Alan Symonds

Alan Symonds, the Technical Director for theater at Harvard College, passed away on Tuesday, June 20. He was born in 1946. He was working, outside of “business” hours, helping to load in a production in his beloved Agassiz Theater. He was a true Bostonian: educated and earthy, a master craftsman who drove a pickup and loved nothing better than a good story. He was the eye in the storm of Harvard theater: a calm and bemused presence, steady as a rock but capable of moving heaven and earth to make things go right.

I have little right to talk about him, comapred with some of the true theater junkies who lived and breathed backstage tech, who put on huge productions, and many of whom have gone on to do what Alan did, making a career out of doing the tech work they love. But Alan was there for everyone, from actors who may never remeber him to lighting designers who spent their four years and more hanging on his words and his advice. He made it happen; he taught us how to make it happen. He started the Freshman Arts Program; a weeklong extravaganza the week before classes, in which a squad of incoming students ran riot through a dozen art forms, creating fanstastic hybrids and lasting friendships. One of his favorite FAPs involved a pirate ship on wheels that rolled unannounced and unexplained through various orientation events, to the surprise and delight of surprised first-years and their parents.

Most commonly, if you met Alan, it was because you were somehow involved with a production enough to hear the fire speech. He must have given that speech a thousand times. At least. In case of fire, keep the audience calm. Defer to someone with authority and calm, typically the stage manager. Allow them to instruct the audience to calmly stand and proceed in and orderly fashion to the exits. You can position yourself by the stairs or other difficult points to help escort the audience out safely, calmly. Do you know the different kinds of fire extinguishers? No? Then don’t try to be a hero and use one. Leave the firefighting to the professionals. Your job is to get out safely and help everyone else to get out safely.

I think I heard him deliver the fire speech a dozen times. I can’t imagine Harvard theater without him giving it. (Yes, there were a couple of times I filled in on minor productions, senior year, but that was because I knew it well enough from hearing his delivery to give the essential blow-by-blow.) He wasn’t just Mr. Make-it-Happen; he was Mr. Safety. One of the last memories I have of him is from Arts First Weekend (the last weekend of the spring term of the Harvard year, immediately after classes have ended, a brief respite before reading period and finals, when the campus fills up with concerts, plays, exhibitions, screenings, and other arts of every shape and stripe). One of the exhbits was a set of sculptures, including a giant hamster wheel-like metal construction. Some young’uns, seeing what resembled a piece of playground equipment, were scrambling over it. Alan was looking on, with a skeptical expression. He was weighing the evident joy the kids were experiencng in playing with this odd and curious device against the risk that a join in the metal might give way or that little fingers could be trapped between two rods. Safety and playfulness, and how to have them both at once—that’s Alan for you.

Alan also taught me how to run a sound board and how to design lights. I had some of the best experiences of my college career sitting in a booth, watching a show for the tenth time while occasionally pushing a slider around. There’s a wonderful calm in it, a peaceful appreciation of seeing others do something well visibly—while you do your damndest to do something well invisibly. A perfectly timed crossfade; a light that picks up the color of the set and makes it glow; a musical interlude at the edge of perceptibility … the pleasures of working backstage are subtle but enduring. I still carry on the tradition, now and then. When everyone sounded muddy singing karaoke at a friend’s birthday party, I knew it was because they were twiddling the input levels instead of adjusting the master volume out. When Law Revue came calling, I knew how to milk a full range of effects from four pairs of lights and two spot. I’ll never be able to do such things again without hearing him explain how they work.

He gave his advice and stories so generously, I’m amazed. I was always a twerp, a duffer, a minor figure on the tech scene, filling in to help my friends on peripheral productions. But he was always willing to help when I came calling. When we did Chess in the Agassiz, it was a damn difficult sound job: how to project actors, an orchestra, an on-stage rock band, and prerecorded sound effects, all in a semicircular theater with many hard surfaces? (The semicircle means that the echoes center stage are severe, because the sound travelling outwards returns from all directions at the same time. Not enough amplification on the singers and they’ll be drowned out by the orchestra. Too much and you get nasty sudden-onset feedback.) He came up with a solution that involved five fixed microphones and another that would hide in various set pieces. Wiring everything was an engineering problem trickier than anything in my computer science courses; in the end, I used every channel on the sound board, with some outputs looping back around to become inputs to other channels. But we got out an audience mix, a monitor line for the band, and a cleaned-up mix for a recording of the show. I rode a close herd on that sound board, sweating and fretting and making tiny adjustments at the very edge of feedback safety. Alan didn’t say anything to me about the absolute quality of the sound. I know it was frequently dreadful; lots of lyrics were washed out. But he told me that I’d wrung just about everything from of the sound setup that could be wrung from it. I’ll treasure those words forever, because Alan knew his shit, and if Alan said I’d done all that could be done, then damn. It was worth blowing off my classes that week and trudging to the Agassiz through a snowstorm to hear that.

Weston and Tara, the light ops, seemed to be having such a good time at their station—and we spent so much time together that week—that Weston and I arranged to half-swap jobs the next time around. We were the light-and-sound team on a production in the Loeb Ex black box theater that fall; two very different one-acts. That meant it was back to Alan for me, this time to learn how to design lights. Alan loved all tech. He loved tossing lumber in the back of a truck; he loved firing up a table saw; he loved finding clever ways to run wires invisibly; he loved solving any sort of design problem; he loved actor-proofing your work. But more than anything else, he loved lighting. He was trained in a classic age, when the brilliant old union stagehands knew more than any young punk professionals. Alan followed them, listened to them, watched them, and learned to love the tempermental devices that recreated daily God’s first act.

When a fancy new thing called a “microprocessor” came along, he started playing around with it. It was the first one that Harvard had, actually; it came without too much in the way of software or documentation. This was the age when you rolled your own, so Alan did. That experience got him thinking about lighting. He came up with a way of using digital signals to control the brightness of a light, instead of just increasing or decreasing the amount of electricity passed through it. He got a patent on the technique, and then went on his way doing other things. Years later, a major theater supply company, trying to commercialize exciting new digital lighting control systems, discovered his patent. He and his coinventor were invited out to a meeting at the house of the laywer for the company, to discuss terms. They walked in, amazed at the opulence of the house, and realized that the undisclosed company interested in buying their patent had a lot of money to spend on affluent lawyers, and probably really wanted their patent. Alan’s coinventor, during the initial pleasantries, surreptitiously showed Alan three fingers. When the time came, Alan tripled the number they had been planning to quote as their asking price. The proceeds from paid for his pickup truck.

Alan, as I’ve said, taught me lighting design. His thoughtful explanations stand behind all of the moments from my brief lighting career that I treasure. We absolutely nailed the gel colors on that pair of one-acts; the set seemed to glowed in the dark. I used a harsh, ugly key-and-fill pair for David Henry Hwang’s Bondage; it was right because it was wrong, and Alan’s explanations of optics gave me the idea. I worked a dance production on sudden last-minute notice; Alan sent them my way because everyone else on campus was already booked and helped generate a primary-secondary color wheel design that could adapt to the dozens of different moods of the different pieces. That was followed by another dance production, one that needed a spotlight of a precise size—too bad we didn’t have a spotlight. Alan came to the rescue with a gobo made of aluminum foil—just a circle of the appropriate size, adjust as needed.

Alan, of course, taught me how to see and appreciate the work of others. I can’t go to a theater now without looking at the lights. Alan would step in himself to design the lights for the Gilbert and Sullivan show most semesters. I was always stunned at how few instruments there seemed to be, and yet the stage was bright and gleaming, and everything was perfect. He knew his craft; every light was doing exactly what it ought to, with no wasted effort. I admire the clarity of good Broadway designs; I wince when I see muddy and undifferentiated looks. And, more than once, my jaw has dropped at the brilliance of another designer’s solution to a problem. There was a dance production of Dark Side of the Moon my senior year. And even though I resented them for beating out our own production for a slot on the Loeb Mainstage (the biggest theater on campus, and the slickest), I couldn’t help admiring how perfectly it was produced, and how spectacular the lighting was. At the very end, the backdrop was filled with a yellow wash—everything under the sun is in tune—and at that instant I realized that the designers had used every color except yellow at some point previously in the show. Or how could I do justice to the production of City of Angels, also on the Mainstage? The lighting that flipped between vivid color and black-and-white? That was magical, and understanding how the trick is done only increases your admiration for the magician.

There are many times in theater craft when you cast your pearls before swine. The audience never remembers you; the actors sometimes forget to thank you. Alan wasn’t there to be noticed; he taught us not to strive to be noticed, either. Here’s how to load your lumber in without unnecessary fuss; here’s how long you should allow when placing a gel order; here’s the credit card to use; come buy some gaff tape from me. (Gaff tape is the stage crew cousin to duct tape—it’s just as useful in its way, but it doesn’t like to make as much a show of itself.) Get the job done, get it done well, have some fun, and don’t worry about being ignored by everyone down below.

Not that Alan was averse to a little swashbuckling. At the Rocky Mountain Jazz festival, he was up a lighting tower in the rain and only realized that he was the link from a live wire to ground (by way of the tower) when he could hear the current frequency in his voice. He’d be up one A-frame ladder in the Ag, with a student up another, and to save time, they’d just pass each other lights, one hand to another. (You need to have felt the heft of a typical six-by-nine to understand the fecklessness inherent in this maneuver.) At the festivals in the late sixties (he would have been at Woodstock, if he hadn’t been stranded at Randall’s Island loading out from the previous festival on the techie circuit), he and his fellows would run spotlights that ran on carbon arcs of insane brightness and extreme temperature. When the time for replacement approached (each was good only for an hour and a half or so, I believe), they’d take a spotlight offline, slam open the door to the lamp, pull free the filament with one asbestos-gloved hand, slap in a new filament with the other, slam the door shut, re-aim, and snap the light back on, all in ten seconds or so. In between sets, they’d aim the spots at local landmarks for fun—I believe that the Empire State Building was a particular favorite of Alan’s. They were cowboys: young, wild, brilliant, hip, and nerdy all at once.

A-frames, that’s a tool I can never use without thinking of Alan. He was insistent that an unbraced A-frame ladder is a disaster waiting to happen. You build up a kind of cameraderie with your bracer; it’s a slow business, hanging lights, and they’ve really got little else to do besides entertain you and themselves. I’ve braced for some great master electricians, and felt flattered just to be there. The other tool that to me will always be an Alan tool is my adjustible crescent wrench. I keep one in my toolbox, permanently on a loop of cord. I can slip the loop through a belt loop and be ready to venture up a ladder, secure that the wrench won’t fall and that I can always pull on it to have it close at hand. You learn to feel with a wrench, to know how and how hard to twist. That’s Alan again; it’s all him.

Alan was doing theater all along, but he took some detours here and there between his initial abortive run at college and his long and happy tenure running the tech and the safety for Harvard theater. He worked at a fire safety lab. Those whose work involves preventing fires have a close knowledge of it and a healthy appreciation for it; in the best of them, that pyromania becomes a form of empathy. They know when something might burn and pose a danger. I saw others fail to understand what was and what was not a danger plenty of times in college. Two girls were lighting Channukah candles for the second night; needing a holder for the three candles, they used the holes in a three-hole punch, left the room, and set some papers on fire. (They banned the lighting of Channukah candles in dorm rooms after that.) A friend, after her chemistry final, celebrated by burning her flash cards in a small pile in the middle of the Yard, on a cold wintery day. She was disciplined for it, after being confronted by a proctor who didn’t understand the harmlessness of her fire.

Alan worked at a fire safety lab, and he loved good stories. One thing tested in the fire safety lab was smoke alarms. They had a room filled with them—lining all the walls—to see how quickly they would drain their batteries. When one went off, Alan would go in, note which one, and change the batteries. Then, wouldn’t you know it, one of them caught fire. It was Alan’s job to go in the room full of shrieking smoke alarms. remove the culprit, and disable the rest until the smoke could clear. He wore multiple layers of earplugs and earmuffs.

I worked on many productions, some big, some small. I’m proud, puffed-up vainglorious proud, of three. Alan was critical to all three. I’ve mentioned Chess. Senior fall, we did a multiple-actor version of Twilight: Los Angeles in the rectangle. (You know, like in the round, but with seating on four perpendicular sides.) I had twenty-four lights (minus one or two for defunct instruments and wonky optics) and twelve channels on the light board (minus one, sometimes, for wonky circuitry). We also had set pieces behind each audience section and actors standing in pretty much every part of the stage. Plus two dance interludes with the full cast.

The design idea—pairs of lights in quadrants with single lights aimed at the alleys in between—was straight from Alan, as was the set of gel combinations that would let the design turn warm or cool. I added an insane pair of mid-show repatches: During the middle of each of two monologues, I unplugged eight lights from the control box and replugged them in a different order. (This switched the controls from being quadrant-by-quadrant to controlling the warm and cool lights separately, or vice-versa.) I used eight twofers to do it. (A “twofer” is a cable that allows two lights to be connected to a single plug; you get two “fer” the price of one.) I actually gaff-taped the twofers together in the exact arrangement; at the right time, I unplugged eight plugs from one side of the two-by-eight array of plugs and transferred them to the other side. It was triply an Alan moment. The creativity involved, I like to think, was Alan Symonds can-do inspiration (the idea was loosely inspired by the group structure of the dihedral group, so that sort of mathy crossover was Alan-y.) The meticulous checking that the wattages and wires would work was Alan’s look-before-you-leap approach to construction. And the repurposing of a twofer was pure Alan; he never met a tool he couldn’t find a new use for.

We went back into the same space in the spring for a production of M. Butterfly that was the single best show I’ve ever worked on. This time, we had the audience along both sides of a central strip of a stage. A fireplace at one end was Gallimard’s cell; every other piece of set was to be carried on or off. Alan, I asked him, how would one light this kind of setup so that the actors will read clearly to audience members on both sides? He suggested a Y shape for lights—each acting area would be illuminated by one light facing directly “upstage” and two facing “downstage” at a 45-degree angle from opposite sides. True, things would look “off” if seen from directly upstage, because the two lights involved would be gelled the same color, but no one would be sitting directly upstage. It was, of course, brilliant. It did, of course, work.

I can’t really describe how beautifully everything worked out. Words will fail me, here. There aren’t even, to my knowledge, any photographs of the play in mid-performance. If there were, they wouldn’t capture the timing of the slow fades or sudden blackouts. You will have tro trust me a bit as I try to explain what it was like. The acting was superb. Our Gallimard had done some serious professional acting. Our Song, who got hair extensions for the role, just inhabited the part. They played off each other perfectly. And, more than any other time in my brief stagecraft career, everything fired on all cyilinders. A slatted gobo produced a jail cell in shadows. Blue and red fresnel washes gave the whole stage a nighttime or harsh revolutionary glow, respectively. Naturalistic lights on Song’s apartment supported quietly psychological scenes; sudden spotlights further along highlighted characters who emerged for brief scenes. Spaces materialized out of nowhere as the light shone on them, then dissipated with the fade-out. And the final spotlight, on Song smoking a cigarette, was perfect. The smoke curled upwards, in quiet and stillness, as the complete turning-of-tables the play had wrought came to a final rest. I held it just for a beat, and then took the stage to black. It was a magical moment, repeated each performance. It was a magical two weeks. It transported audiences; it transformed my life.

I think that was what it was like for Alan every day of his too-short life. I will miss him, and so will many, many others.

(In the spring of 2002, I interviewed Alan as research for an article I was planning to write about him. One thing and another intervened, and the article remains uncommenced. The tapes I made of our interviews are still packed away somewhere; the recording speeds were off and both he and I sound like chipmunks. Many of the stories above are taken from those interviews. Others are part of Harvard theater folklore.)

Thank you, James.

I’ve been sad about this since I heard, and I haven’t been able to put those feelings into words; I’ve tried to explain to the people around me who Alan was, and I have nothing but trivialities. I’m going to print out this post and keep it; I hope you don’t mind.

Just a few days ago I was thinking about him during a mailing list discussion of the merits and flaws of competing brands of cordless drill. I dearly wish I had a photo of his office.


If you can somehow get those tapes input into a computer, I’m pretty sure that any basic sound editing program should be able to fix the chipmunk problem. I, for one, would love to hear them, and other G&S folks would love to, as well. We’re having our fiftieth anniversary celebration this fall, and I know there’s some sort of memorial planned for Alan—your tapes might be very useful in that capacity.

I really appreciate your putting these stories up—some of them I knew, but some I didn’t.