis until he was 37 years old. My family has always, always encouraged me and have never, ever, ever, ever, ever given me any sympathy. Those are my heroes, really.

Kahn:
What are the greatest rewards of performing?
Daniel:

Hearing people laugh, getting a standing ovation at the end of a show. If people are standing at the end of the show, you know you’ve done a good job.

Kahn:
Have you ever had any disappointments in your field?
Daniel:

Not yet. I’ve made mistakes, but nothing that has been massive. You work hard and you keep learning and you keep trying to get better.

Kahn:
What is your future going to look like?
Daniel:

For the time being, I want to continue working behind-the-scenes in shows. I see myself going back onstage at some point and maybe trying to get into the music industry at some point as an artist. I have a couple of contacts, and they give me advice and guide me. There’s so much more I need to learn.

Kahn:
If you were giving advice to somebody who wants the same type of career as you, would you tell them that going to university is wasting time?
Daniel:

Going to university gives you a real indication of how to function in a more professional atmosphere. It teaches you how to deal with people you never met before from all over the world. University helps build your confidence and makes you socially much more advanced. So, even though you might not learn anything academically, you definitely learn that.

Kahn:
So, your view is that a lot of limitations are self-created?
Daniel:

I don’t doubt that people who have no arms or no legs have real difficulties. But I’ve met someone with no arms and no legs and he still does everything. It’s figuring out a way of doing it. I’ve done a lot of speeches about this kind of shit. I always say to people, “Why don’t you undo your shoelaces?” Everyone looks at me like I’m crazy. “Now retie them.” And everyone reties them. And then I say, “Undo them again. Now tie them up with one hand.” There are different kinds of people. Some people look at their shoes for a very long time and don’t actually do anything. Some people give up, and other people keep going and figure it out. By the end of my speech a couple of people in the audience have figured out how to do it. Because there’s obviously a way. If I can do my shoelaces, there’s a way.

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