Student technical director uses the art and craft of theater to achieve that ‘goal moment’

Putting It Together

Donnie Kelly believes in magic.

Kelly, who grew up in Bordentown and Medford, New Jersey, is a third-year technical direction student in the Theater Department’s BFA program. TD’s, as they’re called, translate set designs into reality. TD’s oversee set construction and labor budgets, and create models and drawings to ensure sets meet design and safety standards. But he says realizing sets for a production isn’t merely about the nuts and bolts; it’s about making the ordinary appear extraordinary, even for a few hours.

If you ask Kelly, the best part of his job “is not in the tools, but that you have the power to change something in your hand into something new. It’s not just a $20 stick of lumber. If someone had an emotional moment watching a play, it means I took something seemingly ordinary and made it meaningful. I took something every-day and reached out to people.”

Don’t get him wrong--the first time Kelly entered the Mason Gross School scene shop, he says, “it was like a candy store. They had the toys that I wanted”--wood lathes and band saws, grinders and welders, and yes, plenty of nuts and bolts. For a kid who’d grown up dismantling motorcycles alongside his dad in the backyard shed, realizing he could make technical direction his life’s work “was super cool to me. ‘I can learn about plywood and help people not get hurt onstage?’ ” he recalls saying to himself. “ ‘That sounds like a great gig.’ ”

Which is why, after a year as a SEBS (Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences) student with a side gig doing tech for student-center events, Kelly made the shift from the chemistry lab to the theater.

“I came to terms with the fact that chemistry wasn’t enough for me,” says Kelly, who spent part of his childhood as a reluctant performer in theater productions around South Jersey. “I needed to communicate through my work. Theater, as we’re trying to create it, there’s communication beyond the plot. Twelve Angry Men is not just 12 people on a jury--it’s about people trying to make decisions.”

That magic moment

Kelly is intense about his work; he and his thick eyebrows seem to be in a constant state of analysis. So it makes sense that in Kelly’s world, a chair is never just a chair. In fact, he insists that in the theater, “there’s nothing arbitrary about a chair. Each aspect is picked to serve a greater purpose”--the writer’s intent, the director’s take.

Sure, with the skills Kelly’s amassing at Mason Gross, he could hole up in his own backyard woodshop and craft a serviceable chair, maybe even a beautiful chair.

“But who would see it?” he asks. “It wouldn’t have the scale I’d want. If you’re involved in something you believe is meaningful, you’re obligated to share it with people.”

Besides, he says: “There’s magic in the fact that when all the pieces work together in a play, that’s the goal moment. This work is going to talk to somebody. I take pride in that.”

Kelly says he witnessed this “goal moment” in the spring 2015 Rutgers Theater Company production of Gabriel, for which he painted sets. He recalls that as the set evolved, so did the actors’ performances.

“The actors had more life and more power in their characters” once the sets were completed, he says, “because they were communicating with the space.” He believes that in some way, those nuts, those bolts, those $20 sticks of lumber, were feeding the performances.
Art and craft

And Kelly has seen what happens when actors don’t communicate successfully with the space. He recalls attending a performance of Mary Poppins in which a door became accidentally locked during the course of the show, forcing the flummoxed actors to exit the stage in an awkward fashion.

“It’s important that people don’t get pulled out of the moment of the play,” Kelly says. “If the audience spends five seconds on the mistake, they lose the moment. A mistake does the play a disservice, because then the theatricality of the play becomes more apparent.”

Theater faculty member Christopher Cartmill says Kelly has an instinct for the creative as well as the technical aspect of his duties.

“He moves from craft to artisanship,” Cartmill says. “That means everything, and it is just as important for a draper or a guy on a skill saw as it is with an actor. You must have the same sense of artistic commitment. He has that sensibility. He himself is an artist.”

For Kelly, the basic question on any job is always the same: “What do we need the world to know, and how are we going to do that today?” a question that he’ll admit can get lost when he’s drowning in drafting papers at midnight or spending several hours cutting lumber.

But when duty numbs his mind or leaves his body sore, Kelly returns to that magical place, the place that, when it all comes together, seems almost covered in fairy dust.

“I get back into the theater, I see the set,” Kelly says, “And I say, ‘There’s life in this.’ ”

Posted March 2016