Bing Theatre, Scene Dock Theatre, and McClintock Theatre all house the numerous and aesthetically impressive works of the School of Dramatic Arts, as actors glide across the stage, immersing themselves in the world of performance. Behind them, wooden structures stand proud, helping to set the scene and further illuminate the shows. However, the origins of these structures remain relatively unknown to most USC students.

For a small faction of students, their weekly class routine takes them to the Technical Theatre Laboratory (TTL), the building immediately next to the Scene Dock Theatre, in the southwest corner of USC's campus near the Gerontology school. Here lies the answer to the uncertainty.

The warehouse- like building, which has been around for eight years, serves "for the technical needs of the School of Dramatic Arts productions," Mr. Duncan Mahoney, Associate Professor of Theatre Practice and the Director of Technical Directions, said. "We primarily build scenery and props, but we do basically whatever we need to."

Inside these walls, quite the operation gets under way. According to Mahoney, "we could be actively producing as much as six different shows in one day." As for the time that a show's scenery will be produced inside the building, Mahoney speculates that it takes anywhere from one to five weeks from start to finish.

"The pace in the spring is the most challenging part, with 13 shows in 15 weeks," Mahoney noted. "Work here is never boring, but then again, theatre never is either," Mahoney said as he walks towards a mural to be used in "One Hour Earlier," a play written by second-year Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) students to be performed April 22-24 in the Massman Theatre.

Who exactly works on these projects? Mahoney states that "there are two assistants, 20 work-study students, and 140 undergraduates who work in the TTL as the lab portion of their Theatre 130 course for three hours a week. Theatre 130: "Introduction to Theatrical Production," is required in the School of Dramatic Arts, with labs running from 10-1 and 2-5, during all five days of the school week.

Prior to being used as the TTL, the building had little use. "It was a parking lot, about two-thirds the size, with low ceilings," Michael Etzrode, Assistant Production Director, noted. In terms of the TTL, it was located by the Mecca Center, about an eight-ten minute walk for students. "Now it's a lot easier for students to get here…that eight-ten minute walk between classes was hard," Mahoney added.

While figuring out the dimensions of a piece of wood to be used in the show "Breath, Boom" in the Scene Dock Theatre from April 21-24, Mahoney starts to explain his own backstory. Graduating from Cal Tech in 1982 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Mahoney set out to the job market, only to end up in the unemployment line. "Parsons Engineering had laid off 200 mechanical engineers," he recalls.

A collection of photographs hangs above Michael Etzrode’s work place in the Technical Theatre Laboratory (TTL). These photos are of each student who has worked in the TTL who has since graduated. Photo by Aaron Glazer
A collection of photographs hangs above Michael Etzrode’s work place in the Technical Theatre Laboratory (TTL). These photos are of each student who has worked in the TTL who has since graduated. Photo by Aaron Glazer

If he had to do it all over again, Mahoney would have chosen a different career path. "I should have been in computer engineering," he quipped. However, his childhood love of theatre drove him towards pursuing a career in the arts.

After working as an electrician for a few years, Mahoney spent 14 years at the Odyssey Theatre, and then has had the last 18 as a Trojan. "USC was perfect because I had been wanting to teach for awhile," Mahoney noted. "I wasn't expecting it to be harder than professionalism, but having to create a lesson plan or a quiz after a full day of production certainly has its challenges."

For now though, students in the TTL are enjoying his company as well as the amenities of the building itself. "It has ample varieties of tools and materials, and they have impacted the way I've learned in ways I never knew," Katelin Walsch, freshman, noted. Indeed, the hands-on experience that a theatre student was probably not the first thing they thought of when coming to USC, but will certainly not be forgotten.

Ideally, the building helps foster and maintain transferrable skills. "From home improvement to producing theatre, what students learn here is important," Mahoney said. "Some may end up working in an environment where they have to build their own sets and design their own costumes while others may be famous right away, but either way they have to learn this stuff."

"Knowing how to build things is one of the most brave things you can do with yourself," Etzrode added. "When students leave, I think they become a little stronger."

As the saying goes in life, "it's the little things that count." From initial load-in to final product, every step of the way helps the School of Dramatic Arts produce its finest work.