A fascination with performance technology, combined with a mind for detail and a naturally caring disposition, laid the foundations for Micah Rahn’s career as a theater consultant. From his first experience working backstage on a High School production of Peter Pan, to servicing the needs of lighting professionals on Broadway and in Film and Television, to designing the technical infrastructure for nightclubs, concert halls and performing arts centers across the USA, Rahn has been driven by an unquenchable thirst to learn his craft and deliver the best possible solutions for his clients . . .
How did you first become involved with performance technology?
In High School. We had a new theater building and they decided to do a production of Peter Pan, renting professional grade scenery, costumes and flying effects from touring companies. That was kind of fantastic, so I worked on every production at High School and throughout college. That led to an internship at a dimming and controls manufacturer that happened to be in my home town, in their systems estimation department. It all kind of clicked – I’d always had an aptitude for math, numbers, detail and multitasking. Within a year I was doing full systems take-offs and estimates, and it was great – I really enjoyed it. All that time I was learning about stage technology in every way I could, from every direction.
What was your route from there to becoming a performance technology consultant?
That internship really set me on the path to becoming a theater consultant, although I didn’t know it at the time. The most exciting projects were the ones where I had full sets of plans and specifications and could really get to understand how these systems went together. And the most interesting and complicated were the ones designed by theater consultants – people who do that for a living – so I always gravitated towards those. It’s odd to think a 17-year-old is fascinated by theater plans designed by Theatre Projects or Fisher Dachs or Auerbach, but that’s really where is started.
I did the internship during summer breaks, winter breaks and so on, off and on up till September 11th 2001, after which internships weren’t really an option. I was in college so I started doing summer stock work, and picking up as much design work as I could. I graduated with my degree [a BFA in Theater Design & Technology, from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point] and that same quotations department had a full-time opening, so I applied and got it, because I already knew how to do the job.
Within a year I transferred out to New York City to work in a technical sales position. That’s where I really became an expert in performance technology. I had to be the expert – I was working with designers, technicians and consultants on all types of production - on Broadway, feature films, television studios, live events - for about five years.
I continued to find the theater consulting work fascinating, and built relationships with the people at those firms. I wanted to be the person who, if they had questions, they’d call. I think I was pretty successful at that, because one Saturday I got a call from Fisher Dachs Associates (FDA) saying they’d had someone quit, and asking if I could come in on Monday.
How long have you been doing what you do?
I’ve been a consultant since 2008 and involved in performance technology in some way for over 20 years.
If you hadn’t become a consultant, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’d probably be somewhere in medicine. Both my parents were registered nurses, and helping and caring for other people has always been a pretty integral part of my life. I applied it in customer service fields, like technical sales support. I spent the first half of University going back and forth between a theater degree or pre-med, but in the end I went for art and theater, because it seemed less stressful!
If someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?
I design performing arts buildings. Concert halls, opera houses, amphitheaters - anywhere there’s a stage or a performance component. If it has a space for performance, I love to be a part of it. It’s the non-traditional spaces that can be more exciting, because they require so much more outside-of-the-box thinking.
Can you give some examples of the projects you’ve been involved with?
We’ve worked on a wide variety, either as Stages Consultants or as designers with other firms. So it’s not just grade school theaters, or University Performing Arts Centers or professional theaters. We did the Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor and the Marquee nightclub in Las Vegas. We’re working on the new Feinstein’s Club at the Hotel Carmichael in Indiana. We’re doing some work with the University of Miami, and at New Jersey City University, and a lot of work at the Peace Center, a performing arts complex in South Carolina. We’re also doing a large Broadway-style roadhouse auditorium for a corporate client in Virginia.
What do you most enjoy about the process of your work?
I love how each project is a unique challenge. With Stages Consultants, and the way that I’ve always worked, no project is ever a ‘cookie-cutter’ – we never apply the same template to a project just because of what it is. We love to discover what makes a group, or a program, or the venue itself unique in how they use it, and to take the tools of performance technology and figure out how best to apply them for those people. Ultimately, we want to make spaces where they’re not concerned about the constraints of the tools that they have or don’t have, we want them to be able to focus on the art, and what they’re creating.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
One of the big challenges is having those conversations. Oftentimes they’ll walk you through what their process is, but not why their process is. They may have been doing it a certain way for 15 years, but lost sight of why, so what was a compromise 15 years ago has become a way of life. When we’re starting a renovation or a new venue, let’s not start with a compromise – let’s take it apart and find out if there is a better way. It can be a bit of a juggle, because it might be the best way for that specific person to operate, but we have to think about the life of the venue.
And there’s a bit of counselling and mediation that needs to happen to present change – necessary change – without overturning things. We never want to be the consultant that comes in and says, ‘We’re changing how you do things, just because.’ Even if it’s the right thing, it’s got to be presented in a way that gets them to buy into the idea.
It can be particularly challenging if there is no direct ownership – maybe they don’t have a technical director yet, and that person shows up two-and-a-half years into the design process. If that person has strong opinions that are counter to some of the design decisions that were made two-and-a-half years ago, it can create a lot of friction.
What would you say are the key elements required for a successful project?
It’s identifying the key goals. Every project’s going to be unique. With a renovation, is its sole purpose to bring the technology up from one generation to another? That’s relatively simple. Or are we trying to take a space and reshape it so that it can be used in a different way?
What are the key skills or attributes that you require to do your job well?
Communication. If you can’t communicate well, you’re going to have a very hard time coordinating with the various members of the design team. We have to coordinate very closely not just with architects but with engineers – electrical, mechanical and structural. And in theater, we do things that are weird. I can give an electrical engineer instructions on something that we need that goes counter to everything they’ve ever done. Some are flexible, others may have been doing things one way for 40 years and have no interest in understanding why we’d want to do it differently. You need to be able to talk to those people, or they’re going to be fighting you every step of the way.
What are the most common misconceptions that you encounter among clients?
Something that I run into all the time is that, when you’re an end user, you tend to want to talk about the fun and exciting pieces of technology - the lighting fixtures and consoles. But from a project point of view, that’s the last part of the process - and there’s a reason for that. So, I’ll get questions about lighting fixtures three years before we’re even going to specify them. We want to wait till the building’s almost ready to open – then we’ll see what the best toys on the market are at that point.
Which piece of advice do you give to clients most often?
‘Speak up’! I want to know what you want, what you think, what your opinion is. Not just the clients, but all the stakeholders. I want to hear from them more often than others probably do.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
Projects where we’re not allowed to talk to the end user. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it can be very frustrating, especially when you have questions about technology needs, for example. And if it happens to be a project that’s developer-driven, where the performance aspect is an obligation, they don’t want any conversations taking place that might add to cost. In those cases, I still always try to do the very best that I can for them, but it’s frustrating.
Can you tell us something about being a consultant that most people don’t realize?
Most people don’t even know that theatre consultants exist! It’s something you only know about when you need to interact with them.
Which types of project do you find the most rewarding?
Those where you’re working directly with the people who will be using the space and having them as a part of the process. Listen to how they currently work, how they want to work, what works for them, what doesn’t – apply it to the design we’re creating, take it back to them, get feedback, make modifications and eventually build it and see them begin to make art in this space. That’s about as good as it gets.
Which of your projects have you found most satisfying, and why?
A couple of years ago we did technical renovations at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music – or ‘CCM’ as we prefer to call it! It’s an amazing collegiate program, they train world-class musicians, actors, technicians and designers. They have multiple venue types which made it so exciting. They have one venue that they use as a roadhouse, another as a traditional proscenium repertory theater, and so on. We were making design decisions on the infrastructure to bring the technology up to date, so that they could continue to train their students in those types of venues, with a wider range of technologies.
We were able to work in one facility with multiple venues of different styles, and work closely with the director of facilities, the design faculty, the production electrician. Getting to know them and the building over weeks and years, and eventually seeing them make their art, but also knowing that they’re training the next generation, was fantastic.
How do you keep yourself apprised of new technology and potential solutions?
Relations with vendors is critical, whether it’s directly with the manufacturer or with dealers or sales reps. It’s essential to build a relationship with them so you know you can trust them and what they have to say. A good sales rep is worth their weight in gold, because they’re the ones providing technical knowledge for me.
How has clients’ awareness of LED lighting technology changed in recent years?
I remember 15 years ago when there really weren’t good LED performance fixtures, but that’s what everybody was striving for. New products coming out with better and better performance has made my job easier. As a consultant, I’m looking to balance the needs of the performance quality of the light with the actual budget. Does that mean that for every project I need top of the line lighting fixtures? No. But how far down can I go? Does it make sense to go for quantity over quality, or vice versa? It all depends on the project.
It’s great that we’ve got such a variety of good fixtures to choose from now. Vari-Lite recently came out with a nice mid-line set of fixtures [the LekoLED ellipsoidal range], and it’s great to start seeing a wide family of products so that we can select from the range. We can choose something that costs less – we may cut some corners performance-wise, but that’s completely appropriate for how it’s used.
Ultimately, I’m looking for quality of light first; I have to be directed specifically by the client to compromise on that. Often the client doesn’t want the most expensive fixture, they want the cheaper one because they want more – and more isn’t always better. Yeah, I can get you 100 of those fixtures, but everyone’s going to look awful, so let’s get maybe 50 with better color rendering. Educating the client is still important.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in equipment & system specifications in recent years?
It used to be hardline DMX into all infrastructure, but that’s changed in the past 10 to 15 years. Dimmer racks are going away across the board. Any venue that I’m putting dimmer racks into these days are utilizing things like Vari-Lite's C21 power thru module, where it’s an SCR dimmer and a mechanically controlled relay for intelligent, non-dimmable lighting fixtures. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I put in a dimmer rack that was just straight SCR dimmers with no relay component.
How often do you get to give product feedback to manufacturer’s representatives?
Because I worked for so many years on the manufacturing side, I have no problem with reaching out to a manufacturer or a sales rep and starting that conversation. If I feel there’s something I need, or if I’m interested in using a product in a non-standard way, I’ll speak to them.
Solutions-wise, what is missing in the marketplace? What would you most like to see from manufacturers?
There is a need for acoustically silent white light LED fixtures. Fan noise is a problem that we’re constantly running up against. We have so many rooms that are used for non-amplified musical performance. It doesn’t matter how silent the fan is – if you have a lot of them, it will be an issue. Encouraging manufacturers to get the very best they can from a convection-cooled product is pretty important.